Canada's Trudeau to lay out plans as election risk, virus loom

By: AFP      Published: 07:34 PM, 23 Sep, 2020
Canada's Trudeau to lay out plans as election risk, virus loom

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will lay out on Wednesday a new post-pandemic direction for Canada that will test his minority government's support in parliament in the coming weeks.

Trudeau had hinted his so-called throne speech would herald grand New Deal-style reforms, with a focus on implementing climate measures and addressing social inequalities laid bare by the Covid-19 outbreak.

But those plans have been tempered by an uptick in new coronavirus cases as millions of Canadians returned to work and school this month, and the speech will focus on measures to limit the virus spread.

Trudeau has previously tried to frame the pandemic as an opportunity for "bold new solutions" to Canada's ills.

But, amid warnings of a second Covid-19 wave, he warned last week that the fight against the virus was "far from over."

After the throne speech, the prime minister is to give a televised address to the nation to further stress the urgency of the pandemic fight.

Meanwhile, new finance minister Chrystia Freeland is fretting over the cost of major reforms, after the country doled out more than Can$300 billion (US$230 billion) in emergency aid in the last six months. 

One year since elections

Trudeau insists he needs parliamentary approval of his policy goals, as Canada's circumstances are dramatically different than when he won his mandate last year. 

Thanks to the pandemic, the country's jobless rate peaked at 13.9 percent in May, while the economy contracted at a record 38.7 percent in the second quarter.

It is arguably an awkward time for sweeping policy changes, or as critics suggested, to dare the opposition to force snap elections.

But polling shows most Canadians are satisfied with Trudeau's management of the crisis.

And the Tories elected a new leader only last month: Erin O'Toole, who is not well known to Canadians. 

Both O'Toole and Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet are isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 and so will not attend the speech.

Plus, officials have yet to sort out a plan for virtual voting to avoid cramming 338 members into the House of Commons to cast ballots on the throne speech and a new budget.

All three opposition parties would need to work together to topple the government. Few believe they will take the bait.

"I think the public mood at the moment is: Fix some problems but don't try to re-make society because we're still in the midst of a pandemic," said Tim Powers, managing director of polling firm Abacus Data.

Incumbent seems safe

University of Ottawa professor Genevieve Tellier suggested the Liberals could parlay the unease into support for their new agenda.

Trudeau's father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, ushered in major new social changes while himself at the head of a minority government.

"During crises governments are able to implement broad, huge programs," Tellier told AFP.

An election now, she added, would favor the incumbent.

"You can't have big rallies right now, where candidates gain visibility. Even wearing a mask means that people don't recognize you and don't see your face," she explained.

The situation might also allow the prime minister to move past a third ethics scandal in as many years -- the latest involving a now-defunct charity with Trudeau family ties tapped by Ottawa to distribute pandemic aid.

Trudeau said: "I do not want an election. I don't think Canadians want an election."

But "if there has to be an election, we'll figure it out," he added.

Regardless, Tellier said the throne speech was highly anticipated, because "Canadians want reassurance that the government has a plan."