The year that was for the Trudeau government, as it approaches middle age

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Is the Trudeau government merely Harper-lite, as some on the left insist -- happy to talk, say, about climate change, while approving major pipeline projects that were dear to its predecessor?

Or is it a beacon of democratic, humanistic internationalism, in a time when too much of the world seems smitten with authoritarian, populist nationalism?

Based on its record this past year, and at the mid point in its mandate, it is neither.

Justin Trudeau leads a classically pragmatic, centrist, moderate government, although he is much more given to puffed-up hortatory pronouncements than most moderates. He also has a penchant for grandiloquent symbolic gestures, such as removing an offending name, Langevin, from a government building, or rebranding Aboriginal Day as Indigenous Day.

The government started the political season, last fall, with the ominous U.S. election loudly rumbling in the background. One of its first notable moves was to support an opposition initiative, NDP MP Randall Garrison's bill that bans discrimination on the basis of transgender status.

South of the border, some state and local governments were passing discriminatory, so-called bathroom laws, that would oblige people to use facilities reserved for the gender to which were born. The Trudeau government's willingness to allow an opposition MP to take the lead in making a clear, public statement to the contrary was at least a modest good sign.

Freer trade, private sector money for public infrastructure and a pipeline approved

The current Trudeau government has made a big point of being pro-globalization, and, thus, in favour of reducing trade barriers. It carried on the Harper government's efforts to negotiate a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union enthusiastically, and thought it had achieved a final deal, when, last October, the Belgian region of Wallonia dropped a spanner in the works by threatening to withhold approval.

In the end, tweaks to CETA's investor-state relations provisions calmed the Wallonian socialist government, and the agreement was signed in the New Year.

In late October of 2016 the finance minister delivered his Fiscal Update, a kind of mini-budget, and formally introduced the idea of an infrastructure bank. It is a notion that has given the Liberals some grief, although they seem to have succeeded in getting it approved without too much debate, by slipping it into the 2017 budget bill, a tactic they learned from Stephen Harper.

Also in the fall, Trudeau gave his stamp of approval to the Trans Mountain project, a pipeline proposed by the Texas-based Kinder Morgan corporation, designed to carry Alberta tar sands bitumen to the Pacific coast and thence to markets in Asia.

Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley hailed the decision as a chance to get out of Alberta's "landlock" and sell Alberta's resource to customers outside the U.S. Others in the NDP, and in other parties such as the Greens, were less enthusiastic. They pointed out that the Liberals had promised a more rigorous assessment and approval process.

Liberals used to say a strengthened environmental and social assessment process was necessary to give projects such as Kinder Morgan's social license from affected communities, especially First Nations communities. In the end, Trudeau decided to approve Trans Mountain based on the Harper government's assessment, which Liberals once said was the product of a truncated and inadequate process.

A while ago, this writer asked one prominent NDP federal MP whether the party really hoped to gain votes in B.C. by opposing Trans Mountain, while hanging on to power in Alberta by supporting it. The answer was a careful and very tentative "yes." However, the truth is that the split in the NDP on Trans Mountain is very deep. A parade of federal leadership candidates have declared their firm opposition to the pipeline and each time that has happened it probably had Notely gritting her teeth in frustration.

But this pipeline project could bite the Liberals in the backside too. At the time of the decision, Trudeau was open about the fact that a number of his B.C. lower mainland MPs were not happy. B.C. federal Liberals may pay a big price for this choice in the next election. In the recent provincial election, opposition to Kinder Morgan's project helped B.C. NDP leader John Horgan score big in B.C.'s urban ridings.

Healthier food, an asbestos ban and an enhanced pension plan

It was also still fall when the Liberal Health Minister Jane Philpott introduced a revised Canada Food Guide, designed to help reduce Canadians' dangerously high consumption of fat, sugar and salt. Subsequent talk of new labelling requirements and other regulations have the powerful food industry up in arms. We'll see soon how willing a government that likes to be friendly with corporate Canada will be to take on Big Food.

Late in 2016, the Trudeau government had a gift for environmentalists and other activists, when it decided to institute an outright and comprehensive ban on asbestos. For many years, Canada had been a holdout in worldwide efforts, concentrated in developing countries, to ban the sale, use and trade of a product that has been proven to significantly harm human health. The fact that Quebec was once a world leader in asbestos production, and nurtured aspirations of seeing a revival of the dormant industry, had a big impact on Canada's recalcitrance. Finally, a government that was willing to seriously consider science, and which had a minister for science, Kirsty Duncan, who actually studied evidence, decided it could ignore the facts no longer. The ban will take effect in 2018.

Early in 2017, Finance Minister Bill Morneau reached an agreement with his provincial counterparts to enhance and expand the Canada Pension Plan (and its twin, the Quebec Pension Plan). The agreement increases the contribution rate, boosts the maximum pensionable earnings from a bit more than $50,000 to more than $80,000, and adds more than $4,000 per year to the maximum payout.

Labour applauded the expansion, since it will help fill the gap left by the decline in workplace pension plans.

But, what the government gives with one hand it takes with the other. The Trudeau government has legislation pending that will transform many of the predictable, inflation-indexed, defined benefit plans, in the public and para-public sectors, to less generous and less predictable defined contribution plans. The latter are, in essence, glorified registered retirement savings plans. They may be cheaper for employers, but they offer a lot less retirement security to workers.

The government has also still not rejected the suggestion of the finance minister's blue ribbon economic advisory council that it raise the minimum age of eligibility for the universal Old Age Security pension (OAS). For the working poor, and those who spend their lives in low-paid precarious employment, the OAS and the means-tested supplement, the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), have provided something like a guaranteed income once they hit old age.

End first-past-the-post? Did I promise that?

It was early in 2017 when Trudeau finally and irrevocably broke what had been, in many ways, his signature promise, that the 2015 election would be the last under first-past-the-post. He emphatically repeated that promise hundreds of times before and, especially, after the election. When the prime minister finally, nonchalantly and almost flippantly, said he was dropping the whole idea, the Liberals tried putting out the story that the new regime in the U.S. created new and tough challenges for the government, and it could not afford to expend the energy or political capital necessary on reforming the voting system.

During the height of the Depression in the 1930s, with unemployment in double digits, the government of the day managed to create the CBC.

During the Second World War, when the fate of humanity hung in the balance in more ways than one, the federal government managed to amend the Constitution in order to introduce an unemployment insurance scheme.

During the height of the Cold War, while the bloody and protracted conflict in Vietnam was churning, the federal government, with provincial cooperation, created the Canada pension plan and the universal health insurance system we know today. A subsequent government, headed by Justin Trudeau's father, managed to create a new ministry of the environment, a new agency for international development, and institute a massive program of official bilingualism -- all while our neighbour to the south was enduring the destabilizing nightmare of the Nixon presidency.

External contingencies are a weak excuse for a government to abandon its key commitments. The Canadian government is not a corner store. It is, in fact, quite big, employing well more than 300,000 people. It should be capable of pursuing more than one priority at a time.

Of course, Justin Trudeau did not abandon every promise while he figured out what to do about President Trump. In the spring of 2017, for instance, his government announced that it would fulfill its longstanding pledge to legalize marijuana. Making this particular drug legal was the Liberal promise that attracted more attention than any other, especially among those not usually interested in politics. The Liberals almost certainly reasoned that if changing world conditions obliged them to dump some legislative ballast, they could more easily get away with jettisoning electoral reform than marijuana legalization.

New foreign policy, more money for the military

In June, as the current session came to an end, we saw some furious efforts on the part of the government to act busy and focused.

The still-new foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, appointed we were told in response to the new challenges from Washington, made an important speech in which she affirmed that if the U.S. no longer seemed to believe in working multilaterally on global challenges, Canada still did.

The speech was well received here, and, perhaps mercifully, little noticed in the great republic to the south. It was not the first time a Canadian leader had made an effort to rhetorically carve out a position on world affairs independent of the U.S.

Laurier, more than a century ago, pointedly told the Americans that Canadians were different from them, and even threatened military action over the Alaska border dispute. In the 1960s, Pearson aroused Lyndon Johnson's ire to the point of near physical violence when he politely questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam adventure. And Chrétien refused to join George W. Bush's coalition of the willing and send troops to Iraq.

The current Trudeau government carefully and strategically matched the foreign minister's liberal, internationalist rhetoric on foreign policy with a commitment to increased military spending. Trump did not comment on Freeland's speech, but he did take to Twitter to claim that Canada's pledge to boost its military was a victory for his own strong-arm tactics.

Two new pieces of legislation: breaking one promise and fulfilling another

In the very dying days of this session, the government introduced two major pieces of legislation.

One was a reform of the access to information rules, which notably fails to live up to the Liberal campaign promise to make ministers' offices and the prime minister's office open to access requests. It seemed hard for government people to find a convincing excuse for this particular broken promise. To Liberal apologists who went on the airwaves to raise all kinds of dubious concerns, one was tempted to say: You must have known all this when you made the promise before the last election? Why promise changes you knew you could not, or are not willing to, deliver?

The other big initiative is Bill C-59, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's package of changes to the Harper government's anti-terror law, C-51. The proposed changes come after some fairly protracted consultations, and do not fully satisfy many who have been gravely concerned about C-51.

Amnesty International, for one, welcomes many of the changes. Among Amnesty's favourites are: "the move towards an integrated, expert review body for Canada's national security agencies"; the new measures dealing with concerns about the criminal offence of promoting the commission of terrorism offences in general; and changes to other C-51 provisions, such as the "no-fly list." But the human rights organization still has concerns.

It is disappointed, for instance, that Bill C-59 does not abolish certain practices that offend human rights and which pre-date C-51, such as provisions that allow "individuals to be deported to a risk of torture in exceptional circumstances."

Amnesty "had also hoped that the government would act to address longstanding concerns about the failure to fully reject torture in Canada's intelligence-sharing arrangements with other countries."

Still, overall, Amnesty gives Goodale's changes a fairly positive grade. That, in itself, is something of an achievement, given how confused and disingenuous the Liberals looked when they agreed to vote for Harper's bill, while promising to change it later.

As others read the new bill carefully, we will no doubt hear other concerns and criticisms. All who have an interest will have at least three months to formulate their concerns. The public only gets a chance to comment on C-59 in the fall of 2017, when Parliament returns. It is summertime now, which for politicians means barbecues and picnics, not committees.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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