Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, according to a survey just published by the Angus Reid Institute, is more popular than he’s ever been. He should enjoy this while it lasts. That is to say until Monday, when MPs return to the House of Commons for the fall sitting of Parliament. After that, all bets are off.
It’s been a year, almost, since the Liberal landslide. And though the tone in Ottawa has changed, the bedrock of government policy hasn’t, much, with the notable exception of a law regulating assisted dying. Now comes the time to implement, defer, back off or compromise on the rest of the Liberal platform. Not all of it will get done. Not all of it can get done, given the sweeping ambition of the reforms proposed.
A key measure of Trudeau’s success, therefore, will be how skillfully he manages the coming wave of disappointments. It’s not impossible to succeed in this. Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin pulled off something similar in 1994, prepping the country for deficit-busting pain, which was a far cry from the expansive platform on which they’d campaigned in 1993. But they had the advantage of a national fiscal crisis, forcing their hand. Also, Chrétien never vowed to lasso the moon. Trudeau has.
Consider this partial list:
Electoral reform: The promise, iron-clad, is for a new electoral model before the 2019 election, and an end to first-past-the-post system. The passion displayed for this file by political scientists, reporters and politicians is roughly equal to the shattering lack of interest in it on the part of, well, everyone else. The Liberals have declared no change will occur without popular support. They also doggedly opposed the only credible means of gauging such support, which is a referendum.
Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: Necessary and overdue. But also fraught with intractable problems, such as: What to do when the weight of testimony points to poverty, shoddy housing, underfunded education, lack of opportunity and the reserve system itself as key contributors to the disproportionate violence suffered by aboriginal people — women, men and children — in Canada? The Liberals have promised to implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They can’t hope to meet that goal without re-deploying their entire mandate to the purpose, which,of course, they are in no position to do.
Marijuana legalization: With pot task force chair Anne McLellan urging “go-slow,” we can begin to nudge this one toward the “maybe not right away, maybe not ever” basket. Legalizing weed will require a great deal of political and institutional energy, at a time when the government is consumed with more important files.
Defence and military procurement: The government has launched a defence policy review, which we can assume will show, yet again, that the men and women of the Canadian Forces are good at their jobs but underfunded and hamstrung by rust-out in their gear. Surprise! A full report on procurement is due by yearend. Perhaps this will reveal why, with a year of their first mandate nearly gone, the Liberals appear no closer to replacing Canada’s aging CF-18 fighter jets, or floating a new Navy.
Guided by a nostalgic affection for blue-helmeted UN peacekeeping, the government is poised to send 600 Canadian soldiers to Africa, possibly Mali. This and the current mission in Iraq have the potential to go badly awry in the event of accidents or casualties.
Climate change: “Canada is back!” had already given way to “how on earth do we do this?” by the time Parliament rose in June. There are consultations with the provinces. There is goodwill, for which Trudeau deserves some credit. How any of this translates into a national carbon-pricing system remains a mystery.
Trade and pipelines: The Liberals have until now avoided staking out a clear position on the Trans-Pacific partnership trade agreement, because why bother, if the protectionist wave in the United States stops the deal cold? Yet until the PM’s overture earlier this month to China, little of note had happened bilaterally either. The government now must play catch up to re-start trade talks with countries such as India and Japan, after nearly a year of “consulting Canadians” about the TPP has produced not a visible erg of momentum toward freer trade, with anyone. On progress toward an east-west pipeline, meantime, there is none.
This is not, as noted, a recipe for certain failure. But it does call for triage, for which this government has until now shown little appetite, as well as a willingness to break some eggs.
More practically, the Liberals should designate a new internal auditor, a zealot with a calculator, to police ministers’ spending, item by item. Only by avoiding the drip-drip of waste and entitlement stories can the prime minister and cabinet hope to maintain any momentum once they start taking unpopular decisions.
They will fall from the heights. It’s a matter of how much, how quickly, for what reasons, and what they can achieve in the process.
Michael Den Tandt
Sept 15th 2016