Dan­ger­ous days lie ahead for Lib­er­als

Edmonton Journal - - NP - An­drew Coyne Com­ment

Viewed from one di­rec­tion the Lib­er­als can take some sat­is­fac­tion, as Par­lia­ment re­sumes Mon­day, from their cur­rent stand­ing in the polls. With a lead of roughly 10 points over the Con­ser­va­tives, they would win an­other com­fort­able ma­jor­ity were an elec­tion to be held to­day.

Viewed in an­other way they may be in­clined to some un­ease. Only 10 points? Down from the 20-point lead they en­joyed not a year ago? With un­em­ploy­ment at a nine-year low and nei­ther of the main op­po­si­tion par­ties, un­til re­cently, in pos­ses­sion of a per­ma­nent leader?

There may come a time when the Trudeau gov­ern­ment, now half­way through its ex­pected life, looks back on the last two years as hal­cyon days. It was all so easy then: a de­cap­i­tated op­po­si­tion, a complacent pub­lic, a fawn­ing me­dia. The Lib­er­als may have won the elec­tion on a false premise — the stag­na­tion in mid­dle class in­comes, dis­proved yet again by this week’s cen­sus data, not to men­tion the “re­ces­sion” that never was — but of what im­por­tance was that, af­ter they’d won?

Less eas­ily dis­missed, they ran on a plat­form that was largely di­vided be­tween prom­ises they had no in­ten­tion of keep­ing — bal­anc­ing the bud­get by their fourth year, say, or re­form­ing the elec­toral sys­tem — and prom­ises they hadn’t the first clue how to achieve. This is a gov­ern­ment, and a prime min­is­ter, much given to the grand ges­ture, the sweep­ing state­ment, with the de­tails left to be filled in later. And it is those “de­tails” that may pose the greater threat. No­body minds a bro­ken prom­ise half so much as a cocked-up one.

It was one thing to adopt the same stance on trans­fers to the prov­inces as the Harper gov­ern­ment, hav­ing cam­paigned on a prom­ise to in­crease them, or the same tar­gets for car­bon emis­sions they had ear­lier at­tacked as in­ad­e­quate. Peo­ple have been ed­u­cated to ex­pect no more of in­com­ing gov­ern­ments.

The prom­ise to end the com­bat mis­sion against ISIS was like­wise eas­ily fudged, trans­formed into a “non­com­bat” mis­sion that in­volves fir­ing on the en­emy in a war zone. No body bags, no pic­tures; no pic­tures, no story.

But the re­volt of small busi­ness over a pack­age of pro­posed tax changes will not so read­ily be set to one side. No doubt the clos­ing of a few tax pref­er­ences, of ben­e­fit mostly to the wellto-do, was in­tended to fit with the Lib­er­als’ pre­ferred im­age as de­fend­ers of the mid­dle class against the preda­tory rich.

But the ef­fect, with the Tories’ en­cour­age­ment, has been to of­fend a great many not-so-rich small busi­ness own­ers — even those un­af­fected by the changes. The im­me­di­ate dam­age is prob­a­bly con­tain­able, with a few tweaks. But the longer-term im­pact may be to add to the pic­ture the Tories are try­ing to paint of an en­ti­tled prime min­is­ter with no feel­ing for the strug­gles of the av­er­age per­son — one who va­ca­tions on the Aga Khan’s pri­vate is­land and dines with Chi­nese bil­lion­aires at pri­vate fundrais­ers.

The Abo­rig­i­nal file is po­ten­tially even more dan­ger­ous. The con­trast, be­tween the Lib­eral leader who in op­po­si­tion en­dorsed all 94 rec­om­men­da­tions of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion on the day its re­port was re­leased, and the prime min­is­ter who has yet to de­liver on such ba­sics as clean drink­ing water for re­serves, is pure Trudeau: big on sym­bol­ism, not so big on sub­stance.

On some files, the two are not merely con­trasted, but in con­flict. Wit­ness the in­creas­ingly sur­real de­mands the Lib­er­als have been mak­ing at the NAFTA ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble: a gen­der chap­ter, a cli­mate change chap­ter, even the whole­sale abo­li­tion of “right-to-work” laws in the 28 states that have them, as if the Trump White House ei­ther would or could de­mand they must.

The long-run­ning farce over the CF-18 re­place­ment con­tin­ues, mean­while. Boe­ing hav­ing calmly ig­nored the gov­ern­ment’s daft threat to can­cel the su­per-ur­gent “in­terim” Su­per Hor­net con­tract if it did not drop its trade rem­edy suit against Bom­bardier, the Lib­er­als have been re­duced to in­quir­ing whether they could buy sec­ond-hand fighter jets from Aus­tralia.

The flood of asy­lum seek­ers on the Que­bec bor­der, like­wise, though it has re­ceded from its peak, could well re­sume at any time: it is the gov­ern­ment that will wear any re­sult­ing disor­der, not least af­ter Trudeau’s — again, the grand ges­ture — seem­ingly open in­vi­ta­tion for them to come. Bill C-45, le­gal­iz­ing marijuana, may pass soon enough, but prov­inces and po­lice forces are com­plain­ing the ar­bi­trary July 2018 dead­line for im­ple­men­ta­tion is unattain­able; here as well the blame, if any­thing goes wrong, will at­tach it­self to the Lib­er­als.

Th­ese are mat­ters less of ide­ol­ogy than of com­pe­tence. And yet Lib­er­als must be mind­ful of how ex­posed their po­si­tion may soon be­come on ei­ther flank, as the new lead­ers of the Con­ser­va­tives and, next month, the NDP be­gin to find their voice.

They tilted quite a long way to the left, while the NDP was oth­er­wise dis­tracted. But if they try to tilt back to the right, for ex­am­ple by forc­ing through the Trans Moun­tain pipe­line pro­ject — the last of three pro­pos­als for ship­ping Al­berta crude to over­seas mar­kets and the ba­sis, in com­bi­na­tion with a na­tional car­bon tax, of the Lib­er­als’ claim to the mid­dle ground on the en­ergy/cli­mate is­sue — they risk los­ing votes to their left.

No one can pre­dict what the next two years will bring. Short of a re­ces­sion, it is still hard to see how the Grits could lose in 2019. But for the first time, it is not in­con­ceiv­able. The smirks have not been wiped en­tirely from Lib­eral faces, but they look a lit­tle more forced.

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