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The Liberal Government: Two Years In

Ethan Gordon weighs the hits and misses of Justin Trudeau's first two years.

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On October 19, 2015, the Liberal Party of Canada, who had been out of power for nine years, won an impressive election night victory, gaining 148 seats and coasting to a majority government.  The party had been in shambles since the sponsorship scandal of the early 00s dismantled Paul Martin’s tenuous premiership, and a decade of weak leadership saw them relegated to 3rd party status after the NDP’s orange crush in 2011 eroded the Liberal base in Quebec.  At the helm of this Grit Renaissance was a man who had been mocked, chided, and discounted by his opponents, some pointing to his nepotistic roots, his lightweight political education, and most at least mentioning his salon quality hair.  However, after a year of Conservative attack ads that claimed, “he just wasn’t ready”, apparently conceding that soon he might be, Justin Trudeau, son of dynamic 1970s Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, stood at the podium in Montreal, exclaiming that this was now a time of “sunny ways” in Canada.

Trudeau’s honeymoon period was chock full of swooning fans, rock-star like profiles in American magazines which cheerfully praised him in comparison to the tire fire that was the 2016 U.S. Election, and meme (pronounced “meem”) worthy moments that showed that after a generation of the stiff, slow to change Stephen Harper, Canadians had something most in the world did not – a “woke” federal leader.   A committal to the empowering of the cabinet saw for the first time a team made up of half men and half women, along with three Sikhs, two Native Canadians, and a former party leader. In one of their boldest proposals, the Liberals also promised to enact election reform, to address the lack of connection between the first past the post system and Canadians’ actual political opinions.  Two years later, and halfway to another election, a perspective on the Liberal leadership record is in order.

What has gone right:

 After taking over an economy in recession in late 2015, the Liberals bold strategy of economic expansion by ignoring an automatic balancing of the budget confounded some who automatically associated a national deficit with country-wide economic suffering.  At the time of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s economic update in late October, the government was able to announce with confidence that there had been significant financial growth in Canada since they had taken over.  Canada’s GDP saw a 4% growth rate in the first six months of 2017, while higher revenues led to a deficit shrink that was $5 billion more than originally estimated, while lowering the small business tax rate to 10%, and boosting payments made to families under the Canada Child Benefit program and Working Income Tax Benefit.  Finally, buoyed by despite the instability of American politics and industry following the election of Donald Trump, Canadian institutions like railways and auto manufacturing have still seen their value soar in the last year.

While some (including this article) make light of Trudeau’s Beatle like aesthetic appeal to the world, it would be hard to argue that he has not used this presence to bolster Canada’s profile on the world stage.  Repairing a somewhat isolationist approach by the last government, the Liberals have advocated an active Canadian foreign policy, which includes renegotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership without the U.S, in order to give Canada favoured access to Asian markets, re-affirming their support and leadership on the Paris climate accords (after U.S. withdrawal),  and taking a primary role in the global response to the refugee crisis (after U.S. withdr- starting to see a pattern here?), including recent atrocities in Myanmar to the Rohingya people.    Simply put, the abdicating void left by the U.S. as their country struggles to find order in a Trump presidency has allowed Canada to step in as a leading nation in international moral consciousness, whether that role has been automatically assumed or not.

Finally, it seems that the Liberals initial act of gender equality in the Cabinet was not a one-time stunt, and instead, represents a concerted effort on the part of the party to address gender equality on the highest levels.  Trudeau has personally pushed for inclusion of gender protections in NAFTA, citing the true economic consequences of gender divisions in trade, especially in the global south, while announcing a feminist centric foreign aid policy in June that set a goal of at least 95% of the country’s foreign aid set on improving the lives of women and girls, allocating $150 million of the budget to the Women’s Voice and Leadership Program.  This was stated as a specific rebuke to Conservative policies that International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said did not do enough to address female empowerment issues around the globe.

What has gone not-so right:

 Historical Liberal governments have long been accused of campaigning on the left but ruling on the right.  Based on the initial results from this particular governance, not a lot has changed in that aspect.  Despite taking the lead on the Paris Climate agreements, consensus from environmental groups is that the Liberals have not done enough to address climate change, despite their ambitions plans to do so.  A fall audit report released in October found that the government failed to implement successive emissions-reduction plans, while also not adopting stricter regulations on greenhouse gasses.  As a result of this , the Liberal action plan on reaching 2020 target emissions has largely been abandoned for a more realistic 2030 target. This is coupled with the government’s flip-flopping on building particular pipelines in British Columbia, which drew fire from both federal and provincial Green and NDP parties while also catching fire from Western conservatives for not doing enough to address the oil and gas industry.  As well, despite openly advocating for more attention to reconciliation efforts with Canada’s Indigenous communities, there has been little tangible progress in this large and complex national matter, as despite ambitious declarations to “”end the Indian Act”, the Liberals have been slow to actual change, including refusing to initially accept a Senate amendment to sex based discrimination in the Act.

In addition to their shortcomings on progressive causes, the Liberals most ambitious and comprehensive campaign promise – full electoral reform, fizzled out spectacularly within their first two years in power.  Using the promise as a chip for real change, the Liberals took power in 2015 on the promise to have a new voting system in place, be it ranked ballot or proportional representation, by 2019.  But, after polling Canadians and going through extensive studies, Trudeau and his government abandoned their promise,  stating that there was just not enough of a consensus across the country to switch to one new form of voting.  While the decision in isolation could be argued as prudent, realistic, or even logical, critics attached plenty of cynicism to Trudeau’s decision, attacking his inability to keep a key promise, and opining that it was an empty vow used simply to undermine their NDP opponents.

Finally, in keeping with traditions of Liberals being torpedoed by financial scandals, Trudeau’s finance minister Bill Morneau has been bombarded by the opposition because of perceived ethics violations.  Morneau, whose family company is the human resource consultant Morneau-Shepell, did not initially disclose that he had not put his shares in the company (valued at over $20 million) in a blind trust before approving a multi-million dollar loan to Bombardier, who are one of Morneau-Shepell’s largest customers.   According to conflict of interest commissioner Mary Dawson, Morneau is the only Liberal cabinet minister who holds indirect assets without a blind trust in place.   Given the Liberals’ success in poaching working class voters from the NDP in the last election, Morneau’s gaffes, coupled with Trudeau’s own decision to vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island  paints a picture of a government that as a best case is not in touch with everyday Canadians, and worst case, is set on enriching themselves through power.

Since the 2015 election, both the Conservatives and NDP have elected new leaders, Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh, both of whom are younger than the boyish Trudeau. Scheer is a Harper-youth generation aw-shucks prairie kid who looks to appeal to the rural working class, while Singh, the first ever Sikh to lead a national party, has already galvanized support in ethnic neighborhoods in key Liberal strongholds in Ontario. Both will be gunning for Trudeau in 2019, and both represent new challenges to a government that despite a glitzy arrival on the federal scene, have struggled to do any more than a replacement level majority party.  As of November 2017, the Liberals have just under a six point lead in aggregate polls over the 2nd place Tories, a full seventeen percent less than just after the election, and while there is plenty of time for stabilization, it seems clear that the numbers are tightening, and even more clear that a government built on “sunny ways” will need a little more vitamin D before it can safely predict a repeat victory.

Ethan Gordon is a 3L and Editor-in-Chief of Juris Diction. 

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