National Column: One year on: Promises, what promises?

by Chantal Hébert

Much celebration – for the most part justified – is attending the first anniversary of Justin Trudeau’s election victory. Twelve months later, polls elicit no buyer’s remorse. Many voters who did not support Trudeau last year are on balance happy he won.

The alignment of the stars continues to favour the prime minister. With the opposition parties leaderless, the biggest risk to the Liberals these days is to let success go to their heads.

On that score, it may be time to keep Trudeau away from his press clippings.

On three occasions since the House reopened last month – including twice in this anniversary week – the prime minister has short-circuited negotiations between his ministers, the provinces or the opposition parties.

In an interview published in Le Devoir on Wednesday Trudeau signalled he is no longer enamoured with his promise to change the voting system in time for the next election.

The prime minister argues that on the heels of the election of a Liberal government, many Canadians no longer feel it is urgent to do away with the first-past-the-post system.

The outcome of the last election has indeed alleviated the fear of many progressive voters that, under the current system, the division of the opposition vote would give the Conservatives a virtual lock on federal power.

But the Liberal zeal for moving away from a system that has just delivered them a majority has flagged at least as quickly as the electorate’s sense of urgency.

In his early days as prime minister, Jean ChrÈtien celebrated election anniversaries by listing all the platform commitments he had honoured. Trudeau, it seems, believes the occasion lends itself to backtracking on promises.

The prime minister’s timing is counterintuitive in yet another way. An all-party committee is about to try to craft a consensus on the way forward on electoral reform. Trudeau may have wanted to send the NDP and the Greens a message that if they do want a different system, they will have to put much water in their wine to find common ground with the Liberals.

But his comments can only exacerbate the Conservatives’ sense that his only interest in moving to a different voting system would be to rig future elections against their party.

Trudeau’s musings also shore up the perception that the Liberals on the electoral reform committee, along with reform minister Maryam Monsef, are on a mission to sabotage the discussion.

Standing at his seat in the Commons earlier this week, the prime minister alleged that the provinces have been diverting federal health dollars toward other programs.

Provincial health spending has been increasing at about half the pace (3 per cent) of the federal health transfer. But Ottawa funds only a fraction (23 per cent) of the total provincial health bill. Even with the current 6-per-cent escalator clause on that amount, the federal increase does not cover the actual rise in total health spending. The bottom line is that the prime minister is basing his case for cutting the annual increase in half on a mathematical fallacy.

The main result of Trudeau’s comment was to make a difficult conversation between federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and her provincial counterparts even more antagonistic.

Trudeau did not create this week’s stalemate but he is certainly not contributing anything constructive to its resolution.

On the day last month when the prime minister declared his intention to set a national floor price on carbon, Canada’s environment ministers were meeting to discuss climate change.

They were put in front of a fait accompli. Some of them walked out on Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

For the most part Trudeau earned kudos for the substance if not for the method of his announcement on carbon pricing. It was an overdue move on the part of a federal government.

Reviews of his health-care approach are more mixed. The federal government does not need provincial approval to determine the level of its health transfer, but it can’t get the reforms it hand-picked in its platform off the ground without provincial co-operation.

Electoral reform is not a top-of-mind issue for most voters. The political costs of Trudeau ditching the promised introduction a different voting system in time for 2019 would not be prohibitive.

But when one connects the dots between the prime minister’s interventions on three of this fall’s time-sensitive files, one finds little evidence of the collegiality Trudeau promised last year.

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

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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