CHELSEA, QUE.—Justin Trudeau has lost his sense of daring and, if he doesn’t get it back, he could also lose the next election.
In 2015, he led his third-place party to a comfortable majority on the strength of a positive tone and some specific, progressive promises. His platform—if not his subsequent performance—defied the deadening incrementalism that has been a hallmark of governing in Canada, no matter the party. He gave hope that government could change things for the better—little things and big things.
Voting reform, the rebirth of peacekeeping, trade deals for ordinary people not corporations, a balance between environmental protection and economic growth, a new push for gender equality, reconciliation with indigenous Canadians, reinforcing public pensions and a more adult, even collegial, relationship with the provinces—for years, they said it couldn’t be done.
Depressingly, it is looking as if “they” might have been right.
The Trudeau government has had some successes. The prime minister has a gender-balanced cabinet and trans rights have been recognized. There have been some excellent, non-partisan appointments to the Senate and elsewhere. The CPP has been bolstered and poor families with children are somewhat better off (although a tax credit is no substitute for subsidized child care). On other files—notably, the provinces and Donald Trump—Trudeau has done his best with a difficult hand.
But there is a smell of retreat in the air.
Last week, for instance, the prime minister was asked if he supports a ban on handguns in wake of the Danforth shootings in Toronto. He prevaricated. He pivoted to lamenting the loss of the two young people who were killed. He declared that all proposals would be studied seriously.
“We’re going to make a decision for the long term, not the short-term,” he said. And, later, “there’s a lot of things we are looking at right now. Obviously, there’s a lot of strong emotions going on.” This sounds very much like no, we don’t plan to ban handguns.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured with Liberal MP John McKay on June 20, 2018, on Wellington Street shortly before holding a press conference at the National Press Theatre across the street where he outlined his government’s accomplishments in this session of Parliament. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
This feeble non-response is unworthy—unworthy, at least, of a supposedly progressive leader. It is true that gun violence is a complex issue and that a national ban on hand-guns would not stop gun murders overnight. In fact, handguns are already restricted weapons, available to sport shooters after a gun safety course, two questionnaires and a cursory background check. And it is already illegal to carry a handgun anywhere in Canada.
There are also conflicting reports on where the guns involved in recent shootings are coming from—about half, say some experts, are smuggled in across the border, while the other half have either been stolen from legitimate Canadian owners or sold to criminals. Whatever the statistics, Toronto Mayor John Tory raised a pertinent question: why does anyone need a handgun in Toronto? (Young men living in scary neighbourhoods is one answer—but only because other young men have guns already.)
A complete ban on the weapons—following the lead of Britain and Australia—could give police and border agents another tool and reassure parents, partners and children of unstable individuals. At the least, Trudeau could follow the advice of gun-control advocates and strengthen the new Liberal gun-control law so that police forces have easier access to information on gun sales. Is he afraid of Canada’s gun lobby, of Alberta, of rural Canada? How about the majority—urban Canadians, including many women who voted Liberal last time, and can think of no good reason NOT to ban handguns?
As with electoral reform and, increasingly, the environment, Trudeau is throwing that constituency overboard in an attempt to mollify, or win over Canadians who would never vote for him in the first place.
Last week’s climb-down on the environment is another example. Large emitters—cement plants, steel factories, other carbon-intensive sectors—will now pay a carbon price on only 20 per cent of their emissions, instead of the original 30 per cent. This move is being portrayed as a tweak, but it is a capitulation in the name of maintaining competitiveness with the less regulated U.S. sector. It also puts the concerns of Canada’s most polluting industries—industries that have had decades to prepare—ahead of the justified unease of ordinary Canadians faced with increasingly dire examples of a changing climate.
So far, the government claims to be holding firm in the face of Trump’s decision to weaken Obama-era fuel emissions standards. But no one should be surprised if Canada eventually follows suit, in the name of protecting the country’s important and embattled car industry. It isn’t that those jobs are unimportant. But a government seriously committed to lowering emissions would, like California, refuse to panic. There is a large and growing market for fuel-efficient vehicles, including electric cars, no matter what Trump does.
These moves, and others, take Canada even further from our already unreachable Paris targets. Canada isn’t pulling its weight and has less prospect of doing so every day. Give or take some uptalk about ocean pollution and the creation of a few new parks, the Liberal record on the environment is indistinguishable from Stephen Harper’s. That’s not what (many) people voted for.
Bad fortune for the Liberals, however, creates opportunities on the centre left. No one should be surprised if the Greens do considerably better in 2019. The New Democrats stand to benefit, too, if they sharpen their focus and take some of the bold risks that got Trudeau elected last time.
The shakedown, of course, could leave us with another Conservative government _ proudly facing backwards, settling scores, muddling along until the next attractive disrupter appears.
Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.
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