OTTAWA— In the words of one Liberal MP, “there’s a big battle brewing right there” on the floor of the House of Commons when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confronts new Official Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre.
But the ideological battle many anticipate between the front benches and the two main party leaders will not take shape until a few days after Parliament resumes regular business Tuesday, and perhaps even longer.
After the funeral of Queen Elizabeth in London, Trudeau headed straight to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, with climate change, the war in Ukraine, global food insecurity and ongoing global health challenges of COVID-19, AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria on his agenda.
Poilievre, having swept the Conservative party leadership race on Sept. 10, is now working to name his broader parliamentary team, but the Conservatives don’t expect to have his “shadow cabinet,” or parliamentary critics, finalized for another few weeks.
Meanwhile, some of the lines in the ideological battle that lies ahead are being quickly drawn.
In Trudeau’s absence, the Liberal government will immediately introduce two pieces of legislation to make good on three promises to the New Democrats: the first steps toward dental care through payments for children under 12 and a one-time top-up of housing benefits, along with a doubling of the existing GST rebate.
In all, it’s a $4.6-billion package, $3 billion of which is new money not set aside in the spring budget. The Liberals’ rollout of the new measures — which the NDP claimed credit for pushing them to do — was derailed on the day the Queen died. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Trudeau are now framing the package as help for lower-income Canadians feeling the crunch of high inflation.
Too little, too late, says Poilievre. He has dismissed the coming bills as yet more government spending that will do nothing to reduce housing costs and ease household budget pressures.
“The money will be vapourized by inflation,” Poilievre said last week. “What we need are more apartments for people to live in, more houses for them to buy and lower taxes so that their paychecks can go further.”
Those first bills are key demands of the NDP, which has agreed to support the Trudeau government until June 2025, assuming good faith on all sides.
A fall fiscal update, although not confirmed, is in the works, and expected to underline the government’s focus on the economy.
Last week, Trudeau acknowledged Canada has “perhaps ended the acute phase” of the pandemic. He made no apologies for his management of COVID-19 and rejected suggestions his government’s approach stoked divisions in the country, saying “no government is ever going to get unanimous consent on every important measure it puts forward. But we put the safety of Canadians and the economic recovery that we’re experiencing right now at the centre of every decision we took during the pandemic.”
The Star has reported the government may soon ease the COVID-19 vaccination mandate at the border and scrap its random testing program.
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Also on the Liberals’ to-do list for the fall is to advance legislative changes to enact Trudeau’s promise to tighten firearms controls — easier said than done — and to bring online streaming giants under similar content rules as conventional broadcasters.
Separately, the Liberals say they want to compel tech companies like Google and Facebook to compensate news outlets for content shared on their platforms (and have introduced a bill to do so) and the government wants to regulate harmful content online. But it’s not clear when or how the latter might be put forward, and Poilievre has promised a fight to protect free speech online.
Trudeau has already underscored the sharp contrast between him and Poilievre, whom he accuses of “reckless” and “irresponsible” opposition to vaccine mandates, support for cryptocurrency, and the so-called “Freedom Convoy.”
And in the past two weeks, Trudeau delivered a clear message to both his cabinet and, separately in New Brunswick, to his broader caucus — that he is sticking around as Liberal leader into the next election, and that he is “energized” by the prospect of the fight ahead.
Sources have told the Star that the prime minister needed to deliver that message because certain unnamed cabinet ministers were seen to be actively starting to organize support for an eventual leadership campaign.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, when asked what faith he has that Trudeau will stick to the supply-and-confidence agreement until 2025 and not trigger an election any earlier, told the Star on Thursday, “What I can say is we don’t know.”
“And that’s why we’ve been fighting every step of the way to make sure what we forced this government to do is actually delivered and we don’t take anything for granted,” he said.
Senior Liberals say the deal with the NDP is key to pushing progressive measures through Parliament, and especially so because it compels the NDP to work “constructively” with the government and not with the Conservative-led opposition in committees where government ministers, staffers and documents can be easily summoned in a minority Parliament — efforts Liberals portray as deliberate attempts to obstruct Parliament.
In fact, the deal doesn’t bar the NDP from co-operating with the Conservatives, but it does set out an agreement by the Liberals and NDP to “communicate regarding any issues which could impede the government’s ability to function or cause unnecessary obstructions to legislation review, studies and work plans at committees.”
The arrival of Poilievre makes that co-operation all the more important for the Liberals, and the new Conservative leader wasted no time in slamming the “radical woke coalition” between Trudeau and Singh in his first caucus speech last week.
Senior New Democrats insist Singh will not be crowded out of the political battles that lie ahead, and they too welcome a sharper contrast between Canada’s political left and right that seems to be shaping up.
For now, it will be an intermittent battle. While Trudeau is expected in the House of Commons Thursday, upon returning from New York, he leaves Sunday for several days to travel to Japan to attend the funeral of former prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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