There was a time, less than a million years ago, when the federal Liberals prided themselves on their ability to get things done.
They might not have been lovable or even very likeable, and most of the time they weren’t. They were not a warm and cuddly outfit. They didn’t take selfies, hug voters, or remove their shirts in public. (Can anyone imagine “Uncle Louis” St. Laurent – his most famous quote: “If we are to preserve civilization, we must first remain civilized” – on a beach showing off his tattoos?)
Except for a brief spell at the start of the first Trudeau era, the Liberals of old managed to keep excitement out of politics.
But that’s not all they managed. They also took on difficult files and saw them to completion.
I’m thinking of the Official Languages Act; the new Canadian flag; creation of the CRTC and Petro-Canada; introduction of medicare, Canada Assistance Plan and Canada Pension Plan; unification of the armed forces; patriation of the Constitution; adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; rewriting of the archaic Divorce Act; abolition of capital punishment; and decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality.
It was never easy. The Conservatives fought change every inch of the way. Lester Pearson’s two minority governments somehow managed in the 1960s to bring in the social welfare system Canadians enjoy today. They did it by showing up for work every day, ready to do battle in Parliament.
This is all by way of getting to a humble suggestion. With the midpoint of their mandate approaching, perhaps it is time for Justin Trudeau and crew to settle down.
If he wants to see his ambitious agenda items through to successful conclusions, the Prime Minister needs to worry less about image politics. He needs to be in his office and, come fall, in his seat in the Commons. As his Liberal predecessors knew, productive government doesn’t just happen. It requires direction, leadership, determination, hard work and close attention to detail.
Justin Trudeau is capable of that effort. With the able support of Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, he has managed the crucial Donald Trump/U.S. relationship file with patience and skill.
But other files have suffered from weak follow through. Reform of the electoral system did not have to become a broken election promise. It was doomed by an absence of government direction and commitment. The Liberals set up an all-party Commons committee (a good start) and sent it out to ask Canadians what they thought. What the committee found was the public doesn’t know what it thinks. Some people like one version of proportional representation; others like a different version; some like a preferential ballot; the largest number said they thought they preferred the existing first-past-the-post system, perhaps with tweaks. As a blueprint for change, the committee report was useless.
If he genuinely wanted electoral reform (and I’m not sure about that), Trudeau could have put the file in the hands of a minister with extensive electoral experience – not a junior – presented the committee with clear options to test, and sent it forth with the authority and occasional attendance of the Prime Minister himself at its hearings.
Meanwhile, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – another key Liberal election promise – is unraveling. The commission can’t get its hearings going; its schedule in unrealistic; senior personnel (including one commissioner) are leaving; and no one seems clear about what the commission is supposed to be doing.
Is it to listen to the families of the murdered and missing and offer them some comfort? Or is to explore the causes of systemic violence against Indigenous women? Can the same inquiry realistically do both? What does the government want from the inquiry? What does the Prime Minister want?
Justin Trudeau has made politics fun again. There is no reason why politics should be all work and no play. But there is a place for fun and a time to put one’s tattooed shoulder to the wheel.