A year ago this weekend, Canadians were preoccupied with the 2015 federal general election. The campaign had been a roller-coaster ride, and the vote was just days away.
When it had all begun on Aug. 4, the pollsters were predicting a slim NDP victory, with the Liberals finishing a distant third. But by the end of September, the NDP’s lead had dissolved, and Justin Trudeau’s party was ascendant.
And then came October. Mr. Trudeau’s team, with its consistently positive – and even daring (deficits on purpose?!) – messaging, surged into the lead early in the month and stayed there. On Oct. 19, the Liberals won a robust majority after almost a decade in the political wilderness. The Conservatives were reduced to the official Opposition, but without their leader, Stephen Harper, who resigned. The NDP were decimated and took the Liberals’ place in the hinterland.
It was a remarkable performance by Mr. Trudeau and his party. But it may have left Canadians with the impression that the new government would move as quickly in office as the Liberals had so impressively done out of it. After all, it had been two short years between Mr. Trudeau’s arrival as leader in 2013 and the historic election in 2015.
The youngish leader with the familiar name created a surge of momentum for his party and its ideas, and that in turn created the expectation that Canada’s serialized Trudeau government, version 2.0, would turn the country on its head overnight. When he released all the mandate letters of his new cabinet, describing in purple language their nation-changing responsibilities, that only added to the impression that something revolutionary was in the air.
That hasn’t happened, of course. Governments never move at the speed of campaign rhetoric. But Mr. Trudeau’s first year in power has nonetheless produced a number of positive changes. There have been missteps, and he has put off dealing with some of the more difficult issues he faces. There have also been a few early glimpses of the kind of cynical politicization of policy that was prevalent in the Harper government.
But, overall, one would have to struggle to make the argument that Mr. Trudeau isn’t off to a good start.
Some of his government’s initiatives were no-brainers and required little effort, such as bringing back the long-form census and reaching out to the like-minded Obama administration in the United States.
Others were straightforward budget measures linked to campaign promises: the new child benefit, for instance. The Liberals also lowered income taxes for the middle class and raised them for the richest Canadians, and restored some of the benefits that go to veterans.
But the Liberals have done some difficult things, too. Bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees during a period of heightened anxiety about migrants was one of them. Amending the law to allow for assisted death, while preventing worrisome abuses, in spite of demands from absolutists that there be no restrictions at all, was another.
As well, the cabinet approved the controversial Pacific NorthWest LNG megaproject to ship natural gas via pipeline from the northern British Columbia interior to a port on the coast. At the same time, Mr. Trudeau voluntarily shouldered a huge portion of the political burden of reducing Canada’s carbon footprint by announcing that Ottawa will impose carbon-pricing regimes on provinces that fail to do so themselves. Given that most provinces were already on board, it wasn’t the riskiest move ever, but it did signal the Prime Minister’s resolve to deal with climate change.
On aboriginal issues, the government has kept some promises and broken others. There will be an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, but there won’t be wholesale ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That’s a good decision, if unpopular. The mistake the Liberals made was to promise to ratify the dangerously vague UNDRIP in the first place, a realization they now seem to have come to.
The Trudeau government also broke its promise to spend billions on funding for First Nations education over the first four years of its mandate, instead holding back a third of the money until after the next federal election. This is the kind of cynicism that the Liberals attacked in opposition but that they have found useful as a governing party, already looking to the next election campaign.
That same cynicism was visible in the excessive moving expenses claimed by two of Mr. Trudeau’s closest allies and advisers, Gerald Butts and Katie Telford. The damage control around that episode had the reek of routine Ottawa mendacity to it, something so at odds with the sunny ways promised by Team Trudeau.
This is the greatest challenge the Trudeau government will face, in fact – that its supporters will discover sooner rather than later that this is just another administration with all the bad habits and defensive tics of its predecessors. The prolonged honeymoon period it is enjoying can only last so long, and there are difficult files ahead.
Immigration, with many Canadians of the opinion that it should be cut back. The controversial legalization of marijuana. The reform of our voting system and the proposed end of first-past-the-post elections. And let’s not forget that Canada still needs a pipeline to ship its landlocked oil to port if it wants to see strong economic growth. That alone would test any government, what with all the competing interests – regional, political, environmental, aboriginal – lining up to make it a pivotal issue.
If the Trudeau government can pull that off, then it will have truly achieved something memorable.
Editor's note: A Globe editorial published Friday incorrectly said the Trudeau government eliminated the GST on feminine hygiene products in 2016. In fact, the tax was eliminated in 2015 by the Harper government. This is a corrected version of the editorial.Report Typo/Error
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