Justin Trudeau faced a choice as his new minority Liberal government prepared to meet Parliament.
He could seize the opportunity to act boldly on various fronts – from climate change to health care and from effective gun control to aggressive, long-overdue reforms to improve the lives and opportunities of Indigenous Canadians.
Or he could play it safe – reassuring his left-centre base that he had not forgotten the party’s election platform, while hinting at just enough change to keep the opposition parties from the Liberals’ throat.
The prime minister chose safe over bold, continuity over innovation. His choice is clear from the title of last week’s throne speech – “Moving Forward Together” – compared to the title of his only previous throne speech, the one in 2015 when the Liberals, energized by their majority victory that year, were eager to signal that they were primed for action. The 2015 speech title: “Making Real Change Happen.”
It is a choice the Liberals may come to regret.
While it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that being reduced from a majority to a minority creates new opportunities, experience with the productive Liberal minorities of Lester Pearson (1963 to 1968) and Pierre Trudeau (1972 to 1974) suggests opportunities do exist and are waiting to be grasped.
To start with, the survival of today’s minority is not really at stake. There are several reasons. First, the Liberals are only 13 seats short of a majority. If they play their cards wisely, they can easily pick up those 13 seats from either the NDP or the Bloc Québécois for votes on “progressive” measures (such as climate policy) or from the Conservatives on issues like pipeline construction. The Bloc has already signaled it will vote with the Liberals on the throne speech, which affords the NDP the luxury of voting against it, thereby enabling Jagmeet Singh to claim he is not in bed with Trudeau, at least not all the time.
Second, none of the four opposition parties, including the Greens’ three MPs, wants – or dares to face – an election any time soon. Third, the Conservatives are consumed by their number one priority – replacing Andrew Scheer as leader; ridding the country of the evil Liberals can wait.
What’s more, the economy is performing reasonably well. Inflation is under control. Unemployment is low nationally, if not in all regions. In Ontario, a shortage of skilled labour has raised concerns whether contractors will be able to find enough tradesmen to meet the schedules of major infrastructure projects.
Not least, the public is not exhibiting any great concern about deficit spending or the national debt. That’s why the Liberals are marching ahead with their expensive promise to further reduce income taxes on the middle class. It’s also why they know they can afford – economically as well as politically – to launch a big new spending program like pharmacare.
There’s some irony in the situation. There are certain things the Liberals thought seriously about doing when they had a majority, but couldn’t bring themselves to risk acting upon as the election approached. These included concrete action on climate change, with real targets and enforceable schedules; banning assault weapons and making a full-press effort to rid city streets of handguns; and introduction of pharmacare.
Now that they are reduced to a minority, the Liberals can proceed with these measures, and conceivably others, such as dentalcare, in the knowledge they will attract the support of the parties to their left. In other words, taking steps they did not care, or dare, to take when they had a majority could be the minority government’s path to survival.
It is not as though they would be forced to perform any politically unnatural or repugnant acts, as the Pierre Trudeau minority government felt it had to commit in the 1970s, when it gave in to the NDP’s demand for the creation of a national oil company, Petro-Canada.
In the coming months, today’s Liberals will have opportunities simultaneously to advance the party’s policy interests and extend their stay in office. Will Justin Trudeau be bold enough to seize the opportunities?