As Canada’s Parliament returns, Trudeau aims for reset on coronavirus, charity scandal

By Amanda Coletta,

Andrej Ivanov Bloomberg News

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the National Research Council of Canada’s Royalmount Human Health Therapeutics Research Center in Montreal last month.

TORONTO — Canada’s Parliament reconvenes next week with a new opposition leader, a new finance minister and a new plan from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “build back” the country — and, he hopes, his political fortunes.

After winning reelection last year with a minority government, Trudeau drew positive reviews for his early performance against the coronavirus. But his 
support began to erode during the summer over his government’s decision to tap a charity with close ties to his family to run a grant program for student volunteers. The deal sparked investigations in Parliament, and the ethics czar is investigating him for possible violations of conflict-of-interest laws.

[Trudeau’s suspension of Parliament amid ethics controversy fuels cries of ‘coverup’]

Then the Liberal leader abruptly suspended Parliament last month, a move that allows him to reset his government’s agenda — while also halting the committee probes, at least temporarily. Now, amid fears of a second wave of the coronavirus, he’ll unveil his priorities Wednesday in a “speech from the throne” — and put it to a confidence vote that could topple his government.

The throne speech usually provides a high-level overview of the government’s agenda. Details of what might be in Trudeau’s address have been scant. Canada has boosted government spending during the pandemic to enable Canadian workers to stay home. Leaders on all sides predict more aggressive deficit spending for the foreseeable future.

David Kawai

Bloomberg News

Trudeau listens during a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

“The stakes are pretty significant, primarily because we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s created an economic crisis that Canadians are quite worried about,” said David Coletto, chief executive of the polling firm Abacus Data. “They’re going to be looking to the federal government for leadership.”

[Canada’s coronavirus performance hasn’t been perfect. But it’s done far better than the U.S.]

The speech is written by the government but will be read by the governor general, Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Canada. Given the “unusual times,” Carleton University political scientist Jonathan Malloy said, it is likely to draw outsize attention.

“There’s a lot of interest in where the government’s going to go and how much it’s going to announce,” he said.

Among political strategists and the Canadian media, speculation has been rampant about a possible fall election, with the throne speech functioning as a campaign platform. Some suggest Trudeau might try to bait the opposition into triggering a fall vote so he can make a run at regaining a parliamentary majority while the Conservatives are still introducing new leader Erin O’Toole.

David Kawai

Bloomberg News

Erin O’Toole walks with his family after he was elected leader of Canada’s Conservative Party at the Shaw Center in Ottawa last month.

Trudeau’s advanced billing for the speech — or “road map out of the pandemic,” as he put it last month — has set expectations high. He said his second throne speech in less than a year will lay out an “ambitious” plan with “bold new solutions” for the “fundamental gaps this pandemic has unmasked.”

“As much as this pandemic is an unexpected challenge, it is also an unprecedented opportunity,” Trudeau said. “This is our chance to build a more resilient Canada, a Canada that is healthier and safer, greener and more competitive, a Canada that is more welcoming and more fair.”

[Canada’s nursing home crisis: 81 percent of coronavirus deaths are in long-term care facilities]

He has more recently been trying to dial back expectations, hinting that the speech might focus more on immediate concerns, such as a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Nearly half of the Canadians surveyed by Abacus Data this week said they believe the worst
of the coronavirus is still to come. Fifty-four percent said they support “bold new ideas” in the speech for improving lives and tackling climate change.

“There’s a risk that if the throne speech is so focused on long-term changes that are going to require provincial cooperation and that are going to take years to implement, it will seem out of touch with what people are worried about today,” Coletto said. “They have to find a balance.”

Trudeau’s plans for the economy will be closely watched. Canada has recouped nearly two-thirds of the jobs lost in March and April, when much of the country shut down. But the Bank of Canada said this month that the recovery has been “uneven,” with women, Indigenous people and visible minorities disproportionately affected.

[Trudeau said he took ‘many lessons’ from his last ethics scandal. Now he’s in another one.]

Coronavirus relief programs are projected to push Canada’s budget deficit beyond $260 billion this year, or approximately 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The figure is almost certain to grow.

Trudeau has defended the deficit, saying that the programs have helped keep coronavirus cases down and that the government is borrowing at a time of historically low interest rates. But some business leaders have pushed for clarity on the government’s plan for managing the debt.

Chrystia Freeland, named Canada’s new finance minister after Bill Morneau resigned in the WE Charity scandal last month, told reporters this week that she’s speaking “a lot” with the Liberal former prime minister Paul Martin. Martin wiped out the country’s deficit as finance minister in the 1990s. Freeland said the government understands “the value of wise and prudent fiscal management.”

David Kawai

Bloomberg News

Chrystia Freeland, second from left, who has been named Canada’s new finance minister, attends a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

After winning the federal elections last October with a parliamentary minority, Trudeau opted against forming a coalition government. To avoid another election now, the Liberals will need the support of one main opposition party. Trudeau insists he doesn’t want another election, and most opposition leaders have played down the possibility. Support appears likeliest to come from the New Democratic Party. In the throne speech, the NDP will want to hear new support for child care, universal prescription drug coverage and reforms to unemployment insurance.

[WE Charity, at the center of Trudeau’s latest scandal, shuts down in Canada]

It’s unclear how the reconvened Parliament will meet. Two party leaders — O’Toole and Bloc Québécois chief Yves-François Blanchet — have tested positive for covid-19, and there are still questions over whether there will be a hybrid model with in-person and virtual meetings and remote voting.

A successful throne speech could help Trudeau change the channel on the WE Charity ethics controversy.

The Toronto-based charity said this month that it was shutting down its Canadian operations after losing sponsors amid the political fallout from the controversy and the pandemic. The charity confirmed in July that it had paid Trudeau’s mother and brother hundreds of thousands of dollars to appear at its events. Morneau, whose family also has ties to the charity, told a parliamentary committee investigating the deal in July that he had just repaid travel expenses covered by the charity in 2017.

[Covid-free communities on the U.S.-Canada border want travel restrictions eased]

Trudeau and Morneau apologized for failing to recuse themselves from cabinet discussions on the deal, but said nonpartisan public servants recommended the charity. Morneau resigned last month.

Polls show the dent in support for Trudeau has mostly leveled off.

“I don’t think there’s a big appetite for change in Canada right now,” Malloy said, “even though Mr. Trudeau is not perfect.”

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