Canada's post-pandemic direction may ride on an election

Midway through the last session of question period before the House of Commons adjourned for the summer on Wednesday, Conservative MP Raquel Dancho called on the prime minister to present a plan for the country.

As COVID-19 recedes, so has talk about building a better world

Conservative Member of Parliament Raquel Dancho asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Midway through the last session of question period before the House of Commons adjourned for the summer on Wednesday, Conservative MP Raquel Dancho called on the prime minister to present a plan for the country.

"Where is the plan to secure the future for Canadians?" she asked.

"The plan," Justin Trudeau replied, "is in budget 2021."

That budget —  a sizable document that attempts to cope with unprecedented times — was tabled two months ago. But even after months of angst over the fact that the government had not presented a full budget to Parliament since 2019, interest in the 2021 budget faded quickly and everyone moved on to other matters.

The first three questions in the House for the prime minister the day after the budget was tabled concerned Canada's vaccine supply. When Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole did get to the budget, it was only to convey the Quebec government's complaint that it did not include a promise to increase health transfers.

Maybe that's understandable. Faced with the pressing threat of a deadly pandemic, a great many things got shelved in this country over the past year and a half.

But we used to talk about the future. And now it seems like the future might have to wait for an election.

The pandemic has been cause for reflection — and the idle hours have provided plenty of opportunity to reflect. It also exposed cracks in society that demand attention.

Ensuring that Canada is better prepared for the next pandemic is part of that. But a link can also be drawn between the pandemic and climate change, the other defining global threat of this era — two catastrophes that demonstrate the value of acting proactively and the need to build a better economy.

The pandemic showed us who we are

The pandemic shone a cruel light on inequality. The virus took advantage of how poorly the oldest members of society have been cared for. It disproportionately hurt racialized and low-income communities. The economic shutdowns had a disproportionate impact on women.

Then, in the middle of the pandemic, George Floyd's murder and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement pushed a conversation about systemic racism to the forefront.

From various corners came the argument that the post-pandemic world could be — needs to be — different.

Whether it did enough to address all that, the budget in April was at least the Liberal government's opening argument on how to tackle that future, headlined by a promise to greatly expand access to child care. But it did not give rise to much of a fight.

High on rhetoric, light on specifics

On Wednesday, Dancho framed her challenge to the prime minister within concerns about inflation and unemployment. But Trudeau could have turned the question around to ask what plan the Conservatives are offering. Right now, there is no real counterproposal.

The Conservatives have put most of their energies these last few months toward second-guessing the government's handling of the pandemic and chasing scandals. Those are worthwhile endeavours for the Official Opposition in a parliamentary democracy. But even their focus on ethics and accountability has stopped short of becoming a discussion about reform.

"Conservatives are proposing transparency and anti-corruption laws," O'Toole said in the House on Wednesday, "which are needed after countless scandals by the government."

Thing is, O'Toole has so far proposed only the basic notion of new measures — not the specifics.

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Nothing would have prevented the Conservatives from tabling their proposal in the form of a private member's bill. But it's an odd quirk of parliamentary democracy that parties generally withhold such detailed proposals until an election is called — particularly when it seems like that call might come soon.

Maybe the only thing Canadians want to think about right now is the next two months of summer, with its promise of widespread vaccination and a chance to celebrate — or to simply breathe a sigh of relief. It has been a long year and a half. Everyone is tired. Many of us need haircuts.

But the post-pandemic world is now on the horizon. 

We shouldn't need an election to start talking about what that world should look like. In fact, some might say a modern election campaign is incompatible with the consideration of serious issues. The government could continue advancing its plans this summer and Parliament could debate and advance further action through the fall.

But if there is to be an election — and there will have to be one at some point between now and October 2023 — it should be about that future we've had to imagine over the past interminable weeks and months.

This article is part of CBC News' Minority Report newsletter, which will help you navigate the parliamentary waters of a minority governmentSign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox.


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