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Liberals hold cabinet retreat as 2018 budget looms

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted as he arrives for a three day Liberal retreat in London, Ont., on Jan. 10, 2018.


Now firmly into the back half of their first mandate, Justin Trudeau's cabinet is gathering in London, Ont., this week at a key moment for the government.

The coming 2018 budget is effectively the final chance to make significant policy decisions before the next election.

"This will be the last one. Next year's will be almost like their platform," said pollster Darrell Bricker, the chief executive of Ipsos Public Affairs.

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With 26 months of governing behind it and 22 months to go before the next election, the retreat provides an opportunity for cabinet to take stock of the progress – or lack thereof – on some of the government's more ambitious promises.

The Liberals pride themselves on their early moves to boost family benefits and cut income taxes, but much work remains on ambitious promises to fund major new infrastructure projects and address a wide range of concerns facing Indigenous people in Canada. Other big promises, such as electoral reform, have been abandoned entirely.

One of the most challenging deadlines the government faces is the July target for legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. There is also the unresolved uncertainty over the North American free-trade agreement negotiations, which resume later this month in Montreal.

Two of the Liberals' favourite outside advisers – Dominic Barton and Sir Michael Barber – are returning to check in on a government that promised a more results-focused regime. Mr. Barton, the managing director of McKinsey & Co., also chairs the government's advisory council on economic growth.

Sir Michael is best known for heading up former British prime minister Tony Blair's "delivery unit" from 2001 to 2005 and urging other governments to adopt a similar "deliverology" approach.

The Trudeau Liberals have attempted to copy some of those ideas by releasing the Prime Minister's mandate letters to cabinet and then launching a website late last year that tracks progress toward the government's goals.

That tracking tool generated considerable scorn for its generous scoring of the Liberals' record. The pledge to balance the books by 2019, for instance, is listed as "under way with challenges" in spite of the fact that Finance Canada estimates federal finances are on track to stay in the red for decades.

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Conservative MP Karen Vecchio, who represents one of the four federal ridings in the London-area, said the Liberals like to make big promises such as addressing homelessness, but tend to fall short on details. She also says that while the Prime Minister doesn't appear to be concerned with the size of the deficit, her constituents are.

"People are talking about the deficit," she said in an interview. "I think he's going to have to start answering those questions … They're putting out big, umbrella statements and big umbrella programs, but are not looking at the important things like the finances of it."

The official theme of the retreat will sound familiar to anyone who has listened to the Prime Minister or his ministers since they formed government in 2015.

"The cabinet retreat in London will be an opportunity to discuss how we build on the work we started two years ago – and continue creating good, middle-class jobs and delivering economic growth in all parts of the country," the Prime Minister's spokesman, Cameron Ahmad, said in an e-mail.

Mr. Bricker, the pollster, said the government's popularity remains about as strong as it was when the Liberals won their majority. He also said the Liberals will get credit for a strong economy and Mr. Trudeau is still personally popular, but those talking points about the middle class need an update.

"It's getting a little shopworn," he said. "The problem they've run into is a series of unforced errors that kind of demonstrates a drift or just a sense that things are not going along as easily for them as they once were."

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a Hamilton town hall meeting that he shares the “anger” of many Canadians over the government’s settlement with Omar Khadr. The Canadian Press
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