The ONW Salon: Looking Ahead At Canada's Political Agenda
Grooming Canada's relationship with China, replacing first-past-the-post as our electoral system, and leadership races for the Tories and the NDP - these are just a few of the issues confronting Canadian politics in the next few months. What will be the most important, and what kind of shape is each of the three parties in to fight for their visions of the future? Our political analysts Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin are back and in the ONW Salon to debate how all this will play out.
A year ago, we were rounding the turn in the election campaign. The contest had started in the doldrums of August, with many predictions of an epic battle between the Conservatives, under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the frontrunner, NDP and then-Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair. The Liberals under Justin Trudeau were going to get squeezed out in the assumed battle of the titans. By this point, things were getting interesting and Justin Trudeau was seizing the mantle of change from Tom Mulcair’s cold hands. We all know how that ended
A year later, not only is the Trudeau government busy on a host of fronts taking Canada in a new direction, but Justin Trudeau's popularity has increased since last year’s election. Stephen Harper is gone, disappearing quietly. His own party spanked Tom Mulcair for his efforts in the campaign.
As we begin the next session of Parliament, Trudeau is in a strong position. He has surprised many with his sure-footedness on the international stage, having recently achieved a reset in our relations with China, our second largest trading partner, and has established a new leadership position for Canada on 21st century peacekeeping. At home, he surprised even more by achieving a national consensus on expanding and enhancing the Canada Pension Plan. And the long and hard work of creating growth in a slow global economy has begun, with important first steps taken on infrastructure investments and financial help for the middle class.
The most cautious Trudeau cynic would have to admit that he is off to a pretty strong start as he rounds the ten-month anniversary of his new government.
Welcome back from a hot, hazy summer and with the kids back to school, vacations ending and traffic on the roads building, life seems to be settling into normal for most. But only if it was so in politics.
Yes, summer months are slow news time for the media with politicians heading to their respective ridings to work on constituent matters and, more importantly, to listen to their constituents so when they return to the House of Commons or provincial legislatures, they can report on what is really going on.
And in fact, there is a lot going on. Notwithstanding the PM’s very public holidays, issues at the federal level continue to surface and will do so in greater proportion when the House comes back September 19th. Issues such as the economy, where there have been successive months of low to negative job growth numbers; the government’s plan to engage Canadians on electoral reform discussions in the ridings; and international trade issues, including the PM’s current trip to China for the G20.
For the Opposition parties, leadership issues have been mounting over the summer months – well, at least for the Conservatives, since the NDP apparently have no one interested in running to replace Mr. Mulcair. This is a serious issue for the NDP, since every day that goes by without them making headlines or news is another day their supporters gravitate to the Liberals. However, I’m sure we’ll have that debate at another time.
For now, the summer has treated the Liberals well – the PM has pretty much dominated the media with the holidays, the Tragically Hip concert outing and the international trips. All to say, the PM and his government continue to lead in the polls – in fact, they hover at around 47% which is, on average, up 7-8% from the election.
The Conservatives have a steady Interim Leader in Rona Ambrose and a vibrant leadership race which is helping them maintain their support at around 30% - slightly down from the election, but up in Ontario. The NDP, well - let's just say they are not doing too well.
The economy is a persistent problem and Mr. Trudeau needs to show he has a plan. His foreign trips and summer vacations may be creating the perception that the focus is in the wrong place.
Over the summer our unemployment rate went up. Our balance of trade deficit has ballooned to a new record level - and it's not just oil. Canada's exports are down across many fronts. With smaller town manufacturing economies in tatters and the urban economy increasingly bifurcated into the well educated/well paid and the poorly paid, part-time and temporary, Mr. Trudeau needs to use the goodwill he has. Without a plan, external pressures will strengthen - and the pressure to approve the Kinder-Morgan project will intensify.
Electoral reform continues to be important with a deadline coming this fall. It's been low profile, but an Environics poll this summer shows 34% for the status quo, 57% for either pure or mixed member proportional. Failing to keep his word on replacing the first-past-the-post system will be difficult to justify as no one except the Conservatives are being difficult on this matter.
There will be more limo-type expenditure problems - there always are. But the governing party needs to do a much better job of responding than was done by Minister Jane Philpot this summer.
The Conservative leadership race is exposing some ugliness. Even other Conservatives are criticizing Kellie Leitch's hot-button plan to test Canadian "values." She's the last person I'd trust to do that. And to think I felt a little sorry for her during her teary apology for suggesting a "barbaric cultural practices" hotline during the last election.
The NDP race is still 13 months off and I don't expect any official names yet. But I think we can expect several of Guy Caron, Alex Boulerice, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Jagmeet Singh and Peter Julian to jump in. All are testing waters now.
The NDP needs to hit the ground with some punch this fall, including a clearer statement of whom they speak for. We watch and wait!
On the Opposition parties, their first job is to renew themselves and their leadership. While this may seem to some like a disadvantage, it does give both parties a great opportunity. For the Conservatives, long dominated by the shadow of Stephen Harper’s leadership, they can take the time to have a debate on exactly what kind of a party they are.
Is Kellie Leitch’s Trump-like focus on cultural/racial issues, (echoing the barbaric cultural practices act nonsense she banged on about during the campaign on Harper’s behest) their future? Or is there a more economic freedom/ libertarian view emerging? Where is Peter McKay in all of this? Will he run and pull the Conservatives back to a more Mulroney-era view of the world, as that is where his roots are, or at least were?
For the NDP, the challenges are many. The energy and progressiveness of Trudeau make competing directly with him on that front difficult. But nothing is impossible. It is odd that no one has yet emerged as a serious candidate to replace Mulcair. It appears that the NDP partisans rejected his cautious, moderate approach but they have yet to articulate what social democracy means in the 21st century, and there don’t seem to be any candidates out there making that debate happen, yet.
The good news is that they still have time to do that. Is the energy there? Will Mulcair be asked to stay somehow? If so, how would that work?
For the NDP, the slate is blank. That is not all bad news for them. Let’s see what they do with it.
Tom's points are valid. The debate when the House returns will ultimately end up focusing on the economy and holding the government accountable on the sluggish economic jobs number – and if there is ever an issue that will snap Canadians out of the summer haze pretty quick, it is jobs. The first budget was a "gimme" for the government as it was flying high from the election and had Canadians in the palm of its hand, but the next budget and subsequent budgets will not go unnoticed.
It is good to have consultations on a myriad of issues as this government as apt to do, but too many consultations without results will make the government seem rudderless and that can't be the optics when it comes to its economic game plan. The PM has absolutely crushed expectations since the election and has gained NDP support from the looks of the polls, but even President Obama had sky-high numbers after his election eight years ago - only to have lost the battle in his first midterms.
All this to say, the PM has an opportunity going into the next session and into the budget cycle for next year to provide Canadians with an economic plan that provides good paying, high-valued jobs, and to ensure the housing market remains strong - two very important "pocketbook" issues that will determine whether the approval numbers are in fact solid.
As for my colleagues' comments on the Conservative leadership race, I say this: it is better to have a good number of qualified candidates running to lead the party than to have no one step up, as is the case with the NDP. There will be debate on issues and some may be contentious, but that is democracy, and leadership contests like the U.S. primaries allow for discussions and discourse to happen freely. It is the truest form of rebuilding a political party and, no doubt, will reap rewards for the new leader, whomever he or she might be.
The Conservative leadership selection is in May - and people are just joining now. I know it's a great shot against the NDP to say no one wants to the job and Conservative and Liberal pundits repeat it over and over to their self-delight and self-amusement. But the NDP selection will happen in October 2017, things will progress on that timeline and there will be many qualify candidates in the race. This fall is a time for the potential NDP leadership candidates to innovate and let loose a little bit, to make a name and some impact.
There is another issue simmering out there: health care transfers. We will all remember the big, big, cuts to health care from the previous Liberal government. The biggest in Canadian history. It put a lot of pressure on provincial budgets and drove a lot of cutbacks and wage freezes across the public sector for years to come.
I'm no Harper fan boy, but he did start to bring the health care funding level back. It was boosted by six per cent a year under a 10-year plan.
But, as you'll recall, the Harper government in 2014 unilaterally announced they would cut the funding formula to three per cent when the agreement expires at the end of 2016.
These Liberals have not committed to move off the Harper government's cut to the funding formula. There will now be some real talks about real money. We'll see if the Liberal Premiers keep the issue in-house or if it starts to flow into the public. There will absolutely be pressure on them from provincial health care groups.
If the cut to the formula stays, it once again means budget pressure on the provinces - having to cut here and there to keep health care.
Expect to hear all the nonsense about health care being "unsustainable" all over again. But it is a question of priorities - remember, one Trudeau's first acts was to spend $4 billion on a tax cut that gives maximum benefit to those earning from $89,000 to $200,000.
I'd say health care is a bigger priority to most Canadians.
Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance. He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues.