Parliament in a Time of Permanent Campaigning

Justin Trudeau’s minority government means that everyone in the new Parliament is likely to be in campaign mode all the time.

Well, they’re back, and once again newscasts are brimming with clips from Question Period in the House of Commons. But don’t despair if you’re not a fan of Parliamentary debate. The all-new, postelection Parliament is only sitting for just over a week before cooling off with a six-week break.

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Credit…Blair Gable/Reuters

The election, of course, left Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals without a voting majority in the House of Commons. And that made the Speech From The Throne that officially kicked off the 43rd Parliament arguably of more interest than many.

Governor General Julie Payette, as Queen Elizabeth II’s representative, read it. But, of course, the text was the work of the prime minister’s office. There was, however, one tiny section that may have been the work of Ms. Payette, a former astronaut.

“We know that we are inextricably bound to the same space-time continuum and on board the same planetary spaceship,” the governor general said. “If we put our brains and smarts and altruistic capabilities together, we can do a lot of good.”

Like all throne speeches, the speech previewed Mr. Trudeau’s legislative ambitions. At times, its promises were very specific: a vow to cut mobile phone bills by 25 percent, although how that would be achieved remains for the future. But on other issues, the government stopped well short of promising action. Somewhat out of the blue, the governor general, speaking for the government, said that universal dental care, a cause close to the hearts of the New Democrats, is “worth exploring, and I encourage parliament to look into this.”

But, that aside, there was little that Mr. Trudeau had campaigned on or announced during the previous Parliament, including a ban on military-style rifles, a pledge to eliminate carbon emissions in Canada by 2050, tax cuts for all but the highest earners and introducing legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples within a year.

There was, however, surprisingly little in the speech dealing directly with concerns specific to Alberta and Saskatchewan, the two provinces that shut out Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals. After vowing to intensify its fight against climate change, the government added that “it will also work just as hard to get Canadian resources to new markets, and offer unwavering support to the hardworking women and men in Canada’s natural resources sectors, many of whom have faced tough times recently.”

“To me it sounded like a campaign platform more than a throne speech,” said Lori Turnbull, a professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “And I’m not surprised by that because I think first, we’re in a period of permanent campaigning and second, in a minority government situation there’s more of a sense that, ‘Hey, we can lose confidence anytime and be back on the campaign trail.’”

For Mr. Trudeau, the return of Parliament helped swiftly change the channel, at least in Canada, from his Buckingham Palace cocktail hour chatter about President Trump during this week’s NATO meeting in London.

[Read: Trump Abruptly Exits NATO Gathering After Embarrassing Video Emerges]

[Read: Is This Thing On? A Look Back at Political Hot Mic Moments]

[Read: Late Night Can’t Get Enough of World Leaders Laughing at Trump]

And for Canadians who watched the live broadcast, the throne speech allowed a peek at the sometimes arcane ritual that surrounds parliament. It is a rare occasion when the members of the House of Commons pay a visit to the Senate chamber.

That already ritual-laden procedure was extra complicated this week because Parliament’s center block is closed for renovations. So members of the House piled into a fleet of Parliamentary minibuses at their temporary home in the West Block for the long drive of about 700 meters to the former railway station that has been transformed into the Senate.

They were invited to make that trip by J. Greg Peters, the Usher of the Black Rod, a Senate official whose many ceremonial duties include effectively acting as M.C. during throne speeches.

Professor Turnbull acknowledged that the ceremony, which comes from Britain’s Parliament, may seem elitist and not all that accessible to every Canadian. But she argued that it still had value.

“It reminds all of us that none of us is above the institution, the history and the tradition,” she said. “I think that there’s kind of a peace and a calmness in it.”


  • A year after Canadian officials arrested her at Vancouver’s airport at the request of the United States, the Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is still going through extradition proceedings and living effectively under house arrest. In an open letter this week, she wrote that she had experienced “moments of fear, pain, disappointment, helplessness, torment, and struggle,” while also thanking Canadian security officers for their kindness. But the open letter provoked a backlash in China. Among other things, Ms. Meng’s life in her luxurious Vancouver home was contrasted with the fate of Li Hongyuan, a former Huawei employee who was jailed for 251 days for demanding severance pay after his contract wasn’t renewed.

  • About 18,000 acres of potatoes in Canada have become frozen in the ground and can’t be harvested this year. But, perhaps to the dismay of physicians and dietitians, that won’t lead to a shortage of French fries.

  • In his look at what domestication of animals actually means, James Gorman found that there used to be an International Fox Show in Montreal. And during the 1921 edition, a fox breeder from Prince Edward Island brought two tame foxes to a dance “where the girls did the fox trot with these foxes around their necks.” As a bonus, the article also reveals that Summerside has an International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame.



A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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