All posts by Don Newman

Political Perspectives – Justin Trudeau as a Phenomenon

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Editor’s Note: This week, Ensight is publishing a series of original content articles looking back on the Liberal government’s first year in power and ahead to the rest of its mandate.

Ensight Principal Will Stewart also provides an update on Ensight’s post-election research, and digs in on how the one-year old government has delivered on its brand promise and outlines the future outlook. Read that article here.

By Don Newman

A year after bringing his Liberal party back from the brink of despair and third place in the House of Commons to a comfortable majority government, Trudeau today is more popular than he was on October 19th, 2015, the night of his dramatic victory.

In Canada’s multi-party first-past-the-post electoral system, Trudeau’s Liberals captured 39.5 per cent of the vote a year ago. That gave the Liberals 184 seats in the 338 seat House of Commons.
Polls twelve months later give Trudeau and the party almost fifty per cent support. Translating that to seats in the House of Commons would give the Liberals over 200.
Trudeau has accomplished this with a stunning public relations operation, a natural flair for appearing in public, impressive discipline and a photogenic shine he shares with his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and their young family.

The lack of an effective opposition as both the Conservatives and the New Democrats search for new leaders, has been an added plus. But the first year in office that featured among other notable events; a triumphant state dinner at the Obama White House in Washington, a fawning article complete with plenty of intimate colour photographs of Justin and Sophie in Vogue magazine and countless selfies with Canadians all across the country, has worked to build up the impressive political capital that has the Liberals ten points higher in the public opinion polls that their election night support a year ago.

Skeptics say Trudeau hasn’t made any big mistakes because he hasn’t done anything big. That is only partly true. They have done big things they promised they would do, like settling 25,000 Syrian refugees, changing the tax code so high earners pay more and middle income taxpayers pay less, and launching a promised inquiry into missing aboriginal girls and women.
But it is true that in their first year, the Liberals didn’t do anything hard — which in political terms means anything that could prove unpopular with at least some segments of the electorate. As the year rolled on it became clear to close watchers of the passing show that the “Sunny Ways” promised by Trudeau could not continue indefinitely. That going forward, the success of the government was going to be determined by how it handled the three Es; Energy, the Economy and the Environment.

As the government correctly sees them, the three are intertwined. Canada’s slow growth economy can only grow more quickly if the abundant oil sands resources are exploited and brought to market. That will results in more jobs, more prosperity and more tax revenues to balance government books and finance health care, education and a myriad of other programs.
But those oil sands resources can only be exploited and brought to market if there are new pipelines to carry the bitumen from Alberta to either the Pacific coast in British Columbia or the Atlantic coast in New Brunswick. Environmentalists, both in and outside of Canada, have vowed to shut down the oil sands by opposing any new pipelines and starving them of markets, and by extension, the government of resources.

Trudeau and his Ministers have said that new pipelines can only proceed if they have the “social licence” to be built. That means if the public is convinced that they are safe and as environmentally friendly as they can be. Moreover, the government and Canadians must be seen to be actively working to combat and reduce Green House gas emissions.
This month we saw how the government plans to square that circle. At the end of September it announced it was approving a pipeline. Not an oil sands pipeline from Alberta, but a natural gas pipeline from within British Columbia to the Pacific Coast. The approval comes with more than one hundred conditions that have to be met, but it is a pipeline approval none the less. And almost immediately it was attacked by some environmental and indigenous groups.

Then, one week later, the Prime Minister announced Ottawa is putting a price on carbon — a carbon tax if you will. Trudeau didn’t call it that and he left it up to each province to decide if it wants a straight tax, or a cap and trade system of limiting emissions. But he said if any province doesn’t act, Ottawa will act for it. By 2022 Canadians everywhere will be paying $50 a ton for carbon emissions.

But by then work should be underway on the pipeline carrying natural gas to be liquified at a plant near Prince George on the B.C. Coast. And so should work on another pipeline.
Before Christmas the federal cabinet is expected to approve the twinning of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline carrying oil sands bitumen from Alberta to Vancouver. The new pipeline, which will increase the flow of oil to the west coast by three fold, is opposed by Vancouver’s mayor and other near-by municipalities, by some indigenous groups, but supported by others.

It will be even more controversial than the natural gas line. But the Trudeau government is going to have to find the balance between the E of Environment, and the E of Energy if it hopes to grow the E of the Economy sufficiently to support its ambitious plans.

After a year of Sunny Ways the real task of governing has begun. It will be interesting.

Don Newman is senior counsel at Ensight and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Political Perspectives: The Governing Is About To Begin

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By: Don Newman

The Trudeau government is working towards a late March date for Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s first budget.

March 22, 23 or 24 are the most likely dates for a budget that, as promised in the federal election campaign, will run at least a $10-million annual deficit. 

But developments since the election have raised two problems for the rookie finance minister as he plans the policies, programs and priorities for Canada’s increasingly troubled economy. As he conducted a fact-finding consultation in cities across the country this week the problems were becoming clear.

Each day the dollar was closing lower and the price of a barrel of oil‎ was also down. So, it turned out, was both consumer confidence and business confidence according to the most recent polls.

That has raised the question of how big the deficit in the first Morneau budget will ‎or should be.

Will the Liberals’ promised deficits of $10-billion a year for three years to spend on job creating infrastructure projects, then balance the budget in the fourth and last year of this mandate, provide enough stimulus for an economy that seems to be slowing down by the day? And will the slumping economy produce enough revenue to fund all the other programs of the federal government and limit the borrowing by Ottawa to just $10-billion?

The answer to both questions appears to be no. In fact after dodging the worst of the global slowdown of 2009 and 2010, the Canadian economy seems to be slipping into the vicious cycle of declining government revenues and increasing government expenditures last seen in Canada during the recession of the early 1990s. 

Now Morneau is being counseled to delay his budget at least into April to better understand just where the national economy is headed. After all, last year Conservative Finance Minister Joe Oliver delayed his budget a month to try and figure out where oil prices were heading.

(As it turned out the delay didn’t help Oliver. He forecast oil prices almost double the $29.60 a barrel they are currently trading at, juggled some of the figures and claimed the budget was balanced. As we know, the Conservatives then lost the election.)

But others are worried that even an end of March ‎budget is not soon enough to steady nervous Canadians worried about their jobs, and perhaps their homes and retirement investments. They argue an earlier rather than a later budget is what is needed.

So far the Liberals have been basking in the post-election honeymoon glow. But they should be ready for the glow to begin fading when Parliament returns for its winter session on January 25th. And it will disappear entirely after the budget is brought down, whenever that turns out to be.

The old maxim says that to choose is to govern. With the looming decisions awaiting in budget 2016, the governing is about to begin.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight Canada and Navigator Ltd. A member of the Order of Canada and a Life Member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

POLITICAL PERSPECTIVES – WHAT IS PAST IS PROLOGUE

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By: Don Newman

Shakespeare’s adage from his play The Tempest has never seemed more true than it does as we reach the Labour Day week end and the mid-point in the longest Canadian Federal Election campaign since the nineteenth century.

All that has happened throughout August on both the campaign trail and in an Ottawa court room has set the stage for the final five week sprint to election day on October 19th.

And while the testimony brought out in the trial of Senator Mike Duffy, the falling price of oil and the slumping economy and stock market have all been damaging the Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, the government has been able to keep its hold on the traditional party base and remain competitive in what is a highly unusual three way race.      

Now, with the Duffy trial again on recess until after the election, Harper and the Conservatives can only hope that the focus will shift from what did the Prime Minister know about the $90,000 payment of the Senator’s dubious expense claims by his chief of staff Nigel Wright, to the issues they want to run on; the economy and national security.

However, as the focus will undoubtedly shift, it will not necessarily be good news for the Conservatives. Economic uncertainty is on the rise. Stock markets are roiling, oil prices are falling, investment decisions are on hold and confidence is shaken.

In fact the major economic discussion at the moment is whether the lack of economic growth means the country is actually in a recession. And the most dramatic split amongst the parties is the Liberals’ break from the Conservative and New Democrats promise to balance the budget come what may. Instead they are offering a plan to run deficits for the next three years to fund a major infrastructure program.

While at first look this policy approach would seem to play into the Conservative narrative of “tax and spend” Liberals, the Liberals are hoping it will resonate with all but hard core Conservatives.  

First, it is serious policy, countering the argument that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is all glitz with “nice hair.”

Second, it provides direct action to counter the economic slowdown, while at the same time providing badly needed infrastructure renewal, instead of hoping that “trickle down” economics of selected tax cuts will generate the neccesary stimulus.

And third, it puts the New Democrats and leader Tom Mulcair in a squeeze. Slightly ahead in the polls since the election call, Mulcair and his party have been running a cautious, front runners campaign.

Whether they have been far enough in front to justify that approach is open to debate, as is the decision to embrace a cautious economic approach and echoing the Conservative pledge to balance the budget no matter what economic challenges may come along.

The NDP have felt that pledge is crucial to  counter the claim that they are poor managers with no economic experience. But for voters on the centre-left that they compete with the Liberals for their support, it may not be seen as sufficient change from Harper at a time of economic difficulty.

This issue will be the dominant one in the week after Labour Day, culminating ten days later on a stage in Calgary. That is where and when the leaders will meet in their second televised debate. The subject will be the economy.

After that debate there will be one month left until the election. Clearly, the prologue will be past.

Don Newman is Special Advisor at Navigator and the former senior parliamentary editor for CBC Television as well as the former host of several political affairs programs including “Politics”, “This Week in Parliament”, and “Capital Report”. Newman ‘s career provided him with vast experience in covering elections and other major political events both in Canada and abroad. One of Canada’s most respected journalists and an award-winning broadcaster, his career spans five decades. He is a Member of the Order of Canada, a life-member and past president of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, and has numerous other honours, awards and honorary degrees.