Thursday, October 20, 2016

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals after the first year in power

As Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government complete one year in office after their resounding electoral victory last October, many media outlets are taking the opportunity to grade his progress and achievements so far, and to look ahead to his prospects of fulfilling his ambitious electoral mandate in the months to come.
After a very promising start, I must confess to some disappointment and frustration with the man and his party in recent months. But he has managed to achieve one thing that hardly any previous Prime Minister (including his own, generally well-regarded, father) has ever been able to boast: he is apparently more popular now than he was when elected. Although the Liberals won over 54% of the seats in Parliament in the election, their share of the popular vote was actually only about 39% (see my comments on electoral reform below). But his much-vaunted "sunny ways" and his star power seem to have won over many who were not totally convinced by him at the time of the election. Some blame a leaderless and directionless opposition for at least part of this effect, but it is nevertheless quite an achievement. It certainly makes a very pleasant change to have a leader who is liked and respected the world over, and Canadians abroad are finally starting to hold their heads up again after a decade of embarrassment.
There is no doubt that Mr. Trudeau came in with guns a-blazing. He promptly withdrew Canada's CF-18 fighter jets from the air war against IS in favour of training and ground support; he went ahead with the immigration and resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada, despite a series of world events that might easily have derailed the process; he ended Stephen Harper's visa requirements for Mexican visitors; he made moves to increase taxation on the richest Canadians and to lower taxes for the middle class; he reinstated the long-form census axed by Stephen Harper, to great popular approval; he instigated a long-overdue inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women; he installed a gender-balanced cabinet, and re-opened long-soured lines of communication with provincial premiers, native leaders, and the press; he tried to rescue what is left of Canada's environmental reputation and integrity by signing the Paris accord on climate change; he personally negotiated the release of a Canadian missionary long held in a Chinese jail and eased a simmering trade dispute over canola exports to China, while only hinting vaguely at future talks on an extradition treaty with China (it remains to be seen whether such talks actually come to anything, and that might yet colour his other achievements in China).
Yes, there have been a few set-backs along the way, some of which I have already commented on in this blog - "nannygate", "elbowgate", aides' relocation expenses, etc - but these have been relatively minor and usually deftly handled. The disappointing government response to the ongoing scandal of Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia is a more concerning development, and is bruising Mr. Trudeau's squeaky clean reputation both abroad and at home.
However, now that the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, there are several much more knotty problems to deal with in the coming months. For example, negotiating a health transfer deal with the provinces will be a challenge, as it always is. A climate change deal, including the imposition of a carbon tax on those provinces that do not already have one, will also be a challenge, although mainly due to the maverick Brad Wall in Saskatchewan (and kudos to Trudeau for having the cojones to propose it in the first place, and to finally talk seriously about bringing in energy conservation and renewable energy regulations for new building projects).
Trudeau also seems to be distancing himself from the Liberals' major election promise to change the electoral system in Canada from the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) model to some kind of proportional representation system. Despite an unambiguous promise that the last election would be the last to be held under the FPTP system, Mr. Trudeau is now hinting that any decision to reform the country's electoral system should lie with the people, and his feeling seems to be that, after electing a majority Liberal government to replace the unpopular Stephen Harper Conservatives, the people are actually quite happy with FPTP. This is rather circular and self-serving reasoning, and has more the sound of a cynical political pragmatist rather than that of a young na├»ve idealist.
Other cracks are also starting to appear in the shining armour of the Liberals, one example being the apparently widespread use of exclusive and expensive fundraisers which give those who are willing to pay exclusive access to senior cabinet minsters. Although, Trudeau vehemently denies it, such events appear to contravene the Liberals own stringent rules on lobbying and fundraising.
So, some good, some bad, some middling, and some judgements reserved. One the whole, though, a reasonably promising first year, I think it's fair to say, and certainly not a disaster.

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