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The Liberal government, nearing the halfway mark of its mandate, doesn't have as many new bills on the books as Harper's Conservatives did in the same period – but as John Ibbitson explains, quality often matters more than quantity

The House of Commons has risen for the summer, and if the rumours are true, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have Parliament prorogued, meaning MPs will return to a new session this autumn, complete with a new speech from the throne outlining the government's plans for the next two years.

Critics point out that the Liberals have passed fewer bills than Stephen Harper's Conservative government managed at a similar point in its majority-government mandate. But the amount of legislation a Parliament creates matters less than the quality of that legislation. Let's take a look at this Liberal government's record, as it draws near the halfway mark in its mandate.


Bills that have received royal assent

Governor-General David Johnston takes part in a royal assent ceremony in the Senate chamber on June 19, 2017.

Taxes and death

The Trudeau government's first big bill, C-2, kept an election promise to take from the rich and give to the middle class. The tax rate on mid-level incomes was reduced, but income above $200,000 was hit with a new marginal tax rate of 33 per cent. Whether anyone noticed on payday is an interesting question.

Another big, early bill involved how people die. Complying with an order from the Supreme Court, Parliament passed C-14, which made it legal for doctors to offer a medically-assisted death under certain conditions. Apart from the groundbreaking nature of the bill, C-14 was notable for the performance of the new, non-aligned senators chosen by Mr. Trudeau on merit. The Senate sent C-14 back to the House with seven recommended amendments. The House accepted six, but rejected the proposed amendment that would permit someone to receive a medically assisted death even if they did not suffer from a terminal condition. The Senate deferred to the final will of the Commons, setting a precedent in the evolving role of the newly-empowered Red Chamber.

The big, big budget and its big, big deficit

Much of the government's agenda arrived early, with the 2016 budget. Finance Minister Bill Morneau's ambitious agenda included an expanded child-care benefit for people with lower and middle incomes (the benefit is clawed back for high-income taxpayers), an ambitious, 10-year, $120-billion infrastructure program, and increased funding for the arts and Indigenous Canadians. But to pay for it, the $10-billion deficit that the Liberals had campaigned on turned into a projected $29-billion deficit, with no plans to ever balance the books.

Better pensions for all, with all required to pay

One of the Liberal government's more significant accomplishments has been securing provincial agreement on matters of national interest. Based on that agreement, Bill C-26 increased the amount people can receive from the Canada Pension Plan and the amount workers and employers are required to contribute. The increased CPP will help self-employed workers and others who don't have access to corporate pension plans.

Free trade with the EU, and then some

In opposition, the Liberals were agnostic about the Harper government's efforts to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the European Union. Once in power, they became enthusiastic converts, shepherding the agreement to completion despite the last-minute objection of the Belgian province of Wallonia. For good measure, the Trudeau government also ratified a free-trade agreement with Ukraine.

Because 'a Canadian is a Canadian is Canadian'

Part of the Liberal agenda has been to revoke elements of the Conservative agenda. C-6 overturned a Harper government law that made it possible to revoke the acquired citizenship of those who committed a terrorist act. The Liberals revoked the Tory law because "a Canadian is a Canadian is Canadian," as Mr. Trudeau insisted. The Liberal changes also reduced the length of time needed to acquire citizenship and eliminated a residency requirement the Conservatives had imposed.

As well, the Liberal government has revoked legislation passed by its Conservative predecessor that made it harder to certify a union and that required unions to disclose their financial transactions.

Whatever your identity; however you express it

The Governor-General assented Monday to C-16, which prohibits discrimination and hate speech based on gender identity and gender expression, including transgender Canadians. Protecting and advancing the rights of the LGBT community has become a major priority for the Trudeau government; this new law is the most tangible expression thus far of that support.


Bills still before Parliament

Smoke 'em if you've got 'em – a year from now

The legislation for which the government may be most remembered, one way or another, is C-45, the Cannabis Act, which will legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use. Although some premiers and mayors warn they won't have regulatory regimes in place in time, the Liberals want pot to be legal by July 1, 2018. Expect the marijuana debate to occupy much of Parliament's time when the House and Senate return this fall.

Guarding the guardians

In 2015, Liberals voted in favour of C-51, the Conservatives' contentious national security bill, saying they would fix the bad bits once they formed government. C-59, introduced Tuesday, is that fix. It creates the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, with a mandate to oversee the security and intelligence agencies, each of which currently has its own review mechanisms. Other elements of the old bill are also modified or reined in, though rarely jettisoned completely. As well, Bill C-22, which creates a committee of parliamentarians to oversee the security and intelligence services, cleared the Senate this week.

Promise made; promise half-broken

The election promise was clear: "We will ensure that Access to Information applies to the Prime Minster's and Ministers' Offices." As it turns out, not so much. When the Liberals introduced their promised update to the Access to Information Act this week, they did not expand its provisions to allow access requests to the PMO and ministers' offices. They did, however, keep their promise to give the information commission the power to compel the government to release documents. So, glass half whichever-you-prefer.

Other bills under consideration include legislation that would improve benefits for veterans – though many veterans claim the government is still not keeping its election commitments to them – a bill that would ease voting restrictions and restrictions on the powers of Elections Canada imposed by the Conservatives; the budget implementation bill, the most prominent feature of which is a projected $29-billion deficit; a bill that would prohibit political parties from holding fundraising events in secret (this is the government trying to make amends for the cash-for-access scandal), and legislation that would reduce (though not eliminate) gender-based discrimination under the Indian Act.


It's not always about the bill

Like any government, some of the Liberals' biggest priorities aren't expressed in legislation. For example, earlier this month Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan released a long-awaited paper on the Liberals' defence policy. That paper commits the government to increasing defence spending from 1.2 per cent of GDP (though by other measures, it's really one per cent) to 1.4 per cent over the next several years. During the election campaign, the Liberals vowed to scrap the Conservative government's commitment to purchase the expensive Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet. In government, the Liberals have announced tentative plans to acquire 18 Boeing Super Hornets as an interim measure. The defence policy review commits the government to acquiring 88 new fighter jets (up from the Conservative commitment to 65), and the F-35 could be a contender. Whether the government is Liberal or Conservative, defence procurement is always a mess.

Another big Liberal commitment is to meet the targets set out in the Paris accord for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With the high-profile exception of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Mr. Trudeau has convinced provincial governments to impose some form of carbon tax – either directly or through a cap-and-trade emissions-reduction system – to meet the targets. (In fact, the bigger provinces were already well ahead of the federal government's plans.) If recalcitrant provinces don't establish or meet their goals, the Liberals have threatened to impose a carbon tax on them. But that's down the road and may never happen.

Ottawa also convinced the provincial governments to devote greater resources to home-care and mental-health programs, in exchange for increased government funding. The Liberals can take credit on several fronts for successfully negotiating with the provinces on social policy without resorting to legislative coercion. In that sense, not having to introduce a bill is the biggest achievement of all.


Opinion: John Ibbitson rates the Trudeau government as Ottawa wraps up for the summer