As coronavirus cases spike, Trudeau must strike throne speech balance: strategists

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to unveil his government’s vision for the way forward as the country continues to grapple with an increase in coronavirus cases and a massive federal deficit.

But because of the pandemic, things will not be playing out as per usual.

“Circumstance dictates that this isn’t a normal year so this shouldn’t be a normal throne speech,” said Melissa Lantsman, vice president of public affairs at Enterprise and a Conservative strategist.

The leaders of the two largest opposition parties in the House of Commons are both in isolation after testing positive for coronavirus, while parliamentarians and political staff will be navigating physical distancing, limits on the number of members allowed in the chamber, and new ways of distanced voting.

Because of that, neither Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole nor Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet are expected to deliver the normal opposition response speeches to the throne speech until they are out of isolation and able to physically return to the House of Commons.

That makes the timing of any such vote on the throne speech — a confidence motion — unclear and sources say there’s no agreement between the federal parties on when that vote could come.

There are also outstanding questions at play over exactly how the new sitting of the House of Commons will unfold and to what extent Canadians are willing to tolerate increasing levels of deficit.

The coronavirus emergency response pushed that up to $343 billion, prompting Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux to warn that will be “unsustainable” if not rolled back within one or two years.

Lantsman said the massive federal debt is a growing concern for Canadians who saw the need for emergency spending but are increasingly looking for a plan to bring that back under control as the pandemic stretches on with no end in sight, and public health forecasts it could last several years.

“I think what Canadians are looking at is we’re a bit uncertain about the virus, we’re a bit uncertain about the future and we’re a bit uncertain about the government of the day and their ability to bring us through this in a way that we feel we can have confidence in the next 18 months – or frankly, even the next six,” she said.

“We have got to find a way to wean off the incredible amount of spending. It was necessary at the time but it needs to come to an end.”

Trudeau prorogued Parliament last month and has in recent weeks spoken of the need for an “ambitious” new plan and vision for the future of the country.

But that’s raised questions about how much he might be willing to spend on a vision and programming not directly related to the pandemic, Lantsman added.

She said the tone will need to strike the right balance between outlining a plan to help Canadians and being seen as using a crisis to promote partisan goals.

“I’m not sure that it’s the best place for the pet projects,” she said.

“If it’s big and grand and re-envisioning the future of the country, I think that’s too much too fast.”

Kiavash Najafi, an NDP strategist and a director with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, disagreed.

He said he expects the NDP will highlight the need to use the crisis as an opportunity to address major system inequalities and barriers to the workforce.

Guaranteed income and better child care are two possible examples, he suggested.

“This is a transformational moment,” he said. “Let’s not downplay how significant this is and how it’s going to impact the livelihood of a lot of Canadians,” Najafi said.

“The need for immediate and bold action is there. At the same time, it’s an opportunity. A return to the previous normal is not good enough.”

As is often the case as well, communications will be one of the big challenges for the government, one Liberal strategist added.

“They’ve never had a great deal of success from a communications point of view landing the key messages,” said Greg MacEachern, senior vice president at Proof Strategies and a Liberal strategist.

He said the Liberals should be looking for ways to include things in the throne speech that don’t only appeal to the New Democratic Party or the Greens — both often allies — but the Conservatives too.

“If there were things that the government can point to and say, the Conservatives specifically asked for this and it’s reflected in the speech, I think that would be a document that would be considered a success,” he said.

MacEachern also pointed to the strong working relationship the federal government has developed with the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario under Premier Doug Ford.

READ MORE: Doug Ford calls on Health Canada to focus on reviewing rapid COVID-19 antigen tests

Given the difficult realities facing Canadians, the last thing voters want to see is partisanship, he said.

“A year ago this time, they were avowed political enemies. Now the prime minister and the premier of Ontario are doing events together,” MacEachern said.

“There’s a reason why that is happening … Canadians really don’t have a lot of time for partisan wars right now. They want to see everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Global News special coverage of the throne speech is scheduled to begin at 1:30 PM ET.

Trudeau will address the nation in a televised speech on all major networks at 6:30 PM.

With files from Global News’ David Akin and Bryan Mullan.

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