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Trudeau seeks NDP, Bloc support to prevent Conservative 'obstructionism'

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is counting on the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP to help his minority Liberal government get things done in the face of what he anticipates will be systematic obstructionism by the Conservatives.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is counting on the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP to help his minority Liberal government get things done in the face of what he anticipates will be systematic obstructionism by the Conservatives.

In an interview with The Canadian Press ahead of Parliament's return Monday after a six-week break, Trudeau made it clear he doesn't just want the smaller, more ideologically compatible opposition parties to support the passage of Liberal bills.

He wants them to support measures to cut off debate and force votes on bills if the official Opposition Conservatives resort to procedural tricks to stall progress on the legislative agenda, as they frequently did during his first minority mandate. 

"We know and we've seen it, the Conservatives are going to continue to try and play whatever partisan games they can, regardless of the consequence on Canadians. They're much more focused on their own interests right now than they are on the interests of Canadians," he said during the Friday interview.

"We will be very, very open to working with the other parties, hearing their priorities moving forward because it's not just about saying, 'OK, we can agree on the things that need to happen.' We have to help make them happen as well in a House where the Conservatives are choosing to block as much as they possibly can."

Trudeau's remarks came before thousands of protesters opposed to vaccine mandates and other health restrictions intended to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic descended on Parliament Hill, effectively shutting down Ottawa's downtown core and raising questions about how Parliament will resume.

Trudeau has not commented on the weekend demonstrations, but said on Friday that the participants and the views they expressed do not represent the majority of Canadians. 

"It represents a very small, very angry group of Canadians who are really trying to lash out," he said ahead of the protests, which largely targeted his government's policies and his personal leadership. 

Almost 90 per cent of the eligible population -- along with nearly 90 per cent of truckers -- have gotten vaccinated against COVID-19, he added.

During the last Parliament, all parties came together to swiftly pass legislation creating hundreds of billions of dollars worth of pandemic benefits to help individuals and businesses stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But on other business, the Conservatives routinely talked out the clock during debate on bills and used other procedural manoeuvres to delay or prevent progress on legislation. The Liberals complained about obstructionism but the Tories blamed the government for failing to manage its own agenda and the other opposition parties, generally loath to be seen helping the government cut short debate, tacitly went along.

Eventually, however, even the NDP and Bloc became frustrated with the Tory tactics and, towards the end of the session, they supported closure on a couple of bills they considered priorities in a bid to finally get them passed. 

Their support came too late to get the bills — a ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ Canadians and a bill regulating online streaming giants — through the Senate before the summer break. They eventually died when Trudeau dissolved Parliament in August for an election.

Trudeau sees some hope that the smaller opposition parties will be less likely to let the Conservatives systematically jam the legislative agenda in the new Parliament.

He notes that in the brief four weeks that the new minority Parliament sat before Christmas, the Liberals set out three priority bills they wanted enacted before the holiday break: a new bill banning conversion therapy, another creating targeted new pandemic aid programs, and a double-barrelled bill implementing paid sick leave for federal workers and cracking down on harassment of health care workers.

All three were expedited through both the House of Commons and the Senate at what for Parliament was breakneck speed. Along the way, the NDP supported closure to cut off debate and force a vote on resuming hybrid sittings of the House and again to cut short debate on the sick leave bill.

"The fact that we were able to work so collaboratively with two of the opposition parties to get big things done is a really positive sign," Trudeau said.

In fact, it was the Conservatives who moved to pass the conversion therapy bill without debate or a vote, a surprise given that a majority of them had voted against the previous version of the bill. But it was a strategic move designed to avoid a second losing fight on an issue that had opened the Tories to charges of being anti-LGBTQ — not what Liberals consider a harbinger of a more collaborative official Opposition.

During the last Parliament, some of the most fractious relations among the parties and the longest filibusters, including those  conducted by the Liberals, took place at Commons committees.

But Trudeau is hopeful that, too, will change in the new session.

Shortly before the Christmas break, the Liberals won support for a motion that changes the rule for triggering an emergency meeting of a committee. Instead of any four members of the committee being able to insist that a meeting be held, it must now be four members from at least two different parties.

That, said Trudeau, will help prevent Conservatives from acting alone to tie up committees with topics of their choice — usually ones designed to embarrass the government and inflict maximum political damage.

"We made it so that Conservatives can't be as obstructive on their own. They're going to need to find active partners to call committees," he said.

"That will minimize the amount of disruption and toxicity that unfortunately we saw very much at committees that prevented us from doing a lot of things that Canadians really cared about."

In a statement Sunday, a spokesperson for the New Democrats said the upcoming sitting of the House gives the Liberal government "an opportunity to show Canadians that they’re actually going to deliver the help people need."

"This session, the Liberal government must take concrete steps now to show Canadians they're ready to act on the urgent priorities raised in the election campaign. Canadians need investments in health care, investments in a move to a renewable future, and investments to help make life more affordable," said Melanie Richer.

"If the government wants to work with us to help make people’s lives better, they can count on our help to make it happen,” she added.

Unlike the brief pre-Christmas sitting, the Liberals are not laying out a specific number of bills they want to pass by the end of June, when Parliament will break for the summer.

But Trudeau broadly outlined his priorities between now and then: getting through the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, more aggressive action on climate change, strengthening the official languages act, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, measures to create more affordable housing, support for the cultural sector, tackling online hate, and requiring online streaming giants like Netflix to promote and financially support Canadian content.

"Those are the big things that we got elected on," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2022.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press