Farewell to this strange spectacle of Parliament

Michael Chong, a Conservative MP who has thought a lot about how the House of Commons works, threw some existential questions into the seat of federal democracy this week.

“Why do Canadians send 338 of their fellow citizens to this chamber if their decisions are going to be ignored?” Chong asked his fellow legislators.

“Why do we spend $400 million a year on this chamber and the other one if our votes do not mean anything?”

Chong was speaking during a testy exchange with the ruling Liberals on Monday, on what may well have been one of the final few days of this 43rd Parliament.

Only a few weeks ago, the Commons voted en masse to avoid an imminent election. That’s not what Chong was talking about when he lamented decisions being ignored. But politics in the nation’s capital has increasingly acquired an end-of-days feeling as Parliament gets ready to adjourn for the summer – or longer.

All that “no election now” talk is fading as quickly as the “we’re all in this together” camaraderie of the early pandemic. COVID-19 isn’t done with Canada yet, the scientists keep telling us, but this strange spectacle of a pandemic Parliament seems to be winding down.

Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said the trigger for an election call would be the paralysis of work in the Commons. Funnily enough, that’s what was on his mind on Tuesday when he spoke to reporters from quarantine at Rideau Cottage.

“We have significant bills to pass, but the Conservative party is doing everything in its power to prevent these issues from advancing,” the prime minister said. His remarks were laced with references to allegations of blocking and obstructionism by the Official Opposition – laying the groundwork, one assumes, for the case to dissolve Parliament before it resumes its dysfunctional ways in the fall.

Liberal ministers are still announcing a flurry of to-do items on their list of outstanding 2019 election promises – stronger gun control was on the agenda (again) on Tuesday. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair offered assurances that some of the measures would be in place by September. No, they really mean it this time.

As with all of these eleventh-hour declarations, Liberals leave the impression that they’re trying to amass marks for effort rather than implementation. “Things we almost did/tried to do” could end up as a whole chapter in the 2021 version of the Liberal campaign platform.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, in that same looming-campaign spirit, has taken to using his speaking times in the Commons to address Canadian voters and urge them not to vote Liberal.

Many members of Parliament who aren’t running again – and that list keeps getting longer – have already made their farewell speeches to the Commons. The Liberals have also moved their election-readiness preparations up a notch, invoking an “electoral urgency” measure to speed up nominations.

In non-pandemic times, Ottawa would be awash in gatherings and events this week to allow MPs to see each other before they went home to their ridings. But most MPs are already in their ridings, where they’ve been mainly working for the past year of the hybrid, virtual/in-person sessions of the Commons. As soon as this weekend, they will likely move into pre-election mode – unofficially, of course.

Special legislation allowing for elections to be conducted in pandemic conditions only wound its way back to the Commons for a report on Monday and it’s far from clear whether it will clear all the hurdles to coming in force before Parliament adjourns.

But will Canada need to have a pandemic election? The one-dose summer Trudeau promised is becoming a two-dose summer for more and more Canadians each day, just in time for backyard barbecues and the barbecue circuit.

Minority governments in Canada generally reach their expiry dates near the two-year mark, so a fall election isn’t an outrageous idea. A call in August might be pushing things, but if Trudeau is keen to get Canadians to the ballot box while they’re still in the first flush of post-vaccinated freedom, then he may pay a call on Rideau Hall before Labour Day.

History books will record this 43rd Parliament as one of the oddest ever and some experts may marvel that it worked at all, given all the pandemic obstacles, not to mention the toxic politics of a minority rule. But few will argue that it didn’t last long enough. Canadians are in a mood to move on, and so is the 43rd Parliament.

Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.