From the throne, a campaign speech in search of a campaign

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, September 27, 2020.

In Rideau Cottage, the 11-month itch. Or so it seemed for a brief period when politicos and journalists wondered out loud whether the prime minister’s request for time on major television networks was intended to host an election call.

Instead, Justin Trudeau gave a, well, one is still not sure what speech he gave. As far as one could discern it was a pastiche of a couple of speeches, at least. One, a concerned prime minister speaking deliberately to his nation about challenging times to come, and the other an infomercial for the Liberal party best suited to middle-of-the-night television.

The speech from the throne itself did not lay out the Armageddon scenario forecast by some who especially dreaded the budget attached to it. Yet at the same time, the government’s plan largely ignored calls for immediate fiscal prudence. All justified afterward, in Trudeau’s words, because “low interest rates mean we can afford it.” Never mind the fact that it remains to be seen whether Canada truly can afford it.

Following the prime minister’s address, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was pressed by Rosemary Barton to reveal the limit of the government’s apparent capacity to spend its way through the pandemic, the point at which “enough is enough.” Freeland took an uncomfortable beat before responding sharply, “do you know when COVID is going to end, Rosie?” To say that the finance minister’s jumpy reply did not exactly inspire confidence is akin to saying that Tokyo is “crowded” or calling Michael Jordan ”a basketball player.” That is to say, a colossal understatement.

The prime minister’s campaign mindset shone through in his semi-Faustian bargain that the Liberals don’t want Canadians “to take on debt that your government can better shoulder.” A short sentence which summed up the government’s apparent mindset for governing through what Trudeau warned was likely to be another difficult year of COVID-19’s health and economic impact. As with Freeland’s comments, Trudeau’s remarks all but confirmed that when it comes to the suggestion of any roadmap for fiscal stewardship, there is no “there” there.

That is not to suggest that there was nothing to celebrate in this throne speech. The commitment to Canada-wide early learning and childcare is hugely important, and the support for businesses of all sizes is essential to keep the economy on track through the fall. At the same time, very few of the policies outlined on Wednesday are entirely new, and many seem like echoes of familiar Liberal campaign pledges.

Now that Jagmeet Singh’s NDP have agreed to support the government’s direction, we have managed to avoid the headache of an election — for now. It is nonetheless difficult to shake the sneaking suspicion that a call to the polls is looming in the not-so-distant future. Trudeau’s supposed election itch proved to be a false alarm, but his party’s campaign machine was eager to get involved in two Toronto-area by-elections, by ordaining its chosen candidates.

While both Marci Ien and Ya’ara Saks are no doubt strong contenders, the muscling-in by the central party is very telling. We should not ignore the prime minister’s flip-flop on his 2015 stance that the Liberals would maintain an open nomination process across every single riding. It seems obvious that an open nomination process, with more input from the constituency and party members, makes for more sound representation and electioneering. It does.

For Trudeau to renege on his own stance and sidestep the nomination of other potential candidates seems especially unwise, given his reputation for perceived interference and favouritism.

More than anything, the push to nominate their chosen star candidates suggests the Liberals are envisioning at least the contours of another federal race on the horizon. If the prime minister and his deputy press on with the same elbows-out approach and with so little regard for the perception of their approach to spending, Conservatives may soon start to develop an election itch of their own.

For now, the Liberals have just enough leeway to pursue their agenda, though it remains to be seen how quickly and how aggressively they will. Remember, Trudeau needs to keep a few chips in his pocket — for the inevitable election call, and crucially, the parliamentary poker that will precede it.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt