Globe editorial: Justin Trudeau needs to unite, not divide, in 2023

22 Dec 2022

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the General Motors production plant in Ingersoll, Ont., on Dec. 5.Nicole Osborne/The Canadian Press

Canada may not be broken, but the cracks are showing.

Following a divisive election campaign in 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had an opportunity, not to mention an obligation, to try to heal those divisions. Instead, Canadians got another year of wedge politics from the governing Liberals, more intent on securing partisan advantage than on salving national unity.

Mr. Trudeau was not the cause of the self-styled Freedom Convoy protest in February, but his actions before and during inflamed the situation.

Rather than trying to de-escalate, he sought to tie his Conservative opponents to the worst elements of the protestors and ultimately invoked the Emergencies Act, a decision we continue to view as unnecessary and unjustified.

The Prime Minister’s divisive approach is the government’s greatest shortcoming in a year pockmarked by failures in policy and short-sighted political manoeuvres. Thankfully, that’s not the whole story. There are some signs that the Liberals are beginning to learn from their mistakes and starting to pivot away from their poll-driven policy-making.

But first, those mistakes. Fiscal policy is surely at the top of that list. Continued spending increases, even in the face of surging inflation, raise obvious questions about the Liberals’ self-professed fiscal prudence.

Federal program spending in the current fiscal year is projected to account for 16 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product. Excluding spikes during the financial crisis and the pandemic, that’s the biggest footprint since the mid-1990s.

Ottawa’s most recent fiscal forecasts predict that program spending will shrink relative to the economy, and that the federal budget will be in surplus in five years. Given the Liberals’ propensity to see every extra tax dollar as an opportunity to spend, those forecasts are little more than fantasy.

Big-ticket increases lurk on the horizon over the next couple of years, including increases to the new federal dental benefit and higher health care transfers.

Continual spending increases, a ballooning civil service and faint attempts at spending reviews: the Liberals’ fiscal record is increasingly looking like a reboot of the disastrous policies of the 1970s Trudeau government.

Ethics is another weak spot. The recent transgressions of Mary Ng, Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development, are only the latest in a long list of violations, including by Mr. Trudeau.

His poor example is at the heart of the issue. But so is his apparent belief that simply publicizing the missteps of ethics offenders is a sufficient corrective. It is not.

A less obvious but even bigger issue is the Liberals’ seeming lack of interest in the basics of governing. Mr. Trudeau’s government once crowed about its devotion to “deliverology,” otherwise known as doing what you said you would do.

The Liberals are increasingly flailing on that front, with promises punted from one year to the next. The delay in setting up a mental health transfer is one obvious example.

On the other side of the coin, they were preparing to stick to their March, 2023, timetable for expanding the option of assisted death to those suffering from mental illness – in spite of warnings that doctors weren’t properly prepared to handle such requests.

The government’s new willingness to reconsider its deadline for the expansion of euthanasia, along with a possible rethinking of its gun-control bill, are hopeful signs the Liberals may finally be focusing on the mundane but critical job of executing on policy, rather than making grand pronouncements.

Equally hopeful are signs of a more hard-headed foreign policy, and a shift away from what has been Mr. Trudeau’s gossamer-daydream approach to international relations. Aid to Ukraine has been quick, targeted and coupled with a blunt acknowledgment of Russia’s destabilizing intent. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s Indo-Pacific strategy could become a much-needed pivot away from Ottawa’s overly accommodating approach to China.

A greater focus on governing, a foreign policy focused on Canada’s concrete interests, a new-found willingness to digest criticisms of legislation: those are all cause for (cautious) optimism that Mr. Trudeau could govern differently in 2023 than he has over the last seven years. If he does not, those cracks in Canada will grow wider.

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