National Column: Electoral reform will be Chagger’s challenge

by Chantal Hébert

The appointment Friday of a rookie minister to the pivotal parliamentary function of government House leader is the clearest possible signal that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals expect mostly clear sailing in the Commons this fall.

In theory, opportunities for neophyte minister Bardish Chagger to drop the ball over her first few months in the job of steering the government’s agenda through the House should be few and far between.

After all, her government is coming back to Parliament with as strong a hand as a ruling party can hope for.

That starts with a majority sustained by a caucus that is still comfortable taking its cues from the top. To wit, the overwhelming Liberal support on a free vote for the government’s assisted suicide legislation last spring. This is the period in Trudeau’s tenure where hope still sustains individual ambitions. Restless MPs are rarely a feature of first-term governments – especially popular ones.

Chances are the Liberals were not waiting with baited breath to find out if the Green party would follow the Conservatives, the New Democrats and the Bloc QuebÈcois and start on a search for fresh leadership. In the larger scheme of the upcoming sitting, May’s resignation would not have made any difference to the government or to the workings of the House.

From the Liberals’ perspective, the fact that the main opposition parties are going to be distracted by leadership campaigns for the rest of the year and beyond is what really matters. In any event, May announced on Monday that she is staying on for the foreseeable future.

When all is said and done, the success of the Trudeau government this fall will not be measured on the scale of how many bills it gets passed in Parliament, but rather on whether it can craft a lasting consensus on two sensitive files: climate change and electoral reform.

Both issues will present the opposition with opportunities to press the government into action (or inaction in the case of the Conservatives), but those opportunities will come with defining choices for the leaderless parties to make.

Take climate change. The government has reaffirmed its commitment to move beyond generalities on carbon pricing. A national plan that features both effective action and unanimous provincial buy-in is almost certainly out of reach. But a federal scheme that does not enjoy widespread support among the provinces – starting with the four larger ones – would be politically self-defeating.

Striking a palatable balance will undoubtedly test the skills of the government and tell much about its actual determination to meet more rigorous climate-change targets. But it will also be a test for the post-Harper Conservative opposition.

Over the former prime minister’s last term, Conservative opposition to carbon pricing was a given. But the campaign for his succession features candidates with contrary views as to the party’s stance going forward. There also differences at the provincial level with Ontario and Alberta’s Conservatives heading in opposite directions. As long as the internal party debate on
climate change is not resolved, it may be difficult for the Conservative official Opposition to craft a credible critique of the government’s policy.

In comparison to carbon pricing, the debate over electoral reform is playing out on a tiny stage. The file for now is in the hands of a parliamentary committee that is dominated by an opposition majority. But the clock is ticking as switching from one voting system to another is not done overnight.

This is a Liberal promise that is closer to the hearts of the Green party and the New Democrats than to that of many in the government. On Monday, May declared it her top priority for the next sitting of Parliament. At some point she and the NDP might have to decide whether to support a model that falls short of their proportional ideal but that the Liberals will agree to implement, or miss out entirely on the opportunity to do away with a first-past-the-post system that has tended to shortchange them.

In the last sitting of Parliament, it was electoral reform and not a ballooning budget deficit or the delicate issue of assisted suicide or the pursuit of a military mission against Daesh that saw tempers flare in the Commons. If Chagger is to undergo a baptism of fire as house leader this fall, it may well be on the same front.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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