National Column: Trudeau has plenty on his plate

by Chantal Hebert

Justin Trudeau would not be human if he had not wished the year-end news conference he gave on Monday on Parliament Hill to provide him – in the spirit of the upcoming holiday season – with an opportunity to celebrate the many missions he believes his government accomplished in 2016.

But he would not be where he is today if he still believed in Santa Claus. And so it can’t have come as a surprise to the prime minister that while he was asked what, if anything, he regretted most about his first full year in office, he was not similarly queried about what he believes was his greatest success.

For the record, Trudeau said the execution in the Philippines of two Canadians held hostage for ransom by Islamic extremists had made for his darkest hours as prime minister. A less introvert Stephen Harper would have answered along the same lines. The responsibility to make life-and-death decisions is one that no prime minister takes lightly.

On the plus side, Trudeau might have liked to bask a little longer in the afterglow of the climate pact ratified Friday by 11 of the 13 provincial and territorial governments.

After all, when Canada signed the Paris climate accord a year ago, many commentators doubted the capacity of the rookie government to do the heavy lifting required to translate talk into concerted federal-provincial action.

But it is the nature of politics that one crisis chases another and so three items of unfinished but time-sensitive business took precedence:

1. More so than climate change, health-care funding has been an apple of discord between Trudeau and the premiers. It was initially Harper who decreed that as of next year the annual increase of the federal health transfer would fall to 3 per cent from 6 per cent. Ever since Trudeau made that Conservative decision his own, the provinces have been crying foul.

The issue was the main topic of the dinner Trudeau hosted for the premiers Friday night. On Monday, the prime minister said he expected a resolution of the matter before the holidays. The relative radio silence that has attended the aftermath of the first ministers’ dinner suggests a compromise, designed to allow everyone to save face, is in the works.

2. On electoral reform and Trudeau’s promise of a new voting system in time for the 2019 election, the Liberals have ended up tangled in a web of their own weaving. Monday, the prime minister professed excitement about the ongoing government’s online consultation – the one that almost everyone else has talked about for the wrong reasons. The exercise’s main claim to fame is to have inspired parodies in both official languages.

Over the past six months, much of the intellectual energy of the top levels of the government has been focused on the dual issues of pipelines and climate change – at some cost to lesser files. If there is a point to Trudeau’s latest contribution to this comedy of errors, it may be to buy the Liberals time so as to regroup and figure out where to go from the current electoral reform quagmire between now and when the House resumes in late January.

3. Political financing, finally, was never meant to be on the Liberal radar and its appearance has not been good news for the government. It has seemed both blindsided by and blind to the widespread public perception that the prime minister is being elastic in his interpretation of his own ethical rules when he allows his party to trade access to himself and his cabinet for donations.

Based on Trudeau’s news conference, that blindness starts at the very top. On Monday, the prime minister said donors did use the access their money bought to lobby him but that it had no impact on his decisions. He compared chatting with donors at exclusive private events to the hosts of closed-doors meetings he holds with municipal politicians and/or community organizations.

Trudeau sees a parallel between the discussions he has with representatives of other levels of governments, such as the premiers he spent the day with on Friday and well-heeled contributors to his party’s coffers.

At this rate, he will soon be reassuring his provincial counterparts that he does not hold it against them that they get to spend quality time with him free of charge. After all, time is money in Liberal land.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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