Trudeau’s televised message challenge: speak to the moment, but set course for future

Prime ministers rarely ask the television networks for time to address the nation, and when they do it is not always for the most serious reasons — for Lester B. Pearson in 1968, Paul Martin in 2005 and Stephen Harper in 2008, extraordinary appeals were delivered to Canadians only because a minority government was facing possible defeat in the House of Commons.

In 2020, there is at least a lot more than that to talk about. So much so, in fact, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will speak to Canadians Wednesday evening just a few hours after Gov. Gen. Julie Payette has presented the throne speech

A pair of speeches — from the head of state and head of government, respectively — might befit a moment that is now heavy with both the profound crisis of the present and the restless aspirations for the future that have risen up over the last six months. 

In both cases — whether he is listening to the words or speaking them himself — Trudeau will attempt to command the moment. But nothing about life in 2020 is proving easy to dictate.

In August, when Trudeau announced Parliament had been prorogued, the prime minister remarked that Canada was at a “crossroads.” By this, he actually meant two things.

First, there was the question of what path COVID-19 would take in Canada and whether Canadian citizens and authorities would do enough to limit the spread of the virus. Second, there was a “choice” to be made about how this country would move forward — what ideas we would seize and what challenges our government should address.

The second part could be exciting. But on Tuesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada reminded everyone that the first fork is potentially perilous. “Canada is at a crossroads and individual action to reduce contact rates will decide our paths,” read the top line of one slide in the agency’s latest release of outbreak modelling.

Erin O’Toole, shown here walking with his wife Rebecca, daughter Mollie and son Jack. Both O’Toole and his wife have tested positive for COVID-19. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Underneath that heading was a scary-looking graph that showed a potential surge in cases that could far surpass what this country experienced in the spring.

The significance of the threat posed by COVID-19 will be apparent Wednesday. A limited number of people will be permitted into the Senate to listen to Payette deliver the throne speech. Both the leader of the official opposition (Erin O’Toole of the Conservatives) and the leader of the third party (Yves-Francois Blanchet of the Bloc Quebecois) will have to watch from their respective homes, where they are each self-isolating after testing positive for the virus. 

Raft of issues demand attention

Beyond Parliament, the audience for the throne speech might be justifiably distracted. Anxious parents have just sent their children back to school and are now dealing with the ramifications. In Ontario, people — many of them parents — are waiting hours in long lines to get tested.

In Ottawa, there is a new order requiring residents to self isolate for 14 days if they have come in contact with anyone who tested positive.

But even in the midst of a global health emergency, there are outstanding questions and issues that should be difficult to ignore. In many cases, the pandemic has only underlined those concerns. Climate change, inequality, systemic racism, a lack of affordable child care, a failure to provide adequate care for the elderly — the list of worthy causes demanding attention is not short.

The speech from the throne will be very different from the one nine months ago and is expected to include plans to keep Canadians healthy during the pandemic, reign in economic spending, combat racism and create green jobs. 4:15

To one degree or another, the Liberal government has indicated an interest in addressing many of those issues and the throne speech might at least put those expressions of interest together in an official text. 

Once Payette has finished reading that text, there will be questions about the possibility of an election — each of the party leaders will be asked to flash their thumb up or down, either remotely or in-person. But the possibility of an election seems almost beside the point. Sooner or later, there will be a general election.

In the meantime, Trudeau’s ability to lead during a crisis will be contested and a campaign to define and shape the agenda of the country will be waged.

The battle on both fronts should be laid out for Canadians on Wednesday night — by virtue of Trudeau’s decision to ask for television time, each of the opposition parties has been offered the opportunity to offer their own televised response.

Daily appearances reassured public

Coming out of the last election, Trudeau seemed to understand he needed to step back — that his own profile needed to be smaller, if only so that more attention could be paid to what his government was doing. Then came the pandemic and soon Trudeau was appearing each morning in front of Rideau Cottage.

Those appearances likely helped reassure the public that the federal government was on top of the situation. But it also allowed him to stress the seriousness of the threat and cajoled Canadians to be vigilant. And in the current crisis, the public’s own actions are as important as anything any government could do.

Insofar as his statement on Wednesday might focus on the pandemic, the value of his address might be similar to the value of those morning chats at the steps of Rideau Cottage.

But he will also no doubt want to say something about the plan that will have just been presented to Parliament. And that will make Trudeau, not Payette, the face of that plan.

Though another prime minister with a minority government is turning to speak directly with Canadians, this is not 1968, nor 2005, nor 2008.

In the search for precedents for this moment, one might turn instead to the the throne speech that the governor general presented on behalf of Mackenzie King’s government in February 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, or the throne speech that was read for King’s government in September 1945, just days after the end of the Second World War — two moments in which grave crisis gave way to great change.

In fact, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government seems intent on trying to do both — address both the “present emergency conditions” (as in 1936) and a “vision of the better future for humanity” (as in 1945).

But if those words are worth recalling now it is only because of the actions of government that followed and the policies that truly shaped both the moment and what came after.

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