One month has passed since Canadians woke up to the prospect of a Liberal majority government. Emotions are still running high.
On the winning side, the euphoria that greeted Justin Trudeau’s election as prime minister has split into a mixture of healthy anticipation and not-so-healthy celebrity worship. It was embarrassing to watch Canada’s supposedly impartial civil servants behave like teenage groupies when Trudeau visited the foreign affairs building. It remains unsettling to watch star-struck Liberals deny what westerners see plainly: a privileged son of the eastern political establishment taking back the reins of power.
On the losing side, the disappointment that greeted Stephen Harper’s loss of power has gelled into a mixture of rationalization and resentment. All of the grievances that predated the three Conservative mandates are bubbling back up. It is as if an Albertan had not led the government for almost a decade.
This would be a good time to step back, reach across the fault lines and give credit where it is due.
To be fair to the Tories, some of their policies will — and should — outlast them.
• They made training in the skilled trades a priority. Not only was this useful in counterbalancing the public perception that anything less than a university degree was second-rate. It produced job-ready workers to meet employers’ needs.
• They made departmental spending reviews the norm in Ottawa. Before they took power, government programs that had outlived their usefulness or fallen short of their objectives languished for years, consuming public resources. The Conservatives identified and cancelled them. Conducting regular cost/benefit checks is a habit worth keeping.
• They made life easier for families with disabled members. Former finance minister Jim Flaherty created a registered disability savings plan, allowing parents to set aside money tax-free so a child with a disability would have a nest-egg when they were gone.
• They refrained from slashing provincial transfers. That would have been the easy way to cut spending. It is what Liberals did in the mid 1990s, destabilizing the health-care system and driving up tuition fees for a decade.
• They steered Canada through the 2008-2009 recession with minimal damage. Some of the credit rightly belongs to Ontario’s bankers and Alberta’s oil producers. But Harper and his ministers made the right choices; they stimulated the economy when the private sector was immobilized by fear and lowered public spending with a discipline that previous Liberal governments had never shown. They worked with the Bank of Canada to minimize the danger of an inflationary spending spree. And they froze EI premiums so workers wouldn’t be penalized for rising unemployment.
On the negative side of the ledger, the Harper government turned Ottawa into an increasingly impenetrable bastion, weakened democratic institutions, divided Canadians into friends and foes and enacted harsh, punitive laws.
The former prime minister was neither an ogre nor a brilliant manager. He was an introverted politician who relied on fear to maintain control. Over time, he alienated all but his party’s core supporters.
As the Liberals begin their mandate, they need to be conscious of their blind spots and Achilles heels. They are a largely eastern, lawyer-loaded party that closely resembles the political elite of the past. They campaigned skilfully but they haven’t mastered the levers of power.
They must guard against any sign of entitlement. That means filtering out the adulation of their acolytes and refusing to demonize their opponents. It also means reaching out to the people who didn’t vote for them. Trudeau promised on election night to be a prime minister “who never seeks to divide Canadians, but takes every single opportunity to bring us together.” Every new leader makes some version of that pledge. Few stick to it.
The fledgling prime minister had a challenging first month: a worse-than-expected fiscal update, a horrific terrorist onslaught in Paris, a tense G20 meeting in Turkey and a jittery APEC summit in the Philippines. He stuck to his election commitments, ignored the second-guessers shouting from the sidelines and sidestepped the obvious pitfalls. It was hard work.
The time for celebrations and score settling, winning sides and losing sides has passed. The nation voted to turn the page.