Robin V. Sears: Three big tests for Justin Trudeau
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Dec 28, 2015  |  Vote 0    0

Robin V. Sears: Three big tests for Justin Trudeau

Curbing emissions, reforming our democracy, improving the lives of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples — that’s a recipe for a remarkable legacy


This epidemic of euphoria, into which we seem to be sliding, may remind you — if you are approaching your dotage — of one nearly half a century ago. That was the last time so many of us were so publicly giddy in such an un-Canadian manner about ourselves and our country. It was the yearlong birthday bash we threw in 1967.

As a lifelong social democrat election night was a mixed blessing. Sad as I was to see how far from the dreams of glory the NDP had fallen, with the benefit of many election-night scars I knew how dramatically much worse it might have been. Sweeps usually crush everything in their path, as in ’58, ‘84, ‘93, 2000.

The morning after, my chagrin was slowly transformed into a deeper satisfaction, even pride, that Canadians had so decisively rejected one of the angriest and most hateful political campaigns in living memory. That Ford family photo was a final raised middle finger from a contemptuous, and now blessedly, former prime minister.

How powerful and sweeping has been our mood swing. How marvellous it’s been to eavesdrop on glowing Canadians, young and old, sharing stories about their role in #WelcomeCanada, to witness our collective determination to be the world’s most welcoming immigrant nation.

The tears of joy and the daily TV images of new Canadians arriving to welcomes they are clearly staggered by. Canadians’ pride in this gift of a chance at new lives for families who only weeks before had none has all been a little too breathtaking for the cynical journos and the political class to absorb.

It is therefore even sadder to watch the lonely Harper loyalists — those few staffers, lobbyists, and media apologists — desperately trying to frame his appalling legacy as a proof of conservative virtue. As our memory of them is already beginning to fade, there is perhaps no point in a rebuttal list of the transgressions of the previous government. The frantic rewriters should just stop.

More genuine Canadian Conservatives need to be allowed to begin their work nudging their party back into the mainstream of conservative values; values not from the Donald Trump school of hate, but those of Sir John A. and Meighen, Borden, Diefenbaker, Mulroney, Lougheed and Davis. Their task is not made easier by these bitter Harper courtiers reminding two thirds of Canadians of how much they detested his government and its legacy.

For the Trudeau government, already demonstrating a comfort and confidence in wielding power that usually eluded the Harper team, legacy is clearly top of mind. Their impossibly long list of mandate commitments is full of too-big challenges for every minister. In addition, they will face “events” — the sudden swoon in the federal fisc is only the first. These they will probably manage adequately and survive.

There are, however, three dossiers essential to their legacy. If they were well launched in 2016, they would ensure that this improbable leader is on his way to building a legacy granted to a mere handful of prime ministers. Each of these files has defeated previous Liberal and Conservative governments. The political risks could not be higher, the prospects of success thinner.

In ascending order of difficulty — real carbon rollback, genuine democratic reform, and transformation in the lives of Canada’s aboriginal citizens — is now the gold medal trifecta of Canadian politics.

The Paris summit has generated expectations tough to manage. A national carbon-pricing scheme eluded the Chrétien and Martin governments. The Harperites ducked it as too politically toxic. Real reductions in emission levels soon are now table stakes in climate change. Ottawa will attempt the “triangulation” triumph of the Notley team — welding big business, First Nations, and the green community as its carbon-cutting champions. Failure would be a boost to the NDP and give Conservatives new sneer ammunition. An NEP-style fiasco, still whispered about anxiously among some in the oilpatch, needs to be avoided at all costs.

Democratic reform is long overdue. Some pieces — House committee reform — should not be too hard, others are as hard as political change gets. Changing how the Senate is selected, governed and managed is challenging. Trudeau’s plan already looks shaky: secret selection by the PMO of the winners from a set of secret nominations, delivered in secret by an advisory panel he chooses.

Hmmm. Open and transparent? Non-partisan?

Senate reform is iconic of the obstacles to serious democratic reform. Each file is potentially partisan quicksand. The Conservatives are already demanding a referendum on any change to the electoral system, secure in the knowledge that that would mean certain defeat for any reform. Some gullible journalists have defended a referendum as an essential democratic test. What that naively fails to recall, of course, is that there has never been a non-partisan “democratic” referendum. The final choice will inevitably be political and require partisan approval.

A far better approach would be to require an all-party committee to frame a unanimous reform package. If such a package received simple majority consent from the House, it should become law. That is how we did the Charter. That is how we have made every previous electoral change from redistribution, to election expenses, to the Canada Elections Act itself. We do not have a happy experience of referenda in our country. Anyone keen to rerun Conscription, Charlottetown, Sovereignty I or II?

If the opposition insists on a “democratic” referendum, then the price should be high. All parties should be forbidden from campaigning, and the vote is a simple up or down on the whole package. Veterans of the “constitution wars” of the 80s and 90s well recall the impossibility of blending partisanship and national consensus-building.

All-party support and unanimity are high thresholds. But if there is need for a further legitimacy proof, a Supreme Court reference is preferable to a referendum. Again, that is what saved us from the disaster of a referendum on the Charter.

The New Democrats have a very hard choice to make on this file and others. If they merely join the Conservative “na-boo” chorus, mocking and blocking every Liberal effort at real reform, they will enrage their own base. One of the election’s hard lessons is that progressive Canadians will punish anyone even appearing to increase the risk of another right-wing Conservative government.

It is, however, delivering real change on the First Nations’ agenda that will prove to be Trudeau’s knottiest political test.

Reforming the appalling educational system that enrages parents of First Nations children has frustrated half a dozen federal governments. Poisonous water, embarrassing health care, mouldy housing, and social decay all lead to prison or suicide for rising numbers of young aboriginal Canadians. And then there is the resolution of the nightmares revealed by the residential schools inquiry, and the horrors yet to come in the inquiry into why so many indigenous women go “missing” — that creepy euphemism for bodies yet to be found.

On the plus side of the ledger is a strong, experienced and committed minister. Carolyn Bennett will not be easily gulled by her “Yes, Minister” departmental officials. Bennett has a powerful ally in Justice Murray Sinclair, the smiling but implacable steward of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

They are supported more powerfully than ever in our history by the strongest of cabinet allies. They are in sync with Canadians who today seem to be moving in the direction of supporting visible change. Most powerfully, the reformers have at their back our first prime minister to make it very clear that this file will be one of his personal tests of success.

Less helpful is the long history of failure on virtually every front, and the deep antagonisms that has generated. Combined with deep divisions within the leadership of the aboriginal community, and very different views of what should have priority, make this an incredibly complex and delicate puzzle.

If the Trudeau government were to fail on climate change and on electoral reform, but leave office looking back on real improvements in the lives of Canada’s first peoples that in itself would be a powerful and defining legacy. If they were to deliver real change on all three, Trudeau the Younger might arguably be seen to have trumped his pa in the legacy stakes.

And if they begin well in the New Year, Canadians might continue to smile.

– Robin V. Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe and a Broadbent Institute leadership fellow, was an NDP party strategist for 20 years

Toronto Star

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