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Will these political channel changers actually work?
Your pregrame show for the next two action packed weeks in Canadian federal politics is here.
If there's one thing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inner circle want more than anything right now, it's to change the political channel.
That's because the foreign election interference scandal has dominated the headlines for weeks, and Trudeau has yet to find a way to turn the heat down on questions about his involvement in the matter. Every day, another bomb explodes in this story, and in response, Liberal polling numbers have been trending sharply downward.
So in the next two weeks, the Liberals hope two big-ticket events will change the channel enough to allow Trudeau to survive into the next two-week recess of Parliament, scheduled to start on April 1.
Here's the lowdown on what these channel changers are, why the Liberals are hoping they will work, what could spoil the Liberal's plans, and what the likely outcome will be.
Channel changer attempt #1: American President Joe Biden's visit to Ottawa
Joe Biden will visit Canada later this week, the first purpose-built bilateral meeting in Canada with an American President since Barack Obama's visit in the early days of Trudeau's tenure as Prime Minister.
Much has changed in the seven or so years that have passed, and this time, Trudeau won't be able to rely on the press being enraptured with glossy bromance photos. For this visit to change the political channel away from the foreign election interference scandal, Trudeau will have to deliver a significant win on one of Canada's major policy irritants with the US, like the Roxham Road border crossing.
However, that scenario probably isn't in the cards for Trudeau. The United States has expressed its concerns about foreign election interference in Canada. The Americans will also be interested in ensuring that the Liberals are committed to overcoming Canada’s severe military capacity gap, among other issues.
Many observers are quietly doubting that the Liberals have done enough to ensure that the announceables that come out of this bilateral will be policy items that favour Canadian demands of the United States. In fact, some expect the opposite to be true. How that dynamic plays out will certainly have some impact on Trudeau's political fortunes.
Channel changer attempt #2: The federal budget
After Joe Biden's visit wraps up and just before the next Parliamentary recess, on March 28, the Liberals will present their federal budget.
While typically, federal budgets include items designed to shore up support with key voter constituencies, this year, Trudeau is going to be hard-pressed to table a budget filled with spendy-spendy goodies. That's because Canada's inflationary crisis remains a top concern for many Canadians, and Trudeau's history of running big deficits has contributed to the problem.
To show economists and inflation-weary Canadians that he's serious about getting inflationary deficit spending under control, Trudeau can't table a big spending budget this year. But that means he will have to disappoint a caucus, a cabinet, and legions of special interest groups that have become accustomed to years of unfettered deficit-spending largess. Theoretically, any spending he does undertake will have to prioritize coalition-partner New Democratic Party requests ahead of those of Liberal party stakeholders, or Trudeau risks his supply and confidence agreement falling apart.
Rumors are flying around Parliament Hill that some members of Trudeau's cabinet were resistant to anything that even remotely demonstrated any fiscal restraint, much less the level of restraint needed to help rein in inflation. Trudeau can ill afford more unrest in his caucus, which has been made jittery by large polling drops and accumulating scandal. How he squares these circles with the budget remains to be seen.
This dynamic means that Trudeau's budget will likely disappoint more people than it pleases, instead of making the big gains needed to change the political channel for the Liberals. The evidence is that even though the budget is a little more than a week away, the Liberals have had relatively little media attention focused on what might be contained therein. That type of dynamic does not bear the hallmarks of a political channel changer strong enough to pull Trudeau's polling numbers to where they were a year ago.
Several other factors could make or break Trudeau's attempts to change the channel over the next two weeks. While you can expect to hear more from this newsletter on these issues in the coming days, here's a teaser:
Katie Telford: This week, the Conservative Party will force a vote in the House of Commons to compel Trudeau's Chief of Staff, Katie Telford, to testify in front of a House Committee. This motion comes after a Global News story revealed that CSIS had warned senior Liberal staffers about potential election interference, a warning that appears to have been ignored. If this motion passes the House and Telford is forced to testify, much media attention will be paid to the issue. Suppose Trudeau makes the motion a matter of confidence and strains his agreement with the NDP. In that case, it could cost him in other ways, with the possibility of accidentally triggering an election having a greater than 0% chance.
Quebec: Trudeau has no more politically significant problem than in the former Liberal stronghold of Quebec. Recent polling suggests that the rival parties are making rapid inroads into seats usually considered safe for the Liberals. This decline will make Trudeau's Quebec caucus extraordinarily nervous and more susceptible to infighting over bills that have created internal divisions. If any more pressure is put on any of the issues causing problems for Trudeau in Quebec over the next two weeks, the Liberals will have even more significant issues on their hands.
Geopolitics: China recently brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the Chinese government is about to visit Moscow. Russia is intensifying its war of aggression against Ukraine. There's weird stuff flying over Canada. With an uncertain and unstable global geopolitical situation, a military with little capacity, and empty federal coffers, Trudeau has few cards to play if poop really hits the fan in international affairs. A significant incident in any of these areas could plunge Trudeau into yet another crisis, as opposed to changing the channel.
Provincial elections: Upcoming elections in Alberta and Manitoba, provinces where the NDP hopes to make considerable gains, will stretch federal NDP activist resources to their limit. This fact means Trudeau could get lucky by calling NDP leader Jagmeet Singh's bluff and making him do some dirty work, like accepting a federal budget that doesn't meet all the terms of their supply and confidence agreement or voting against the Conservative motion to compel Katie Telford to testify at committee. The NDP is relatively cash-poor and activist resource-thin, and Trudeau knows that this means they can ill afford a federal election right now. How far Trudeau can get Singh to push his caucus will determine how the next few weeks will pay out.
Chrystia Freeland: Rumours of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland's departure have been circulating for months. If she decides to table her budget and leave (or is forced out in a shuffle), this would allow Trudeau to undertake a massive cabinet shuffle, offer some carrots to a jittery caucus, and attempt to change the face of certain issues that have been dividing his caucus and pulling Liberal polling numbers down. However, a big change of people at the top of important portfolios would also create further instability in the government at a time when smooth sailing is needed.
The likely outcome:
Trudeau will proceed with plans for Biden's visit, tabling of the federal budget, and head into the next Parliamentary recess hoping these two things make enough news to deflect attention away from the foreign interference crisis.
During the first week of Parliamentary recess, the Liberals will probably spend a lot of time and money polling Canadians to determine if their fortunes have reversed. If the polling is good, expect the Liberals to press forward with a full Parliamentary session.
My best wild guess on what happens if the numbers look bad: expect the Liberals to prorogue Parliament, shuffle cabinet, table a throne speech right before summer bbq season, and hope to God that the supply and confidence agreement with the NDP holds.
One thing is for certain, interesting times lay ahead.
But Canadians would be better served if the Liberals were serving them less politics and more action to deal with bread and butter issues.
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