Political Perspectives – Justin Trudeau as a Phenomenon

Don Newman
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.