TRUDEAU’S FIRST CHAPTER: TWO LIBERALS WEIGH IN AGAIN

Ali Nasser Virji & Jonathan Kates

Because it’s 2015.” In his first act as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau named a cabinet that is not only gender-balanced, but also societally-representative. It contains five ministers of South Asian descent, eight that identify as belonging to First Nations communities, and two persons with disabilities. While some have criticized a perceived absence of merit in Trudeau’s consideration process, any criticism is overstated. With regards to female appointments, former Ontario Cabinet Minister Frances Larkin put it best when she said: “These are very strong, able, capable women. They will make their mark. Some will soar to the highest heights of competency, recognition and accomplishment—just as some men—and there will be some who turn out not to be so apt at the job—just as some men.” It doesn’t hurt, of course, that all are more than qualified. This is the Canada in which we live: racially and socially diverse.

Last week, we identified some of the priorities the Liberal government should tackle during their first 100 days. In this piece, we visit some of the files our new government should initiate during the first year of its mandate. Although most are unlikely to be completed in full by November 4th, 2016, we see each as important enough to garner attention during year one.

These priorities are as follows:

(1) $5 billion in infrastructure spending for cities

Unlike his partisan opponents, Trudeau did not pledge to run a balanced budget during the campaign period. Instead, his party made a risky pledge to plunge Harper’s balanced budget back into the red at a rate of $10B annually for three years, with total infrastructure investments reaching $125B over the next decade (p. 4).

For a time, it seemed as if such a calculation may backfire. After all, Trudeau’s financial competence had previously taken a hit following a CPAC interview (30:55 mark) during which he claimed “the balance would budget itself.” Nonetheless, the Liberal justification for running a deficit piqued citizen interest:

Canada is in desperate need of infrastructure spending.

As former Bank of Canada governor Dave Dodge told the CBC, “borrowing at these incredibly low interest rates for 30 years to finance this long-lived investment is actually a wonderful thing to be doing.” It remains to be seen whether this is a good idea; however, it’s no secret infrastructure is lacking in large major cities across this country – have you taken the TTC recently? With strong Liberal support in many urban ridings, many urbanites likely headed to the polls with infrastructural upgrades in mind.

Newly named Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, Amarjit Sohi, will need to distance his department from the last economic stimulus, Harper’s Economic Action Plan. Former Treasury Board president Tony Clement infamously used such stimulus to spruce up his home riding with “parks, walkways, [and] gazebos.”

Although the Liberal infrastructure plan is a long-term commitment, Sohi will need to be transparent about where these taxed, and financed, funds are headed. From the GTA to Surrey to Edmonton, Trudeau made many infrastructure pledges during the election. We await action.

(2) Senate Reform

Trudeau caught political observers by surprise when he expelled Liberal Senators from his caucus in January 2014. Correspondingly, Trudeau did not appoint a government leader in the Senate this past week. Only by removing partisanship from the chamber, he reasoned, could the Senate fulfil its regional and institutional functions. The party has pledged to create a new non-partisan and merit-based process to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments. (p. 5) As his plan doesn’t require a constitutional amendment (unlike abolition or Triple-E reform), implementation should be painless.

While no senators sit in the Liberal caucus, the Conservative majority in the Upper Chamber may present a roadblock for the passage of Liberal legislation. We hope their majority does not interfere with efforts to initiate reform.

Mike Duffy is the elephant in the room. Facing charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, the former broadcaster’s trial dominated election coverage during the early stages of the campaign. Though the trial concluded on August 28th, the forthcoming decision is bound to thrust Senate issues back onto the government’s agenda.

(3) Electoral Reform

A day after his surprisingly convincing ascent to Rideau Cottage, Trudeau reaffirmed his pledge that Canadian elections would never again be fought under the first-past-the-post system. According to their platform (p. 8), the government will form an all-party committee to study various systems before presenting their recommendation to parliament. Within 18 months, we should see electoral reform.

Although Trudeau received 39.5 percent of ballots cast, his party now holds 54 percent of seats in the House of Commons. Like Harper in 2011, the Liberal Party clearly benefited from the electoral status quo, leading some to question whether this promise will be honoured.

While it is true that the Liberal Party would probably not have received a majority of seats under a proportional representation system, the Liberal Party has never pledged to enact proportional representation.

We suspect that the Government of Canada (NB: not the Trudeau Government) will enact preferential voting, also known as the ranked ballot. Furthermore, Senior Liberal adviser Robert Asselin has indicated this as the party’s preference in the past. Under this system, voters rank their choices. Voter rankings collect points from ballots cast until one candidate passes the 50 percent threshold of support. In theory, this would not only be more democratic, but it would end the practice of strategic voting. Furthermore, preferential voting would neither require a redistribution of Canadian ridings, nor would citizens lose a local MP.

Most importantly: unlike proportional representation, it tends to produce stable majorities. Thus, the Liberals can balance their promise of electoral reform with their own self-interest.

During a recent Election Post-Mortem panel at the School of Public Policy and Governance, former Environics Vice President Donna Dasko argued that, during the campaign, polling drove media coverage—and not the other way round. The final breakdown of the popular vote is markedly similar to final poll averages. As interested as we were with the polling during the election, we’d be curious to see if any national polling agencies conducted a survey on rates of strategic voting on election day. If so, we’re confident we’d find considerable appetite for electoral change.

  • As an aside, if you’re interested in hearing what Donna Dasko and her fellow panelists had to say at the Election Panel, Beyond the Headlines rebroadcasted the event on CIUT.

(4) Try to form a relationship with First Nations

Maclean’s encapsulated the Conservative’s disastrous relationship with Canada’s First Nations when they wrote: “The government voted against the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007, before endorsing it as an ‘aspirational’ document in 2010, then voted against its adoption at the UN in 2014.”

That occurred in addition to conflict over environmental degradation, attempts to systematically exclude thousands of Indigenous voters through the elimination of vouching, and the inexplicable delivery of body bags to a Manitoba reserve by Health Canada during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak.

Therefore, it should not have been a surprise that one of the earliest Liberal calls to action was in response to Conservative inaction over the implementation of the Truth & Reconciliation Report’s recommendations, Canada’s failure to sign the UN document, and its failure to immediately launch an inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

This road will be long and arduous. Trudeau and his team, including the eight new Indigenous Liberal MPs, must immediately initiate action if they have any hope of mending the fragile relationship between Indigenous peoples and the federal government in Ottawa.

In summation

“Government by Cabinet,” our Prime Minister told reporters on November 4th, “is back.” The ministerial name changes within that cabinet may indicate an intended ideological focus for this government’s mandate, some of which may influence action taken on the above policy goals.

During the 42nd Federal Election, Canadians demanded transparency and accountability. We don’t expect Trudeau and his cabinet to be perfect – in fact we can almost guarantee they won’t be. This is the internet age. As quickly as we have been able to dig up and hyperlink relevant articles from the previous few months, Canadians may revisit previous Liberal pledges during the forthcoming Trudeau era. Every move will be documented, parsed, and scrutinized to the nth degree. Prime Minister Trudeau would be wise to play this to his advantage, engage with Canadians, and explain any tough and unpopular decisions along the way, lest he forget how quickly the winds of public opinion can change.

Good luck, Mr. Trudeau. All eyes are on you.

Jonathan Kates is a is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds a bilingual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Glendon, and his areas of interests are education, social policy, cities, and government accountability. His favourite food group is pizza.

Ali Nasser Virji is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Canadian Studies from McGill University and hails from Tsawwassen, a town whose name is arguably the most difficult to spell in British Columbia. If you bump into him on the street, he is probably clutching a cup of coffee, walking unnecessarily fast, and attempting to read up on broadcast and telecommunications regulatory policy on his oversized phone.

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