Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Feb. 1.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Justin Trudeau told us he was roaring into 2023 to “meet the moment” but lately his Liberals have been regrouping, retreating and running around in circles.

On Thursday, the Liberals announced they would table a bill to delay the implementation of assisted dying for people whose sole medical condition is mental illness. On Friday, they scrapped controversial sections of a gun bill that had Indigenous organizations, hunters and farmers complaining it would ban their run-of-the-mill hunting rifles.

It’s often good to hit pause when large swaths of the public are screaming. But at the moment, the Liberals are spending a lot of their time struggling to repair their own work.

Mr. Trudeau spent a large chunk of last week trying to soothe Quebeckers calling for the resignation of his new Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, Amira Elghawaby, while still claiming to back her 100 per cent. His Liberal MPs, meanwhile, took positions ranging from saying they felt hurt by Ms. Elghawaby’s words to arguing she was a victimized woman.

To state the obvious: This was not the plan.

Mr. Trudeau isn’t seizing the moment. It is seizing him.

In a speech to his caucus prior to the resumption of Parliament, he said the Liberals would put forward a “positive vision for the future,” including good jobs, safe communities with clean air, and “an economy that works for everyone.”

At the top of the list was a fix for health care, which he promised would mean not only more federal money but better health care outcomes. Mr. Trudeau had just announced that he was convening a meeting with premiers for Feb. 7, a sign that a federal-provincial deal on health care is close. That was supposed to be the first big item on the Liberal agenda in 2023.

So this week Mr. Trudeau has an opportunity to take back the initiative.

A prime minister’s meeting with premiers never goes by without disagreement, but it is a place where the PM’s voice carries the loudest. And if the meetings do end with a level of federal-provincial agreement, sealed by a major, multiyear injection of federal cash, then Mr. Trudeau will tout progress on an issue at the top of Canadians’ concerns.

At this point, the Liberals are getting a little desperate for that kind of agenda-setting. Anything where the news is something the Liberals are doing, rather than something they are undoing, or something they wish they could do over. So this is a big week for Mr. Trudeau.

His Liberals would like to carry a health care deal into a spring of initiatives and a budget that is expected to centre on clean-tech incentives and industrial strategy.

But that’s just a hope right now. Mr. Trudeau’s government has had setbacks and scandals and made blunders before, but the Liberals have eventually regained the ability to set the political agenda with a flurry of activity. That is one of the home-field advantages of being in power: Government actions have consequences, so their agenda is consequential. Yet lately, Mr. Trudeau’s team seems less able to control it.

Mr. Trudeau’s government is encountering problems of a third-term government that has been through a lot.

One is that things come undone or are shown to have been done badly.

The Liberals had to intervene on the assisted-dying legislation they thought they dealt with two years ago. The airline passenger rights regulation system established in 2019 has a complaints backlog. Now they aren’t just fixing the other guy’s mistakes, but their own.

Another is that politicians tend to keep drawing from the same well, even when there is less water. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals want to keep bringing forward gun control initiatives just like Stephen Harper’s Conservatives kept stiffening sentences for crimes. But the choices are no longer as clear, or as popular.

And it is harder for a long-serving prime minister to seize the public imagination with a new initiative on a major problem without people asking why he didn’t do it before.

But then there is just the old-fashioned self-inflicted wound, and bad decisions, and the tiring of the mission.

When Mr. Trudeau holds the gavel at the premiers meeting this week, he will be eager to turn it into a moment when the focus is on what his government is getting done, and not the things they haven’t done right. So far, his 2023 agenda is stuck in the mud.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe