Trudeau’s Coronavirus Power Grab

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in Ottawa, March 24.

Photo: David Kawai/Bloomberg News


“Emergency bill would grant cabinet sweeping powers to tax and spend without parliamentary approval through end of 2021,” announced Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper Monday. I readied for a feeling of resignation: I guess Aung San Suu Kyi really has lost it. Or perhaps cynicism: Putin decided to make it official, eh? But to my surprise, the article was about Canada and its progressive prime minister, Justin Trudeau. If this is multiculturalism, he’s taken it too far.

Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party planned to introduce economic relief legislation Tuesday morning and had already distributed copies to some opposition parliamentarians in preparation. At 44 pages, the draft bill was relatively brief. Then again, how complicated is it to define arbitrary power?

The bill would have allowed Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet to raise taxes, impose new taxes, spend and borrow by fiat, all without a vote in Parliament. Apparently the coronavirus pandemic is so dire that Liberals thought there wouldn’t be time, at least until 2022, to vote on matters of fiscal policy.

This power grab quickly fizzled. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals won a mere 33% of the aggregate popular vote in this past October’s election, the lowest percentage for a governing party in Canadian history. Leading a minority government, the prime minister needs some support from his opponents to enact legislation. How did he imagine that conversation would go?

“Conservatives are ready to work to support Canadians in this time of crisis,” said opposition leader Andrew Scheer in a written statement Monday night. He’d already negotiated a coronavirus economic relief package with Mr. Trudeau and planned to vote for it. “But we will not give the government unlimited power to raise taxes without a parliamentary vote,” he said. “We will not sign a blank cheque.”

That caught the Liberals off-guard. In an 11 p.m. tweet the night before the big day, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez had to break the news: “We consulted with the opposition and will bring changes to the draft legislation. We will always work collaboratively and respect the fundamental role of Parliament.” Never has an 11th-hour retreat sounded so considered and mature.

The Liberals returned to Parliament Tuesday having given up on the tax authority but still seeking unchecked power to extend loans and guarantees and to “make payments to an entity for the purposes of stimulating economic activity or employment in situations of significant and systemic economic and financial distress.” Another surviving provision would empower cabinet ministers to requisition from the Treasury “all money required to do anything, including making payments to provinces and territories, in relation to that public health event,” namely the coronavirus pandemic. Negotiations continued all day and past midnight. Finally, at 5:51 a.m. Wednesday, the parties approved an aid package of 52 billion Canadian dollars (around $36 billion), in which the government gets a six-month emergency spending power that will be scrutinized and can be taken away if abused.

This is a decent result, born of compromise. But the irony of the Liberal Party proposing to abrogate the signal achievement of constitutional liberalism, the freedom from arbitrary political power, is enough to make John Locke turn in his grave. Mr. Trudeau’s initial plan to combine in the executive the power to create the law, finance it and enforce it—powers of the pen, purse and sword—was a recipe for abuse. It also threw out hundreds of years of English-speaking peoples’ political theory and practice. Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre rightly mentioned the Magna Carta and “no taxation without representation.”

Mr. Trudeau answered criticism Tuesday by explaining that the coronavirus pandemic is an “exceptional situation that requires extreme flexibility and rapidity.” Maybe so, but does that require permitting him to bypass parliamentary democracy? Suddenly Canadians were in the ballpark of the terrifying “state of exception” theorized by the German antiliberal philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), in which the sovereign suspends the law and uses whatever means necessary to restore order.

There was no need even to start down that road. Mr. Trudeau is dealing with a cooperative opposition party that had pledged to support his economic relief measures. The Conservatives had even agreed to vote on short notice in a shrunken Parliament, with 32 members divided proportionally among the parties, the better to practice social distancing.

The prime minister wasn’t blocked from acting swiftly. He simply wanted to shrug off reasonable restraints on his power—for 21 months. Mr. Trudeau’s rash request, made in the heat of a crisis, underscores the continuing need for a loyal opposition, the separation of powers and the liberal tradition that Liberals once claimed as their own.

Mr. Kaufman is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.

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