If the first year for a new government is a honeymoon, the second is a time to launch major initiatives, and the third is where everything begins to fall apart, then, so far, the Justin Trudeau government is closely following the script.
As it passes the second anniversary of its election and begins year three of a four- year mandate, the government that promised “sunny ways”, a new way of doing things, and a more equitable Canada is finding the agenda it ran on more difficult to enact and more controversial to pursue.
Compounding the natural third-year problems of any government, just as the difficulties hit the Liberals they lost their comfortable status of having no real opposition.
The Conservatives chose Andrew Scheer as their new leader last June after multiple ballots winnowed through a large field of candidates. In October, Jagmeet Singh needed only one ballot to dispatch three other candidates to become the leader of the New Democrats.
Singh does not have a seat in Parliament and doesn’t plan to seek one until the next general election in October 2019. Whether that is an effective strategy remains to be seen, but as of now the NDP is re-energized by its unconventional choice of leader.
More importantly, as the Official Opposition, the Conservatives are set and planning for the next election. With a caucus of almost 100 members, many of them former cabinet ministers, and many MPS with more political and House of Commons experience than the Liberals across the aisle, the Conservatives are set to be an effective Opposition. That is true, even if the as-yet-unproven Scheer proves to be no more than adequate as leader.
The problem is further compounded by timing. Just as the opposition parties are getting their acts together, issues and events are also coming together.
Almost immediately is the problem of NAFTA. Will the trade agreement among Canada, the United States and Mexico that has been a cornerstone of this country’s prosperity be renewed, or as President Trump has threatened, be cancelled by the Americans?
If the deal is cancelled, the government will have to have a Plan B ready quickly, or there will be politically and economically damaging consequences.
And after trying to have it both ways at the same time, the Liberals are going to have the square the circle on environment and energy development. The twinning of the Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver has been approved, but construction has yet to begin and legal and environmental challenges threaten to hold it up indefinitely.
The unofficial quid pro quo for new pipelines is putting a price on carbon. In 2016 the Liberal government and every province but Saskatchewan agreed to put a price on carbon beginning in 2018. The price on carbon, the so-called carbon tax, is to go into effect next year and reach $50-a-tonne by 2022. So far, no sign of a shovel in the ground to build a new pipeline.
This contradiction will test the government’s mettle the coming months, particularly Energy Minister Jim Carr and Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna. Carr has been a competent pair of steady hands in the first two years of the Liberal government. McKenna hit the headlines early with the signing of the Paris Accord on climate change and the agreement for a carbon tax. Now, both will have to be at their best in the next two years to bring their contradictory constituencies to an agreement. It won’t be easy.
And the government will have to get the way it communicates its messages under control. The disastrous roll-out this past summer of the government’s small corporations tax changes shows just how weak strategic communications actually is in the Trudeau government. Unless addressed, this fault could be fatal.
All of this does not mean the Liberals situation is hopeless. Far from it. Justin Trudeau is the most dynamic party leader, and the Liberals are firmly rooted in the big cities and urban communities across the country where most of the population lives.
What it does mean is that the Liberal government must learn the lessons of the past two years, sharpen its focus to concentrate on the things that must be done rather things it would like to do, and regain control of the political narrative.
And one other thing. It must reach out to the people who can help it do those things—even if those people were born before 1965.
If those deficiencies are addressed in what will likely be a stormy third year in office, then Trudeau and his Liberals may look forward to a rosier fourth year.
That’s the year when governments who successfully weather a difficult third year go on to be re-elected.
Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, Chairman of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.