GRAND FORKS — With the unease in our own politics, it may be reassuring to look to another democracy facing its own kind of anxiety. That democratic country is conveniently nearby, just about 75 miles from Grand Forks — even closer to my place west of Gilby, N.D.
Wednesday, Sept. 23, could be a big day in Canadian politics. The “speech from the throne” will be delivered later Wednesday. This is analogous to the American president’s “state-of-the-union” address, but there’s an important difference. The throne speech comes with consequences.
In the United States, members of Congress listen to the president’s speech, react and respond with praise or criticism, depending on their political allegiance. In Canada, members of parliament listen and then they vote.
The throne speech triggers a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. Should the vote fail, the government would fall, and an election would follow.
Earlier in the summer, a fall election seemed possible, if not quite likely. Now, it seems possible but unlikely. There’s room for surprises, however.
Within Parliament, the political balance is precarious. Premier Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party holds 154 seats, 15 seats short of a majority. Trudeau has plenty of trouble at home, including a scandal involving his family and his closest aide. He’s just scored an important international victory, however, staring down the Trump administration, which “stood down” from its threatened tariffs against Canadian aluminum just minutes before Canadian officials were set to announce them. This has some local importance, which we’ll get to later. Trudeau also faces the COVID pandemic, which has worsened in Canada.
The next largest party, the Conservative Party of Canada, has 121 seats and a brand new, untested leader who’s tested positive for Covid. A month ago, Conservatives elected Erin O’Toole, a back bencher who had held only one cabinet level post, Veterans Affairs, and that only briefly, for 10 months in 2015.
The third largest party is not a federal party in the usual sense. This is the Bloc Quebecois, which represents Quebec nationalists. Its leader, Yves-Francois Blanchet, threatened a confidence vote at the height of the Trudeau scandals. The coronavirus has sidelined him, too. He’s currently in quarantine.
Together these parties have 153 votes, short of the majority needed to bring the government down.
This means that the fourth party, the New Democratic Party, will be the balance of power. The NDP is a group of democratic socialists whose numbers have shrunk to just 24 in the current parliament. Added to the Liberal seats, this creates a majority, however.
The Green Party has three members; there are two independents and two seats are vacant. While their votes count, of course, they won’t be determinative.
Trudeau may nudge his policy agenda slightly leftward to hold onto NDP votes. That would save his government. The disadvantage for him, of course, is that a Parliamentary session will give the Conservative leader valuable experience and — perhaps more valuably —exposure across the country. An immediate election could give Trudeau the advantage, but it might seem grasping to call an election while two important figures are in quarantine.
Wednesday's throne speech is potentially telling. Trudeau may use it to draw the NDP more securely into the fold. If he fails, the NDP could join the other parties to trigger an election, perhaps calculating that an election could strengthen their position by peeling off some Liberal voters unhappy with Trudeau and the Trudeau scandals.
Trudeau will not actually deliver the speech — another way in which this tradition differs from the American state-of-the-union address. The speech will be read by Julie Payette, the governor general of Canada and the official representative of Queen Elizabeth II in the country. Canada is a monarchy, remember. The delivery will be modulated; by precedent the governor general gives no hint of reaction to the words because the monarch has no political role, only ceremonial ones.
Payette was a member of Canada’s Space Corps and served twice on the International Space Station. On her second tour of duty there, she showed a certain flair. She took a Montreal Canadiens jersey with her — one with Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s autograph. She boasted she’d brought “the rocket” into space in time to celebrate the hockey team’s 100th anniversary.
Circling back to the tariff issue now:
The Canadian government had prepared dollar for dollar retaliations against Trump’s proposed tariffs on aluminum and listed the potential choices state-by-state. North Dakota’s share was $12 million. A tariff of 10%, as Trump threatened, would have meant $1.2 million of added cost to Canadian buyers and potential lost sales to North Dakota manufacturers. Three quarters of the total target, or $9 million, was on livestock trailers manufactured here and sold in Canada.
Acknowledgements to Jim Mochoruk, a Canadian who teaches history at UND, and Ariel Delouya, consul general of Canada for North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.