Testing Trudeau

When Justin Trudeau became leader of the federal Liberals, the party bounded from third to first in the opinion polls. Now, they are back in third. What happened?

The Liberal policies so far disclosed are a grab-bag of ideas, some better than others.

Democratic Reform: Their commitment to appointing independent senators is more coherent than either the Tories or the NDP. They want to change the way MPs are appointed from the first-past-the-post system, although the particulars are to be determined later.

They want to make Parliamentary Officers stronger and more independent. Is that useful? The estimable Sheila Fraser was effective for ten years within the current remit of the Auditor General. On the other hand, George Radwanski had to resign as Privacy Commissioner because of lavish spending, Christiane Ouimet was exited after producing no output in three years as Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, and the self-absorbed Kevin Page was frequently out of his depth as Parliamentary Budget Officer. Stronger appointments will matter more than stronger mandates.

The Liberal proposal to strengthen access to information is a good idea, but the notion that emails within Cabinet offices or the PMO should be accessible is ill-considered—the result would be no emails at all between key players who need to vigorously debate ideas before deciding what is worth presenting to Parliament.

Finally, the ironclad commitment to have a 50-50 gender balance in cabinet, while admirable at a distance, will put political correctness ahead of merit if one gender happens to be much more strongly represented in the government caucus.

Energy and the Environment: The Liberals commit to “meet with the provinces within 90 days of this year’s UN climate summit—and work with them to set national targets on carbon emissions and pricing.”

The right kind of pricing on carbon is an admirable notion, although it risks costing jobs if Canada gets too far ahead of the Americans—President Obama talks a good game, but gets no cooperation from Congress.

The Liberals want to build climate change considerations into National Energy Board evaluations. How that might work is unclear. Trudeau supports the Keystone pipeline, but not Northern Gateway—the former is mostly through the United States, so is not opposed by many Canadian voters. They are neither for nor against Energy East or the Trans-Mountain expansion, they just want a more rigorous process. It’s all quite vague.

“Liberals will make critical investments in clean energy.” Such investments are desirable. Having government do it directly will usually turn out badly—Ontario has been responsible for many overpriced mistakes that are driving up its energy costs and hurting the competitiveness of its industries.

Tax Policy: The Liberals want to reduce taxes on the bracket from $45,000 to $90,000 , paying for it with increased taxes on income above $200,000. This is pure political calculation, which might be OK if the math worked but, as many commentators have observed, the high bracket tax increase will produce far less revenue than the Liberals predict.

Health Care: “We believe the federal government must show leadership and work in collaboration with provincial and territorial partners to address critical health care issues…”

Collaboration with other jurisdictions has certainly not been part of the Harper style. The Conservatives have provided clear commitments to future increases in funding, but have left the provinces to figure out how to spend it.

It is questionable whether the provinces actually want leadership, or just a forum in which to ask for more money.

In total, the policy proposals have several rough edges—but those are likely to be of more interest to policy wonks than the average voter. Overall, the package lives up to its claim to represent real change. The questions troubling voters are more about the messenger than the message.

Leaders of opposition parties have few opportunities to make decisions that actually matter. Trudeau has not handled his well. An announced policy of open nominations has been frequently breached, leading to cynicism and defections in several ridings.

He seems so anxious to look decisive that he often acts abruptly.

He announced that all Liberal senators would be expelled from the Liberal parliamentary caucus without telling them first. He suspended two MPs from caucus without giving them an opportunity to understand or respond to the allegations against them. He appears to have decided on the fly that all Liberal MPs would have to vote against putting any limits on abortion—a position he had to clarify twice.

He is becoming competent in delivering carefully rehearsed speeches, but his advisers must be anxious when he has to go beyond his prepared script. He was not nearly as strong as Mulcair in Parliament. When asked, Liberal partisans tend to emphasize the team around him, or his ability to grow into the job.

The consequence of a fixed election date is a very long campaign during which much can change. The debates will begin on August 6th. Mulcair and Harper will be tough, so Trudeau can prove the skeptics wrong if he can articulate a thoughtful grasp of the issues under pressure.

Canada has not historically had the American fascination with dynasties (Kennedys, Rockefellers, Hilary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush in 2016 seems likely).

If the Trudeau Liberals are to look like a contender again, voters will want to answer yes to one question: Would you vote for him if his name was Justin Smith?


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