Over the past few months, several Americans have e-mailed me sentiments along the line of “You can’t complain. You have Trudeau.” Now, I have nothing to say about America’s present political state, but I do want to post some correctives to foreign Trudeau worshipers because the guy is simply not doing as well as they think. But first, let’s look at what Trudeau did right: he won a stunning electoral victory, he promised to bring in Syrian refugees, to work for environmental well-being and justice for First Nations and Inuit peoples, to reform the electoral system, and he said he wasn’t afraid to bring in an unbalanced budget if that’s what it took to get the economy moving again, which he would do by funding infrastructure projects costing billions of dollars. Oh yes, and he promised to legalize (finally) cannabis. Let’s look at these items, one by one.
The Election: The incumbent Conservative Party came up with a grand formula for victory. They had brought in a set time for an election (as opposed to the traditional way of waiting for the party in power to call it. This was supposed to be a reform, a word that gets bandied about quite a bit when people talk of changing electoral systems. Reform or no, the Conservative plan was to manipulate election timing in order to inconvenience the other parties. Since the Tories are wealthy, they called the vote early, figuring that the Liberals and New Democrats could not match them in funding over a long period. The writ was dropped on August 4. So, instead of a normal campaign of a month or so, the candidates began hustling votes and buying ads almost three months before voting day, October 19, as legislated, remember, as a Conservative reform. This was the longest federal election campaign in history.
The Conservative scheme backfired. The extra time gave Trudeau the opportunity to introduce himself to voters. No one really knew what to expect from this young, inexperienced guy but, over time, he charmed everyone in sight. Meanwhile, the Conservatives thrashed about with attack ads saying that the kid just wasn’t ready. The New Democrats, who were supposed to do quite well, were blind-sided by Trudeau’s embrace of an unbalanced budget. For decades The New Democrat Party has pursued a mythic political center, believing that by turning to the Right, they would gain votes. Indicative of this approach was the removal of the word “socialist” from the NDP constitution, and the elevation of a professional politico (and former Liberal) to the leadership. Instead, they found themselves outflanked on the Left by the Liberals.
So Trudeau won and hit the ground running by making moves to keep some campaign promises.
Justin and Sophie with trademark hand on heart gestures election night, October 19, 2015. [Christinne Muschi/Reuters via Maclean’s]
The first promise made and kept was to bring in Syrian refugees. This was a surprisingly popular move and the exact opposite of the Conservative government’s approach. Possibly voters reflected that high immigration rates had been good for the country; more likely they were influenced by the news photo of little Alan Kurdi’s body
on a Turkish beach. The Kurdi family were sponsored in Canada, meaning they wouldn’t cost the taxpayer anything. The family was stuck in a refugee camp because of deliberate red tape delays engineered by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. (Right wing parties always claim to cut red tape and always increase it.) The minister in charge, Chris Alexander, fumbled questions about Kurdi and came to appear an unfeeling monster. Currently running for the Conservative leadership, Alexander is well back in the pack of declared candidates.
So, score one for Trudeau.
Deficit Financing of Infrastructure Improvements: Once again, Trudeau got off to an early start by funding some projects here and there. In particular, the replacement of the elderly Nipigon bridge in Ontario was widely reported. Mind you, any government would have been moved to do something because the bridge was a vital transportation link, but Trudeau got credit for quickly moving on the problem. Two months after it opened, the new Nipigon bridge collapsed. Okay, embarrassing, but it was soon repaired. (The Ontario auditor-general report on the bridge construction, released a year ago, was scathing but didn’t harm Trudeau, as the screw-ups were mainly Ontario’s.) But that was then, now the Liberal government has actually approved only a third or so of the amount that they said they would spend on infrastructure. This will not help the government meet its growth targets. Still, unemployment is down and people are happy for the moment. Okay on this one, but not an emphatic score.
Incompetent Administration: Several government chores have been mishandled. For instance, there is the Phoenix system that handles pay cheques to civil servants, except that tens of thousands of them did not get paid at all. Trudeau blamed this on the outgoing Tories, and they might bear some blame, but the election was a while back, how much time do you need to get a computer program to run properly? And there are ongoing problems with veteran’s programs, including treatment for PTSD, which don’t seem to be going away any time soon.
Civil servants outside Trudeau’s office protesting lack of pay last October. [Ashley Burke/CBC News]
Again, Trudeau looked good at the beginning, signing the Paris Accord to diminish greenhouse emissions and so on, but then… Trudeau approved two pipelines including one to the tar sands. Two! That caused him to be seen as a hypocrite by environmentalists
. Early this year, Trudeau “clarified” his stance by saying that the tar sands would be phased out. That caused him to be seen as a hypocrite by Albertans and others wedded to an oil economy. Mind you, the tar sands are doomed, not by environmental decree, but by cheaper forms of energy, especially natural gas — but saying so will not win votes from either environmentalists or Albertans. Clumsy politics mean a decline in image for Trudeau.
Indigenous Groups: During the campaign, the Liberals promised to implement all of the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was created to deal with fallout from residential schools, but went on to address general problems of indigenous groups and stated that Canadian governments had an “adversarial” relationship with native groups. Last December, Trudeau spoke to the Assembly of First Nations, once again promising to implement all 94 recommendations. One month later, it was announced that one recommendation (at least) would not be legislated. That recommendation was that the government be transparent with aboriginal groups and publish the legal opinions that it had solicited for dealing with these groups. In particular, the legalities around land use, including dam-building, pipelines, and so on, will now remain the government’s secret. So much for transparency. Aboriginal groups will continue to do their own legal research and then the respective lawyers of government and affected groups will fight it out in the courts, an adversarial process.
Other complaints by First Nations and Inuit peoples include the slow movement to fulfill campaign promises for assistance.Grassy Narrows is still polluted by toxic mercury and the people are being poisoned long after the government promised to clean it up. Trudeau has acknowledged this but says he is trying. Some First Nations people gave credit to Trudeau for even showing up at their conference; this is not something they are used to. But, crediting Trudeau for taking another photo op is very faint praise indeed.
Justin Trudeau wipes away a tear or two after addressing the Assembly of First Nations, December 2016. [Justin Tang for Canadian Press, via Radio Canada International]
Canadians are very proud of their medical system. They can look south and both shudder with horror and swell with pride. But Liberal governments, beginning with Jean Chrétien’s, have cut the transfer payments back to the provinces that are meant to soften the provincial tax burden. Trudeau went one step further: he announced a cut to medicare transfers and then forced each province to negotiate separately with the federal government for a piece of the diminished pie. This was a nasty bit of strongarm tactics and one not designed to win friends at the provincial level.
Banking Regulation: Canada escaped most of the 2008 downturn and the bank bailouts because, in spite of Right wing efforts, the country maintained a high standard of regulation. But, last year, the Trudeau government introduced a strange banking bill ostensibly to allow for infrastructure re-financing (or something) that includes a weird “bail-in” clause. On paper, “bail-in” seems to mean that banks can seize your assets — such as your chequing account — if it’s in trouble. Is that really what it means? Who knows (cf. “transparency” above). One thing, the Liberals, no less than the Conservatives, understand that banks run this country and are to be indulged whenever they ask for a handout.
Insurance Companies and Genetic Discrimination: Another Liberal campaign promise was not to allow genetic discrimination by insurance companies. That is, if an infant’s DNA shows a family propensity for heart disease, for instance, it would be discriminatory for a company to deny life insurance to that person. When back-benchers introduced an anti-genetic discrimination bill, Trudeau and his cabinet came out against it as a result of massive insurance company lobbying. Their attempts to gut the bill failed and the Liberal Parliament overrode Cabinet and passed the bill anyway. That’s important. Parliaments almost never pass legislation opposed to Cabinet wishes. Perhaps that’s a sign that the Liberal MPs are tired of breaking promises, perhaps… Oh, who am I kidding? Trudeau will find a way to get this through — if the insurance lobby promises high enough rewards.
Electoral Reform: Trudeau promised some kind of proportional representation before the next election. After a committee studied the matter for a while, the Liberals determined that there was no necessity to change from the system now in place. There were several reasons for this: First, about half of Canadians agree with that and want to maintain the current system. [Full disclosure: I am one of them and, just to confuse matters, I also view all polls with mistrust.] Second, back when the UK Tories needed support they made a deal with the Liberal Democrats that they would hold a referendum on electoral reform if the Lib-Dems would join their government. But after the election, the Tories waffled and finally held a referendum on alternative voting, a form of preferential ballot, but not PR, used in Australia. The referendum failed. Third, any change to Proportional Representation would mean adding seats to the legislature, and “More Politicians” is not a great campaign slogan.
The main force behind changing the electoral system is the Green Party, Canada’s answer to the Liberal-Democrats. Greens seem to think that Proportional Representation is a magic wand that will lift them to power, or at least reward their leaders with electoral office, and it has largely replaced environmental issues as the party’s focus. This shift has occurred as the Green membership has gentrified and turned to protecting the middle class from taxation. For instance, the Green support to continue dumping raw sewage in the waters off Victoria, because sewage treatment would raise property taxes. (Remember those polls finding that people would willingly pay more for a clean environment? Those people were not, apparently, Green.)
The New Democrats, adrift after their poor election showing, also backed PR and, for a while, used it as a means to attack the Trudeau government. They seem to have discovered now that most people don’t give a rat’s ass about PR and have given up on that issue.
So that’s… Wait, there was something else. If only my medium-term memory would kick in. Oh, wait! I have it now:
Cannabis Legalization: Pretty quickly post-election Trudeau made some comments that revealed that he thought provinces would regulate cannabis the same way they do liquor and, in fact, sell the two drugs in the same stores. Immediately, Quebec objected, saying that no one had asked them what they wanted and maybe they’d sell cannabis in drug stores, especially the medical stuff. Several court decisions decades ago had said that the federal government could not prohibit medical marijuana, because if you can show medical necessity then the drug has to be available. In one decision, a time limit was given and, if medical marijuana was not available after the date, then cannabis would be removed from the controlled substance list altogether. So the governments of Chrétien and Paul Martin’s brief regime grudgingly made dope available. With a prescription, you could get federally-grown marijuana delivered to you by Canada Post. The Harper Conservative governments left the medical stuff alone, even as they beefed up law enforcement efforts to control the killer weed. Meanwhile, most Canadians said, “legalize it!”
Lots of entrepreneurs were ready to open shop after Trudeau made his announcement, but there was still no formal legislation. Municipalities were left without direction about matters such as licensing. Finally, police began busting these newly opened businesses in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and other cities. Meantime, a House committee is pondering a new law. Possibly it will finish before the next election.
Marc Emery, “Prince of Pot”, being arrested March 9, in Montreal. [Global News screen cap]
Only the promise to bring in more Syrian refugees has been kept. This does not mean that Trudeau’s government is in trouble, although the revolt of back-benchers over genetic discrimination has to be a bit worrisome to party leaders. There was once a time when the Liberal Party was seen as Canada’s “natural ruling party”. That time ended with Mulroney’s Conservative government that followed the Thatcher/Reagan model. Then came Chrétien who made some colossal blunders, but kept us out of Iraq. But when he left, the country dumped the Liberals until Harper became too much to bear. Before Mulroney, the Liberals managed to swipe New Democrat initiatives every time they sensed it would help them, but the NDP has lost its soul and hasn’t anything worth stealing now. The Conservatives are looking for a new leader. One of the two front-runners is Kevin O’Leary, who has never held office and is best known as a reality TV star. Sound familiar?