PM Trudeau blames opposition for electoral reform failure, budget deficit
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended his second parliamentary sitting with a few parting shots at the Conservatives and NDP, blaming the opposition for stalling bills in the Senate, the federal deficit and his broken promise to reform the electoral system.
Trudeau held a press conference Tuesday to mark Parliament rising for the summer, taking questions on issues ranging from strong job numbers to whether he regrets naming independent senators.
Asked whether he still plans to get rid of the deficit by the 2019-2020 fiscal year, Trudeau didn't answer directly, instead speaking more broadly about the government's intention to strengthen the economy.
"If you tally up the promises we made [in our election platform], it was about $10 billion worth of new spending. In our first year, our first budget as we put forward, we committed to about $10 billion in new spending," Trudeau said in Ottawa.
"We just went from a floor where the budget was balanced, because supposedly the Conservatives had balanced the budget, to what was the reality of our budget of being at about $18 billion in deficit the end of that first year. So we've been consistent in our plan and our approach," he said.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer, the federal watchdog charged with examining government finances, downgraded the country's fiscal outlook just after the Liberals won the 2015 election -- based on lower-than-expected growth. A separate PBO report cited the Liberals' decision to re-lower to 65 the age at which Canadians can claim Old Age Security.
Trudeau kicked off the press conference with an opening statement in which he thanked journalists for their work. He has repeatedly emphasized his "positive" approach to governing.
But it wasn't just on the federal deficit that Trudeau pointed blame at the Conservatives, who held power for 10 years before the Liberals won the 2015 federal election.
'A block of partisan Conservatives' in Senate
Asked whether he regretted kicking Liberal senators out of his caucus and appointing only independent senators, Trudeau said the Senate is taking steps toward the independence envisioned by Canada's founders 150 years ago.
But he singled out the Senate's Conservative caucus as a problem.
"This approach demonstrates less partisanship, more [independence] of thought. The fact that we are stymied a bit by a block of partisan Conservatives who vote against the government every chance they get, simply means there is more work to do to create a more independent and thoughtfully reflective Senate. But we are on the right track on having removed the knee-jerk partisanship from what is now the majority of the Senate," Trudeau said.
Last week, Senators slowed down the passage of the budget when they tried to amend it. Independent Sen. Andre Pratte initially tried to separate a controversial infrastructure bank proposal from the rest of the budget so it could be studied on its own, though the Senate later voted down the move.
The Senate national finance committee then changed the bill by eliminating a clause that will raise excise taxes on alcohol in line with inflation every year. The House rejected the change and the Senate sat on the bill -- at the behest of Sen. Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate -- for a night before voting to pass the bill as-is.
The Senate also rose for the summer without considering MPs' changes to bill S-3, a Senate bill that would remove some of the sexism in the Indian Act.
'The voice' of voters
Conservative Sen. Larry Smith disputed Trudeau's remarks. The opposition plays a critical role in holding government accountable and protecting Canadian democracy, he said in a statement.
"The Prime Minister's nomination process is no different than previous governments'. He simply added an online application and made public who would review candidates. All prime ministers make final recommendations to the Governor General," Smith said.
"In 2015, 5.6 million Canadians voted for the Conservative Party and we are the voice of those voters in the Senate."
It wasn't just the Conservatives who drew Trudeau's ire in his closing press conference. The prime minister blamed both opposition parties for his decision not to go ahead with electoral reform, a firm promise on which he'd campaigned and repeated following the election.
"I think there were ways to improve our electoral system in this country," Trudeau said, noting he preferred a ranked ballot so that any MP elected would have the support of at least 50 per cent of voters in a riding. Currently, the number of candidates running for major parties can mean an MP wins with less than 40 per cent support.
"We thought that was the right and concrete way forward. Nobody else agreed," Trudeau went on.
"The NDP were anchored in proportional representation as being the only way forward... The Conservatives wanted the status quo no matter what, and the only way to break that logjam would have been to do a national referendum on electoral reform, which I definitely don't think was in the best interest of Canadians."
"There was no openness to compromise in the other parties and I wasn't going to use my majority to bring in a system just to tick off a box on an election platform," he said.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says the Liberal MPs' dissenting report on a committee study of electoral reform never mentioned ranked ballots. She says it's Trudeau, not the Liberals, who wanted ranked ballots.
"I thought this prime minister wasn't about top-down dictatorship. On other issues, the prime minister defers to his cabinet members, but it's clear that on electoral reform, this was his personal preference without regard for the evidence," she said in a statement.
"There is evidence to show that the only system that distorts the intent of voters and 'misbehaves' more than [the current system of] First Past the Post is ranked ballots."