"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" – Robert Browning.
That may be a viable proposition in poetry, Mr. Browning, but it does not work in politics, where a reach that exceeds one’s grasp means expectations have been created but left unfulfilled.
Just ask Justin Trudeau. Unfulfilled expectations are his Achilles’ heel as he struggles to raise the Liberal government out of its midterm slump.
He was elected prime minister in 2015 on the crest of expectations that Canada would somehow be a better place to live, work and raise a family – a more enlightened, progressive and respected land than the previous Conservative regime had cared to let it to be.
That was the Liberal dream, the Trudeau reach. Some of the expectations were within his grasp – gender equality in government, for example – and some other expectations are works in progress. Senate reform is advancing slowly. A new relationship between the federal government and Indigenous Canadians is developing but will take years, if not decades, to fulfill. Progress on a coordinated national approach to climate change may come to naught if Doug Ford and his band of climate skeptics win power in Ontario in June.
A promise on electoral reform – to replace the first-past-the-post system in time for the 2019 election – was the first casualty, broken for the simple reason that the Liberals found it impossible to keep. They discovered what they should have known – that there was no national consensus on the need for a new system – and the government could not conjure up a replacement that the public liked better.
Other election promises are approaching fulfillment, for better or worse. Canada will resume a visible role in international peacekeeping when about 250 Canadian troops are dispatched to Mali this summer as a helicopter task force to support United Nations efforts there. The government’s hesitation and delay on peacekeeping were understandable, even prudent.
Mali is probably where a Canadian presence would be most helpful, but the political downside looks greater than the upside. Mali is among most dangerous conflict zones in the world with 162 peacekeeper deaths since 2014. After Afghanistan, no election-bound government wants voters to see soldiers arriving home in body bags.
Even the Liberals’ signature promise, to legalize cannabis, is fraught with political risk. The Liberals’ young-voter base expects the commitment to be honoured and it will be, although not by July, the promised date. The legislation is still being hustled through the Senate. Once it passes, difficulties will begin.
Expect unapproved growers to move in on the lucrative marijuana supply business. Expect organized crime to muscle on the distribution chain with cheap product. Expect lots of stories about how easy it has become for children to obtain legal pot. Expect more stories about police inability to prevent motorists from driving while high, and controversies over smoking weed in public places, on sidewalks and in parks. These may prove to be transitional issues, but they will be landmines that politicians will have to skirt or defuse on the road to election 2019.
The biggest landmine will be impossible to avoid. It is Donald Trump, unpredictable and ever dangerous.
By far the most important file on Ottawa desks is Canada-United States relations, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement.
On most scorecards, Trudeau has done a skillful job of managing his relationship with Trump. He has listened politely to the president and read his inane tweets without rising to the bait, without losing his composure or giving in to Trump’s bullying tactics. The government has kept its focus where it matters – on protecting Canadian industries, from aerospace in the case of Bombardier, to softwood lumber to automobile manufacturing under NAFTA.
If the Liberals can beat back Trump’s attempt to impose punitive tariffs on Canadian trade and bring home a successful renegotiation of NAFTA, voters will, I suspect, be willing to forgive unfulfilled expectations on lesser issues.