It’s too soon to trigger an election

It is not necessary to subscribe to the horse-before-the-cart speculation about a snap federal election this fall to know that once Canada really is in post-pandemic territory, pressure will be on Justin Trudeau to cash in his electoral chips and make a bid for a governing majority.

At that point, there will not lack for Liberal strategists to make the case that — if only to secure a fresh mandate before governments move from the economic stimulus to the fiscal restraint phase of the post-pandemic era — the prime minister needs strike the iron while it is hot.

If the recent past is any indication, the strong, stable government argument — to borrow Stephen Harper’s 2011 campaign mantra — resonates more loudly at times of relative economic insecurity.

There is no doubt that insecurity on that front will be with Canadians for some time after the COVID-19 pandemic has abated.

By this time next year, Trudeau will be 18 months into his second term. The average lifespan of minority governments in Canada is 18 to 24 months. By the calendar and in more normal circumstances, a federal vote in 2021 would be more likely than not.

But before turning his mind to a third term, the prime minister might want to ponder whether he and public interest might not both be better served by making the most of his current term.

Notwithstanding the self-serving partisan arguments that are routinely dished out by minority incumbents on the campaign trail, when it comes to sound governance, there is nothing magic about majority rule. As often as not, the opposite is true.

A decade ago, Harper led a minority Conservative government through the global financial crisis.

If anything, the need for his government to secure some opposition buy-in for his proposals almost certainly resulted in a better plan for the country.

The minority status of his government also helped Harper bring the fiscal hawks within his own party around to a full load of stimulus spending.

Similarly, there is no evidence that Trudeau’s minority status has hampered his capacity to manage the pandemic crisis.

Indeed, it is hard to think of a more effective antidote to partisan tunnel vision than a compulsory dose of opposition input.

Among the four larger provinces, only British Columbia is run by a minority government these days. That has not prevented it from emerging as a role model for its handling of the pandemic.

By comparison, Quebec’s Coalition Avenir Quebec government — for all of the stellar approval ratings of Premier François Legault — is increasingly being seen as the opposite.

The CAQ may run a majority government, but it is one with very shallow roots in Montreal, which is also the current epicentre of the pandemic.

It is becoming more obvious by the day that Legault’s government does not have a firm grasp on the situation in his province’s metropolis.

And then, a key argument for a swift post-pandemic return to the polls federally is that the crisis has rendered moot whatever agendas the parties brought to last fall’s campaign.

There is no doubt the post-COVID-19 political conversation will bear little resemblance to the one the pandemic interrupted two months ago.

We need to talk about the glaring holes the crisis has exposed in Canada’s social safety net and determine if it is due for a major overhaul rather than just some punctual mending.

It would be worth exploring whether long-term-care facilities should be brought under the public umbrella rather than remain open to private, for-profit ownership.

Despite long-standing government promises to the contrary, effective home care is still largely missing in action in most of the country.

But whether any of those necessary discussions would really be advanced by the winner-take-all exercise of a federal election is an open question.

Earlier this week, the prime minister sounded very much like a politician who had started to give some thoughts to a post-pandemic public policy agenda.

But when the time comes for action, the real test of Trudeau’s ambitions will take place not in the House of Commons — whether he controls it or not — but at the federal-provincial table.

No one should mistake the current co-operation between first ministers for a sudden conversion by the majority of premiers to the notion of a larger role for the federal government in the social affairs of the federation.

And then, the recent history of third consecutive terms at the federal level is at best a lacklustre one.

Those of Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien and Harper all featured more decay than actual purpose.

Speculation as to the possible timing of the prime minister’s retirement flourished. It became harder to keep the leadership genie in the bottle.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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