SHERBROOKE, QUE.—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers are vowing to do more to ease the economic anxieties felt by Canadians, a reality that could trip up the Liberals’ political prospects in this election year.
Trudeau and his cabinet ministers wrapped up a three-day retreat here Friday that set government priorities — and some of the political messaging — for the coming months ahead of October’s federal election.
The key one will be economic. The Canadian economy is doing well with forecasts for continued growth and low unemployment, all of which Trudeau takes credit for.
“It’s happened because we had a plan to invest in Canadians and their communities. Obviously there have been challenges and learning experiences throughout the past three years but we have stayed focused on growing the middle class … and we are succeeding,” Trudeau said.
But the Liberals fear that good news is lost in the recent stock market turmoil and economic hardships felt in some regions. Just this week, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was highlighting the fallout of the depressed resource sector. “Canadians are struggling more and more to get by and Justin Trudeau is failing to help,” Scheer said on Twitter.
Trudeau acknowledged that whatever good economic news the government might trumpet, not all Canadians are feeling confident.
“People are feeling anxious in the world — about what’s going in the world, what the future might bring for their kids and grandkids,” said Trudeau, who will rally Liberal MPs Sunday in Ottawa ahead of Parliament’s Jan. 28 return from its Christmas break.
A senior adviser sketched out the challenge for the government — “while there is a lot of anxiety building around the world, keep focused on trying to create economic opportunity.”
That message will fall to Finance Minister Bill Morneau to deliver as he takes on a higher profile to talk up the economy and push back against political rivals.
“We’re going to be thinking about how we can present for Canadians our plan for continuing to face up to those real anxieties that middle-class families face,” Morneau said this week.
But there are also cautions that Canada could get side-swiped by external developments.
With ongoing diplomatic spats with China and Saudi Arabia, potential fallout from Britain’s Brexit chaos and the unresolved tariff tiff with Washington, ministers are warning that Canada is not immune to the events in the “tough and turbulent” world.
“We’re living though, I think, probably the most turbulent moment in terms of the rules-based international order since the Second World War. This turbulence is affecting a lot of countries and we should not imagine that we can be immune,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said.
But the Liberals also face turbulence at home, with strong opposition to their agenda from provincial governments such as Saskatchewan and Ontario, notably on climate change.
“Obviously there are a range of different perspectives across the provinces,” Trudeau said, adding that his approach with all provinces is to work “on the things we agree on and trying to minimize and work around the areas we have disagreement.”
But faced with the prospect of divisive election debate on the topic of climate change — and carbon pricing — the Liberals intend to hammer the economic argument for change.
At the retreat, the Liberals announced the creation of an advisory panel chaired by Steven Guilbeault, a prominent Quebec environmentalist, and Tamara Vrooman, president and chief executive officer of Vancity, a large community credit union, to recommend new initiatives on climate change.
“We think there’s a big economic opportunity as we think about ensuring businesses become more innovative,” Morneau said.
Canadians are concerned about climate change — and, in some cases, are paying the price for the changes already afoot — but they want government policies on the issue to be “affordable,” says Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change.
Trudeau has already declared that climate change — and each party’s response to it — will be the ballot box question this October. The choice, he bluntly told a town hall in Saskatchewan recently, is to back politicians who have a plan or “hide your head in the sand.”
Stéphane Dion led the Liberal party in the 2008 election, the last time a carbon tax was a central theme on the campaign trail. The Conservatives handily beat the Dion and his “green shift” carbon tax proposal in that vote.
Now that headway is being made, Dion — who is Canada’s ambassador to Germany and special envoy to the European Union — says it would be a mistake turn back.
“My only advice is not only for Canadians or Europeans but it is for the world,” said Dion who was one of six Canadian diplomats who attended the retreat to brief ministers. “Encourage the people who want to do more because we need to do more.”
Other policy decisions that lie ahead for the Liberals include the commitment to examine universal pharmacare, a priority that Morneau said is “really important.” An advisory council led by Dr. Eric Hoskins — Ontario’s former health minister — continues to study the issue, raising the question whether a proposal will be unveiled in the budget or the election platform. “I can’t tell you that I know for certain how far we’ll get on that in the budget,” Morneau said.
It’s expected that Bill Blair, the minister of border security and organized crime reduction, will report to cabinet in the coming weeks on options to further restrict handguns, a move spurred by escalating gun violence across the country.
Morneau has said the Liberals’ final budget before the election will include a focus on helping Canadians adapt to the changing job environment. Just exactly how hasn’t been yet decided, he said this week.
Last year, the government released a poverty reduction strategy based largely on previously announced initiatives. But Jean-Yves Duclos, of families, children and social development, says the Canada Child Benefit and two measures yet to take effect — the Canada Workers Benefit this April and the Canada Housing Benefit next year — will go a long way to meeting the strategy’s initial target of reducing poverty by 20 per cent by 2020, compared to 2015 levels.
To meet the more ambitious goal of 50 per cent reduction by 2030, Duclos said, more measures will likely be needed in the coming years.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier