The Top Line
The Federal House of Commons resumes sitting today, likely continuing in the primarily virtual format that has made the 43rd Parliament unique in the history of Canada. The COVID-19 pandemic has dictated both the format and the politics of this Parliament, and that will continue to be the case in the coming weeks or (maybe) months.
High-stakes politics will begin this week. The government is facing a confidence measure vote on Bill C-14, the legislation to implement new measures, promised in the Fall Economic Statement, to address the impacts of COVID-19. While that Bill is expected to pass, the government must also begin gearing up for Budget 2021. The Finance Committee will meet tomorrow to debate the report on the pre-budget consultations prior to its publication, which is a major checkpoint in the budget process.
The increasing potential for a Spring election, which is closely linked to the tabling of the first Federal Budget in almost two years, and the ongoing rollout of COVID-19 vaccines will dominate the political discussion over the coming weeks. However, major legislation, such as amendments to the Broadcast Act and the Digital Charter Implementation Act, will progress through the legislative process in that time.
All of the parties are preparing for an election in 2021, whether it comes from a confidence measure vote on the Budget or a decision by the Liberals to seek a new mandate. Because vaccination will be crucial for public health and for allowing the government to move from crisis management to a more traditional fiscal and legislative agenda – or to an election – the pace of vaccination will be closely tied to the timing of a potential campaign.
With much of the vaccine supply secured by Federal contracts awaiting regulatory approval or, in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, delayed due to manufacturing chokepoints, getting to herd immunity against COVID-19 is a key public policy and political challenge for the Liberal government. The Conservative Party in particular has indicated that it will focus on vaccine policy as its main criticism of the government.
The decision to focus Budget 2021 on policies for the post-pandemic recovery or on pandemic response is also a major policy and political consideration for the government. If COVID-19 infection rates are low and trending downwards in March and vaccine distribution has ramped up by that time – both huge IFs – stakeholders should expect to see a budget that focuses on ‘building back’ from the pandemic and functions as a de facto Liberal campaign platform.
A Deeper Dive
The parties have yet to agree if they will convene exclusively by videoconference or if some MPs will be physically present in the House of Commons. Since the National and Provincial public health authorities are discouraging travel across Provincial borders, many MPs are likely to stay home no matter what format is chosen. The Senate will also reconvene next Tuesday in a primarily virtual format, after not sitting for much of 2020 while Senators determined how to conduct their work by videoconference.
The last Federal budget was tabled in March 2019, with the government choosing to provide only a summer snapshot and the traditional Fall Economic Statement in 2020. As such, Budget 2021 presents the most significant engagement opportunity on Federal spending in nearly two years. Although Finance Canada has begun its work on shaping the budget, Finance officials and other departments continue to consult on policies for the Budget and the long-term recovery from COVID-19. Stakeholders should move to engage Finance Canada and the other departments that are relevant to their issues immediately.
In December 2020, the government introduced an updated set of climate policies that were presented as Canada’s plan to meet its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets under the Paris Agreement and put Canada on the path to being net carbon neutral by 2050. In the coming weeks, the government will pursue several legislative and regulatory initiatives to begin enacting that plan, from passing the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act (establishing binding national emissions reduction targets) to advancing regulations to reduce plastic waste and implement a Clean Fuel Standard. The Liberal Party has already begun positioning the climate plan as a key issue for a potential election.
The government will prioritize passing the Digital Charter Implementation Act, to create updated privacy laws for the online world, and amendments to the Broadcasting Act, also primarily to bring that legislation into the online age. Given the ongoing debates about the impact of social media and technology on politics and the importance of cultural issues to Quebec, those Bills could also figure prominently in the political narrative this year.
What This Means for You
Minority governments have historically lasted about 18 to 24 months, and it has now been 15 months since Election 2019. Though partisanship in political debates has been slightly dampened during the pandemic, stakeholders should expect the government and opposition parties to begin testing campaign messages and emphasizing the differences between one another in the coming weeks.
As mentioned, Budget 2021 is a substantial advocacy opportunity, but stakeholders should also begin reaching out to the parties about campaign platforms. Late last week, the Liberal Party named Minister Mona Fortier and Terry Duguid, MP for Winnipeg South, as the Co-Chairs of its National Platform Committee. Changes to U.S. tax and climate policy under President Biden also bear close monitoring as signals of what next steps Canada could take on those issues. Our Minister of Environment and Climate Change has strongly signaled a desire to partner with the Biden administration on climate policy, which could take the form of shared electrical vehicle mandates to collaboration on pricing pollution, amongst other policies. Meanwhile, the Biden campaign pledged to increase American corporate taxes, which, in the longer term, could position Canada to do the same.