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Canada: Liberal government launching third term with a throne speech focused on lingering COVID-19 crisis

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits beside Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon as they pose for a group photo with members of the federal cabinet after a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. © Justin Tang/Canadian Press Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits beside Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon as they pose for a group photo with members of the federal cabinet after a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.

The Liberal government starts its third term in office today with a speech from the throne delivered by Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon — and a plan to pass a flurry of legislation before the Christmas break.

Just over a year ago, May Simon's predecessor Julie Payette delivered a throne speech to a nearly empty Senate chamber as COVID-19 cases mounted and the economic picture looked murky at best.

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The Liberal government — facing persistent questions about its handling of a summer student grants contract with WE Charity — had just prorogued Parliament to hit the reset button on a second term that had been consumed by COVID-19 and the fallout over that contract.

Today, the situation looks quite different. Payette is gone, social distancing rules have been relaxed. The pandemic isn't over but the country's high vaccination rate has kept COVID-19 in check.

The government is on reasonably solid ground politically after being returned to power in the September election. The economy, beset by snarled supply chains and rising inflation, is facing its own share of challenges but government largesse has bolstered household savings.

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"Their second term was really swallowed up by COVID-19," said Lori Turnbull, an associate professor of political science and director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. "So this is a real moment of reset for the government, even more than a typical speech from the throne would be."

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Liberal Government House Leader Mark Holland said May Simon's speech will be focused on the health crisis and new programs to help a beleaguered country.

"It will focus very heavily on the circumstances of the pandemic and putting the pandemic behind us and continuing growth," he said.

Holland said the speech will announce new financial support for sectors that are still "adversely impacted by the pandemic." During the last election campaign, the Liberals promised to extend the Canada Recovery Hiring Program — which subsidizes businesses that hire new workers — until March 2022, and to prop up a hard-hit arts and culture sector.

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Today's speech also offers the government a chance to telegraph some of its early legislative priorities.

After months of lobbying by the opposition NDP, unions and other groups, the Liberal government is expected to soon table legislation to require that all federally regulated workers have access to at least 10 days of paid sick leave. The Liberal election platform said that the goal is to solve the "dilemma" of workers "going to work sick or not having enough money to put food on the table."

To curb anti-vaccination protests at hospitals and other health care facilities, the Liberal government will introduce a bill to criminalize these demonstrations.

"These are the folks who are on the frontlines of keeping us safe. I think it's the smallest thing that we can do to make sure that they themselves are safe in their work," Holland said.

"We have seen how they have been menaced in a number of different circumstances. That is totally and utterly unacceptable."

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The government is expected also to re-introduce its bill to ban conversion therapy, which would criminalize the dangerous practice of trying to forcibly "convert" LGBTQ people to heterosexuality.

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After months of debate and some Conservative opposition, the last bill on this topic died on the order paper when the government called the September election.

"I see no reason why we should delay this matter at all," Holland said, adding that he wants all of these bills passed by Christmas.

Greg MacEachern is a Liberal strategist and a senior vice-president at Proof Strategies. He said that while there are reasons to believe Canada is turning the tide on the pandemic, the government can't afford to look complacent.

"The election pressure is off the government in exchange for a much greater and, to most Canadians, a much more meaningful issue, and that's our health and wellness and how we get back to 'normal,'" MacEachern told CBC News.

The pressure to get things done

MacEachern said the Liberal government should use the time it has between now and Christmas — when partisanship may be at its post-election lowest ebb — to produce tangible legislative results.

He said the throne speech is also an opportunity to use the national stage to cajole Ontario — the lone provincial holdout on a bilateral child care deal with Ottawa — into signing an early learning and child care framework that will flow hundreds of millions of dollars to the provinces to help bring down the cost of child care services.

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MacEachern said the Liberals must avoid the political trap that has ensnared U.S. President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats — the perception that little has actually been accomplished after a year on their watch.

"It's not about virtue-signalling. People don't want lofty goals right now when they've been looking at the four walls of their living room for the last 18 to 20 months. They want actual results," he said. "It's really important that the government shows rather than tells."

  • CBCNews.ca will carry the events live and have regular news updates.

In a minority Parliament, the Liberal government needs at least one of the opposition parties to back its bills to get them through the House of Commons.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Monday he's willing to cooperate and "speed up" sick day legislation, the conversion therapy ban and new protections for health care workers — but he won't back any bill that reduces COVID-19 income supports.

"If they are going to hurt people, we are not going to support those bills," Singh told reporters.

MacEachern said the NDP has to strike a delicate balance between helping to pass legislation it championed in the last campaign and avoiding the appearance of being "Liberal lap dogs" — which would feed into a Conservative-driven narrative about a Liberal-NDP "coalition" in the works.

"It's a tough path to carve," he said.

Turnbull said the NDP probably will back the government on "pretty much everything" to keep the minority Parliament alive and avoid an election. She added that such support shouldn't be interpreted as a healthy form of cooperation among the parties.

'Mutual hellscape'

"They're basically saying, 'We're going to shout at one another, continue to throw mud and score points but we'll pass your legislation because we don't want to go to an election because we don't have any money,'" Turnbull said.

"That's not cooperation. That's like some sort of mutual hellscape."

As for the Conservatives, Turnbull said O'Toole should welcome Parliament's return because, as the leader of the Official Opposition, the Commons "confers some legitimacy on him" at a time when he's fighting off an internal challenge to his leadership.

"Parliament is a safer place for him than the media," she said.

Conservative squabbling over the Commons vaccine mandate — and new allegations from Holland and other Liberals that some Tories are ducking the requirement with questionable medical exemptions — have put O'Toole on the defensive, Turnbull said.

Speaking to reporters last week, O'Toole said he wants Conservative MPs focused not on his future but rather on the economy, "a corrupt and cover-up-prone Liberal government" and what he calls "a professional approach to dealing with the pandemic."

Opposition leaders deride Liberal government's throne speech in official replies .
OTTAWA — Party leaders sounded like they were still on the campaign trail Tuesday as they delivered speeches in response to last week's throne speech. Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took turns pointing out the Canadians they said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is ignoring as he embarks on his third mandate. But Trudeau hit back in his own speech later Tuesday, repeatedly needling O'Toole over his lack of leadership and his refusal to insist that all Conservative MPs be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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