In mid-February, when the nation’s capital was well into a third, paralyzing week of the convoy protest, Jagmeet Singh made a decision that surprised some political observers. The leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party lined up behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to support the introduction of emergency legislation that had never been used before; not even during the past two years of the pandemic.
History buffs immediately checked this NDP response against a previous national crisis back in 1970, when the New Democrats steadfastly objected to Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the old War Measures Act to deal with a separatist-terrorist threat in Quebec.
Not the same NDP anymore, some lamented. But this wasn’t the same Trudeau either; or the same kind of emergency. History, as it turned out, served as no guide for what Singh was declaring on Feb. 17, 2022.
The future is another matter. Singh was giving a sneak peek at a major shakeup in how federal politics is going to work for the next few years. What very few people knew in the middle of February was that talks were well under way between Trudeau and Singh to create the sweeping deal that was announced last week — a “confidence and supply” pact that could keep the Liberals in power until 2025.
That Liberal-NDP co-operation on the Emergencies Act turned out to be a test run of the trust the two parties needed to demonstrate if the deal was going to become a reality. Trudeau needed to see that Singh could be a partner when the situation demanded it; Singh needed the prime minister to explain how and why the crisis had come to this.
In his public remarks, the NDP leader went to some lengths to say that his party’s support was not unconditional.
“We share the concerns of many Canadians that the government may misuse the powers in the Emergencies Act,” Singh said in the Commons. “So I want to be very clear: we will be watching. And we will withdraw our support if these powers are misused.”
The tone was markedly similar this past week when Singh—in a deliberately separate press conference—talked about how New Democrats were not letting Trudeau off the hook for the next few years.
“We’re going into this eyes wide open,” Singh said. “If they fall short on what we’ve agreed to, then the deal doesn’t continue.”
The NDP leader has been saying that the first test of this co-operation pact will be the budget, expected to land some time in the next few weeks. But as sources involved with the negotiations also said last week, Trudeau’s use of emergency legislation was actually a first test run.
The Prime Minister’s Office made sure that the New Democrats received confidential security briefings for their MPs on the convoy protests and that NDP questions about the emergencies legislation got answers as needed. When Singh and other New Democrats wanted to know why the emergency measures couldn’t be applied in targeted locations (as premiers had also asked), Trudeau and his team explained that following the money behind the convoy protest was a pan-Canadian, national issue . When the NDP insisted that the act be lifted as soon as it was no longer necessary, Liberals gave that solid assurance.
Conservatives have tried to say that this deal between Trudeau and Singh means the NDP is no longer a real opposition party. An argument can be made, however, that this is how opposition is supposed to work — asking questions, getting answers and good-faith demonstrations of trust on both sides. It’s just not the noisy, personal-attack-laced opposition that has come to characterize Canadian political debate.
It wasn’t clear during or immediately after the last election that the two parties could work together. Some early feelers were sent out by Liberals to the New Democrats soon after the dust had settled from the Sept. 20 vote, but they came to nothing.
First of all, word somehow leaked out in the media, framed as “coalition” chats (which they were not). The mere hint of publicity, though, feels everyone backpedalling. As well, memories were too fresh—at least on the Liberal side—of Singh’s aggressive anti-Trudeau words during the campaign. Trudeau, even in December, was still talking about how he was personally offended by the “casual cynicism of the left” during the election campaign.
But when Singh’s baby girl arrived in early January, Trudeau placed a courtesy call that opened up discussions again about a long-term co-operation deal with the NDP. By Jan. 21, each leader had assembled a small, very tight team to negotiate the details.
On the Liberal side, he was Trudeau, his chief of staff Katie Telford, senior adviser Jeremy Broadhurst and policy director John Brodhead. On the New Democrats’ side, it was Singh, his chief of staff Jennifer Howard, national party director Anne McGrath and NDP policy director Jonathan Gauvin. If MPs on either side did catch wind of the leaders talking to each other, they were told this was consultation for the coming budget. Just one budget, not the four envisioned in this new deal.
Most of the meetings were virtual, since Singh was still in BC and Ottawa was in the grip of the convoy protest. As well, Trudeau was isolating with COVID for a couple of weeks. The two sides did manage to meet in person at Rideau Gate, a small house just outside the grounds of Rideau Hall, on at least one occasion, but most of the back-and-forth took place over computer screens or phones.
By the time the two leaders had that early January conversation, any bad blood from the election had largely dissipated and was replaced by a genuine rapport, both sides say. One meeting scheduled to last one hour over the past month stretched to three and as Trudeau texted his family to say he was running late, he said to the group: “I’m having too much fun.”
Of course he was having fun, critics (and maybe even fans) will be saying. This prime minister, facing a phalanx of trucks occupying the capital with “F- – – Trudeau” signs on them, streets filled with roaming protesters demanding he be fired (or worse), was in the midst of figuring out a way to stay in power for as long as if he had won a majority government last year.
But that was the idea. What Trudeau had in mind, and also in the Liberal platform, was a progressive-leaning agenda that had to be built over the long term, in several budgets. He also knew that some of the NDP’s policy goals had a similar timeline. “The Venn diagram had a big middle,” a Liberal source said.
New Democrats were struck by how much Trudeau had studied and analyzed their election platform for overlapping pieces, not just the 2021 version but the 2019 one too. Broadly, the two parties believed they had the seeds of co-operation on four broad themes: health care, housing affordability, climate change and Indigenous reconciliation.
Some political observers (including this writer) had initially theorized that the urgency for this deal came out of the increasing focus on defense spending in light of the Ukraine crisis and a very real fear — especially in the NDP — that progressive, social spending would fall off the table. But both sides say that wasn’t the case; the talks were already proceeding before Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Neither team was blind to what was going on in the world beyond Canada. The deal’s provisions for electoral reform — aimed at making voting easier and more accessible in Canada through expanded time and flexibility for casting a ballot — is a direct response to what’s going on in the United States. The creeping threats to democracy, especially coming from Donald Trump supporters, are very much on the minds of the Trudeau team.
“Look to the south. What’s the debate going on there? It’s about the disenfranchisement of people; it’s about making voting harder,” said one Liberal close to the talks. The deal’s provisions on electoral reform, in this context, the source said, are “building on the defensive.”
It was in this area that the NDP ran right up against a red line drawn by Trudeau himself. The New Democrats wanted to talk about proportional representation; the prime minister said flatly he was only interested in voting reform involving a ranked ballot. McGrath and Trudeau faced off a few times — politely, firmly — but they finally agreed to disagree.
Nor did the two parties get into any kind of bidding war on climate targets. Their conversations around climate change were much more focused on workers in the fossil fuel industry and the conversion to clean energy.
One NDP source said that generally, their side talked policy while much of the Liberal focus was on process. That may be an overly tidy generalization, since the deal encompasses both, but it could also be a reflection of how the Liberals only approached the NDP with policies on which they could agree.
The NDP’s wariness about this deal, though, revolves around process; the fear that Liberals will stall on some of the measures that have timelines: the phased-in program to full dental care over the next three years or legislation to make child care a permanent fixture of federal social spending by year’s end.
No one will ever really know whether this pact would have come about without the politics-shaking events of the past few years: from Trump’s election to a global pandemic; from the occupation of Ottawa to the war in Ukraine. It was a deal created for stability, all sides say, in an increasingly unstable world.
But it seems fitting that the first test run revolved around how the Liberals and NDP dealt with an emergency. Politics, as it’s said, makes for strange bedfellows, but so does perpetual crisis.
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