OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau was handed a load of political capital, and a long leash, by Canadian voters last month.
What’s he done with it so far? He has delivered a spectacular tour de force when it comes to showmanship at home and abroad, but something less than that when it comes to substance.
Right now, Canadians seem enamoured of the diverse, gender-equal cabinet, smitten by the selfies, the international adulation, the Maple Leaf socks pictured on the front page and the charming encounter with the Queen.
By the time Trudeau rises in the House to answer his first question following his throne speech in the coming days, the halo will still be firmly affixed. This presents a bit of a conundrum for the two main opposition parties.
We are going to see a parliamentary configuration not seen in this country for more than a generation, and the opposition is going to have to go slow in trying to dent the Liberal armour.
Trudeau will eventually step on a rake. He can now boast to the BBC about leaving his detractors “in the dust,” but if it appears you’re walking on water now, it is a sure bet that something will soon have you treading those same waters in the deep end.
Trudeau can go a long way by not being Stephen Harper. The collaborative style, the pledges of “Canada is back,” initiatives that “look like Canada,’’ may be bromides, but at least they don’t look like Harper’s Canada.
So, this week on their refugee plan, Liberals broke a promise, deferred a promise, got caught up in their own campaign rhetoric, fumbled their message — take your pick.
And the country applauded.
Trudeau has time and again been caught out as a victim of horrendous timing, staying firm on his pledge to withdraw CF-18s from anti-Islamic State air combat without, so far, a coherent rationale for this plan or specifics on how he will boost our military training role.
He has spent two weeks at international summits as an outlier among allies, this week meeting with David Cameron before the British prime minister sought to extend his country’s bombing mission into Syria. He is preparing for a meeting with French President François Hollande, who has declared war on ISIS.
At home, criticism over Trudeau’s position has been muted and done little damage.
On the environment, Trudeau gets full marks for getting the premiers together, but he has nothing to wave in Paris other than provincial goodwill and a different Canadian attitude. Real targets and real work are still to come.
It has been 22 years since a government was displaced by a rival that formed a majority, but from the 1993 Jean Chrétien Liberal sweep came a Bloc Québécois opposition and an inexperienced, undisciplined Reform party. The previous Conservative government was reduced to two seats.
When Paul Martin fell, there were former Liberal ministers on the opposition benches, but that was a minority with the unique dynamic that brings. We will now have seasoned Conservatives who spent years in cabinet going after neophyte Liberal ministers, but as part of a government with four years to serve.
Under interim leader Rona Ambrose, the tone has already changed.
There was nothing triumphal from Conservatives on the refugee announcement, only a promise from critic Michele Rempel to push the Liberals beyond the “smiles . . . and unicorns” on refugee care and the cost.
Conservatives will be more aggressive on the Trudeau plan to pull the fighter jets they committed, but they will find little or no traction poking holes in the climate plan or exploiting Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s fiscal plan.
The task is tougher for NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who can’t go after refugees or Trudeau’s withdrawal from the anti-ISIS air coalition (an NDP election plank). It’s too early to go after Trudeau on climate change before he meets again with the premiers, but the NDP should push Trudeau on the anti-terror bill, C-51, which Mulcair would have gutted but Trudeau has promised to amend. They will also push Trudeau on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the damage it will inflict on the auto sector.
Mulcair, a progressive now with less parliamentary face time, will square off against a prime minister with a similar progressive bent.
No more is the NDP leader the man who tried to tear daily strips off an unpopular Harper.
Both parties will, in the short term, grudgingly give Trudeau his day. But they also both know that rake is just down the next street.