Trudeau’s COVID-19 power grab will bite him come election time

As we are all aware, government’s around the world have been scrambling to respond to the economic and healthcare fallout caused by the spread of COVID-19. 

Canada is no exception, almost everyday the Trudeau government has announced new spending or other regulatory measures to help businesses, workers or the overburdened healthcare system. 

One thing that was less called for was a blatant and highly political power grab by this minority government mere hours before they had scheduled a vote on their economic stimulus bill.

In their most recent financial aid package, which included $82 billion in emergency spending, the Liberals attempted to tack on a few major provisions that would give his government unlimited spending and taxation power until December 2021 without needing parliamentary approval. 

This bill was presented to the opposition parties on Monday for what the Liberals had expected to be a unanimous vote the following day. However, and rightfully so, these measures caught the opposition parties by surprise. In the end the Liberals were caught with their hand in the cookie jar, trying to ram through this far overreaching legislation under the guise of simply providing economic relief.

While the argument from the government side was that it would allow them to be agile in responding to the crisis, which does make sense in theory, but to extend such unlimited powers until the end of 2021, over two years since the last election, seems a bit too political to just be taken at face value.

What is likely the case is that the Liberals wanted to maintain majority government powers that they so enjoyed from 2015 to 2019 (and that they handedly lost in the last election). The truth is that going into a minority governing situation alone is hard, but when such a golden political opportunity like an international crisis presents itself, the Liberals really couldn’t help themselves in making a run at taking the ‘minority’ out of their minority government.

I don’t say this to try and make it seem like the Liberals are especially evil or nefarious political actors. Truthfully, any of the major parties would do something exactly like this if they were in the Liberal’s shoes, its political instinct to shore up power when the opportunity presents itself. 

I am fairly shocked at the approach they took however. To not offer any olive branches to the opposition parties and just expect they give you unlimited power for 18 months is a bit rich. Including the opposition party leaders in cabinet or even proposing a unity government would have been more fitting given the circumstances, but I think they really thought they could ram it in and nobody would have been the wiser (if only the opposition parties didn’t have legions of staff to comb through every single bill proposed by the government to find things to scrutinize them on).

I will give credit where credit is due however, as tying these provisions to the aid package really turned the heat on for the opposition parties. Imagine the horrific press they’d receive for voting against $82 billion in relief for small businesses, working people, the healthcare system, etc. (the scathing op-eds practically write themselves).

In the end, I think the fact that they included it in this bill allowed them to get as much as they did, as the opposition parties could only negotiate down to giving them these powers until September, a far more reasonable and evidence-based timeline for when this crisis is expected to be over. While I think in this case ideally parliamentary oversight would only be waived on a month to month basis, given the political circumstances the opposition did well in winnowing down the Liberal’s attempted power grab.

All in all this move looked really weak, desperate and frankly uncharacteristic of this government. They have generally been more headstrong and confident in themselves, as their independent approach to minority governing shows. Before now it seemed to me that they expected to win a majority government in the next election, but this move tells me otherwise. 

In any case, this was a risky political play that likely will come back to bite them come the next election. These types of power grabs don’t usually play well with the electorate. And rest assured, the opposition will not soon forget about it either.

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