October 23, 2020

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Grandiose wishes and a call to arms

Trudeau follows aspirational throne speech with COVID-inspired stay-the-course address

Opinion

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government survive the next few weeks, it will have had little to do with the throne speech delivered Wednesday.

Throne speeches are, traditionally, rife with unbridled but largely meaningless poetry. This one was no different.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, who enunciated the speech, talked about the need for Canadians to unite behind what she claimed was the government's "ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality."

The speech functioned very much like a political semaphore, sending out strong, symbolic signals to key Liberal constituencies. For a government that is reeling in opinion polls and needs to distinguish itself from the still-evolving Conservatives and new leader Erin O'Toole, those signals were dispatched with great effusiveness.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Julie Payette make their way to the Senate for the throne speech. (Fred Chartrand / Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Julie Payette make their way to the Senate for the throne speech. (Fred Chartrand / Canadian Press)

In addition to some significant extensions to economic supports for individuals and businesses affected by the pandemic, the speech was stuffed with hot-button buzz words from the "progressive" political lexicon.

The speech included its intention to establish a national child-care program, introduce universal Pharmacare and create a task force action plan to create greater opportunities for women in the economy. There were pledges to create millions of new jobs in a still emerging green economy, and introduce measures to address "systemic inequities in all phases of the criminal justice system."

Almost all of these things fall into the category of generational government initiatives. Put another way, most majority governments would be lucky to accomplish one of national child care, Pharmacare and a reform of the justice system in its entire term in office. Other things, such as creating new economic opportunities for women, are so nebulous that it will be impossible to measure progress.

And there just isn't enough new or substantive to warrant much in the way of genuine excitement on measures to green the economy and reduce Canada's carbon footprint.

Promoting the manufacturing of electric vehicles and the batteries — something already underway in Ontario to save its beleaguered auto industry — is low-hanging fruit in the green economy equation.

Canada is in the enviable position of having about 80 per cent of its electricity generated by fully or mostly renewable sources. But there will still be some Canadians who will need to recharge their e-vehicles with electricity generated by the burning of coal and natural gas.

More importantly, this initiative does nothing to help Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland, whose economies are heavily invested in oil and gas. Canada's efforts to support a slowing of global warming can only come if we find ways of creating good jobs that create alternatives to reduce our economic reliance on oil and gas production.

The other major "green" initiatives include an ambitious tree-planting program, a ban on single-use plastics and a government program to create thousands of jobs in the retrofitting of residential and commercial buildings to make them more energy-efficient. An excellent program, but very limited and hardly new.

Almost all of these things fall into the category of generational government initiatives. Put another way, most majority governments would be lucky to accomplish one of national child care, Pharmacare and a reform of the justice system in its entire term in office.

Missing from the environmental elements in this speech are big, seismic initiatives such as the establishment of a national electricity transmission grid that would help move clean electricity from provinces that include Manitoba to those still burning fossil fuels to supply their power grid.

Ultimately, this speech will be judged on whether it can win the support of New Democrats (the only party that has not committed to voting against it) and keep the Liberals in power and whether it restores the tattered Liberal brand after months of self-inflicted wounds.

Remarkably, the Liberals still seem to think Trudeau is the man to dig them out of the hole that he has dug for the governing party. As evidence, witness the unusual nationally televised address Trudeau delivered Wednesday a few hours after the speech.

The address was pretty thinly veiled in its purpose. Trudeau encouraged the country to remain united in its fight against COVID-19, given that the second major wave of infections is "already here." This was Trudeau's call to arms, a reminder that the country is still in the grips of a major public-health emergency.

He did not explicitly deal with the prospect of a fall election that could be triggered by a throne speech defeat. But he was pretty clear in his warning that now was not the time for a change in government.

In the recent past, Trudeau has shown a remarkable capacity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, even against enormous odds. In last fall's federal election, he was able to survive both the SNC Lavalin scandal and the shameful revelation that he repeatedly donned blackface in the past. Trudeau's survival was largely due to his superior oratorical skills and his ability to exhibit what appears to be genuine empathy.

However, at some point, these overly emotive performances are going to wear thin, particularly if he has to continue summoning them to save himself from political destruction. In the wake of the recent WE scandal, which all but eliminated a political advantage he earned with his government's COVID-19 response, it's unclear whether the prime minister's attempt to reach once again into his grandiloquent bag of tricks will save the day.

Trudeau told Canadians in his address that "can't will not define us." It will be interesting to see if Canadians respond by telling him that he just can't rely on their support anymore.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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