Two Years of Legislative Progress for Trudeau: What Numbers Really Count For

Two Years of Legislative Progress for Trudeau: What Numbers Really Count For

Shane Mackenzie

This week marks two years since the House of Commons resumed after the Liberal win in 2015. Ensight’s Shane Mackenzie looks at the legislation that has been passed to date and how it stacks up against Harper’s first majority government.

To kick off December 2015 – the newly elected Liberal government under Justin Trudeau threw celebrating out the window in favour of governing: they recalled Parliament to deal with immediate issues.

Two years hence – we look back at two years of work and reflect on the pace of real change. To sum up any government’s accomplishments is not an easy task. Many have tried.

You can break down performance and progress Minister-by-Minister, Mandate Letter-by-Mandate Letter, and/or Campaign Promise-by-Campaign Promise. The government released its own deliverology tracker site that was decried by critics and closely watched by journalists drafting pieces on the government’s admitted “challenges.”

At the mid-mandate mark, we can look at Stephen Harper’s first two years with his own majority (2011-2013) for as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as possible for Trudeau’s first term. Both sat for approximately eighteen sitting months. Both had majorities that could feasibly push through the same amount of business.

Let’s take a look at the scoresheets:

By the numbers: Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government (Dec 2015 – Dec 2017)

  • Royal Assent given to 28 government bills
  • Royal Assent given to 7 Senate bills (with 3 in the queue for it anytime)
  • Royal Assent given to 3 Private Members’ Bills (with 1 in the queue)
  • 32 bills were defeated
  • 13 bills were abandoned mid-process and will not be proceeded with

By the numbers: Stephen Harper’s Conservative government (June 2011 – June 2013)

  • Royal Assent given to 50 government bills (2 of which were notably large omnibus bills that amended numerous Acts)
  • Royal Assent given to 18 Senate bills
  • Royal Assent given to 15 Private Members’ Bills
  • 23 bills were defeated by this point
  • 5 bills were abandoned mid-process and were not proceeded with
  • 45 bills were left on the table hanging, delayed, dropped or defeated due to September 2013’s prorogation

While these numbers would suggest the Conservatives trounced the Liberals on progress – this sort of analysis equates 1-to-1 numbers of bills passed without looking at what’s in them.

The Liberals are still hoping to emphasize quality over quantity.

Trying to measure up a government like this one by its own standard – numbers – seems fair at first, although at the peril of being pedantic: there is more to it than that.

The Liberal government promised ‘real change’, ‘fairness’, and to not be Stephen Harper. That last one being a real linchpin that sealed the deal.

Conservatives had become associated with terms like “omnibus” bills, “prorogation”, “in-camera” committees, and “time allocation” that progressives lamented as being part of a ham-fisted scheme to undermine democracy.

The Liberals could not have spent almost a decade decrying the governing party for how they did things, if they would not improve things and be held to a higher standard once in their place.

They raised the bar on debate by consulting broadly first, evaluated each bill using gender based (GBA+) analysis, made committees more independent, and tried to make their answers more forthcoming.

However, this comes at a political cost. Voters expect results.

It’s difficult to both extend the amount of time spent discussing legislation and compete with a record of ramming things through quickly without remorse or regret.

Context is key. The Trudeau Liberals came in for the first time in 2015 after several years as third-party and several more before that in Opposition. The Harper government got its first majority in 2011 after 5 years of minority government where many of their bills that had been hampered from passing were ready to be reintroduced and rushed through under the guise of being pre-vetted.

It’s also about ideology. The Harper Conservatives made bite-sized bills that were red meat for their base, like mandatory minimums for crimes already considered heinous, back-to-work legislation that pre-empted negotiation or bills that “encourage” action without anything tangible in them.

While the Trudeau government has passed less bills, they have all been impactful or concrete as opposed to purely symbolic.

Governments do a fair number of things that are not easy to track or compare in metrics either: International work or trade agreements; regulatory work; funding and grants; interprovincial agreements or programs; transfers; and deals with private business. It’s also not easy to track the amount of times that the Trudeau government improved the tone, resisted the urge to shut down criticism at committee or put in a program that prevents as opposed to punishes after the fact.

Number of pieces of legislation passed is not a saleable message that Justin Trudeau will look to in 2019. And he tactically shouldn’t. He will focus on how Canada is “fairer” and “more just” in 2019 than it was at the end of 2015.

No tracking sheet or tidy wrap-up report card could show that Justin Trudeau passed more bills than Stephen Harper did, but… wait one minute – Hey, look! The Liberals taxed the 1% and gave more to those with families with children!

Shane Mackenzie is an Associate Consultant with Ensight. He has worked for Liberal Members of Parliament, as Social Media Coordinator for the Liberal Party of Canada, has spent time as a federal public servant, and has campaigned at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels.