A large Canadian city, or even an entire province, wakes up the morning after a federal election and finds that it has elected no representatives from the winning party. Thanks to regional divisions, and their amplification by the first-past-the-post electoral system, that’s been something of a constant in this country’s politics.
Justin Trudeau is the latest prime minister to grapple with this situation. His cabinet, to be sworn in Nov. 20, will be ethnically diverse and gender-balanced. But when it comes to regional diversity, Mr. Trudeau’s challenge is acute. There was not one Liberal MP elected over the vast 2,000-plus kilometres from Winnipeg to the suburbs of Vancouver.
The government is under pressure to find ways to give Alberta and Saskatchewan a seat in cabinet, despite the absence of elected Liberals. It’s also looking for other gestures of outreach to those two provinces.
But while symbols matter, in the long run what will really count will be concrete actions. And those actions should be less about mollifying the premiers of Saskatchewan and Alberta, who lead parties congenitally opposed to the Liberals, and more about satisfying the legitimate needs of Western voters.
Mr. Trudeau will not be the first PM to have to perform contortions to fill holes on the government benches. In 1979, when Joe Clark formed his short-lived Progressive Conservative minority, he had just two elected members from Quebec. Mr. Clark put several Conservative senators from the province into cabinet.
A year later, Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals had won a majority government – with zero seats west of Manitoba. To plug that hole, he also drew on the Senate. That’s not much remembered, because one of his next moves was to bring in the National Energy Program – a move even Westerners who weren’t yet born cannot forget. As we said: Real actions trump symbolic gestures.
When Stephen Harper led the Conservatives to power in 2006, the Island of Montreal as usual elected no one from his party. Mr. Harper installed an unelected Montrealer in cabinet, Michael Fortier, who was soon after appointed to the Senate.
However, the problem with appointing unelected senators to cabinet is that they do not answer to the public. And in 2019, there’s this new twist: Thanks to the Liberal government’s reforms to the Senate, there are no longer any Liberal senators.
Which brings us back to the realm of concrete actions. Item No. 1: Build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The Federal Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear an appeal on the sufficiency of Indigenous consultations in mid-December. If Ottawa wins, construction could be completed in four years.
Justin Trudeau also wants to invest in the green economy. To the extent his government does so, Alberta and Saskatchewan should be a priority.
The Liberal plan involves striking a balance between the environment and the economy. The balance includes bringing down greenhouse gas emissions, while allocating ever more of a shrinking carbon budget to oil and natural gas.
Today, that sector accounts for about one-quarter of the country’s emissions. By 2030, it could be close to 40 per cent. Ottawa needs to do a better job of persuading voters in those two provinces that it is trying to accommodate the golden goose, not kill it.
In the past few weeks, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe have written Mr. Trudeau letters full of demands; the day after the election, Mr. Moe implausibly argued that Mr. Trudeau had no choice but to drop his party’s platform and adopt that of the Conservatives. It’s a reminder of why much of Ottawa’s outreach must be aimed at the people of those provinces, not their premiers.
But convincing Albertans that the Trudeau government is not planning National Energy Policy 2.0 won’t be easy, and it’s going to take credible messengers. Chrystia Freeland, who grew up on a farm in the province, could be one of them. She represents a Toronto riding but she’s the closest thing the Liberal government has to an MP from Alberta.
As minister of International Trade and then minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Freeland aced the toughest test of the past four years, the NAFTA renegotiations. This file is just as difficult, and just as important.