I thought it appropriate to begin a new topic, about Canadian
politics in 2016, with a column about the Trudeau Government's "reach" and "grasp" (lots of the former, not too much of the latter) by Jeffrey Simpson. It is reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions of the Copyright Act from the Globe and Mail
Reality checks await for ambitious Liberals
The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015
The beginning of Justin Trudeau’s government recalls the lines from English poet Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
The Liberal government is obviously not reaching literally for heaven, but instead, like all governments, for re-election. Long before that judgment day, it aspires for ambitious, far-reaching changes in many areas of government policy. Modesty is not a suit this government will wear.
In Prime Minister Trudeau’s covering mandate letter sent to his ministers, they are instructed that “our platform guides our government. Over the course of our four-year mandate, I expect us to deliver on all of our commitments.”
Not “most” of them. Not “many.” Not “all, if circumstances and money permit.” No, Mr. Trudeau says his government will deliver on “all of our commitments,” which, depending on how you count, total around 150.
Some of these commitments are unwise, as with any platform drafted in opposition. Some contradict others. Some will not fit within the framework of a balanced budget four years hence. None of these realities count in these early days of hope and ambition, and of reach exceeding grasp.
Another example. Faced with 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools – recommendations that range from the sensible and doable to the unnecessary or nigh impossible, and from the modestly to the hugely costly – Mr. Trudeau has declared his government will enact them “all.” Good luck.
The declaratory power of Trudeauesque ambition could be considered a refreshing change from the previous government, whose leader declared that he did not like “vision.” The Trudeauesque ambition also reflects a Liberal/liberal belief that government is the agent for social good, that it can deliver improvements in society and that contradictions and difficulties can be overcome by consultation, goodwill and effort.
Quickly and predictably, however, declaratory power has crashed against realities.
The government discovered that its ambition/promise to land 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada before Jan. 1 was impossible, as had been apparent from the moment the promise was made in mid-campaign. Sensibly, in the face of stubborn realities, the government backed off, and moved the target to the end of February.
Even that target seems too short a time to do the job properly. But long before this job is completed, lo and behold, well-meaning Immigration Minister John McCallum began speaking about bringing another 25,000 Syrian refugees next year, a commitment definitely not in the platform and for which no money has been allocated.
Reality also quickly dashed the campaign assumption that a higher tax on those earning more than $200,000 would rake in $3-billion. The Finance Department speculates it might bring $2.4-billion; outside experts think maybe $1-billion. Whatever the sum, a new federal tax will cause some provinces that have already raised taxes on the better-off to rethink their position.
Gone, too, is the target of a $10-billion deficit in the government’s first year, although the formal abandonment of this target has not been officially conceded. Just where the deficit will land, no one knows, but the amount will be so far beyond $10-billion that the government no longer speaks of deficits, preferring instead to discuss “debt-to-GDP-ratio.”
Economists understand this concept well, but it will befuddle many Canadians, some of whom struggle with understanding the much simpler idea of deficits. The more opaque the phraseology, the easier might be the political shift away from the platform.
There will be other disappointments. The idea that buying a fighter jet other than the F-35 will save enough money to refit the navy is a joke. Resetting relations between Ottawa and First Nations on a “nation-to-nation” basis when half of these “nations” have fewer than 1,000 people is easier said than done. And resetting the balance between natural resource exploitation and environmental protection by changing review procedures is a forlorn hope when so many environmentalists and aboriginal leaders use procedural objections as a pretext.
Before the election, Mr. Trudeau and his team benefited from low expectations. By pledging to use their majority to do everything in their platform, they have created high expectations that will not be easy to temper.
Citizens, provinces, interest groups, aboriginal people – just about every corner of Canadian society – have been promised something. The test will be to meet some promises, and walk back from others, which is what governing is usually about.
Some Liberal promises, unrealistic though they might be, will be hard to ignore. The country was tired of Prime Minister Harper's incrementalism
and perceived penny pinching, and the boutique tax cuts
that were too carefully (seemingly narrowly) defined; it wanted big, grand
, visionary promises ... whether it wants to pay for them is quite another matter.
My suspicion is that the "honeymoon" will last until the budget is brought down. The Sun
chain of newspapers never was "on board," nor were most of the Globe and Mail
and National Post
; the TV networks, from whence Canadians get most of what passes for information are still in the thrall of the telegenic and available prime minister and of cabinet ministers who still talks too much about issues that are not part of their area of responsibility. My guess is that post budget even the TV networks, which are very weak on analysis, will
slow the cheerleading.
For my part: I'm still inclined to give Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the benefit of the doubts
... but there are many doubts and they are growing in size and number, day-by-day.