Midterm re­port: ‘Must do bet­ter’

Toronto Star - - NEWS -

Half­way through its man­date, the Trudeau govern­ment is stum­bling. It’s mak­ing too many un­forced er­rors and fac­ing a much more chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment both at home and abroad. If the prime min­is­ter wants to make his first term a suc­cess, he’ll have to make sure his team per­forms a lot bet­ter than they have in re­cent weeks.

The stum­bles are ob­vi­ous — in­clud­ing the messy rollout of Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau’s tax re­forms and this week’s ap­palling mis­fire by the Canada Rev­enue Agency. Even rais­ing the idea of tar­get­ing dis­counts for poorly paid re­tail clerks is not a good look for a govern­ment that cham­pi­ons the “mid­dle class.”

The chal­lenges are equally clear. At home, the govern­ment faces a pair of fresh-faced op­po­si­tion lead­ers ea­ger to make their mark. And it’s crunch time in Canada’s most im­por­tant in­ter­na­tional re­la­tion­ship, as Don­ald Trump threat­ens to torch the trade deal that un­der­pins much of the North Amer­i­can econ­omy. Ev­ery­thing will get harder from here on in.

The gap between the ex­pec­ta­tions raised by the elec­tion of the Trudeau Lib­er­als two years ago next week and its per­for­mance in of­fice has be­come dan­ger­ously wide, and we will deal with that in more de­tail on Satur­day. But at midterm it’s worth first re­call­ing that this govern­ment does ac­tu­ally have a record of solid ac­com­plish­ments.

It broke de­ci­sively with the rul­ing or­tho­doxy of small govern­ment and bal­anced bud­gets at all cost. It launched the most am­bi­tious in­fra­struc­ture pro­gram in the coun­try’s his­tory. And it re­vived the idea that govern­ment can be ac­tivist and take a lead­ing role in shap­ing the fu­ture.

In its first bud­get it brought in the Canada Child Ben­e­fit, one of the most im­por­tant tax re­forms in decades. That alone will lift as many as 300,000 chil­dren out of poverty. And it took a long over­due step by ex­pand­ing the vi­tal but in­ad­e­quate Canada Pen­sion Plan.

It re­flected Canada at its best, af­ter years of crabbed govern­ment un­der the Harper Con­ser­va­tives. Justin Trudeau’s gen­der-par­ity cabi­net was and re­mains a break­through: it will be hard for any govern­ment to re­treat much on that. And the early de­ci­sion to wel­come 25,000 Syr­ian refugees was an am­bi­tious and wel­come state­ment that Canada would buck the trend of in­creas­ing sus­pi­cion to­ward out­siders.

It staked out a lead­er­ship po­si­tion abroad, dou­bling down on sup­port for a rule-based in­ter­na­tional sys­tem in sharp con­trast to Trump’s short-sighted and de­struc­tive “Amer­ica First” na­tion­al­ism. For­eign Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land, one of the govern­ment’s strong­est per­form­ers, set out an ad­mirably clear vi­sion for what might be called the anti-Trump world view — with­out un­nec­es­sar­ily pok­ing the pres­i­dent in the eye.

It took an im­por­tant step for­ward on the en­vi­ron­ment by set­ting a na­tional min­i­mum price for car­bon — al­beit a rel­a­tively mod­est one. At the same time, it adopted the same tar­gets for green­house gas emis­sions as the Harper govern­ment. This is one area where it should have been more am­bi­tious.

It brought for­ward some sub­stan­tial and pro­gres­sive le­gal re­forms — in­clud­ing the law on as­sisted dy­ing and le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana, due to come into ef­fect next sum­mer. Th­ese are dif­fi­cult, com­pli­cated is­sues and the govern­ment de­serves credit for tak­ing them on.

Fi­nally, it has presided over an econ­omy that has grown steadily stronger. An impressive 375,000 jobs have been cre­ated in the past year, av­er­age wages are ris­ing, and un­em­ploy­ment is lower than it’s been since the eve of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis in 2008. That’s a solid record and it will be a chal­lenge to keep the streak go­ing.

All this is pos­i­tive and was very much in tune with the pub­lic’s de­sire for a break with the pre­vi­ous decade of cramped, se­cre­tive Con­ser­va­tive rule.

At the same time, though, the govern­ment has too of­ten un­der­mined its own best in­ten­tions through a com­bi­na­tion of ar­ro­gance, in­ept­ness and need­less foot-drag­ging.

It showed ar­ro­gance when it clung for far too long to the cash-forac­cess fundrais­ing sys­tem, un­der­min­ing the prime min­is­ter’s im­age as a new-age leader. There was ar­ro­gance, too, when se­nior aides claimed ex­penses amount­ing to hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars (much of it quickly re­paid).

The govern­ment has also been in­ept in man­ag­ing some im­por­tant is­sues. Ex­hibit No. 1 in that area would be elec­toral re­form, a poorly thought-out prom­ise that went from bad to worse be­fore fi­nally be­ing mer­ci­fully killed. The way Morneau’s tax re­form pro­pos­als were in­tro­duced over the sum­mer was al­most as rocky.

The govern­ment also did it­self no favours by tak­ing much too long to act on some key prom­ises, such as scrap­ping Bill C-51, the Harper govern­ment’s no­to­ri­ous se­cu­rity law. That took un­til this past June. It has been far too wed­ded to car­ry­ing out end­less “con­sul­ta­tions” in ar­eas where quick ac­tion would be much prefer­able.

As it moves into the sec­ond half of its man­date, the govern­ment must cor­rect th­ese flaws. There must be no more ex­pense scan­dals or costly hol­i­day trips to pri­vate trop­i­cal islands. Those are the kind of things that can tar any govern­ment with an out-of-touch, elit­ist im­age.

There must be much less tol­er­ance for er­rors by min­is­ters. This is no longer a rookie team; vot­ers have a right to ex­pect com­pe­tence, at the very least. And they will rightly judge the prime min­is­ter by the per­for­mance of the men and women he trusts with ma­jor re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The govern­ment must also be more de­ci­sive. It should stop dither­ing and move ahead on key prom­ises that re­main un­ful­filled two long years af­ter the elec­tion. It must close the gap between ex­pec­ta­tions and re­sults.

On Satur­day we will set out some of the ar­eas where the govern­ment needs to move to make that hap­pen. The Lib­er­als, and Trudeau per­son­ally, won a re­mark­able and well-de­served vic­tory on Oct. 19, 2015. But if they al­low their govern­ment to drift they risk un­der­min­ing their own suc­cesses.

The Trudeau govern­ment has some solid ac­com­plish­ments but has too of­ten un­der­mined its own best in­ten­tions through ar­ro­gance, in­ept­ness and need­less foot-drag­ging

OLIVIER DOULIERY/TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump wel­comed Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau to the White House this week.

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