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

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on 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.

Face the Nation

This week on Political Traction, host Amanda Galbraith sits down with her friend and fellow Navigator Principal Colin MacDonald. The two unpack this week’s Throne speech and share their thoughts on what we can expect in the months to follow. Then, the two go head-to-head in our rapid fire round to discuss Schitts Creek, Ellen, RBG and COVID testing.

In a gradual shift to the centre, an opening for O’Toole

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on September 20, 2020.

Since Erin O’Toole won the leadership of the Conservative Party and became the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Air Force veteran and former cabinet minister has been busy waiting in line.

On Wednesday, after an hours-long delay, he and his family were turned away from an Ottawa-area testing centre. O’Toole continues to self-isolate after a potential exposure from a staffer, and he later obtained a test at a special site offering priority tests to MPs and family.

But O’Toole also wasted no time in pointing out that his experience was an indictment of the Trudeau government’s failed approach to COVID-19 testing. Indeed, many testing centres are finding themselves overburdened by lengthy lineups as case numbers are on the rise and students return to school.

Many Canadians may soon find themselves in the same position as O’Toole, shivering in line at a COVID testing centre. O’Toole’s latest attack may resonate with this audience, especially when combined with the imposition of new restrictions in Ontario and the second wave beginning to bear down upon us. Gone is the halo effect of competent leadership in the early days of the pandemic. Instead, we are seeing O’Toole test-driving criticisms of the government as it enters a distinctly more challenging and vulnerable phase of pandemic politics.

As his predecessor discovered, and as I wrote previously in this column, the role of opposition leader in a time of acute crisis can be difficult. You must hold the prime minister and his or her government to account, but at the same time, the rally-around-the-flag effect can insulate the government from even the mildest critique. Andrew Scheer never quite managed to find the right angle to attack Trudeau over his handling of COVID-19, because for months the prime minister cut a sympathetic figure: isolated from his wife and family, working remotely from his cottage. O’Toole’s empathic approach on display with the line-waiting — “I’m suffering because of this government’s mistakes, too”— may yet do the trick.

Even as he sharpens his weapons against Trudeau on the pandemic front, O’Toole’s other task is to sell himself to the 905 region, and an effort to grow Conservative support beyond the base. This will require a softer approach, and a tack toward the centre that is already self-evident to those paying attention.

Take, for example, O’Toole’s Labour Day greeting. “I was raised in a General Motors family. My dad worked there for over 30 years,” it begins unremarkably. But by the time O’Toole is explaining to the viewer that “GDP growth alone is not the end-all, be-all of politics” and “the goal of economic policy should be more than just wealth creation — it should be solidarity, and the wellness of families,” one gets the distinct sense that O’Toole’s own brand of conservatism will be different from that of his predecessor.

To be specific, O’Toole seems to have his eye on union voters — GM families, as he says, just like the O’Tooles of yore. This is the same strategy used to great effect by Boris Johnson in the U.K., who won his majority government in large part by breaking through the traditional, working-class “red wall” of Labour supporters. As one leftist publication concluded, “Erin O’Toole’s Labour Day message should worry the left.”

Further to this goal, O’Toole has been softening some of the hard edges that Scheer neglected. He might yet march in a Pride Parade, and he has been less categorical on issues such as carbon pricing. — indeed, his platform promised “a national industrial regulatory and pricing regime.” Polling indicates that on both these policy matters, the party will need to align with majority opinion in the 905 if it hopes to make inroads there.

There remain some challenges to contend with, including the social conservative wing of the party, which has found a new champion in Leslyn Lewis, the breakout star of the leadership campaign. She has since found a riding, in deep-blue Haldimand-Norfolk, where she will almost certainly succeed the retiring Diane Finley.

Lewis and her like-minded supporters will expect the kind of action from O’Toole that runs contra to the party’s objectives in the GTA. This is the same challenging electoral bind that vexed Scheer, but O’Toole — with his working class bona fides and his eye on the prize — may yet find a way to thread the needle.

Watch the Throne

This week on Political Traction, host Amanda Galbraith sits down with leadership strategist and former speechwriter Siri Agrell.  Next week, in the 150th Speech from the Throne, the Trudeau government is expected to lay out its plan for national COVID recovery and an ambitious new policy agenda. Amanda and Siri go behind the scenes to look at what it takes to write such a major speech. Then, the two go head-to-head in our rapid fire round to discuss Mulan, the wildfires and the coming second wave.

Season 7 Premiere – I Can’t Believe What You Did This Summer

On the Season 7 Premiere of Political Traction host Amanda Galbraith sits down with Marieke Walsh, a reporter with the Globe and Mail and a good friend of the podcast. The two unpack the summer that was: how a global pandemic, changes in senior federal cabinet members and an unlikely relationship has shaped a political landscape that looks much different than it did 12 months ago. Then, the two go head-to-head in our rapid fire round to discuss three very important topics: politics, wine and sports.