A pattern is developing in Canadian politics.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet a group expected to be unfriendly or censorious. He will listen carefully to its position but make no firm commitment. To the surprise of his critics, he will emerge unscathed.
The scenario keeps repeating itself. After each encounter, his adversaries accuse him of delivering empty platitudes or coasting on good will, but the people who were actually in the room say the prime minister was well-briefed, reasonable and understood their position.
• It happened last week in Calgary when he met oil company executives. He couldn’t promise relief from plummeting crude prices or guarantee that a pipeline to either coast would be built on his watch. What he undertook to do was build a national consensus that getting Alberta’s landlocked oil to a sea port is in the interest of all Canadians.
• It happened the week before in Montreal, where he met the city’s combative mayor. Denis Coderre had publicly declared his opposition to the Energy East pipeline. The pundits were primed for an embarrassing clash between the two Liberals. But after his audience with Trudeau, Coderre indicated that he could change his mind.
• It happened in November when he attended his first G20 summit meeting in Turkey. Critics of the fledgling prime minister warned he was in for a dressing down by world leaders over his decision to withdraw Canada’s fighter jets from the U.S.-led coalition combat mission in Iraq and Syria. The timing could scarcely have been worse for Trudeau. The night he left for the summit, terrorists attacked Paris and killed 129 people. ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) claimed responsibility. Stemming a tide of retaliatory rhetoric, Trudeau stood his ground, saying Canada would bring home its CF-18s in March but contribute to the mission in other ways. If he faced reproach or pressure to reverse his stand, there was no report of it.
On issue after issue — his admission that his government couldn’t meet its year-end deadline to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees; his acknowledgement that Canada faces a deficit of at least $3 billion this year; his decision to sign the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership — Trudeau has escaped the day of reckoning his critics confidently predicted.
Part of the reason is he is still in his post-election honeymoon, the brief period when a new leader is given the benefit of the doubt as he tackles the challenges of governing.
A second possibility is that Canadians are tired of political upheaval. They’ve been through the longest election campaign in postwar history, a race marred by fear-mongering, race-baiting and corrosive incivility. Maybe a change in tone is all they need right now.
There could be a certain amount of sympathy for the Liberals. Since they took office, the price of oil has dropped by 33 per cent, undercutting their revenue projections and ambitious plans.
The most likely explanation is that Trudeau hasn’t yet given his foes a substantive target. His government hasn’t enacted any legislation, tabled its first budget, produced its climate change strategy, approved any pipelines or pulled a single warplane out of the Middle East (although it soon will).
Although “the first 100 days” are a staple of political commentary, they are seldom a reliable guide to what lies ahead.
No recent prime minister was faster off the mark than Stephen Harper. Within 64 days of taking office he had his Federal Accountability Act before Parliament. Yet he ran one of the most secretive, impenetrable governments in memory.
No one would have guessed from Brian Mulroney’s first 100 days in office that his legacy would be free trade with the United States. He waited a year before announcing his intention to negotiate what was then the world’s largest free trade agreement.
Jean Chrétien certainly didn’t look like a deficit-slayer in his early days. He pledged to reduce the federal deficit to 3 per cent of Canada’s GDP. Within four years he blew past that goal. By the time he stepped down in 2000, Canada had a $24.7-billion surplus.
What generally becomes clear early in a prime minister’s tenure is his style of leadership, approach to governing and character. Trudeau is a team captain, not a one-man team. He takes his time assessing challenges before acting. He places a high priority on communicating directly with Canadians. And he is not immune to having fun. None of that is likely to change.