National Column: Clouds gathering behind Grits’ sunny ways

Smiling refugees and hopeful First Nations. A historic climate deal and international adulation. And those stratospheric poll numbers.

As 2015 draws to a close, the capital is Bedford Falls, Old Man Potter has been banished and we’re all living in the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Or so it would seem.

But the Justin Trudeau parade is destined to march down some blind alleys and one week of debate in the Commons – a sitting with training wheels that presages the real show to begin in January – offered some clues as to where storm clouds are gathering behind those sunny ways.

Electoral reform

The Liberals will consult Canadians in a “thoughtful and thorough process” through an all-party committee, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef maintains, but it is difficult to see how a
fundamental change in the way we choose government can be put in force without a referendum.

Three federal parties have three different positions on electoral reform.

The Conservatives will push hard for a referendum. They need the status quo, at least in their short-term future.

The New Democrats will push hard on proportional representation and the Liberals cannot attempt to ram through a ranked ballot proposal because they will face legitimate charges they are trying to enshrine their majorities under that plan.

Those advocating reform are loud, but it is not clear a majority of Canadians want change.

Ending the “first past the post” system was tossed out by the Liberals when they were in third place as part of a democratic reform package, but they doubled down on that in the Throne Speech.

Trouble looms. Canadians will learn that proportional representation will mean the birth of one-issue parties trying to wedge their way into the House of Commons. Any option carries partisan freight and
means an overhaul of how parties campaign and what Parliament would look like. This issue is a potential minefield.

Domestic security and the Islamic State fight

The Liberals have always had problems with the Stephen Harper anti-terrorism bill, C-51, and it looks like they are having problems again.

Initially, they backed the bill but promised amendments if elected. But they have been curiously silent on this since the election.

At the very least, Trudeau has promised proper oversight of the legislation with the creation of a multi-party committee comprised jointly of MPs and senators. At other times Liberals spoke more broadly of ensuring the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is respected in CSIS warrants, a revocation of a key element of the Harper legislation.

But this was all before Paris and a published report that Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa are among cities allegedly targeted by Islamic State fighters.

The domestic security pledge received only lip service in the Throne Speech, but the mandate letter for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale specifically refers to the repeal of “problematic elements” of C-51
and the introduction of new legislation that better balances security and rights and freedoms. First Nations leaders are among those calling for an overhaul of the bill and Trudeau has spoken about resetting the relationship with them.

Dragging his feet won’t help that cause.

Similarly, Foreign Affairs Minister StÈphane Dion repeated Sunday that our six CF-18 fighter planes will be withdrawn from the international coalition “within weeks.”

Our surveillance and refuelling planes could remain and Liberals are grappling with a commensurate effort on the ground to replace the planes as part of the coalition.

They are finding that symbolically and substantively, the retirement of six planes is more difficult in practice than promise.


Exuberance is understandable, but the Liberals are in danger of tripping over their own press clippings.

Twice in one week, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum was curiously dismissive of his Conservative critic, Michelle Rempel, congratulating the former minister on her “rise to
the noble post” of opposition critic then encouraging her to be “a little more cheerful” (he later apologized).

More than one minister rose in response to opposition questions to tell us this was a great day for Canada.

The Liberals have an understandable swagger, but they are facing an experienced opposition.

One former minister spoke of the “freedom” Conservative frontbenchers feel after losing the shackles of tight Harper discipline and the government is already finding their Conservative adversaries are more than ready for battle under interim Leader Rona Ambrose.

When MPs next convene, life in Ottawa will not have quite the cheery snow globe sheen.

The long, frozen days of January will mean the long, dark reality of governing.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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