Justin Trudeau speaks after a cabinet retreat on September 16, 2020. Image: Video screenshot/PMO

The Trudeau government has been working on its throne speech since proroguing Parliament in mid-August. We’ll all get to see what’s in it on Wednesday, but nameless government officials, and some cabinet ministers, have been busy building up expectations. They have been providing some tantalizing previews.

The nameless folks talk about expanding income support programs, establishing some kind of successor to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, better known as the CERB. They lay emphasis on the need to link income supports with the world of work, but do not utter the words guaranteed livable income, which is what many are advocating for now.

They also talk a lot about an enhanced federal presence in health care.

There was a time, going back to the early days of Canada’s public and universal health insurance system, when the federal government shared close to half the cost with the provinces. But over the decades the federal share, in percentage terms, has shrunk considerably.

The federal government contributes only 22 percent today, and a number of the provincial premiers, including those of Quebec, Alberta and Ontario, are demanding the feds boost their portion to 35 percent.

Instead of committing to any number or percentage, however, we can more likely expect the Trudeau government to target its efforts to certain areas. The federal government will almost certainly make undertakings to deal with COVID-19, including providing vaccines if and when they are available. It will also, quite likely, want to target long-term care, which has suffered a near breakdown in many parts of the country during the pandemic.

Stimulate with green investments, focus on COVID-19, deal with ethical lapses

Some ministers, such as Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains and Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, are openly talking about a green energy and infrastructure agenda, which could include support for an electric car manufacturing facility in Oakville, Ontario.

But as the pandemic has gotten worse over the past few weeks, some Ottawa insiders have speculated that the government will pull back from any overly ambitious new programs, be they in energy, social welfare or even health, to focus on the crisis at hand, which is far from resolved.

Government spokespeople insist they can do both — fight the pandemic, and build for the future.

The throne speech will not mention the Liberals’ ethical challenges. But we can count on the opposition parties to do that. And those scandals do not stop at the beleaguered WE organization.

Trudeau’s former star ambassador to the U.S., onetime lobbyist David MacNaughton, has gotten the Liberals into trouble by taking a job with the U.S. tech firm Palantir, headed by billionaire and prominent Trump supporter, Peter Thiel.

MacNaughton became president of Palantir’s Canadian branch when he left the ambassador job in 2019, and promptly set about lobbying senior officials from the government for which he worked. That, according to Canada’s ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, could be against the rules.

Palantir specializes in surveillance technology, policing via digital spying, and, through MacNaughton, offered its services — at no cost, apparently — to the Canadian government, to help deal with the pandemic. 

When NDP MP Charlie Angus got wind of this he asked Dion to look into MacNaughton’s new role. In a letter to Angus, the commissioner said he would investigate whether MacNaughton broke two rules.

The first bars the former ambassador from “taking improper advantage” of his previous job. The other bans former senior officials from lobbying government people with whom they had “direct and significant official dealings” while they were in government.

While he investigates, Dion has issued an extraordinary order to eight senior officials —  including Navdeep Bains and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland — restricting their official dealings with McNaughton. Others on the list are the chief of the defence staff, Jonathan Vance, and three senior deputy ministers. 

There will be plenty of fodder for opposition volleys in that imbroglio, although opposition politicians will want to also focus on the stuff that really matters to Canadians: the government’s spending plans and programs.

Big contrast with the U.S.

The NDP and its leader Jagmeet Singh have set out some markers. 

They want to see progress toward a universal basic income, tangible action on a national child-care program, and an equally tangible commitment to universal pharmacare. New Democrats are also supportive of federal spending to create jobs in the green economy.

The Greens have a similar perspective, while, as for the Bloquistes, they had earlier tied themselves to the proposition that “Trudeau must resign.” Now, the Bloc seems much less committed to that demand. Bloc Québécois MPs must be perceiving a distinct lack of appetite for an early election in Quebec.

The new Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, has been at pains to portray himself as a moderate, ever since he won his job largely due to the support of the right-of-centre, social-conservative wing of his party.

After taking over the top job, O’Toole was quick to tell Canadians he was pro-choice, even if many who supported him are almost fanatically anti-choice. The new leader has also talked a lot about diversity, about the need for his party to look like Canada, and has made clear that he will not be doing anything to precipitate an election this fall. 

All of this underscores how different Canada’s political culture is from that of our giant neighbour to the south. 

In that country, there is a better than even chance a Supreme Court, with a new conservative Trump appointee replacing the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, will declare the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, null and void. 

The court would thus immediately deprive millions of their health care — during a global pandemic — while throwing the U.S.’s lumbering and enormously costly health-care system into chaos. 

Various aspects of the Affordable Care Act touch nearly every aspect of health care in the U.S., from care for the poor and elderly, to protection of people with pre-existing conditions. COVID-19 is the newest widespread pre-existing condition. Well over six million Americans have been infected with that virus. 

There are two similar existential challenges before Canadians courts now. However, the outcomes will almost certainly be far different from what will most likely happen in the U.S. 

Three provinces — Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta — started making their case against the federal Liberals’ key climate change program, a price on carbon, on Tuesday, September 2. Their argument hinges on jurisdiction. The carbon tax intrudes on provincial powers, they say.

Based on lower court judgements, the provinces’ case looks weak. 

The environment is not an exclusively provincial field of jurisdiction. It is shared between orders of government. The federal government has always played an important role in environmental regulation and protection, and the courts have never challenged that role. Do not expect them to start now.

The other case involves the Quixotic, decade-long battle of British Columbia doctor Brian Day for, in effect, a two-tier health-care system. Day does not want to scrap our current system, as the U.S. court case would do for the Affordable Care Act. The B.C. doctor merely seeks to open the doors wider to a parallel private system. 

A couple of weeks ago, the B.C. Supreme Court rejected Day’s claim that denying access to private care violates any of British Columbians’ charter rights. Day will appeal, of course, and the case will eventually end up at the federal Supreme Court. 

But there is little chance Canada’s Supreme Court justices will even contemplate the cruel and catastrophic course of action a good number of their U.S. counterparts are about to consider.

The U.S. Supreme Court plans to start hearings on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in early November, shortly after the election on November 3. 

By that time, if the Republicans have their way (and it will be almost impossible to stop them), right-wing ideologues will have an unassailable majority on the U.S. court. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Video screenshot/PMO​

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...