Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Trudeau’s Liberals: A midterm report card

By now, you should have seen enough to decide whether you're inclined to vote for Justin Trudeau in the next election.

With the arrival Thursday of legislation to legalize marijuana use, with two of their four budgets behind them, and with most of the agenda implemented, imminent or abandoned, the Liberals' first term has largely taken shape. Should it also be their last? Let's take a look at how the government has performed thus far. Consider this one observer's midterm report card.

Mr. Trudeau came to power vowing to admit 25,000 refugees displaced by the Syrian civil war. The rookie government missed the Dec. 31, 2015 deadline, but not by much, and the airlift has been welcomed by most Canadians. Former immigration minister John McCallum also increased the annual intake of immigrants to 300,000, which will help sustain a Canadian population that, were it not for immigration, would otherwise soon be in decline. The jury is still out on how the Liberals are handling refugee claimants crossing the border illegally, but overall this government's immigration and refugee policy deserves high praise.

Story continues below advertisement

Margaret Wente: Justin Trudeau's out of touch with the 99 per cent

Praise is also warranted on the trade file. In opposition, the Liberals were lukewarm to the Conservative government's ambitious trade agenda. In government, they became firm supporters, pushing hard and successfully (if the Walloons can be kept onside) to complete the agreement with the European Union. Will they be able to conclude a deal with China, Japan or another major Asia/Pacific nation between now and 2019? If so, the Liberals could count trade as one of their signature achievements.

On the environment, Justin Trudeau promised a new resolve in Canada's efforts to fight global warming. In the end, he simply embraced the targets established by the previous Conservative government. But the Liberals appear determined to meet those targets, and to that end have persuaded most provinces to impose some form of carbon tax. Promise made; promise at least partly kept.

The Liberals also deserve qualified praise for their handling of the health-care file. Their funding broadly follows the targets set by the Harper government, but Health Minister Jane Philpott did find some extra dollars for mental health and home care, which the provinces, for the most part, accepted. Should Ottawa be meddling in how the provinces handle health care? And is the money enough to meet the need? Probably not, in both cases. And the federal/provincial prescription-drug strategy remains more aspiration than reality. But Ms. Philpott can take credit for preventing a federal/provincial impasse on funding.

The Trudeau government's relationship with the military is more problematic. Full marks to Mr. Trudeau for his government's commitment to lead a NATO battle group in Latvia, to deter Russian ambitions. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's biggest procurement move was to acquire Boeing Hornets as a stopgap to replace the terminally aged CF-18s, while holding off on a permanent replacement for several more years. It was a controversial decision, but at least it was a decision. On the downside, the Liberals still can't make up their minds whether to commit to a peacekeeping mission in Africa, a defence review has been repeatedly postponed and the shipbuilding program continues to be plagued by delays. A very mixed bag.

Closer to home, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould skillfully piloted an emotionally charged bill on assisted dying through Parliament. The marijuana legislation is another big, important file that she has kept on top of. But the government's efforts to streamline and modernize the criminal-justice system haven't prevented impatient judges from throwing out cases that take too long to come to trial. Delays in appointing judges are making things even worse. The minister has to take responsibility for this serious miscarriage of justice.

People have reason to be disappointed in this government's handling of Indigenous issues. Mr. Trudeau's most impassioned promise was to transform relations with Canada's Indigenous peoples "on a nation-to-nation basis." But although funding has increased, nothing transformative has emerged. The inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls proceeds at a glacial pace – which anyone could have predicted – and there is little evidence of accelerated progress in settling land claims, or of progress toward comprehensive education reform, which the Conservatives tried but failed to implement.

Story continues below advertisement

But what about the finances, you might reasonably ask. How the government raises and spends taxpayers' money is a key metric on how it is judged. From this armchair, the government has little to brag about. The Liberals promised during the election campaign to run modest $10-billion deficits, with the money devoted to renewing infrastructure. Instead, the deficit was $23-billion in the past fiscal year, and is projected to be $28.5-billion in 2017-18, with no end to red ink in sight. A Senate report criticized the government's $186-billion decade-long infrastructure plan for its lack of clarity and co-ordination. The Liberals did implement their promise to make income tax and the child benefit more progressive, punishing the wealthy and rewarding the middle class, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau has earned praise for initiatives that make it easier to recruit foreign talent, raise venture capital and bring innovations to market. It's a one-hand, other-hand file. Mr. Morneau negotiated an enhanced Canada Pension Plan with the provinces: Good. He lowered the retirement age for old-age security: Bad. But it's the growing debt that causes this writer the most concern. When will this government keep its promise to balance the budget?

On two files, the Liberals deserve unremitting scorn. "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system," Mr. Trudeau said, over and over again. But when a parliamentary committee urged a move to proportional representation, Mr. Trudeau balked; he also resisted calls for a national referendum on the subject. In February, the government announced it was scrapping its electoral-reform plans. A total fail.

The Liberals promised, as well, to end the conversion of home delivery of mail to community mailboxes. A subsequent study estimated that abandoning conversion would cost $400-million and sink the Crown corporation's efforts to stay in the black. A final decision is expected this spring on whether to break the promise or lose the savings. Both choices are lousy. Shame on the Liberals for painting themselves into this corner.

On one vital issue, the jury is still out. Foreign policy under the Trudeau government has broadly cleaved to the principles established by Stephen Harper: a strong commitment to NATO and to free-trade agreements, caution in dealing with trade and human-rights issues in China, and stern disapproval of Russian ambitions in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe. But the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President changed the game. Keeping the Canada-U.S. border open, successfully renegotiating the North America free-trade agreement and preventing a crippling import tax from applying to Canadian exports are the most important priorities for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. Her success or failure could define this government.

Otherwise, not much is likely to change over the next two years, for better or for worse. You may disagree with this report card, but you surely know enough now to come up with one of your own.

Video: Liberals after ‘power grab’ with Parliament rules changes: NDP (The Canadian Press)
Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨