Saturday, February 13, 2016

The State of Canada after 100 days of Trudeau

As Justin Trudeau completes his first 100 days in office, many in the press are using this traditional benchmark to assess where he, and Canada, stand in the eyes of Canadians and of the world.
My overall feeling is that Mr. Trudeau's first three months have been marked by a buzz and a positivity that has been sorely missing for the last ten years. This is not to say that he hasn't put a foot wrong. He has inherited a horrible economy, which is only going to get worse before it gets better, and this has severely hampered his ability to operate and to make concrete moves towards the many election promises he made. But there seems to me to be a distinct feeling of something (anything) getting done, after years of neglect and lethargy.
In between international engagements, he has buzzed around the country, meeting with premiers, mayors and First Nations chiefs, talking about climate change, stimulus spending and other matters. He has unmuzzled government scientists, and he has actually deigned to speak to the press. He has introduced a gender-equal cabinet; made moves to increase taxation on the richest Canadians and lower taxes for the middle class; at least made a brave attempt to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees to an extremely ambitious timetable; reinstated the long-form census axed by Stephen Harper; instigated a long-overdue inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women; and vowed to stop airstrikes against ISIS before March, replacing them with on-the-ground training missions and humanitarian aid. Arguably not a bad start, and the first Liberal budget is still to come.
In foreign affairs, Trudeau was well and truly thrown in at the deep end, with a whole host of high profile international conferences and meetings to attend. I think he acquitted himself quite well, despite still feeling his way into the role, and not being quite up to speed on some issues. He took some flak at home for spending quite so much time at glad-handers like the glitzy Davos summit, but I actually feel that it was time well spent, and his personable nature, his much maligned "sunnny ways", and his "Canada is back!" message, all went across very well. He is slowly starting to unruffle some of the feathers Stephen Harper had ruffled among what ought to be our international friends and allies.
It is easy to forget the extent to which Harper's insouciant attitude towards international relations had isolated Canada, and the extent to which goodwill for Canada had been frittered away. As a recent article in the Globe and Mail expressed it, "Over the past decade, the Canadian government has lacked ambition and been largely irrelevant in global affairs. Canada is not the player it once was." Just as an example, Canada's defence spending was reduced to about half of the NATO target, dead last among G7 countries, and well below even comparable non-militarist countries like Australia, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. Now, I'm not suggesting a turn towards militarism, but we do have NATO commitments and, if we do not pull our weight, there will be resentment. Canada even had the distinction of being the only G7 country not to ratify, or even sign, the Arms Trade Treaty (on conventional weapons) in 2014.
Similarly, in recent years, we have been batting well below our peers when it comes to international development assistance, with Mr. Harper's final year in office seeing foreign aid reach an all-time low as a percentage of GDP. Canada, as we know, has been all but absent is climate change discussions under Harper. At this point, then, we need all the friends we can get in the international community.
100 days is an arbitrary, and arguably too short, period on which to judge a new leader, but, if nothing, else Trudeau has established a new style of government, and an outgoing, outward-looking, more caring approach, on both the national and the international scene. And that must be a good thing.

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