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The latest snapshot of Canadian public opinion suggests Justin Trudeau is having a good pandemic.
Even after the Liberals were re-elected last fall, more people disapproved of his government, and of him personally, than approved.
But since the onset of COVID-19, that evaluation has inverted – 58 per cent of Canadians now approve of the government (and 48 per cent of Trudeau), versus 24 per cent who disapprove of the Liberals (and 31 per cent of Trudeau), according to Abacus Data.
It should not be a surprise to anyone that the Liberals have an eight point lead on the Conservatives in popular support. The amazing thing is that the gap is not wider.
The Conservatives are in the midst of an uninspiring, inward-looking leadership contest, while the prime minister hosts what the Opposition calls a “morning show” on the doorstep of Rideau Cottage, disbursing billions of dollars. The press conference is shown live on network television and posted on social media. The prime minister’s Facebook page alone has been racking up huge viewing figures – changes to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, for example, yielded 1.6 million views.
That goodwill may evaporate as the economic crisis begins to bite in the fall. A communications strategy will not be able to solve the problems stored up when, for example, the mortgage deferral program expires.
But for now, Trudeau is leading a charmed life considering the circumstances.
The Abacus poll suggests that Canadians are united in the belief that the government’s support measures have been justified – 88 per cent believe the government’s performance has been “good” or “acceptable”.
There is a greater divergence of opinion when it comes to the Liberals’ handling of the economy and of the national debt, where disapproval rises to 30 per cent and 38 per cent respectively.
But a majority of Canadians seem to believe he is doing a good job.
It is a fair to say that Trudeau moved swiftly to inform and reassure Canadians, as well as to get money in their hands through the CERB.
But the situation has evolved beyond the initial acute stage of the pandemic – at least for this wave – and the lack of parliamentary accountability must come to an end too.
What we have seen in the last eight weeks is the executive eclipsing the legislative branch of government
The House of Commons is due to return on Monday and the Liberals should accede to Opposition demands to return to the status quo ante, at least in terms of the frequency of meetings.
There are currently three special committee sittings a week – two virtual and one in person, where a small number of MPs have gathered in the chamber of the House of Commons. Nobody who has watched the virtual assemblies could hail them as a success, troubled as they have been with technological gremlins. The meetings are, by definition, dominated by COVID – any attempts by Opposition MPs to raise other subjects are shut down by the Speaker.
The parties are currently discussing what the next month looks like and it appears that a hybrid solution will garner support, similar to one that exists in the U.K., where a quorum of 50 MPs are in the chamber and are augmented by other MPs via video conferencing. Trudeau said he was encouraged by a statement from the House of Commons that it can now accommodate such a sitting.
But the precise format for the chamber and committees is still all under discussion. The frequency and duration will, inevitably, be self-serving from a Liberal point of view. The government has benefitted from having the field to itself, so why open things up? Surprisingly, Jagmeet Singh, the NDP leader, has said he supports the Liberals’ preferred format. If I were him, I’d be wary of backing any Liberal proposal – the Abacus poll suggests 59 per cent of NDP supporters approve of Trudeau’s performance.
The Liberal Party’s aversion to parliamentary scrutiny was apparent in a report by the Procedure and House Affairs committee tabled late last week.
The committee studied Parliament’s response to COVID and recommended a host of proposals that could subvert, rather than enhance, hundreds of years of tradition. The recommendations included the establishment of new standing orders to enable the establishment of a virtual parliament; the expansion in technical capacity to allow the House to achieve a full virtual gathering; and, the establishment of an electronic voting system to conduct votes in virtual sittings. If adopted, we might as well lock away the ceremonial mace and cancel the renovation of Centre Block.
The Conservatives issued a spirited defence, invoking Winston Churchill as a defender of the “intensity, passion, intimacy, informality and spontaneity” of debates in the House of Commons.
The Tories are agreeable to hybrid sittings but vehemently opposed to virtual proceedings scrutinizing legislation or budgets.
Even the NDP voiced its nervousness at the speed with which the Liberal majority was ready to ditch established tradition.
It’s been a while since anyone in the chamber soared to Churchillian heights, far less took the great man’s advice by sitting down once they had stumbled across a sentence with a grammatical ending.
The lack of parliamentary accountability must come to an end too
But the Conservatives were indubitably correct in their submission when they pointed out that Parliament must meet because its role and place are fundamental – that its supreme duty is to hold the executive to account.
What we have seen in the last eight weeks is the executive eclipsing the legislative branch of government.
Parliament is the umbilical link between the government and the governed. There are many Liberal MPs who grumble privately that their voices are not heard by the small cabal of ministers, advisers and bureaucrats who decide government policy.
Parliament gives all its members a platform to voice their concerns and enthusiasms.
The government owes it to Canadians to get back into the House of Commons and introduce a fiscal update, so that citizens can appreciate the extent of the mess we are in.
All parliamentarians owe it to Canadians to provide positive support to the institution that safeguards and strengthens our way of life.
As Churchill told the House of Commons in 1947: “This idea of a group of supermen and super-planners…making the mass of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020