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Trudeau’s expected pragmatic course in Canada

After his sweeping victory in Canada’s election on Monday, Justin Trudeau received the customary telephone calls from other world leaders. Yet along with their congratulations was the suggestion that he should enjoy the postelection glow because, he said he was told, it’s “all downhill” from here.

Since becoming leader of the Liberal Party two years ago, Mr. Trudeau, 43, has repeatedly emphasized that he wants politics to be about consensus, not ideology. That would be a shift from the hyperpartisan approach of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has led Canada for nearly 10 years.

But when he takes office on Nov. 4, he will find himself saddled with a problem that most elected officials would give anything for: a majority in Parliament. He should be able to pass his left-leaning agenda with little friction, yet that would probably alienate the very conservatives he has said he wants to reach out to.

 Mr. Trudeau’s associates insist that he is pragmatic above all. “He’s committed to try to make the right decision and not always ideological decisions,” said Anna Gainey, the president of the Liberal Party and a longtime friend of Mr. Trudeau.

To those who question his sincerity to consult widely on policy, she said, “There is always going to be cynicism and criticism no matter whether you’re left or right or up or down.”

“A whole lot of what people wanted was a change in style,” said a former senior bureaucrat who did not want to be identified talking publicly about the government’s inner workings. “So the plan will be: Deliver some goodies right away; show that you mean business. It’s a very practical platform in that they didn’t make promises that depended on convincing others.”

As was the case with his campaign, Mr. Trudeau will rely on a personal team largely made up of contemporaries — many of them old friends — to set his legislative agenda and run the prime minister’s office.

His agenda includes jump-starting a sluggish economy through deficit spending, improving Canada’s record on climate change, reducing participation in the American-led military campaign against the Islamic State and legalizing marijuana.

While for the most part those on his team are Ottawa outsiders, they are not inexperienced in their new roles. Gerald Butts, Mr. Trudeau’s friend from McGill University, is his closest adviser and the chief architect of the party’s election campaign. In the past, he was principal secretary to Dalton McGuinty, the former Liberal premier of Ontario. Others in Mr. Trudeau’s inner circle have similar backgrounds and connections.

But while the Liberals will effectively have absolute control over the House of Commons, the same will not be true of the public service. Even the top positions within Canada’s system are held by professional public servants, not by political appointees.

Relations between the public service and Mr. Harper, who openly denigrated the bureaucracy and barred government scientists from publicly discussing their research, verged on poisonous. While a near sweep by Liberal candidates during the election in Ottawa suggests that bureaucrats will welcome Mr. Trudeau, that does not mean the handover will be seamless.

“There are some public servants who only know the Conservative government and only know its way of doing things, so it may be hard to get them working in a new way,” the former bureaucrat said.

Officials in the Privy Council Office, the headquarters of the bureaucracy, he said, have already studied Mr. Trudeau’s promises and, separate from the coming prime minister’s transition team, have begun developing recommendations on how to put them in effect.

Mr. Trudeau, of course, will not be able to do everything immediately. Developing the party’s legislative timetable “will require a great deal of reflection by our leader; it’s clearly one of the things he is focusing on,” Ms. Gainey said.

“There will be some things that can easily be done with a stroke of a pen,” she added.

The former bureaucrat said that he expected Mr. Trudeau to move swiftly on issues that did not require parliamentary approval, like setting up an inquiry into the disproportionately large number of missing or murdered aboriginal women.

Mr. Trudeau, he said, was also careful to make specific commitments only on issues that can be done through direct orders from the cabinet or by Parliament, like increasing tax rates for the wealthy and reducing middle income tax rates.

But, he said, Mr. Trudeau makes only broad, sometimes even vague, commitments on issues like developing a new climate change policy — which will require cooperation or approval by provincial governments. Canada’s provinces fiercely protect their powers, making it difficult for any prime minister to get agreement from their 10 leaders. Mr. Harper notably did not even try. While much of Mr. Trudeau’s platform leaned leftward, other parts of it, like support for the Keystone XL pipeline project, were shared by Mr. Harper.

Mr. Trudeau has invited all 10 premiers to join him at the international climate summit in Paris. And issues that will require substantial regulatory and legal changes, like legalizing marijuana, will be stalled through study, the bureaucrat said.

At the same time that Mr. Trudeau is setting his legislative agenda, he will also have to choose a cabinet from his caucus. On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau said that he would follow up on a promise to ensure that at least half of the cabinet members are women. The Liberals elected 50 women, so that should not be hard to achieve even with the ever fraught business of ensuring regional representation.

It seems unlikely that the Conservatives will be able to spoil the general good will at least in the short term, said Peter Loewen, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.

For 10 years, the Conservative Party has identified itself around Mr. Harper even to the extent that government announcements referred to “the Harper government” rather than the “government of Canada.” His highly centralized administration allowed few of his cabinet ministers to shine. The result is that now that Mr. Harper has said he will resign as leader of the Conservative Party, he has no obvious successor.

And while Tom Mulcair has stayed on as leader of the New Democratic Party despite its drubbing at the polls, he faces a leadership review in the spring.

“I suspect when Stephen Harper sat down in the prime minister’s office for the first time, he didn’t blink,” Professor Loewen said. “It’s clear now that we underestimate Justin Trudeau at our peril.”

Source: The New York Times

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