Return of Parliament and Throne Speech

The Top Line

Today, Governor General Mary Simon delivered the Speech from the Throne to open the 44th Parliament. The last Parliament was unexpectedly dominated by the Federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this Throne Speech was a window into the Liberal vision for returning to more “normal” governing. The speech signalled the Government’s intent to move past governing primarily for pandemic response by stating that Canadians want “bold, concrete solutions to meet the other challenges we face.”

However, the speech was much shorter than recent comparators, providing only a very general indication of the Government’s legislative priorities and very few specific policy pledges. Throne Speeches are ultimately only guiding statements, so that lack of specificity is not entirely unusual, but it was very pronounced in this speech, which substantively addressed just four policy areas, specifically: public health, climate change, the economy, and reconciliation. Those four policy areas have long been Liberal priorities, so stakeholders can expect continuity in the policy approach of this government.

However, given that the Liberals form a minority government, the Throne Speech and all legislation in this Parliament will require Opposition support. That dynamic bears much closer monitoring than the Throne Speech and opposition response to it.

The extent to which the Liberals may broker long-term cooperation with any of the Opposition Parties will determine if this Parliament can consistently pass legislation.

A rumoured agreement for a Liberal-NDP coalition or an NDP commitment to support the Government on confidence measures for a set period of time does not seem to be forthcoming. Absent such an agreement, the Liberals will have to negotiate for support for each piece of legislation – and for the speedy passage of that legislation – on a one-off basis. During the last Parliament, such negotiations were not very fruitful and consumed a lot of time and attention from Liberal staff and Ministers, with the result that very little legislation not directly related to the pandemic was passed. If the Liberals want to have an ambitious legislative agenda in the coming years, a new approach will be required.

Meanwhile, the lack of specificity in the Throne Speech means that Ministerial Mandate Letters, which outline the priorities for each Department and are typically public, will take on even more importance than normal for stakeholders looking to assess and influence the direction of Government. We expect those letters to be published soon, as Ministerial and PMO staff have been working on drafts for several weeks.

A Deeper Dive

Throne Speech Highlights

The Government identified getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control as its ongoing number one priority and highlighted vaccination as the key to doing that.

On the topic of the economy, the Throne Speech mentioned inflation just once, acknowledging that it “is a challenge that countries around the world are facing” and that “we must keep tackling the rising cost of living.” The Government is sure to face sustained and strong criticism from the Conservatives about that issue. But the sense given by the Throne Speech is that the Liberals are still determining the best solution to rising inflation. Public confidence in the economy will be crucial to the long-term survival of the Liberal minority and its chances for re-election, so this issue bears close monitoring both politically and economically.

Specific policy pledges under the four priority policy areas of public health, the economy, climate change, and reconciliation were few, but included:

House Procedure and Committees

On a practical note, the Parties have yet to agree if the House of Commons will convene in a hybrid (partially virtual) format or entirely in-person for this session. On Monday, the Liberals tabled a motion that, if passed, would allow for hybrid sittings until June. The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois oppose continued hybrid sittings, so the NDP is the Government’s only possible partner to have them continue.

Meanwhile, on top of the need to secure Opposition support for its legislation, the Government is vulnerable to seeing that legislation languish due to the Opposition using procedural delays and filibustering to hold up the passage of Bills. Legislating can also be impeded by opposition demands for the production of documents and competing motions at Committees – both of which were endemic in the last Parliament.

Earlier this week, Jagmeet Singh said that the NDP is open to limiting debate to speed the passage of some Bills, but only for legislation that the NDP supports. No opposition parties have outlined an approach to government oversight, production of documents, or Committee proceedings for this Parliamentary session. How those dynamics play out will be decisive in determining if the Liberals can pass its more progressive policy priorities into law.

Legislative Priorities and Committees

Liberal House Leader Mark Holland has announced an extremely ambitions legislative agenda for the twenty days that the House will sit before Christmas, including passing Bills to extend and modify pandemic economic benefits; create protections from protestors for healthcare workers and facilities; mandate ten days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers; and ban conversion therapy. It seems that the Liberals will be able to rely on the support of at least one Opposition party for each of those issues. However, it is unclear if the Government will be able to pass legislation while key procedural rules are still to be agreed and Standing Committees will take weeks to form.

What’s Next

The Bloc Quebecois Leader announced that his party will vote to pass the Throne Speech while the NDP were non-committal. Either way, it’s very likely that the Liberals will survive the confidence vote on the Throne Speech.

Looking ahead, other major House-related milestones for the Government are:

  • The appointment of Committees and election of Committee Chairs. Ultimately, Committees are unlikely to hold hearings until 2022 but stakeholders should expect the Finance Committee to quickly re-launch the consultation process for Budget 2022;
  • The appointment of Parliamentary Secretaries to Ministers; and
  • The tabling of a Fall Economic Statement (FES), which has become a major feature of the budget cycle. The Government has not announced a date for a FES, but it is expected that the Minister of Finance will present one by early December, and it would be a major diversion from recent precedent not to do so.

Outside of the House, major outstanding tasks for the Government are:

  • The full staffing of Ministerial offices as there are still some offices that do not have a Chief of Staff and only a handful of offices have a full complement of staff.
  • Appointment of all Cabinet Committees. The Incident Response Group – the dedicated Cabinet Committee for Emergency Response – and the Treasury Board Committee are meeting, but other Committees have not yet formed.

In the New Year, expect the Government’s focus to turn to crafting a Budget that must present a pathway back to more “normal” fiscal policy, the pledge to create a framework to eventually cap oil and gas sector emissions (which is sure to be a battle with some Provinces), and the Canada Health Transfer negotiations – in which every Premier will be demanding an increase of federal funding.

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