The House

Chris Hall: Trudeau says he doesn't want an election - but not everyone buys it

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the coming throne speech will be a watershed moment for the nation — but a prominent New Democrat says he's taking an awful risk.

Is the PM gambling on an early vote, or is he trying to corner the New Democrats?

Would an early election be good or bad for Justin Trudeau's Liberals? And how would Canadians react to being pulled back to the polls in the middle of a pandemic? (The Canadian Press/Christopher Katsarov)

The prime minister insisted all this week that he doesn't want an election — but even with two recent public opinion polls suggesting the Liberals' lead is evaporating, not everyone is convinced.

Justin Trudeau did the rounds of news outlets from one end of the country to the other, defending his decision to prorogue Parliament and to use a throne speech on Sept. 23 to change course in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We shouldn't be moving forward with an ambitious, bold vision to help Canadians and build a better future without ensuring that we have the support of Parliament," he said in one interview.

"We need a new direction for Parliament," he said in another. "It is the responsible and democratic thing to lay out that vision in the throne speech that Parliament will then vote on. It will be a confidence vote, where we will be able to see whether this government's ambitious plan for the future and investing in Canadians has the support of Parliament."

A 'risky game'

So … an election in the midst of a pandemic? Or maybe a signal to the New Democrats that they should get on board with an ambitious agenda promising significant new spending on child care, health services and creating a greener economy?

"I think he's playing a risky game," said Anne McGrath, the NDP's national director and a veteran of previous minority parliaments as a senior member of former leader Jack Layton's team.

McGrath and former Liberal campaign manager David Herle (who now hosts the Herle Burly podcast) debated on this weekend's edition of CBC's The House whether it's time for the two parties to form a coalition or some other type of partnership to advance the causes both parties believe in.

Both said a partnership is off the table. But they disagree on whether there should be an election this fall, even as COVID-19 cases begin to rise again in parts of the country.

"I think the moment is propitious for an election and the future might be far less so," Herle said. "We are still in a situation where the dominant issue on peoples' minds is COVID and the government is seen to have managed that very well."

NDP National Director Anne McGrath: 'I don't think [an election is] first on the minds of Canadians right now.' (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

McGrath argued Trudeau is playing chicken with Parliament when he suggests his government doesn't want an election while telling Canadians the opposition parties face a stark choice over his government's coming throne speech.

"I think that the calculus does have to be what people are experiencing right now, whatever is good or bad for political parties," she said. "I mean, we are always ready to have an election, particularly in a minority Parliament. I'm very conscious of the need to be ready for an election. However, I don't think that's first on the minds of Canadians right now."

It's also not top-of-mind for one of Canada's most powerful labour leaders — leaders who enjoy considerable access to the prime minister and his cabinet and the influence that goes with it.

National Director of the NDP Anne McGrath and former Liberal strategist David Herle talk about the prospect of a partnership between the two parties in an attempt to head off a federal election as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. 11:48

NDP has 'obligation' to work with Liberals: union chief

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said his advice to the NDP is to work with the Liberals.

"Obviously, they're going to continue to pressure the government to do more regardless of what they may say in the speech. And that's fair. That's the nature of how the system works," Yussuff said in a separate interview on The House.

"But ultimately, I think I would encourage them to say, 'Listen, we have a moment here to make some advancement on behalf of working people.' And they have an obligation, of course, to roll up their sleeves and work with the government."

Two recent public opinion polls suggest the gap between the Liberals and Conservatives is closing. An Abacus Data poll released Friday that suggests the two parties are in a virtual tie among decided voters.

On the same day, Statistics Canada reported the economy added 246,000 jobs in August — the fourth straight month of gains since the pandemic lockdown eased.

But Herle and McGrath say they see no reason for the Liberals and NDP to form some kind of partnership to advance a shared agenda on issues like climate change, employment insurance reform and child care.

The NDP as a 'willing partner'

"I really don't see the need for anything like that," McGrath told The House. "Let's remember, this is a very new Parliament. They do have the ability to do some things that are important. And they have, I would say, a willing partner, as we have seen over the course of this, that is prepared to extract as much as possible in terms of getting help for Canadians, but also is prepared to make sure that Parliament continues."

Herle said he doesn't believe it would take a formal arrangement to get the NDP to support what's being promised by the Trudeau government. In fact, he suggested a more prudent course would be to simply go to the polls.

"I mean, the prime minister is talking about this speech from the throne in ways that it is going to fundamentally remake Canada. I've seen speculation that it's equivalent to sort of medicare or the Charter of Rights in its terms of its significance as a reconstruction," he said.

"Well, these are kinds of changes that aren't normally implemented by a minority Parliament in the face of strong opposition. You might want the mandate from the people on something like this."

The prime minister insists he's not looking for a fresh mandate to implement this "ambitious, bold vision." But that might just be what you say when you really are playing a game of chicken with your political opponents.

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