Justin Trudeau and his band of “sunny ways” Liberals have approached the political equivalent of the continental divide – two years in and two years to go before the next election on Oct. 21, 2019. They have had two years to enjoy the fruits of victory and to keep – or not – their campaign promises. Now they face two years of heavier slogging as they try to build momentum for re-election.
They have had an uncommonly easy ride so far. That’s partly because the Conservatives and New Democrats have been too pre-occupied with their leadership makeovers to concentrate on holding the government to account.
The easy ride is also partly because the Canadian economy is outperforming many others.
And it’s partly because of Donald Trump. The more appalling the U.S. president becomes, the better he makes Trudeau appear. Who wouldn’t take a rational, progressive leader like Trudeau over an angry, egocentric Trump whose decisions are as unpredictable as the path of an Atlantic hurricane?
Managing Trump – keeping Canada-United States relations on an even keel and a constructive course despite the White House tweeter – is Trudeau’s biggest challenge and one he has met successfully so far. The challenge will be even greater in the next two years as NAFTA and other bilateral issues assume greater urgency.
Trudeau may take comfort when he looks across at the opposition benches in the Commons. Under Andrew Scheer, the Conservatives are edging to the right, away from the moderating influence of their interim leader Rona Ambrose and back into their old Stephen Harper comfort zone. That suits the Liberals; the further right the Conservatives drift, the more they help elect Liberals in urban Canada.
The New Democrats need more than a new leader. They need to demonstrate that the party is still relevant at a time when Liberals have assumed control of the centre-left of the spectrum. That won’t be easy for the NDP to demonstrate, regardless of whom they choose to lead them. Quebec is their prime problem. The rapport they established with Quebecers under their late leader Jack Layton has evaporated; they have 16 seats left in the province, and Trudeau’s Liberals are poised to snap up as many as they can.
The Liberals’ immediate problem is to maintain a hold on the middle-class voters whose support was so crucial in 2015 election. Tax reform was to be one means to that end, but as the government had already learned with electoral reform, major change is a two-step process. First the government has to prepare the ground by showing the public the need for change. Then it has to convince people that the steps it proposes are the best or only way to achieve the desired change.
This takes political salesmanship, a commodity in short supply in today’s cabinet. On electoral reform, the Liberals needed to persuade voters that the first-past-the-post system was broken. Most Liberals (like most Conservatives) didn’t believe that proposition, so it was no surprise that they could not sell it to the public. With the proposition unsold, there was no way they could sell a remedy (some form of proportional representation or preferential balloting).
On tax reform, it is not difficult to sell middle-income earners on the proposition that they are paying too much income tax while the one per cent at the top pays too little. Who could disagree with Trudeau when he says there is something wrong when a person earning $50,000 a year pays more tax than someone making $250,000?
But, as always, the devil is in the details. Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s plan to change the tax regime for personal corporations set up by small businessmen and professionals to shelter income has gone over like a lead balloon. It would increase government revenue by raising the tax on the likes of plumbers, dentists and family doctors, among others – just the sort of middle-class voters the Liberals will need two years from now.
Watch for a reboot.