Halfway through its mandate, the Trudeau government is stumbling. It’s making too many unforced errors and facing a much more challenging environment both at home and abroad. If the prime minister wants to make his first term a success, he’ll have to make sure his team performs a lot better than they have in recent weeks.
The stumbles are obvious — including the messy rollout of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s tax reforms and this week’s appalling misfire by the Canada Revenue Agency. Even raising the idea of targeting discounts for poorly paid retail clerks is not a good look for a government that champions the “middle class.”
The challenges are equally clear. At home, the government faces a pair of fresh-faced opposition leaders eager to make their mark. And it’s crunch time in Canada’s most important international relationship, as Donald Trump threatens to torch the trade deal that underpins much of the North American economy. Everything will get harder from here on in.
The gap between the expectations raised by the election of the Trudeau Liberals two years ago next week and its performance in office has become dangerously wide, and we will deal with that in more detail on Saturday. But at midterm it’s worth first recalling that this government does actually have a record of solid accomplishments.
It broke decisively with the ruling orthodoxy of small government and balanced budgets at all cost. It launched the most ambitious infrastructure program in the country’s history. And it revived the idea that government can be activist and take a leading role in shaping the future.
In its first budget it brought in the Canada Child Benefit, one of the most important tax reforms in decades. That alone will lift as many as 300,000 children out of poverty. And it took a long overdue step by expanding the vital but inadequate Canada Pension Plan.
It reflected Canada at its best, after years of crabbed government under the Harper Conservatives. Justin Trudeau’s gender-parity cabinet was and remains a breakthrough: it will be hard for any government to retreat much on that. And the early decision to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees was an ambitious and welcome statement that Canada would buck the trend of increasing suspicion toward outsiders.
It staked out a leadership position abroad, doubling down on support for a rule-based international system in sharp contrast to Trump’s short-sighted and destructive “America First” nationalism. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, one of the government’s strongest performers, set out an admirably clear vision for what might be called the anti-Trump worldview — without unnecessarily poking the president in the eye.
It took an important step forward on the environment by setting a national minimum price for carbon — albeit a relatively modest one. At the same time, it adopted the same targets for greenhouse gas emissions as the Harper government. This is one area where it should have been more ambitious.
It brought forward some substantial and progressive legal reforms — including the law on assisted dying and legalization of marijuana, due to come into effect next summer. These are difficult, complicated issues and the government deserves credit for taking them on.
Finally, it has presided over an economy that has grown steadily stronger. An impressive 375,000 jobs have been created in the past year, average wages are rising, and unemployment is lower than it’s been since the eve of the financial crisis in 2008. That’s a solid record and it will be a challenge to keep the streak going.
All this is positive and was very much in tune with the public’s desire for a break with the previous decade of cramped, secretive Conservative rule.
At the same time, though, the government has too often undermined its own best intentions through a combination of arrogance, ineptness and needless foot-dragging.
It showed arrogance when it clung for far too long to the cash-for-access fundraising system, undermining the prime minister’s image as a new-age leader. There was arrogance, too, when senior aides claimed expenses amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars (much of it quickly repaid).
The government has also been inept in managing some important issues. Exhibit No. 1 in that area would be electoral reform, a poorly thought-out promise that went from bad to worse before finally being mercifully killed. The way Morneau’s tax reform proposals were introduced over the summer was almost as rocky.
The government also did itself no favours by taking much too long to act on some key promises, such as scrapping Bill C-51, the Harper government’s notorious security law. That took until this past June. It has been far too wedded to carrying out endless “consultations” in areas where quick action would be much preferable.
As it moves into the second half of its mandate, the government must correct these flaws. There must be no more expense scandals or costly holiday trips to private tropical islands. Those are the kind of things that can tar any government with an out-of-touch, elitist image.
There must be much less tolerance for errors by ministers. This is no longer a rookie team; voters have a right to expect competence, at the very least. And they will rightly judge the prime minister by the performance of the men and women he trusts with major responsibility.
The government must also be more decisive. It should stop dithering and move ahead on key promises that remain unfulfilled two long years after the election. It must close the gap between expectations and results.
On Saturday we will set out some of the areas where the government needs to move to make that happen. The Liberals, and Trudeau personally, won a remarkable and well-deserved victory on Oct. 19, 2015. But if they allow their government to drift they risk undermining their own successes.
Source: Toronto Star