Since proroguing the House in mid-August, the Trudeau Liberals have been telegraphing to all who will listen the importance of their upcoming speech from the throne slated for Sept. 23.
We are being told not to expect a garden variety speech outlining the government’s intentions for the next few months. Instead, this speech will lay out a once-in-a-generation plan to build a better Canada. With apologies to U.S. Democrats, he’ll be saying that Canada will be Building Back Better.
On the surface, the speech will present Canadians with a vision for a better future. But the speech will really serve as the bait in a trap to force the opposition parties either into voting for an earlier election or into voting against the Liberals’ future vision.
Let’s look at the opposition parties that can decide things. There is the Conservative Party and its new leader, Erin O’Toole. There’s the Bloc Quebecois and its leader, Yves-Francois Blanchet. And there’s the NDP and its leader, Jagmeet Singh.
The NDP could put up some token resistance to the throne speech plan, but the party is widely expected to vote with the Liberals, and that should be enough to avert an election this fall.
So while the Liberals may not expect the Conservatives and the BQ to take the bait and vote for an early election, they are hoping O’Toole and Blanchet will be forced to vote against the speech and therefore go on the record as being opposed to the better Canada the Liberals will propose we build.
This all assumes, of course, the various players play their parts — as written for them by the Liberals — and that Canadians will be closely watching this parliamentary theatre and buy into the Liberal interpretation of what’s going on.
And remember — we are talking about a throne speech. This is an awful lot for one speech to accomplish and it could be too clever by half.
The polling shows why. When Canadians are thinking about the future, they have in mind the next day on the calendar, or at a stretch, next week. They certainly aren’t thinking further down the road that building back better will take.
The horizon is short because Canadians are fighting a pandemic that shows few signs of abating. They are also bracing for the second wave they have been warned to expect. Therefore, most minds are still stuck in March and April when we all lived through the full shutdown.
A speech focused on the longer term, as opposed to dealing with short-term realities, could come across as out of touch.
Canadians are still in emergency mode. They are also thinking it would be great if someone could just help them get back to the old lives they knew and enjoyed.
And this is where the Liberals need to be careful that they’re not merely laying traps that will ensnare themselves.
There’s potential here for the Liberals’ new plan to come across as tone-deaf and out of touch. An even bigger trap is that by focusing on building back better, the Trudeau Liberals could look cavalier by suggesting more progress has been made in fighting the pandemic than the public believes to be the case right now. Even worse, they could look like they are simply bored with fighting the pandemic and too anxious to get back to their more fun, activist agenda.
The opposition won’t have to spring these traps. The government’s own words and approach could do the job for them.
This will be assisted by the contrast with provincial governments, which are down in the trenches fighting the pandemic daily. This is especially the case in Ontario, Quebec and B.C., the three provinces where the next federal election will be won or lost. All these governments are experiencing historic highs right now in terms of government performance and premier approval.
Ontario is especially important in this. The next federal election will be decided in the suburbs of Toronto just as the last several elections have been.
A big part of the Liberals’ last successful campaign was using the-then unpopular Ontario premier, Doug Ford, to define what Ontarians could expect from a Conservative government, led by Andrew Scheer.
What a difference a year makes. Premier Ford’s leadership during the pandemic has made him the most popular politician in the province. While new Conservative leader Erin O’Toole suffers from the same lack of definition as Andrew Scheer did in the last campaign, the Liberals will not be able to define him using Doug Ford as their proxy this time. Indeed, Ford has recently appeared alongside Trudeau for some announcements and praised the appointment of Chrystia Freeland as his finance minister.
Ford has said he will remain neutral in the upcoming election and will likely not campaign with fellow Conservative O’Toole. That should be fine with O’Toole, as he likely won’t need Ford’s endorsement in this electoral cycle. O’Toole just needs Ford not to be brought into the campaign by the Liberals the same way Ford was in the last campaign.
So while there may be a master plan behind the upcoming throne speech, for it to work it depends on a lot of variables that aren’t guaranteed to go the Liberals’ way. And that could catch them in their own trap.
Darrell Bricker is the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs and the author of Next: Where to Live, What to Buy, and Who Will Lead Canada’s Future (Harper Collins, 2020).