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Trudeau starts consultations with opposition leaders on next week's throne speech

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began consulting opposition leaders Thursday about next week's throne speech, which could theoretically bring down his minority Liberal government if none of their parties support it.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began consulting opposition leaders Thursday about next week's throne speech, which could theoretically bring down his minority Liberal government if none of their parties support it.

He spoke by phone with Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, who told Trudeau that his party wants to see a commitment to significantly boost unconditional transfer payments to the provinces for health care.

And he also spoke to Elizabeth May, the Green party's parliamentary leader, who bluntly warned him that she and her two colleagues in the House of Commons “are not prepared as Greens to support a speech from the throne that leaves out climate action.” 

He is expected to speak with Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole — who, like Blanchet, is in isolation after a staffer tested positive for COVID-19 — and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on Friday.

Blanchet said in an interview Thursday that he outlined the Bloc's expectations for the throne speech. Topping his list was a six per cent annual increase in unconditional health transfer payments to the provinces.

Trudeau is likely to receive more pressure on that front Friday, when four conservative-minded premiers — Quebec's Francois Legault, Ontario's Doug Ford, Alberta's Jason Kenney and Manitoba's Brian Pallister — hold a news conference in Ottawa to detail their hopes for the throne speech.

At a meeting last week in Toronto, Legault and Ford argued that provinces and territories need a "significant" increase in the health transfer, on top of the $19 billion Ottawa is already giving them to help cope with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, including some $10 billion for health-related expenses. 

The federal government will transfer almost $42 billion to provinces and territories for health care in the current fiscal year, under an arrangement that currently sees the transfer increase by at least three per cent each year.

Blanchet said the Bloc also wants to see more help for seniors, which he got the impression is coming, and compensation for dairy farmers hurt by trade deals. Should the throne speech recommit the Liberal government to developing a national pharmacare program, he said the Bloc will demand provinces have the right to opt out with compensation.

On Wednesday, following a cabinet retreat, Trudeau continued to say the speech will offer an "ambitious" plan for a healthier, safer, fairer, cleaner and more inclusive economy.

However, with positive cases of COVID-19 on the rise for the past few weeks, Trudeau and his ministers were also clear that their top, almost all-consuming priority is doing everything possible to prevent a second deadly wave of the novel coronavirus.

May said she “wasn’t able to actually be sure” from her conversation with Trudeau on Thursday whether climate change crisis is getting pushed to the back burner while the government deals with the pandemic.

“I think you have to do both at the same time and that’s what I stressed with the prime minister is we don’t have the luxury of time," she said in an interview.

“To avoid (climate change) becoming a global catastrophe … to avoid extinction, we have a very small window for action, which means we don’t have the luxury of time to say, 'We’ll get to that later.'”

In particular, the Greens want to see a commitment to invest in renewable energy, retrofitting existing buildings to make them more energy efficient and a massive tree-planting program. 

The throne speech will be put to a confidence vote. The Liberals will need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties to avoid losing that vote, which would trigger an election.

Blanchet said the Bloc won't back down on its demands just to avoid an election in the midst of the pandemic.

"(Trudeau) may surf on the fear of a second wave, which would push back the possibility of an election, but we will not lower our expectations for such reasons," he said.

May said neither Trudeau nor the Greens want an election. Still, she said she and the prime minister discussed the need for immediate amendments to the Canada Elections Act to ensure that Elections Canada is able, if need be, to safely conduct an election during the pandemic.

Blanchet also said he's concerned that the speech may amount to little more than "simply giving money to targeted clienteles to please the NDP," rather than measures to help save jobs and support Canadians who have already lost them.

New Democrats have been clear they want to see billions more in federal funding for child care and affordable housing. They also want the government to back off its plan to wind down the $2,000-per-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Singh has said he expects the speech to be full of nice but "empty" words and he's more interested in what actually makes it into the subsequent federal economic update and budget.

The speech is expected to focus on three main areas: further measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 and avoid another countrywide lockdown; to help Canadians stay afloat while the pandemic continues; and longer-term measures to structurally rebuild the ravaged economy.

It's expected to include promises of more funding for health care, including long-term care homes that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and child care, so that women can get back to work. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17, 2020.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press