Trudeau tries to pivot — and trips over his finance minister

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says proroguing Parliament gives the government a chance to prepare for the "unprecedented opportunity" presented by the pandemic. But that can't obscure the fact it's egregious, Aaron Wherry writes.

PM insists proroguing Parliament offers an unprecedented opportunity. Some think it's just plain politics

The pandemic presents an 'unprecedented opportunity' to build a more resilient Canada, the prime minister said in Ottawa Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau clearly wants this moment to be a turning point, and maybe it even will be. But his attempted pivot has been brutal and inelegant. 

Former finance minister Bill Morneau has been trampled underfoot, and now Parliament — including multiple committee inquiries into the WE affair — has been adjourned for a month. Leaks from within government and cries of wrongdoing from the opposition benches will now be joined by charges of hypocrisy and obfuscation.

But Trudeau now has a well-regarded new finance minister — the first woman in Canada to ever occupy that office — and he will soon come forward with a new agenda, one that he promises will meet the historic moment of this pandemic. And he is presumably wagering that that vision and those policies will ultimately supersede everything that has occurred over both the last 48 hours and the last two months.

Canada at a 'crossroads'

Everywhere, people are trying to move forward with a new normal, even while a contagious virus still threatens to wreak new havoc. Ahead of Canadians, Trudeau suggested Tuesday afternoon, is a "crossroads."

"We have a choice to make," the prime minister said. "We can decide to move forward instead of returning to the status quo. We can choose to embrace bold new solutions to the challenges we face and refuse to be held back by old ways of thinking."

The pandemic was an "unexpected challenge," but it now presented "an unprecedented opportunity," Trudeau said, enunciating an idea that senior Liberals have been hinting at in recent weeks.

"This is our chance to build a more resilient Canada," Trudeau said. "A Canada that is healthier and safer, greener and more competitive. A Canada that is more welcoming and more fair. This is our moment to change the future for the better."

It's all obvious fodder for a new throne speech this fall. It has been nearly a year since the last speech from the throne and that post-election statement of intent was read into a pre-pandemic Canada that no longer exists.

To present a new throne speech — as the government now intends to do on Sept. 23 — the prime minister necessarily had to ask the Governor General to end the current session of Parliament. But he could have officially made that request for prorogation on Sept. 22. Instead, he asked Julie Payette on Tuesday. 

WE affair on hold

As a result, Parliament will be adjourned for five weeks. That will only result in the cancellation of one sitting day of the House of Commons, which would have occurred on Aug. 26. But it also means that, until Parliament reconvenes, no committees of the House will be able to sit — including any of the committees that are currently pursuing the WE affair.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Dominic LeBlanc, right, look on as Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland takes the podium after her introduction as the new finance minister during a news conference on Parliament Hill Tuesday. She is the first woman to hold the office of federal finance minister. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau vowed that all of the internal government correspondence and documents that have been requested by the finance committee will be released forthwith. Opposition MPs will also be able to resume their formal studies once Parliament reconvenes and the committees are reconstituted. 

But those details can't obscure the fact that adjourning Parliament for a month was egregious.

It was former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's conspicuously political use of prorogation in 2008 and 2009 that gave the procedural mechanism a bad name. The Liberals, in response, swore never to abuse it. 

They might argue that they have a lot to do to prepare a throne speech over the next month, but the government's relative workload will always be an unsympathetic argument for sidestepping Parliament.

Liberals say their intent is innocent

They might tell themselves that this prorogation is somehow less egregious than 2008 and 2009, and they might reassure each other that the Conservatives will be in no position to criticize. They could insist that the WE hearings were partisan games, and that one political turn deserves another. They might believe that other issues are likely to swamp any concerns about prorogation — just as Harper's Conservatives did by subsequently winning a majority in 2011.

As a small measure of accountability, the Liberals will have to at least submit to their own change to the rules in 2017. Governments are now required to submit a report after the fact explaining the decision to prorogue, and that report will be taken up by a committee.

Watch | Trudeau says his prorogation is nothing like Harper's:

Trudeau on why his prorogation is nothing like Harper's

3 years ago
Duration 1:03
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justifies his decision to prorogue Parliament by comparing it to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to do the same thing in 2008.

But Trudeau's Liberals will have a hard time claiming perfectly innocent intent. They will now likely be charged as hypocrites, and perhaps even accused of damaging Parliament.

Even as a matter of pure politics, prorogation threatens to detract from what was presumably the government's desired headline: that Chrystia Freeland is now finance minister. In theory, prorogation might clear the political airspace for the next month, and the WE affair might be swamped later this fall by that new agenda.

But prorogation risks turning out to be even more trouble than further committee hearings over the next five weeks would have ever been.

In the quick and unsparing approach to the recent turmoil, one might see an inversion of what occurred the last time there was significant tumult within Trudeau's government. 

Watch | Trudeau is asked whether he plans to run in the next election:

Will he run again?

3 years ago
Duration 0:49
A reporter asks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if there is another election campaign in his future.

When the SNC-Lavalin affair exploded across the front page of the Globe and Mail in February 2019, followed by Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott quitting the party, there was a long — too long, some would say — attempt to patch things up and reconcile. Maybe the two former cabinet ministers were of such public standing that Trudeau felt it necessary to try, but some of his predecessors as prime minister privately expressed bewilderment that he did not move more quickly and aggressively to turn the page. To that, Trudeau insisted that he wanted to do politics differently.

That sort of spirit might have been in evidence when Trudeau agreed to appear before the finance committee to testify about WE and the Canada Student Service Grant. But the lesson Trudeau might have taken from the spring of 2019 was that there is not always any great reward for trying to do things differently — that his predecessors were right, and that sometimes, the unsentimental approach is the smart one.

In proroguing Parliament for a month — and in the destructive leaks around Morneau — the Trudeau government has done politics in something resembling the usual fashion.

Trudeau must hope that, however unflattering, the events of recent days have at least somehow advanced the cause of all the big things he hoped to do — or that his vision and the values underpinning it will be enough for Canadian voters to overlook the uninspiring revelations and actions of this summer.

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