Trudeau's Liberals reach the midway point amid booze-tax brouhaha and Senate suspense

There were questions about the overhaul of national-security laws, Chinese encroachment, and the decision to remove the name of Hector-Louis Langevin from the prime minister's office. But on the last day of the spring sitting, what most animated the House of Commons was the price of booze.

Possibility remains the House will have to be recalled to deal with Senate stand-off

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, shown in the House of Commons yesterday, says the Liberals have "delivered" on a platform to support the middle class. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

There were questions about the government's overhaul of national-security laws, Chinese encroachment, and the decision to remove the name of Hector-Louis Langevin from the executive building across from Parliament Hill.

But on the last day of the spring sitting — a sitting that began with questions about the prime minister's Christmas vacation — what most animated the House of Commons was the price of booze.

Specifically, whether Parliament should legislate that the excise tax on alcoholic beverages will henceforth increase annually at the rate of inflation.

According to Trevor Tombe, an economist at the University of Calgary, in the next year that might cost the average household an extra two dollars. In future years, more than that.

"Mr. Speaker, Canada Day is just around the corner and many middle-class Canadians will be celebrating with a great craft beer or a nice glass of wine," Conservative MP John Barlow suggested.

"The Liberal plan is to crash Canada's party with a never-ending, always-escalating tax increase on beer, wine and spirits."

More technically, there is a concern that Parliament should have to approve a new tax increase each year.

Senate's newfound vigour

This much was still an open question because the Senate, in another example of its newfound vigour, amended the budget bill to remove the excise tax, the end result of Justin Trudeau's own efforts to put the upper chamber beyond his immediate purview.

The prime minister was unmoved by Conservative pleas on behalf of the nation's imbibers. And, shortly after question period was concluded, the government moved to tell the Senate the relevant clauses should be put back in the bill.

But senators, apparently put out by the government's tone, decided they wanted to take a night to think about their response. Only the Liberals had already moved to adjourn the House. Leaving open the possibility that the House will have to be recalled to deal with a stand-off.

Scheer rips Liberal track record

It was, as these things go, very dramatic. Even if it is hard to imagine the ballot question in 2019 will be the price of a two-four or the proper place of the Senate in our constitutional democracy.

Two years removed from the last election and two years out from the next one, it is difficult to say with any certainty what will end up mattering, at least in the political sense. But the basic parameters of both the election debate and the Liberal government's fate are probably here somewhere.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer criticized Wednesday the Liberals' track record. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Indeed, with the summer recess in sight, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer aimed for summation on Wednesday.

With his fifth question, he alleged "unprecedented multiple investigations into his unethical behaviour, selling off of strategic Canadian assets to communist China, dangerous criminals going free because of judicial delays, out-of-control spending, and new tax hikes on the middle class, lavish vacations, and moving expenses paid for by the taxpayer." Not to mention "a litany of partisan appointments."

As luck would have it, Scheer had a copy of the Liberal platform nearby and picked it up, the former Speaker nearly violating the prohibition against props.

"The Liberals campaigned on a lot of things, but could the prime minister tell me on what page of his platform I can find a list of all these things that I just mentioned?"

The Conservatives stood to cheer.

Trudeau fires back

The prime minister was apparently moved to match his counterpart's spirit.

In Trudeau's telling, Liberals have "delivered" on a platform to support the middle class.

"We lowered taxes on the middle class and raised them on the wealthiest one per cent," he said. "We delivered a Canada Child Benefit that gives more money to nine out 10 Canadian families and will lift hundreds of thousands of kids out of poverty. We have made massive investments in infrastructure so Canadians can get to and from work on time; investments in social housing; investments in child care; investments in our seniors."

The prime minister pumped his arm and leaned forward to punctuate his points. 

Going next, the NDP's Tom Mulcair explained how the government had fallen short on several fronts: improving the welfare of Indigenous communities, political reform and the infrastructure bank.

Trudeau responded by defending what has been done and speaking of what more will come.

What the Liberals have done and not done

The Liberals have done all sorts of things — enshrining rights for transgender Canadians, committing funding to mental-health services, empowering the parliamentary budget officer, approving several new supervised consumption facilities.

But then there are the things they haven't done — electoral reform, achieving parity in funding for Indigenous education, pay-equity legislation. The parliamentary agenda has not been particularly robust.

Trudeau must now decide whether he has the cabinet and the machinery to fill in as many of the remaining blanks as possible, particularly if they want to hold off New Democrats, who will no doubt promise to go further and faster.

There have been expense scandals and odd stumbles. Looming are potentially significant challenges, like negotiating a trade deal with Donald Trump or dealing with a housing bubble or building a pipeline.

Warning signs

The Conservatives are eager to worry about taxes and balancing the budget, but the potency of those concerns will depend on Canadians feeling overburdened or eager to cut spending by October 2019. A few examples of gross mismanagement would boost Conservative chances.

In the midst of fretting about the price of beer, some Conservatives mentioned carbon, which the prime minister happily used to frame a debate about climate change that the Conservatives still aren't quite ready to fully deal with.

If the government has not yet done anything that seems obviously fatal, it's still probably true that governments ultimately defeat themselves. And if you're so inclined, you might see warning signs in this one: ethical blind spots, inattention to detail, clumsy execution.

Possibly the seeds of this government's defeat are already being sown. But it's too soon to say whether that defeat will be in two years or 10.

But even if it is to be another decade of annual increases in the price of beer, one might hope the government figures out how to spare the nation from regular outbreaks of Senate-related drama.

The Senate surrendered and passed the government’s budget bill without amendment

5 years ago
Duration 9:35
Rosemary Barton asks Government House Leader Bardish Chagger if she thinks the Senate is allowed to amend budget bills


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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