For the Trudeau Lib­er­als, a mid-term malaise

A se­ries of un­ful­filled prom­ises and missed tar­gets puts party on an up­hill climb

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - TIM HARPER

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.

CANA­DIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO

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.

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