Chantal Hébert: Trudeau holds strings, but they could trip him up

The first tug of war between Justin Trudeau’s new minority government and the opposition parties was over before it had even begun.

By the time NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh showed up in the House of Commons lobby on Thursday afternoon to blast the Liberal speech from the throne, the rug of the balance of power in the House of Commons had already been pulled from under his party.

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Just minutes before, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet had given the government’s speech his qualified support, choosing to see a half-full glass where the NDP saw one that was more than half empty.

That did not stop Singh from spending his 15 minutes listing the conditions the government would have to meet to secure NDP support for its opening speech.

In a hung Parliament, the number of words expended on dressing down the government are often inversely proportional to the opposition’s actual capacity to bring it down.

Relieved or deprived of the burden of ensuring the survival of the government, Singh had a free hand to attack the Liberals, but little leverage to force them to come around to his demands.

The sight of a minority government bypassing the NDP on the way to surviving with Bloc support might be unfamiliar to MPs first elected during a time period when the sovereigntist party was little more than a rump in the House.

But veterans of the last spell of federal minority rule will remember that over his first two terms, Stephen Harper often relied on the Bloc to save his bacon.

Like Harper then, Trudeau has a choice of dance partners on the opposition benches. That gives his government leeway to continue mostly to call the tunes.

But the similarities between Harper’s minority spell and Trudeau’s upcoming one stop there, for this federal minority government sounds prepared to invest as much political capital on climate change as the Conservatives were willing to spend on championing pipelines.

Although no new measures were spelled out, the issue was front and centre in Thursday’s speech. Climate change also featured prominently in the opposition critiques of the government’s opening move.

That more will be expected from the Liberals on the environmental front was made clear by the Bloc, the NDP and the Greens on Thursday.

And that the Conservatives, at least under Andrew Scheer, are determined to continue to fight the Liberal climate-change framework every inch of the way was just as clear.

There is no doubt the widespread perception that the Conservatives were not serious about addressing climate change hurt them in the recent campaign.

But the question going forward could be whether public support for a more proactive environmental agenda would erode in the face of an economic slowdown or a recession.

Still, even for the Conservatives, it was not completely business as usual on Thursday.

While Scheer came out with all guns blazing, calling the Liberal throne speech an insult to Alberta and Saskatchewan, his provincial allies in Edmonton and Regina seemed uncharacteristically inclined to keep their powder dry.

Even as Scheer talked, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was striking a deal with Trudeau’s government to substitute the federal carbon tax on his province’s big industrial emitters with one of his own.

Also, before jumping to the conclusion that Trudeau is not about to walk the talk of his post-election conciliatory approach to the Prairie voters who gave his party the cold shoulder, it would be prudent to wait until Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivers a fiscal update — possibly as early as this week — and/or meets his provincial counterparts this month.

At their gathering last week, the premiers unanimously agreed to support calls for more financial relief for provinces that are not net equalization recipients such as Alberta and Saskatchewan under the federal fiscal stabilization program.

The issue is bound to be raised at the federal-provincial finance table.

The Liberals were also reminded this week that events that could accelerate or precipitate the demise of their minority government need not result from their day-to-day governance of Parliament or from a deteriorating economy.

The last minority Liberal government — under Paul Martin — died an early death not for lack of common progressive ground with the NDP or the Bloc, but as a result of the corrosion brought about by the sponsorship scandal.

Had Harper been in a minority position at the time of the Senate spending scandal, his government would probably have had its life shortened.

Little does more to awaken the collective killer instincts of the opposition parties than damage to the prime minister’s or to his party’s brands.

Beyond adding to Justin Trudeau’s surplus of notoriety on the world stage, last week’s open-mic NATO mishap served as a reminder that the prime minister continues to have the potential to be his minority government’s worst enemy.

Chantal Hébert is a columnist for the Toronto Star.

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