National Column: Why we deserve an election this fall

by Chantal Hebert

This is the time in the life of a majority government when minds usually turn to the drafting of a final throne speech. For a ruling party going into its last year before a general election, the occasion is an opportunity to try to articulate an auspicious ballot-box question but also, if need be, to ditch legislative baggage not wanted on the electoral voyage.

By all indications, the early summer shuffling of the federal cabinet was a prelude to a pre-election recasting of the Liberal agenda. No one would be surprised if Parliament were prorogued before its scheduled Sept. 17 return date to set the stage for a throne speech later in the fall. A lot of water – more, in fact, than anyone expected – has flowed under the bridge since Justin Trudeau’s sunny opening act almost three years ago.

One way or another, the fall sitting of Parliament will signal the start of a year of intense partisan jostling on both sides of the House. In the era of fixed election dates, all of the above is par for the course.

Except that the times are anything but normal.

With Canada facing watershed choices on the U.S. and climate change, it is hardly a given that the country and/or its political class will be best-served by a prolonged precampaign season.

If there ever were a case to be made for sending voters to the polls earlier rather than later, it would probably be this fall.

The context has changed dramatically since three years ago, when Canadians last had an election conversation.

The terms of the Canada-U.S. relationship are in an unprecedented flux, with no real end in sight to the upheaval.

At the same time, the large provincial consensus that supported Trudeau’s climate change strategy – a centrepiece of his agenda – is a thing of the past.

In both instances, bitter confrontation has replaced amicable co-operation.

As a result, the next year will feature decisive battles for the Liberal government with both the U.S. and the provinces.

For a prime minister to enter such frays with an election clock ticking loudly in the background is the political equivalent of going into battle with one arm in a cast. Should the Liberal poll numbers go south, Trudeau will be a lame duck in all but name.

Given the acrimonious state of the Trump-Trudeau relationship, the U.S. president may prefer to wait him out rather than give the prime minister any deal that could translate into a pre-election boost.

By the same token, it will be hard to achieve constructive progress on carbon pricing at the federal-provincial table as long as opponents to Trudeau’s plan construe the discussion as a dry run for the upcoming federal campaign.

To maximize his chances of steering a successful course on either front, Trudeau could certainly use a fresh mandate.

By the same token, the alternative approaches of the opposition leaders deserve the full airing of an election campaign before definitive choices are made.

Surely the issues that are about to dominate the final year of Trudeau’s current mandate demand that voters be brought in the loop no less than the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement did in 1988.

When columnist Susan Delacourt and her husband, political scientist Don Lenihan, floated the idea of a summer election last spring, it was dismissed in Liberal backrooms as too divisive – and perhaps too risky for the governing party. But since then, the notion that it could be in the national interest to send Canada to the polls early has been reinforced by the post-Ontario-election deterioration of the federal-provincial climate.

The resilience of the big multi-partisan tent Trudeau set up to deal with the Trump White House has yet to be tested against any concessions the current Canadian government might have to make to achieve a NAFTA deal.

As the federal election gets nearer, it will become more tempting to use those concessions against the party that has offered them, rather than to rally behind the compromise they would have paved the way to.

Canada’s decision to legislate fixed election dates was meant to temper a prime minister’s inclination to play with the calendar for partisan advantage. (The law does not actually bind a government to a pre-set fixed date but it does increase the potential political price to pay for bypassing its dispositions.) But what the legislation was not meant to do was to rob Canadians of the opportunity to debate and make timely and fundamental choices as to the way forward for the country.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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