Trudeau dodges election call questions, as post-Parliament political posturing ramps up

Debuting a freshly-shaven face for the first time since before the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau downplayed suggestions Wednesday that he’s gearing up to call a federal election despite a ramp-up in post-Parliament political posturing.

The Senate adjourned for the summer leaving two key Liberal bills unpassed on Tuesday: a bill to stamp out the harmful practice of LGBTQ2S+ conversion therapy, and a contentious broadcast regulation update. Those bills will die if an election is called before they make it through the Senate.

Asked whether he could commit to not calling an election until those bills become law, the prime minister couldn’t say yes, suggesting his government is angling to have the Senate recalled in the coming weeks instead.

With Parliament not set to resume sitting until the week of Sept. 20, the prospect of the government falling on a confidence vote has been taken off the table. That hasn’t quelled any of the inside-Ottawa speculation that the puzzle pieces are increasingly falling into place for Trudeau to decide it’s time to go to the polls.

The Liberals are experiencing high polling numbers, COVID-19 case counts are on a steady decline prompting more provincial reopenings, and the vaccine rollout is on track to have enough doses delivered by the end of July to fully vaccinate all who are eligible well before the end-of-September target.

Asked by CTV News during a funding announcement on Wednesday whether he could commit to not calling an election over the summer, Trudeau also dodged, drawing attention to the realities of being a minority government despite the makeup of the House of Commons having little impact on the summer political season.

He also signalled an intention to “take time this summer to consult Canadians," in his first in-person press conference after his 14-day quarantine following his trip to the G7.

“We will continue to work hard every day for Canadians, continue to listen to Canadians, continue to talk about what we need to do all together to build back better and recover our economy, and that's what I'm going to stay focused on,” Trudeau said, echoing a sentiment expressed by his deputy earlier in the day.

During a press conference expressing relief that the budget implementation bill was one of the pieces of legislation to make it out of the Senate, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said that while there now seems to be “light at the end of the tunnel,” her focus remains on the “once in a generation” effort to drive an economic comeback.

“It feels very much like pre-election,” said Liberal strategist and Proof Strategies’ senior vice-president of government relations Greg MacEachern in an interview with CTV News.

“I don't think you're going to see a government that can push this off to the fall now, there's so much expectation, the government's own communications with the importance of passing certain bills within the last two weeks, speaks to the fact that they don't seem to think that they're going to be sitting this fall.”

The downplaying from Trudeau and Freeland of a looming election call isn’t convincing the Conservatives, who put out a pair of messages Wednesday that signal they too are preparing for an election call.

In a tweet, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole posted a photo of himself out for a run, with the caption: “It’s in moments like this when everything is clearest for me. Now, more than ever, Canada needs a new government with a real plan to secure the future and get our country moving again. Hang on Canada; the recovery you deserve is coming.”

And, in a fundraising email from “2021 Conservative Campaign National Campaign Manager” Fred DeLorey, the party says: “The battle for the next election has already begun, and your support is more important than ever…. We know the Liberals are busy preparing for an election, and we need to show that we are ready to take on this fight!”

The Conservatives have already set up a studio inside the Westin Hotel in downtown Ottawa where O’Toole has recently been delivering his addresses from, which the party is ready to use during the campaign, pending the feasibility of resuming the usual campaign bus and plane tours.

Senior consultant with Crestview Strategy and Conservative strategist Andrew Brander said that throughout the pandemic, O’Toole has had “such a difficult time over the past few months resonating with Canadians in terms of introducing himself to them.”

From his perspective, O’Toole is trying now to define himself and who he will be as a leader in contrast to Trudeau, saying he thinks O’Toole is “really trying to show Canadians a different type of conservativism.”

WILL C-6 BECOME A WEDGE ISSUE?

Already the Liberals are fundraising off Bill C-6 being held up in the upper chamber, fuelling the prospect that the legislation will be used as a wedge against the Conservatives in the campaign, despite O’Toole’s personal support for the bill.

Less than 12 hours after the Senate adjourned, the Liberal Party sent out a fundraising email “from the desk of Justin Trudeau” touting the “progressive” legislation that managed to pass, while putting the blame for the conversion therapy bill not passing squarely on the Conservatives’ shoulders.

While O’Toole has recently voiced his support for the LGBTQ2S+ community, more of his MPs voted against the conversion therapy bill than there were Conservative MPs who supported it. And, it was Conservative senators who denied the unanimous consent needed to allow a committee to study the bill over the summer, according to the government, despite members of that caucus expressing a desire for a study so they could suggest potential amendments.

During his press conference, Trudeau said he didn’t think it was a “coincidence” that Bill C-6 didn’t pass given the Conservative opposition to it.

“Disappointed is too weak a word that the Senate did not see fit to get this one done,” was how Freeland responded to a similar question.

There is more to the story of the now years-long inability to outlaw conversion therapy than Conservative obstruction. While the government pushed the argument that LGBTQ2S+ folks should not be subjected one day longer to efforts to change a person's sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, the bill and its aims have faced roadblocks before, including from the government.

When calls were made by then-NDP MP Sheri Benson in the last Parliament for the government to step up and do more to protect minors from the practice, the Liberal response was that while conversion therapy was “akin to torture,” it was essentially a provincial issue. Then in 2019, it became an election promise. The first iteration of the bill died with Trudeau’s 2020 prorogation.

While it was quickly revived in the current session, it moved slowly despite NDP saying they would have helped pass it quicker to avoid what ended up being attempts from Conservatives to delay the bill.

After coming back onto the government’s priority bill list at the start of Pride month, it reached the Senate by a vote of 263 to 63, with a day to spare before the House adjourned for the summer last week.

Also weighing in on the state of the conversion therapy policy, the NDP issued a statement noting that despite all of the “platitudes,” conversion therapy remains legal.

“The bill to ban the extremely harmful practice that has hurt thousands of Canadians has stalled in the Senate because the Liberals didn’t make it a priority,” read the statement from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s party headquarters. “New Democrats had our hand out. Liberals simply weren’t interested in getting this done. If Justin Trudeau chooses to call an election to suit his own political agenda this bill may never become law.”

The 11-page bill proposes five new Criminal Code offences including advertising and profiting off, or forcing a minor to undergo conversion therapy. It leaves the door open to allow adults who willingly want to pursue what has also been called reparative therapy under limited circumstances.

MacEachern’s view was that as a wedge issue it will be a problem for the Conservatives as it casts his party as “exactly what Erin O’Toole said they weren’t going to be like.”

“There's an old saying in politics that once you're explaining, you've lost. If the Conservatives have to explain why they voted against banning conversion therapy, they’ve already lost,” MacEachern said.

Speaking against the bill on Monday, and suggesting it go to committee to examine how the "issues" with the bill can be resolved through amendments, Conservative Sen. Don Plett cast doubt that the Liberals’ motivations with advancing the bill were little more than “crass political manoeuvring.”

“Banning coercive conversion therapy is the right thing to do, but instead of drafting a bill which clearly articulates those parameters that could have passed unanimously, the government chose to try to make it a wedge issue by making this bill overly broad and ambiguous,” he said, repeating concerns about the bill that his party has been pushing for months.

In a tweet Wednesday responding to the pushback over what the Senate didn’t pass, Plett said “on the eve of a risky election that only they want,” Trudeau is “playing politics in the Senate.”

“The legislative agenda is the responsibility of the gov’t” he said.

While Bill C-10, the contentious Broadcasting Act bill, has also been held up at committee stage, there was widespread support across groups in the Senate to dedicate a more fulsome study to the questions over free speech and the regulation of users' content, in the fall.

In rejecting calls from Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault to fast-track it, Senators have spoken about how "imperative" it is for the Senate to hear from those who this bill will impact directly and assess for themselves the effects of the proposed legislation. However, at this point the earliest that the committee is expected to resume study of Bill C-10 would be the week before the House is scheduled to resume in September, if an election isn't called.

Trudeau said Wednesday that his government is now in talks with the Senate leadership to see what could be done to continue their work over the summer.