Dangerous days lie ahead for Liberals
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 well-todo, 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.