The prorogation of Parliament and shuttering of committees has had opposition parties chomping at the bit to get back to business. And really, who can blame them? Opposition MPs successfully controlled the summer news cycle through their examination of the WE Charity controversy, effectively derailing the government’s communication efforts. Every committee meeting seemed to add another log to the fire (sometimes two or three), which is why the government tried to douse the flames by proroguing Parliament.
Now, opposition parties are trying to stoke what embers remain in the scandal. The Conservatives used their first opportunity to reignite the WE controversy at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) last week. Changes made by the Liberals in 2017 require governments to table a report within 20 sitting days explaining their reasoning for prorogation. With a report now due from the Liberals by October 28th explaining their use of this political manoeuvre, the Conservatives are calling on the Prime Minister to testify, submit documents and provide more information on the WE Charity in anticipation of the prorogation report. It sent a signal to observers that the Conservatives will continue to use any committee angle to target the Liberal government’s lapses. With the ability to bring back any aspect of a committee’s work through a motion, expect the opposition parties to do just that when Finance, Ethics and Government Operations and Estimates committees resume. All three had ongoing studies into different components of the WE scandal before the parliamentary pause.
Whether WE offers any further wins for the opposition is a potentially risky political calculation. Voters’ attention has shifted to preparing for a second wave of COVID-19, and prorogation successfully put a dent in the scandal’s momentum. Aspects of pandemic management and subsequent recovery conversations will be hot topics at committee this fall. Discussions will range from the success and uptake of the COVID Alert app, approval of rapid COVID tests, the role (or lack thereof) of the pandemic surveillance unit, to the handling of Canada’s border and the reuniting of families. For stakeholders, the reconstitution of the Finance Committee will restart the 2021 pre-budget consultation process which came to a standstill over the summer. Also this fall, the government will release an update to Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan. This will almost certainly share more detail than the summer “snapshot” provided by former Finance Minister Bill Morneau. The Response Plan will likely outline the Trudeau government’s economic and fiscal position, provide fiscal projections and set out new measures to implement the Throne Speech. With this still seen as a ‘bridge’ for those coping with the realities of COVID-19, everyone has an eye to the 2021 budget for the recovery.
The greatest unknown this session will be the role of the NDP and whether their support of the Liberal government will extend to House committees. While the NDP was very critical of the government’s involvement with WE Charity, they also have left the door open to supporting the government for an extended period of time. This may have some NDP supporters feeling as though Singh is too cozy with the government. By wielding the balance of power in the House, the NDP can influence real policy change – but they may struggle to create contrast as the Liberals look to wade into the orange voter pool next time at the polls. Siding against the government at the committee level may be the right balance to demonstrate difference with the Liberals, without forcing an election the NDP rather not have at the moment.
One thing is certain, do not underestimate the power of committees in a minority parliament. When the opposition works together, it can be their best friend, and a government’s worst nightmare.