National Column: Even safe issues haunt Liberals

by Paul Wells

Everyone suspected the return of Parliament would provide a bumpy ride for a Liberal government still enjoying sustained popularity nearly a year after the election. The surprise is that the turbulence has set in so quickly.

Let’s look at two strengths the Trudeau Liberals thought they had and one weakness they knew would plague them. All have conspired to make the first half of their week lousy.

First, the weakness. “Entitlement is our kryptonite,” a senior Liberal told me eight months before last year’s federal election. Liberals know Canadians grow weary of them when they act as though they have always been in power will always be in power, and are frankly impatient with the short interludes when Canadians get it wrong and elect someone else.

So it must have stung – it should have stung – when Global News reported on Tuesday that a single unidentified staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office billed taxpayers $126,669.56 in moving costs to move to Ottawa. A second charged $80,382.55.

That’s a lot of kryptonite.

And it was not helpful to have Bardish Chagger, who is supposed to represent the new face of optimism in her role as government House leader, respond to Conservative questions on the extravagance by blandly reading prepared speaking notes in question period, justifying the cost as the sort of investment that’s needed to get the top people into Ottawa to help the boss change Canada.

But it’s one thing when Liberals get criticized for spending money. To some extent, every government faces the same steady stream of flak from the opposition benches, and there is no way the Liberals can positively gain voter support through ostentatious displays of frugality.

They should be more careful than they’ve been. But such efforts will always be exercises in damage limitation.

It’s quite another matter when the Liberals take criticism, some of it richly earned, on issues they thought would be winners for them. The week’s most spectacular example is climate change.

To some extent, what’s happened is, simply, that Catherine McKenna, the rookie environment minister, has been slow to learn the cost of promising a little extra. When she got her job last autumn, she was eager to proclaim that the carbon-reduction targets set by the Conservatives were a minimum.

Surely a Liberal government would go sailing past those targets en route to perfect carbon virtue. McKenna’s staff tweeted photos of the locally sourced, environmentally conscious household products they were buying as part of their own #ClimateAction.

Then, a few more of McKenna’s briefings sunk in. She realized that this government will be desperately lucky to come anywhere close to meeting Harper’s targets.

The belated backtracking began over the weekend. The hard work lies ahead.

Last year, it still seemed the Trudeau government could rely on whatever goodwill contribution each province felt like making toward a low-carbon economy; now it is becoming clearer something a little more bracing will be required.

A national carbon price, set in Ottawa, for instance. That may require rolling right over Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who conveniently resides in a province that elected only one Liberal last October. (Sorry, Ralph Goodale. You had a good run!)

But the damage on the Liberals’ environmental left could be long-lasting. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called McKenna’s backtracking “nothing short of a disaster for the climate.”

The second area where considerable effort from Trudeau seems to be paying exceedingly modest
dividends is on his much-vaunted reconciliation with indigenous groups.

Ottawa has started issuing construction permits for BC Hydro’s Site C dam, over the objection of First Nations that have taken the government to court over the project.

Charlie Angus, a New Democrat MP who’s been quick to praise the Liberals on indigenous issues when he thought they deserved it, called the move a failed test for the Trudeau government.

Trudeau has been used to getting some of his most glowing coverage from news sources outside Canada.

But in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, an article appeared that called his “lofty rhetoric” on First Nations “a cheap simulation of justice.”

The criticism came from a particular corner: the article’s author, Montreal journalist Martin Lukacs, was one of the authors of the Leap Manifesto that has sparked vigorous debate in the NDP. Still, it added to what is becoming a lousy week for the Liberals.

The best remedy for all these ills is concrete progress on these and other files. Promising was easy, consulting not much harder. Now comes deciding.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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