Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes MPs to the House of Commons as parliament prepares to resume for the first time since the October election, Dec. 5, 2019.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with The Canadian Press during a year end interview on Dec. 18, 2019.
Winston Churchill once remarked that the greatest lesson in life is to learn that even fools are right sometimes. A freshly-chastened Justin Trudeau seems to have absorbed this advice in his meetings with opposition leaders this week, acknowledging he may be able to find “common ground” with politicians he only recently assured Canadians were depriving villages somewhere of their idiots.
It was a humbled prime minister that Andrew Scheer, Yves-François Blanchet, Jagmeet Singh, Elizabeth May and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe encountered on Parliament Hill. A change in tone was apparent. Whether this was pretend humility or its real embodiment will only become clear in the coming months.
A stylistic adjustment was clearly needed from a dogmatic prime minister so enthused with the beauty of his own agenda that he could not suffer the slightest deviation. As Toronto Star columnist Susan Delacourt noted this week, Trudeau restrained himself (or was restrained) from saying anything publicly about the firing of Don Cherry. In days past, Trudeau would have signalled his virtue by scolding Cherry for comments deemed by many to be anti-immigrant.
But if the tenor is likely to be less preachy post-blackface, are we going to see a more conciliatory approach when it comes to policy?
The meeting with Moe suggests there may be some grounds for optimism. The premier described his meeting as “disappointing”, citing the lack of progress on his agenda of postponing the carbon tax, renegotiating equalization and ensuring more pipelines are built. But realistically, the chances of the prime minister putting his carbon tax on ice were non-existent. On equalization, Trudeau proved he has a sense of humour by suggesting that Moe take his concerns to the Council of Federation next month, where the premiers will try to gain consensus on a range of issues.
The problem with getting agreement on equalization is that it is a zero sum game – if one province gets a better deal, by definition another loses out. An agreement on the sovereignty of the Golan Heights is more likely than a united provincial front on equalization. But Trudeau at least suggested he is not wed to the current formula, which was put in place by the Harper government and extended by his own.
Western provinces have a convincing case to make that the hydro energy produced by Quebec and Manitoba should be calculated at market rates when the fiscal capacity of those provinces is calculated, rather than at the artificially low rates it is sold at domestically. By one calculation, doing so would have reduced payments to Quebec by 34 per cent, or $14 billion, between 2005 and 2010.
It was on subjects that were not on Moe’s agenda that Trudeau was surprisingly biddable. The readout distributed by the Prime Minister’s Office said the prime minister invited Moe to provide suggested improvements to the Impact Assessment Act, the notorious C-69, which most have considered etched in tablets of stone after its bumpy passage through Parliament. Trudeau also said he would consider improvements to federal transfers, including the Fiscal Stabilization Program, which provides financial support to provinces hit by extraordinary economic circumstances.
However, Moe has also called on Ottawa to remove the carbon tax from farmers drying their grain due to an extremely wet year. The premier tweeted about one Saskatchewan farmer who racked up a $5,495 carbon tax bill in October. “I guarantee his rebate won’t cover this extra cost,” he said.
The reasons why Trudeau is more inclined to mind his own business and less keen to manage other people’s affairs is obvious: for one thing, he does not want to be the last prime minister of a united Canada; for another, he has to craft a workable minority government.
To that end, his meeting with Blanchet was a triumph. The Bloc Québécois leader is at the helm of the third party, with 32 MPs, most of whom will never have a better job. A sizeable proportion of the returnees from the last parliament are two years away from qualifying for a gold-plated pension. In short, this is not a group keen to risk a return to the real world anytime soon. Blanchet said his party will do what it can to make parliament work and Trudeau suggested there will not be anything in next month’s Throne Speech to cause the Bloc to vote against it. The prime minister talked about “shared priorities” such as climate change, affordability, gun control and protection of supply management.
One suspects Singh breathed a sigh of relief at the news Trudeau had found a dance partner. The NDP leader has played up his party’s clout in the new parliament but the truth is he does not have a strong hand to play – and Trudeau knows it. The New Democrats cannot afford another election. Nor can Singh get too close to the Liberals – his best chance at the next election is to point out all the areas where Trudeau let down progressive voters. The Liberals are committed to taking the first steps toward a national pharmacare program but are unlikely to go far or fast enough for the NDP – a perfect outcome for Singh.
The week was not all goodwill and tranquility. Blanchet’s dismissal of Western alienation provoked the ire of Scheer and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who said Quebec’s disproportionate gains from equalization were due to his province’s oil revenues. But at least the forces threatening to tear the country apart were focused on tearing each other apart, rather than dismembering the country.
It will be all downhill from here, no doubt.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019