A new era of Canadian Politics? “Real Change” is coming up short

Jonathan Kates 

After experiencing an unprecedented first year of manicured popularity, it appears the honeymoon may be fading. The end of summer 2016 and subsequent return to Parliament have so far not been kind to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government. A series of recent expense scandals, personnel slip-ups and some backtracking on key promises have them headed towards a sophomore slump.

jane-philpottIn August 2016, two of Trudeau’s top ministers were caught up in expense scandals. It was revealed that Minister of Health Jane Philpott had spent nearly $7,500 on limousine rides in the Greater Toronto Area for a ride to Niagara Falls to speak at the Assembly of First Nations, and on 20 trips to Toronto’s Pearson Airport when flying to Ottawa on ministerial business. The optics of these exorbitant costs worsened when it was disclosed that the limousine company is owned by Philpott’s friend and former campaign volunteer Reza Shirani, a fact of which the Minister’s office was aware when booking. Shirani has since offered to pay the $1,700 Niagara Falls limousine bill himself. Less than a week later, news broke that the office of Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna had spent $6,600 in taxpayers’ money to hire a photographer to document her every move at the COP21 conference in Paris last December. This hardly seems in line with the government’s promise of greater oversight of taxpayer dollars.

Ministers McKenna and Philpott have also been criticized for standing by commitments made by the previous Conservative government. In the days following the election, McKenna announced that her government would not set a national emissions target, and that Stephen Harper’s target to reduce GHG emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 would simply be the floor – the minimum level to be achieved. She vowed this government would be tougher than their predecessor. But on the first House of Commons sitting day this Fall, McKenna announced the Liberal government would, in fact, stick with the targets she once called “unambitious” — this despite the fact that according to current emission trends, Canada is expected to miss that goal by a wide margin. Then, in early October, just days after approving a liquefied natural gas pipeline in British Columbia that is sure to increase GHG emissions (according to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency), the government announced a pan-Canadian carbon tax that will compel all provinces to adopt carbon pricing in some form by 2018.

Although certainly a step in the right direction for the environment, the move will damage Trudeau’s bargaining power with the provinces. Maybe it already has. While Trudeau was announcing this plan in the House of Commons, provincial environment minsters were in Montréal with McKenna, negotiating a deal that–unbeknownst to them–had been completed behind their backs. Upon learning of the federal government’s unilateral decision on a carbon tax plan, three ministers (including two from provinces with Liberal premiers) walked out of that meeting.

Federal-provincial relations have also soured with respect to health care funding, an area of policy that had potential to benefit from the more collaborative approach to governance promised by Trudeau. In 2014, following the expiration of Paul Martin’s six per cent health care transfer escalator agreement, then-Finance Minister Jim Flaherty extended the six per cent per year bump for three years – set to expire at the end of fiscal 2016-2017 – before dropping to three per cent per year until 2024, when the deal would be up for review. Despite the provinces’ hope that Minister Philpott and the Liberal government would return to their six per cent commitment after 2017, the feds announced that they will stay the course and keep in place what Philpott referred to as her predecessor’s “reasonable” funding agreement. The Minister wants to see more innovation in health care rather than more money, and that may be a worthwhile policy goal–but the provinces anticipate that demographic changes will demand more immediate solutions.

Other recent controversies have extended beyond political decision-making. Following last October’s federal election, Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, Justin Trudeau’s top two aides, incurred combined moving costs that exceeded $200,000. The costs were charged to the public purse – as has been the norm since the 1970s – and allowable under Section 8.2 of the Treasury Board’s Policies for Ministers’ Offices (last updated in January 2011 under the Harper government).  When asked to comment, Trudeau pointed out that his government did not create the rules but was simply following them. On the other hand, Butts and Telford took the high road and offered to pay back roughly 40 per cent of the expenses while publicly acknowledging that sometimes following the rules “[isn’t] always enough.” The government has since asked the Secretary of Treasury Board to review these policies.

barack_obama_justin_trudeau_09-jpegFinally, there was the untimely revelation that rising star Member of Parliament (MP) and Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, the first Afghan-born MP, a child refugee, and recipient of praise during Barack Obama’s address to the House of Commons in June, was not born in Afghanistan. Monsef was born in Iran, a fact that her mother, Soriya Basir, had allegedly not disclosed to her because she did not think it mattered. Following this revelation, a few important political leaders in her constituency of Peterborough – including former Liberal MP and MPP, Peter Adams, and her 2014 mayoral race opponent, Daryl Bennett – came forward claiming they had previously known Monsef’s birthplace. In response, Gerald Butts tweeted that the media circus surrounding this non-issue was Canada’s “homegrown” birther movement.

Although it’s asinine to believe that Monsef’s birth country has any bearing on her ability to carry out her duties as an MP or Minister, the secret has forced her Cabinet colleagues into a tight spot. Even if unintentional, having provided an incorrect birthplace on her immigration documents could make Monsef subject to the controversial legislation enacted by the previous Conservative government, which grants the government the power to strip refugees or citizens of their citizenship if it is found that they misrepresented themselves during their application process. While in opposition, now Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John MacCallum called the law “dictatorial” and promised to repeal it. This has not happened.

Furthermore, accusations of hypocrisy are flowing in after the CBC published a graphic from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) showing that between November 2015 and September 2016, the Trudeau government revoked 184 citizenships, while the Conservatives had revoked 82 between June 2013 and October 2016.  Former Conservative Citizen and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is claiming responsibility for this spike (and seems proud of it).  Regardless, the Liberals haven’t stopped the revocations from happening, while the constitutionality of the very provision that allows for them is currently being challenged in court. Although it is unlikely that IRCC will strip a Canadian Minister of her citizenship (especially as Monsef is working through the issue herself), opposition parties will cling to this flip-flop for a long time to come.

Expense scandals, federal-provincial hot air, preferential treatment for the home team, and a culture of asking for forgiveness have called this government’s ethos and credibility into question as it enters into its second year in power.

In sum, it’s worth stressing that although none of the action listed above were purposely illegal, a series of questionable decisions by politicians and political staff have set the stage for a difficult return to the House of Commons for Justin Trudeau and his Liberal colleagues. Expense scandals, federal-provincial hot air, preferential treatment for the home team, and a culture of asking for forgiveness have called this government’s ethos and credibility into question as it enters into its second year in power. For a party that campaigned on “Real Change” and the promise to do better, the Liberals’ actions in the last few months have been rather status quo.

Jonathan Kates is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, and he holds a bilingual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Glendon campus at York University.  His policy areas of interests are cities, social policy, innovative approaches to governance and service delivery, and how individuals are influenced by their environments. When not perusing the internet, Jonathan is probably checking his fantasy basketball team…ok, teams.


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