We’re in the dying days of July and the August long weekend is right around the corner. Given all the speculation and talk around when the next Federal election will be called, there has been an increasingly clear consensus that it will start in early or mid August. Given those timelines we are likely two or three weeks away from the 44th Canadian General Federal Election.
With the current minority government in Ottawa, it’s not a shock that this might come. Many thought that it would have come sooner than this, with many politicos in the Nation’s Capital who were aflutter with those predictions back in the Spring. Clearly that didn’t happen, as COVID and the roll out of vaccinations against said pandemic pestilence saw to that. Since Christmas I had always looked to the late Summer/early Fall as the time that made most sense and as things have unfolded over the past few weeks, that prediction has felt more and more wise.
Right now, it feels like a 99.9% certainty that we’ll be voting in September. I never say 100% because there’s always that chance that something could happen that could throw a spanner into any governments best laid plans. It’s not likely to happen but given everything we’ve gone through over the past 16 months, I’d never be willing to say it would never happen. That’s why I can’t help but look at this piece of news coming out tonight and think of that 0.1% remaining on the board:
Not even the cheesiest writer on the West Wing would have written such a story line. Having a major civil service strike of any kind right before or during an election is not a good thing for an incumbent government. It’s exactly the kind of thing they would want to avoid, or at least should. Add to it that it’s potentially Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) workers that might go out on strike by Friday August 6th, just days before we are scheduled to re-open our borders to vaccinated Americans on Monday August 9th, after 16 months of closure. And then, on top of all of that, add the fact that it’s expected that this Prime Minister could go to the Governor General for an election as soon as Sunday August 8th, just two days later.
The timelines of this are fascinating to me and are a real potential problem for the Liberal government. First off, I don’t see how this gets resolved at the table without the government giving in big time. CBSA as got some serious leverage over their employer right now. So, while I wish both sides the best at the table in their negotiations, I suspect that we wouldn’t be at this point had things gone better before now.
That assumption leads us to all the scenarios that come with a strike, along with the accompanying legal and political problems that come with it. The first is straight forward; you can’t recall the House of Commons to take up any back to work legislation after the House has been dissolved for an election. If the CBSA employees strike on the Friday and the writ drops on the Monday, there won’t be any back to work legislation for at least 7-8 weeks, and that will come after a Throne Speech and other vagaries of starting the 44th Parliament. After 16 months of having the border closed, and all the damage that has brought to so many businesses like tourist operators and other businesses in border communities, do you honestly think they are going to sit back quietly and happily wait while they are stuck for another two months? Hell no, you know that won’t happen. How does that government get re-elected if they do drop the writ and end up with that long a labour action, affecting so many more people, all so that the Liberal government can chase their precious majority? It’s very hard to see how that wouldn’t affect them electorally in various segments of the electorate. So, if there is ever pressure on a government to move back to work legislation against their own employees, surely this would be a prime situation for it.
That leads us to the second potential problem; moving back to work legislation. If those CBSA workers go on strike on Friday and the Prime Minister wanted to go to the polls shortly after, he would need to recall the House that week to rush through that back to work legislation. That would mean that those workers would have been on strike for less than 48 hours before the government dropped the legal hammer on them. This would be coming from a government, which has heavily courted the labour movement and tried to paint themselves as a great ally. Surely moving so fast to end that strike, all because you want your election so badly, would go over like a crap-flavoured lead balloon in the homes of many federal civil servants, let alone the wider labour movement. Can the government afford to bleed that kind of support, especially when the NDP are rising on their tails, and this would give Jagmeet Singh and his caucus a prime issue to push on and use to differentiate themselves from the Liberals? I’m pretty sure they don’t want to find out.
And the third potential option here; hold off dropping the writ longer until the strike passes, however it’s resolved. That option would minimize and damage with labour and the business community, but it would require a sacrifice by the Liberal government on their writ drop and could mess with the nice election window they want to have. Quite the conundrum here for the Prime Ministers office, that is for sure.
This story has the potential to hurt this government in a few ways close to home. Can you run on re-opening the borders if you couldn’t get a new collective agreement with the border agents after all this time? Can you run on businesses and border communities having to absorb more fiscal and emotional pain because of that strike? Can you run on snuffing out a completely legal strike mere hours after it started, just because it’s what’s best for you, and still count on the support of labour?
The answer to all of those questions is an unqualified “no”, but they all come back to the bigger conundrum for the Liberals; you can’t recall the House for Back to Work legislation after the writs are drawn up, but is it politically wise to rush said legislation right before they are? If this whole exercise of calling an early election is really all about the Liberals chasing that majority they so want, can you political get there with that as your start? All very legit questions, the kind I’m sure the Liberal campaign team are trying to game out.
So, does this mean that the timing of the 44th General Election might be sunk or hurt? Does this mean that we won’t be going to the polls? No, I’m not rushing there yet, as there is still that other 99.9% sitting out there on the scale. But this story makes for a very interesting 0.1% and could create some big headaches for the Liberal government over the next couple of weeks. I’m sure in the PMO they are hoping that they can reach an agreement at the negotiating table before August 6th. If that strike comes, it could quickly become a big problem for this government and create an uncomfortable convergence of situations that could bite them in the rear end.