For the Trudeau Liberals, a mid-term malaise
A series of unfulfilled promises and missed targets puts party on an uphill climb
At mid-term, the Liberal government is stuck.
A mid-term malaise is not rare, but no new government in recent memory had ascended to power with greater expectations than Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
Now, it needs to recast itself as the progressive government Canadians thought they had elected in 2015, or face significant political threats on both its flanks.
This is the time in the life of a government when it must face the fact that lofty aspirations have flown head first into the rock face of reality, and much of that will be on display this week as Trudeau meets U.S. President Donald Trump.
The handling of the bilateral CanadaU.S. file had been one of the triumphs of the Trudeau government, but all the strategic nurturing in the world hasn’t stopped the U.S. from throwing NAFTA proposals on the table which many believe are poison pills meant to kill a deal, or from targeting the Canadian aerospace industry with a ridiculous 300 per cent tariff.
Nowhere has the gap between expectations and delivery been wider than on Indigenous reconciliation, part of a sweeping series of pledges Trudeau made on the campaign trail.
It has had two effects — it has helped elevate Indigenous issues in this country to the national conversation and has delivered a greater awareness of historic injustice, but it has also highlighted that Liberal gap.
Despite a commitment to end all drinking water advisories on reserves within five years, the government says there were still 41 short-term advisories as of Aug. 31 and 103 advisories that have been in place for more than a year. The statistics do not include British Columbia.
Symbolic measures have outnumbered substantive measures, but all Liberal efforts on the file will be overshadowed by the failings of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which, in a further sign it is not ready for prime time, announced its latest resignations on a Saturday in the middle of a long weekend.
This should have been the lowesthanging fruit when it came to Indigenous reconciliation.
Another Liberal promise, electoral reform, was cynically tossed overboard after a long series of sham hearings and questionnaires.
The early glow as Trudeau’s government welcomed Syrian refugees has long ago faded. Now the debate revolves around those arriving illegally at land crossings and whether Trudeau oversold the welcoming nature of this country’s immigration system.
Promised deficits of under $10 billion for two years before a return to balanced books was quickly punted, and although this year’s deficit is smaller than forecast, there is no longer any timetable for balance.
Two years after pledging that Canada would return to a peacekeeping role as a sign the country is back on the international stage, the plan is in limbo.
Worse, this government can seem petty, whether moving to tax employee discounts (now apparently under government review), a measure that goes after low-paid retail clerks, not the one per cent, or spending more than $110,000 fighting an Indigenous girl’s $6,000 dental claim.
It has spent more than $700,000 fighting a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order that it cease discriminating against Indigenous children when it comes to health and social services spending.
Trudeau’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, has stumbled in trying to sell promised tax reforms, underestimating the opposition from small business and farmers and handing Andrew Scheer and his Conservatives a ready-made cause.
And, after playing with an empty net on the other side, Trudeau now faces two parties energized by new leaders, the Conservatives under Scheer and the New Democrats under Jagmeet Singh.
A recent gaggle of polls show the Conservatives drawing even with the Liberals, but polling data two years from an election is largely irrelevant.
The good news for the Liberals is that voters still appear to give Trudeau a long leash, and he remains personally popular.
What it does show is the Liberals can no longer glide along on the 2015 headwinds which kept them comfortably ahead of two parties without permanent leaders.
It shows that this is a government still grappling with the tough work of governing, with too many ministers having to find their way in the first half of the mandate.
But it is also a government with two years to regain its progressive footing, whether it be on the environment, a smooth rollout of marijuana legislation or a meaningful foreign policy victory.
Right now, the malaise means danger to the Liberal brand.
Tim Harper writes on national affairs. His column appears in Torstar newspapers.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is in a rut and is now facing energized opposition parties, both of which mean the Liberals will need to up their game, Tim Harper writes.