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Government in transition

Justin Trudeau surprised almost everyone by winning a majority this week. But now that he has, the demands to make good on his campaign promises will come fast and furious. Here are the first set of issues that his new government will have to tackle (click headings to jump ahead)


In electing a majority Liberal government, some electors voted for more change than others, and some voted for different change than others. How can incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau please them all?

In electing a majority Liberal government, some electors voted for more change than others, and some voted for different change than others. How can incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau please them all?


How do you make change work?

Justin Trudeau surfed the aspirations of millions of voters for a more optimistic, inclusive, forward-looking Canada, and those millions rewarded him with a majority Liberal government.

But an impatient and conflicted electorate will expect the incoming administration to move swiftly to meet those promises. Hope and change can quickly curdle. Just ask those who expected Barack Obama to calm the waters and bind his nation's wounds overnight.

The good news is that many of the Liberal promises, especially in the areas of public-service reform and social policy, don't cost any real money.

For some issues, such as missing and murdered indigenous women, voting reform, and legalizing marijuana, appointing a task force or commission and giving it a deadline to deliver recommendations can buy the government time to manage its agenda.

The bad news is that in areas such as health care, environmental policy and infrastructure spending, the challenges are complex and the solutions expensive. And those solutions must be reached in collaboration with stakeholders – business, labour and environmental leaders, nonprofits and NGOs, and premiers. Above all, premiers.

One big advantage Stephen Harper had was that, as a truly conservative prime minister, he had a mandate to do nothing, which is exactly what he wanted to do. Rather than raise taxes and launch new programs, he preferred to cut and kill. He didn't need provincial consent, because he had nothing to propose that required such consent.

After a decade of such passivity, Canadians voted strategically for change. There's a thing about strategic voting, though: It makes for a conflicted and impatient coalition. After all, some of those voters were New Democratic Party supporters who voted Liberal to ensure the Conservatives' defeat. Others were soft Conservative supporters fed up over Duffygate, omnibus bills, the niqab debate, the Ford brothers – you name it. There were nationalist Quebeckers who abandoned the NDP and Calgarians who abandoned the Tories.

All of them voted for change, but some voted for more change than others, and some voted for different change than others. How to please them all?

And then there are the mechanics of change. Let's take just one example: Much of the Trudeau agenda will be laid out in the first budget, which should be delivered next March or April. But Mr. Trudeau has promised to meet the premiers to hash out a new health-care accord. If he does so before his government has its plans for health care, including funding, fully worked out, he risks being hijacked by the premiers. That's what happened to Paul Martin in 2004, and it led to bigger spending commitments than Mr. Martin had intended.

But if Mr. Trudeau delays, the first budget will have no funding commitment for health care, and critics will complain that the new government is dragging its feet on its election promises.

Government is hard. Activist government is even harder.

There is the timing of change. Majority governments like to get much of their mandate implemented or at least under way in the first year, in hopes that the unpleasant bits will be forgotten before voters go to the polls again. Also, a government that isn't in full swing after its first year risks being written off by a disgruntled electorate.

Good governments effectively manage the expectations of partisans, stakeholders and the broader public, delivering on – or abandoning – election commitments in a timely and effective manner. Jean Chrétien achieved that in his first government, and so did Stephen Harper in his. Mr. Trudeau has a smart and experienced team of advisers and a strong caucus, and his election platform lays out a clear set of priorities. This incoming government knows what it wants to do. It's simply a question of figuring out how and when to do it.

Forthwith, in six key areas, we describe how the Liberals plan change, the challenges to that change, and how those challenges might be met. Together, they set out how Justin Trudeau hopes to start making his mark on Canada.

– John Ibbitson

Zunera Ishaq’s successful bid to wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath became a major wedge issue duing the campaign.

Zunera Ishaq’s successful bid to wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath became a major wedge issue duing the campaign.


The law-and-order government that preceded the Liberals left behind many gifts – perhaps not appreciated – of tough laws being challenged in the courts. Chief among these is Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill passed in the pre-election fever this spring.

In opposition, Justin Trudeau supported the bill, but promised to amend it by creating an all-party security-oversight committee, among other things. Civil libertarians and a journalists' group have already launched a court challenge to myriad provisions, including one purporting to authorize judges to allow civilian spies to violate the Charter.

Putting his stamp on this wide-ranging bill poses an early test for a prime minister caught between his respect for a rights charter that began as a gleam in his father's eye and the political imperative of being seen to fight terrorists.

And then come two epoch-defining challenges: the legalization of marijuana, and the establishment of a framework in which deeply suffering people can obtain a doctor-assisted death.

Is any issue more closely identified with Justin Trudeau than the legalization of cannabis? The 43-year-old persisted through a Conservative scare campaign that a Liberal government would allow young people to buy pot at corner stores. The Liberal platform also promises more severe penalties for selling pot to minors, echoing the 1972 Le Dain Commission, created by Pierre Trudeau's government, which asserted that the main reason for controlling availability of marijuana is to protect young people from harm. (Gerald Le Dain, then dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, recommended the decriminalization of cannabis, which didn't happen; Mr. Trudeau later appointed him to the Supreme Court.)

Yet it is a complex task arousing strong emotions – some people do not appreciate the state making money from taxes on marijuana. Colorado and a handful of other U.S. states have legalized its use, but their experiences don't provide complete answers for Canada. "You can't just take laws from other countries and import them holus-bolus into Canada," says Lisa Silver, a criminal lawyer who teaches at the University of Calgary's law school. "Canada has its own history and values."

So the issue will give Mr. Trudeau a chance to fulfill another of his pledges – to show that he consults. He promises to create a federal-provincial task force, and involve police, health and addictions experts in designing a sales-and-distribution system with stronger penalties for selling to minors, driving under the influence, and illegal trafficking (as opposed to the soon-to-be-legal kind).

On physician-assisted dying, it was the Supreme Court that went out on a limb, not Mr. Trudeau. But the task of creating a framework for the newly established right falls to his government. The court said last February that individuals "with a grievous and irremediable medical condition causing enduring suffering," whether physical or psychological, have the right to seek medical help to die. The court suspended its ruling for one year to give governments time to develop a medical and legal rules for determining who qualifies and how it's done. Here too, Mr. Trudeau's government has a chance to bring the provinces, medical experts, the disabled community and others together to show that it believes in teamwork. But he made clear, in his first news conference this week, that he intends to respect the Supreme Court ruling.

Some important cases are already winding their way toward the country's highest court. One social-policy case that demands immediate attention involves a pivotal election issue, the wearing of the niqab, or face veil, during the citizenship oath. The government's policy (not actually a law, just a ministerial directive) banning it was tossed out in two court rulings, and the Conservatives asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal; the court hasn't yet answered.

Then there are health-care cuts for refugees thrown out by a judge as "cruel and unusual treatment," a ruling now before an appeal court.

And what of the many other cases in which the Conservatives sought to limit judicial discretion? They range from mandatory minimum sentences for growing six or more marijuana plants to a "victim surcharge" that all convicted criminals must pay, even impoverished ones. The guiding philosophy of the Conservative government was that Parliament was supreme, and judges should know their place. Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly expressed his respect for the Supreme Court. So something has to give, and quickly.

Conventional wisdom has it that crime laws move in only one direction – becoming tougher, according to Osgoode Hall professor Benjamin Berger, because there are rarely votes to be had by moving in the other direction. And indeed, the Liberal platform offered a few ideas for getting tougher on domestic violence, and not much at all on tackling Canada's prison problem – a record number of inmates in federal prison at great expense, even as police-reported crime falls to 50-year lows.

So after making their mark on security, marijuana and assisted death, the Trudeau government will face the task of defining itself more broadly in the area in which Mr. Trudeau's father held his signature portfolio: justice.

– Sean Fine

The processing facility at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alta. Balancing the needs of a resource-based economy while also trying to combat climate change will be one of Trudeau’s great conundrums.

The processing facility at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alta. Balancing the needs of a resource-based economy while also trying to combat climate change will be one of Trudeau’s great conundrums.

Todd Korol/REUTERS

There may be a reason the climate-change plank appears at the tail end of the Liberal platform.

Justin Trudeau's stand on fighting global warming reflects the challenges of implementing ambitious national programs in a fractious federation. To put it bluntly: Setting and enforcing national standards for reducing carbon emissions seems impossible.

After several paragraphs of boilerplate about the importance of fighting global warming and the perfidy of the Conservatives in failing to do so, the Liberal platform promises to "partner with provincial and territorial leaders to develop real climate-change solutions, consistent with our international obligations to protect the planet, all while growing our economy."

In addition, it reads: "Together, we will attend the Paris climate conference [in December], and within 90 days formally meet to establish a pan-Canadian framework for combatting climate change."

Mr. Trudeau appears to want to fight climate change by holding meetings. But there is a reason for seeming more committed to consulting than to acting: Imposing federal limits on carbon emissions very much resembles a recipe for chaos and strife.

For example, experts generally agree that the most logical and efficient way to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions is to tax them, as Stéphane Dion proposed when he was Liberal leader. But we all know how that turned out for him. So Mr. Trudeau inclines toward a cap-and-trade system, in which firms whose emissions exceed targets can purchase credits from firms whose emissions fall below targets.

But there are two problems with cap-and-trade. The system is cumbersome, complex and an invitation to abuse. And it would be a particular nightmare to hammer out with the first ministers. Would a province such as Quebec, which relies on clean hydroelectricity, have a different target than does Alberta, whose economy depends heavily on the oil sands? And what about British Columbia, which already has a carbon tax of its own?

Suppose that Ottawa negotiates 13 separate agreements with the provinces and territories, each tailored to local circumstances. What happens if one of them fails to meet its target – does the federal government impose a financial penalty? And what happens when a province agrees to targets but then elects a new government that refuses to honour them – does Ottawa go to war? Threatening to slash funding to jurisdictions that renege would risk causing chaos. But if one of them is allowed to ignore the rules, others will want to do the same.

Perhaps that's why the Liberals are promising to give the provinces "flexibility to design their own policies … including their own carbon-pricing policies."

In the end, Liberal rhetoric on fighting climate change will be Churchillian, but any actual agreements may be voluntary and non-binding. Not unlike the approach the Conservatives took.

– John Ibbitson

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Justin Trudeau inherits a government that has put some noses out of joint with pugnacious pro-Israel and pro-Ukraine stances under Stephen Harper.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Justin Trudeau inherits a government that has put some noses out of joint with pugnacious pro-Israel and pro-Ukraine stances under Stephen Harper.

Alexei Druzhinin/The Associated Press

The day after his election win, Justin Trudeau quite likely became the first Canadian leader to grace the front page of newspapers in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

"Young Prime Minister, proponent of relations with Iran" was how the reformist Etemaad newspaper summed up the result of Canada's election, over a photograph of Mr. Trudeau waving in front of a giant Maple Leaf. The paper gleefully noted the fall of Mr. Trudeau's "conflict-driven and anti-Iran" predecessor, Stephen Harper.

There, in an ink-rimmed box, is the opportunity and the challenge facing Mr. Trudeau as he steps onto the world stage. With a few gestures, the prime-minister-designate can assert that the "old Canada" – the smiling middle power of decades past – is back. And then, over the rest of his mandate, he'll be asked to prove that extending a hand to the mullahs, pulling our fighter jets from combat missions over Iraq and Syria, and opening Canada's doors to a larger number of refugees were the right moves in a world that has changed dramatically since his father preceded him as a darling of the international media.

"Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years," Mr. Trudeau said, briefly addressing the international community Tuesday during a victory rally in Ottawa. "I have a simple message for you: On behalf of 35 million Canadians, we're back."

That message was well-received in many quarters, among climate-change negotiators in Paris, the reformist camp in Tehran, and cynical zero-sum-game strategists in the Kremlin. Mr. Harper's foreign policies, from his defence of Canada's oil-sands industry to his pugnacious pro-Israel and pro-Ukraine stances, undeniably ruffled some feathers and bent a few noses. "Congratulations," was how many non-Canadians greeted their Canadian friends this week.

"There has been a perception among many diplomats that Canada has lost its way over the past few years, and that much of it was driven by the Prime Minister's Office and domestic political considerations," said Steve Hewitt, a lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham in England.

But the cheers for the Liberal election win were matched by quiet concern in other corners of the world. Many Ukrainians and Israelis worried they had just lost a steadfast friend: There was never any worry that Mr. Harper would weaken sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea; Israel knew that the Conservative government would have its back, whether it was making war or peace with the Palestinians.

There are only 11 days between Nov. 4, the day Mr. Trudeau has said he'll unveil his first cabinet, and the start of a two-day G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey. There, he and his new foreign minister will be pressed to defend Canada's decision to withdraw from the U.S.-led campaign of air strikes against the so-called Islamic State, and how the Liberal government will deliver on its promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year's end.

Another election promise, to restore diplomatic ties with Iran three years after the Conservative government severed them, is equally prickly. While European countries have been racing to reopen links with the Islamic Republic after this year's deal to stall its nuclear program, the Obama administration has been more cautious, pointing to Iran's role in the Sunni-Shia conflict spreading across Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

"It was insane that Harper closed Canada's embassy in Tehran," said Hossein Derakhshan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian blogger recently freed after six years in prison in Iran. "If Canada needs to follow anyone, I hope it follows Europeans, rather than Americans and Israelis, when it comes to Iran."

But a quick warming of ties with Iran would risk blowback from supporters of Israel. Media in the Jewish state have been mourning the defeat of the "best friend" Israel had in the international community. "Obviously, Israel would prefer that [Canada's restoring ties with Iran] not be done, as it thinks legitimizing Iran is a bad idea," said Herb Keinon, a columnist at The Jerusalem Post, in a telephone interview.

Mr. Keinon said there were also worries in Israel over Mr. Trudeau's intention to withdraw from the military campaign against Islamic State, particularly at a time when Russia and Iran were stepping up their own involvement in Syria's civil war. "If somebody pulls out, somebody else is going to go in, and that country might not have Israel's best interests at heart," Mr. Keinon said.

The big decisions will keep coming fast at Canada's new leader. Only days after the G-20 meeting ends, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit opens in Manila, where Mr. Trudeau will be pressed to reveal whether he intends to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership as negotiated by Mr. Harper's government.

Then comes the Commonwealth heads-of-government meeting in Malta, followed by the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Mr. Harper boycotted the 2013 Commonwealth summit (over concerns about the human-rights record of host Sri Lanka), and sent only his environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, to the 2014 climate-change gathering in New York.

Mr. Hewitt said that all Mr. Trudeau has to do is show up with a smile on in Malta and Paris – "be co-operative and collaborative, as opposed to going his own way" – to send the message that Canada is "back."

– Mark MacKinnon in London

Killing the long-form census was one of Stephen Harper’s more controversial moves. Experts say it could be restored by 2016 if the Liberal move fast enough.

Killing the long-form census was one of Stephen Harper’s more controversial moves. Experts say it could be restored by 2016 if the Liberal move fast enough.


The Liberals' platform is packed with pledges – 61 of them, to be precise – on how they will run a "fair and open government." Many promises aim to undo changes made by the government of Stephen Harper. Others are new reforms.

The party says it will embrace open data, end interference with government watchdogs and ban partisan government ads. It will name a chief science officer, who will ensure that researchers can speak freely about their work, and make Statistics Canada and the Parliamentary Budget Officer independent of government.

As well, it will end "the partisan nature of the Senate," ensure gender equality in cabinet, let charities do their work "free from political harassment," and even reform Question Period.

Broadly, it wants to ensure evidence-based decision-making "once again" guides the government. Many will applaud the intent, but the fixes are not all easy.

Electoral reform is the litmus test of the new government's commitment to "Real Change." The Liberals say this will be the last federal election conducted under the existing, first-past-the-post voting system. They plan to create an all-party parliamentary committee to study the issue – and, within 18 months of forming a government, introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.

This could mean anything from ranked ballots to proportional representation, which guarantees that the popular vote is reflected in the final distribution of seats. The latter is popular: The citizen group Fair Vote Canada notes that more than 80 per cent of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) uses proportional-voting systems.

Still, electoral reform will be "messier" than many think, says University of Waterloo political scientist Emmett Macfarlane, and the alternative is unclear. "What happens if the consultation reveals that Canadians are fine with the status quo?"

The status quo is precisely what voters opted for when asked at the provincial level, in Ontario, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island.

Also, the promise to reform was made before the Liberals won their surprise majority – a result helped by the current system. Depending on the version adopted, proportional representation likely would have given them a minority. Justin Trudeau reiterated his commitment to it the day after the election, but electoral reform "is a political and potentially a constitutional morass," says University of Ottawa law professor Adam Dodek.

Other proposals aimed at opening up the government are straightforward – strengthening parliamentary committees, approving the reinstatement of the long-form census. In fact, most of the promises are "eminently doable" within a short period of time, says Prof. Dodek.

Others will be more arduous. For example, he says, making free votes in the House of Commons standard practice will require "political will, culture change and tolerance of internal dissent." It has been promised before – by the Reform Party, Paul Martin's Liberals and the Harper Conservatives, he says, but "what would be new is a party having the will to actually follow through."

The most immediate shift may have already started, in simply changing the tone. The Harper government was known for its tight grip. As well as muzzling scientists, it refused to make government experts available to the media, squashed backbench MPs, cancelled the long-form census and removed rafts of content from government websites.

The acrimonious tone rippled outward. Changing that will take time. Many public servants have spent years in what has been called a culture of fear.

But power is seductive, and has a way of changing priorities. A sobering reminder of good-governance promises can be found in the Conservatives' platform before they took office. It pledged to stop government abuses of power and to boost political accountability. It also promised to improve access to information, provide protection against whistle-blowers, including public servants, and make the Senate independent. "We need to replace benefits for a privileged few with government for all," it read.

A government for all is what many Canadians voted for. The next four years will show whether that is what they get.

– Tavia Grant

Construction at a new Toronto subway station in May 2015. Justin Trudeau’s government might not find it easy to balance the federal budget in 2019, as the Liberal Leader has promised.

Construction at a new Toronto subway station in May 2015. Justin Trudeau’s government might not find it easy to balance the federal budget in 2019, as the Liberal Leader has promised.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The meat of Justin Trudeau's four-year mandate arrives with the first budget, which the new finance minister will probably deliver next March or April. That budget will contain the boldest, and riskiest, Liberal initiatives: a combination of tax hikes, tax cuts, lavish spending on infrastructure, and deficits.

Mr. Trudeau's Liberalism is redistributive: The top marginal rate for those earning more than $200,000 a year will become 33 per cent (which means some high-end earners will have a marginal tax rate of more than 50 per cent, depending on how much their provinces collect). In contrast, the middle-income tax bracket will see a drop from 22 per cent to 20.5 per cent.

But these changes are at the margins. The Liberals have no plans, for example, to return the goods-and-services tax to its previous Liberal level of 7 per cent. The decade of Tory tax cuts remains largely intact.

The Liberals will also scrap or roll back several Conservative child-care programs and consolidate them in a single Canada Child Benefit, which will be clawed back for upper-income parents. The Liberals have, however, embraced the Conservative principle of giving parents child-care funding directly, rather than subsidizing child-care spaces, which was the preferred approach – though it was never implemented – in the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin years.

The Liberals will also double the amount of infrastructure spending the Conservatives had proposed, which will push the budget into an estimated $10-billion deficit over each of the next two years.

The plan is to restore the budget to balance in year four. But that's the rub. Year four takes us to 2019. At the close of every decade since the Great Depression, the United States has experienced a recession, usually taking Canada into a recession as well. If past is prediction, the Canadian economy could be in recession just as the Trudeau government is claiming it will balance the books. Since balancing a budget in the middle of a recession would only make the recession worse, deficits in that scenario would carry into the next decade.

Mr. Trudeau's most trusted adviser is Gerald Butts, who was principal secretary when Dalton McGuinty was Ontario's premier. On Mr. McGuinty's watch, the province went into deficit during the financial crisis of 2008, and, all these years later, it remains in the red under his successor Kathleen Wynne.

Deficits, as many a rueful finance minister has learned, are much easier to go into than to get out of. Liberal promises to spend more on not just infrastructure but health, education, the environment and other commitments could make balancing the budget in four years a major challenge, even if there isn't a recession.

That said, Mr. Trudeau will want to avoid mimicking the legacy of his father, under whom budgets became so deep and structural that it took two decades to bring them back into balance. And the prime-minister-designate is right when he argues that the federal government's finances are currently so sound – thank you, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper – that a few small deficits won't upset any fiscal apple carts.

Moderate economic growth could, to paraphrase Mr. Trudeau, generate enough new revenue to let the budget balance itself.

But absent that growth, Mr. Trudeau's finance minister will have to find a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes to eliminate a deficit four years out. Those will be tough choices in an election year. Mr. Trudeau may decide it's better to just let the deficits continue, and hope no one notices.

– John Ibbitson

Growing health care pressures, and costs, are a huge challenge for provinces.

Growing health care pressures, and costs, are a huge challenge for provinces.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Trudeau has promised to convene a first-minister's conference on health care to establish funding and priorities for the decade ahead. That could be a very expensive meeting.

The last time one was held, in 2004, Liberal prime minister Paul Martin agreed to increase funding by 6 per cent a year – three times the rate of inflation – for 10 years. The provinces agreed to spend the money in priority areas, such as improving patient wait times, and to report on their progress. Most of those pledges fell by the wayside. In essence, the provinces took the money and spent it as they saw fit.

The Tories had committed to increasing health funding at the same rate as the gross domestic product. Mr. Trudeau is committed to spending more, given that the population is aging and health-care costs continue to rise. A return to the 6-per-cent escalator would increase federal spending by something like $35-billion over 10 years.

One big problem with the proposed summit: it could lead to increased tensions if the feds try to attach strings to how the provinces should spend any new money. The provinces have reason to worry: In the 1980s and nineties, as the federal fiscal situation deteriorated, Ottawa contributed less and less to the public health-care system, while prohibiting provinces from pursuing private-sector alternatives.

In the first years of the last decade, as the fiscal situation improved, the Liberal federal government was prepared to offer more robust funding, but insisted on new national standards for health-care delivery in exchange. Provincial governments resisted that federal intrusion in their jurisdiction. The struggle culminated in that 2004 first-ministers meeting in which the premiers browbeat the new Martin government into those massive increases in spending.

If Mr. Trudeau attaches conditions to increases in federal health care transfers, expect Quebec to demand that it be allowed to opt out of any program, but still get all the money. Expect Alberta to demand the same. It's called asymmetrical federalism, and it can quickly get ugly.

Another major problem is that, given other Liberal spending commitments in infrastructure, fighting global warming, postsecondary education and so much else, the finance minister, whoever he or she may be, might not be able to balance the federal budget by the end of the mandate, as Mr. Trudeau has promised.

The Liberals have also promised to work with the provinces on a pharmacare strategy, which would inevitably involve funding for subsidized prescription drugs for low-income seniors.

If increased health-care commitments – along with everything else in the Liberal platform – cause federal finances to deteriorate to the point that Ottawa is running an entrenched structural deficit, the national debt will increase. At the same time, Canada's credit rating will start to decay, interest payments on the debt will consume more of the budget, and people will start saying, "Like father, like son."

To avoid that, Mr. Trudeau will have to rein in provincial expectations. But there is a political price to be paid for convening first-ministers conferences and then failing to meet the premiers' demands. It's why Stephen Harper avoided them.

– John Ibbitson

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