Amid the Liberal government's mid-term struggles, Conservatives who served under Stephen Harper have looked on with bemusement.
Their government never would have let bureaucrats foist ill-considered tax reforms on them, former staffers will say – and boy, did the Finance Ministry try. They wouldn't have been caught off guard by how the minister steering those changes handled his personal finances. And when these or any other problems did arise, they would have dealt with them more swiftly, not spent days or weeks fumbling around.
But then those veterans of the Tories' decade in power will acknowledge there are things about this government they admire or envy. The relatively positive tone, the way its members seem to view each other with trust rather than suspicion, friendly relations with bureaucrats and outside stakeholders. A little more of that in their time, and they might have avoided some of the problems they encountered, the constant doubt about their motives.
Maybe you take the good with the bad, either way. Maybe the Conservatives couldn't have been disciplined enough, for their taste, if they were more likeable and trusting; maybe the Liberals couldn't be likeable and trusting enough if preoccupied with discipline.
Or maybe, if you have no allegiance to either party, you look at Justin Trudeau's government at the halfway point of its mandate – two years, this weekend, from its swearing-in – and wonder if the pendulum has swung too far from one governance culture to another.
It can be tempting to seize on any available evidence to suggest the two parties aren't really that different in how they approach governing, after all. For all of Justin Trudeau's "sunny ways" talk, the Liberals can be as viciously partisan as the Tories. Their promises to run a more open government have been undermined by access to information being as bad or worse than previously. Talking points are still robotically repeated, in Question Period and elsewhere the government faces criticism, by all but the most confident performers.
But the Liberals have stuck to their promise to do things differently, in ways that are meaningful – none more so, for better and worse, than their commitment to re-empower ministers.
This is not a government in which cabinet members or their staffs always have officials from the Prime Minister's Office looking over their shoulders. Mr. Trudeau's top advisers do very heavily involve themselves in a relatively small number of files considered top priorities. But on day-to-day management of their departments, advancing goals that weren't central to the Liberal platform, ministers appear to have rope.
There are advantages. Some ministers – Jane Philpott, for instance, when she was at Health – have taken advantage of their leeway to quickly identify and fix problems. The good ones are able to be more responsive to real-world concerns than if only taking PMO marching orders. And they can benefit from bureaucrats who, rather than being afraid of their own shadows, can be creative in presenting options.
The problem is they're not all good ones. Rocketing to power from third place, the Liberals had to load their cabinet with rookies, with no idea how they would perform. They did not help matters by being slow to staff up, and much of the staff they wound up with are themselves learning on the job.
So many ministers are said to be overly deferential to their departments, failing to bring political scrutiny to bureaucratic ideas. Others are said to wait too long for directions from the PMO. Then there are ministers who confidently spearhead major policies but prove ill-prepared for public scrutiny – Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly's rollout of the government's Netflix partnership springs to mind.
Considering all the inexperience at play, a different government might also have taken a more active interest in making sure each minister avoided ethical pitfalls. This one had faith that those minsters would exercise good judgment – staying out of the way, for instance, as they and their bare-bones early days staff handled financial disclosures of the sort that eventually caused Bill Morneau grief.
The recent fallout from that particular bit of ministerial discretion could be good impetus for the Liberals to make tweaks to how they go about their business – add more process, put their people through the wringer a little more.
But if there is much mid-term reflection happening, the Liberals are doing a good job of hiding it. Although they quietly acknowledge they could have been more attuned to how matters under Mr. Morneau's watch would play out, advisers to Mr. Trudeau generally push back against suggestions there are broader problems behind recent struggles.
Perhaps that's better than overreaction. Their government still leads in most polls. It can point to no shortage of major initiatives – from a new child benefit to federal-provincial health and pension deals to assisted-dying legislation and marijuana legalization. And its personality, flowing down from the Prime Minister, seems to reflect how many Canadians want to see themselves.
Try to remove the Liberals' unwavering confidence that they are good people, surrounded by other good people, doing good things – constant positive reinforcement, both publicly and by the accounts of insiders at cabinet meetings – and it might not remain the same personality at all.
But the Conservatives could have said similar things, for a long time, about what worked for them.