ST. ANDREWS BY-THE-SEA, N.B. — The governing Liberals are stressing policies to alleviate the hardships of inflation at the outset of their three-day caucus retreat — a stance that confronts a key attack point for the Conservatives’ new firebrand leader, Pierre Poilievre.
That much was clear on Sunday, as MPs and cabinet ministers in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government arrived in the quaint town of St. Andrews By-the-Sea, N.B. for their first in-person caucus gathering since 2018.
“There’s a reason why I’m talking to you about inflation and cost of living and the economy,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.
“Because, obviously, we’re in solution mode — and, yes, we’ll be coming up with solutions.”
Other MPs said they heard concerns from constituents over the summer parliamentary recess about decades high inflation and struggles with the cost of living.
Rachel Bendayan, a Montreal MP, said the government will soon unveil affordability measures that it intended to announce last week, but pushed back after Queen Elizabeth II died on Thursday.
NDP sources told the Star last week that those measures include the first step toward a national dental care program for people without coverage, an increase in housing benefits and a doubling of the GST rebate for lower-income Canadians. Two of those policies are part of the confidence and supply deal the government inked with the NDP earlier this year, pledging to enact a suite of progressive measures in exchange for NDP support in Parliament until 2025.
“What we have all heard over the summer is that Canadians would like a little extra help, particularly vulnerable Canadians,” said Bendayan, who called such policies the government’s top priority for the fall session of Parliament.
On his way to Saturday’s commanding first ballot victory in the Conservative leadership race, Poilievre blamed government “gatekeepers” for high housing costs, decades-high inflation, and more. He also routinely slagged the Trudeau government, alleging it spent recklessly during the pandemic and is responsible for the surging cost of food, gas and other goods over the past year.
Asked about Poilievre framing himself as the champion of those struggling with these rising costs, Bendayan argued inflation is the result of international factors like trade disruptions and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
She also questioned Poilievre’s proposed solutions to rising costs, pointing to his earlier support for cryptocurrencies as a way to “opt out” of inflation. Poilievre has also promised to scrap the federal carbon price, “end” the current government’s deficits on an unspecified timeline, and fire the central bank’s governor to appoint someone better.
“What we have seen so far from Mr. Poilievre are a lot of punchy one-liners, this kind of dog-whistle politics,” she said.
“What is he concretely proposing in order to address the cost of living?”
The political positioning over inflation occurred against a sombre backdrop, as official mourning continues in the wake of the Queen’s death. MPs wore black ribbons on their shirts, and several of them praised the late monarch for her decades of service and devotion to duty.
The Queen’s death prompted the government to change the parliamentary schedule to allow for statements in the House of Commons later this week. The official start of the fall session was also pushed back one day to Sept. 20 — the day after the Queen’s funeral in London.
Carolyn Bennett, a long-time Toronto MP and current minister of mental health and addictions, recalled having a picture of two royals on her bedroom wall as a child. She said she hopes people reflecting on the Queen’s “model of service and dignity and strength” could soften the tone of Canada’s divisive politics that has seen MPs and cabinet ministers receive death threats.
“I just think Canadians are fed up with the partisan stuff,” Bennett said. “This is about listening to the people, and I think that’s why (the caucus retreat) will be so important … We’ve been out listening to people and they’ve expressed their priorities and we now have to put them into action.”
For John McKay, the veteran Liberal MP for Scarborough-Guildwood, the government also needs to calm frustrations over persistent airport delays and backlogs in passport and immigration applications that inspired headlines and over the summer.
“Just make government work,” McKay told the Star ahead of the retreat.
On Poilievre’s victory, McKay predicted the Conservative opposition will be less likely to co-operate on government legislation in the House — and that makes the NDP deal all the more important.
“You can’t see how this will aid getting things done,” he said of Poilievre’s leadership.
“He’s a pit bull — has always been a pit bull. I don’t expect he’s going to be anything other than a pit bull.”