OTTAWA—The official start of the federal election is still weeks away but don’t doubt the campaign is well underway.
That was driven home this week when the federal Liberals opened a closed-door workshop for a speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who rallied some 200 party candidates gathered from across the country.
He talked up the Liberal record on the economy, social policy and environment. He talked down his Conservative rivals, saying they had no plans for the country and charged that they were already engaged in a smear campaign.
These are the messages Canadians can expect from Trudeau and his candidates in the coming weeks. But are they accurate? The Star checked and found it was a mix of truth and misleading statements.
When talking about his government’s record, Trudeau told the truth, though some initiatives remain a work in progress. But when he turned his guns to the Conservatives, to attack either their plans or their strategies, we found Trudeau’s statements stretched credulity or simply were not truthful.
Here’s a look at some of Trudeau’s key statements and the Star’s assessment:
1. “During our mandate, Canadians have created over a million new jobs.” True. In October, 2015, when the last election was held, 18 million Canadians had jobs and the unemployment rate was 7 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. In June, 19 million Canadians had jobs and the unemployment rate stood at 5.5 per cent, the agency reported.
2. “We’ve negotiated three of the largest trade deals in the world …” True, with a caveat. Under the Liberals, Canada has negotiated the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement, replacing the North American Trade Agreement; the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Pacific nations. Yet the new North American trade pact has yet to be ratified by the United States and Canada. And work on the European Union and Pacific trade deals began under the previous Conservative government so Trudeau can’t claim all the credit.
3. “…lifted over 300,000 kids out of poverty.” True. On July 1, 2016, the Liberals introduced the tax-free Canada Child Benefit, replacing a number of family benefits. In July, the maximum benefit was increased to $6,639 per child under age 6, and $5,602 per child aged 6 through 17. Statistics Canada data showed there were 622,000 children living below the poverty line in 2017, the first full year of the benefit, down 278,000 from 2015 when the Liberals took office. The agency said that the child benefit had resulted in higher incomes for families. Campaign 2000 uses a measure that counts 1.4 million children in poverty in Canada but national campaign co-ordinator Leila Sarangi agrees with the number cited by the prime minister. She said the organization is doing work to better assess the impact of the child benefit on that reduction.
4. “ … and cut taxes for 9 million Canadians.” True. Trudeau is referring to the number of Canadian taxpayers who benefited from the 2016 move to reduce the tax rate to 20.5 per cent from 22.0 per cent for taxable income between $45,282 and $90,563, said Kevin Page, president and CEO of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy. That tax cut made good on a signature campaign promise by the Liberals. But due to a number of factors such as income splitting and rising incomes, that should not be interpreted as the number of people paying lower taxes, Page said.
Taxes went up in other ways. The Liberals introduced a new 33 per cent top rate for taxable income over $200,000 and eliminated a number of targeted tax credits for transit riders and children’s fitness and arts tax programs.
5. “We protect our oceans and our parks. We ban harmful plastics for single use. We are phasing out coal-fired power plants and putting a price on pollution.” Almost all true. The Liberals campaigned on a pledge to increase the size of protected marine and coastal areas to 10 per cent by 2020. Trudeau used a trip to Iqaluit to announce that a marine protected area near Arctic Bay had been finalized and that work was underway on another zone on the northwest corner of Ellesmere Island. That now brings Canada’s total protected ocean territory to 13.82 per cent, beating the target, according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
In 2018, the federal government implemented new standards to accelerate the phaseout of coal-fired plants nationwide by the end of 2029. Canada appears on track to meet that commitment thanks in part to incentives that encourage their conversion to gas plants, said Binnu Jeyakumar, director of clean energy at the Pembina Institute. “Companies are starting to move away from coal pretty promptly,” she said.
The Liberals have implemented a national strategy on carbon pricing. The promise on single-use plastics is less definitive. Trudeau announced in June that the federal government would work with provinces and industries to develop a strategy to ban harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021 “where supported by scientific evidence and warranted.” That remains a question mark.
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6. The Conservatives, Trudeau said, “do not have a plan for the economy. No plan for the environment. No plan for the future of our country.” Not true. In fact, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer used a series of speeches to sketch out the party’s positions on key topics such as foreign policy, immigration, Confederation and the economy. He has also released his party’s strategy to tackle climate change. It will be up to Canadians to pass judgment on the merits of these strategies but it’s not truthful for Trudeau to claim that the Conservatives have no plans at all.
7. Trudeau said that once in power, conservative politicians make “cuts to public health, cuts to municipalities, cuts to child care, cuts to education, cuts to the services Canadians rely on most.” It’s true that Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has made cuts in all those areas. The Liberals are trying to tie the federal Conservatives to the unpopular policies of the provincial government. Is that fair? Well, four of Ford’s MPPs — Stephen Lecce, Paul Calandra, Daryl Kramp and Parm Gill — were part of the Conservative team in Ottawa, as MPs or staff. Still, Ford has said he will not get involved in the federal campaign. And after an early round of Liberal attacks trying to link Scheer with Ford, the federal Conservative leader insisted he is his “own” man. “Look, the difference in this federal election is going to be between myself and Justin Trudeau,” Scheer told the Star’s Robert Benzie.
8. “In October, Canadians will have a clear choice to make. Cuts and austerity — or investing in Canadians.” This statement is a stretch. Trudeau offered no specifics for his claim. The inference is that a Conservative government would need to implement deep spending cuts to make good on a vow to balance the books. Yet Scheer, perhaps mindful of the Liberal line of attack, has already walked back the Conservatives’ timeline for balancing the books, to five years rather than two. That’s not to say there would not be cuts. The party has already promised to axe the Canada Infrastructure Bank, for example, and discretionary spending would have to be curtailed. But the new timeline would give a Conservative government more breathing room to find savings. The 2019 budget projected that the deficit would be $6.8 billion by 2023-24. But even that forecast appears out of date. In a July report, Scotiabank said that federal revenues continue to surpass expectations, putting a balanced budget within reach in three years to five years if spending does not exceed budget plans.
Page, the former parliamentary budget officer, said the federal government is within “touching distance” of a balanced budget but suggests that the focus on the “modest” deficit is overblown. “Given very low interest rates, a growing economy, a federal spend in excess of $300 billion, a $2.3 trillion dollar economy, there is nothing magical or special about a budget balance,” Page said in an email to the Star. “We could run these deficits for a while without creating downstream costs” such as rising interest burden or debt financing issues, he said.
9. Trudeau used his speech to talk up what he called the Liberals’ “positive, ambitious vision of the future.” But then he took aim at Scheer for “personal attack ads, the politics of fear and division, smear campaigns … The election hasn’t even started, and you already see it every day on social media, third-party attacks, the list goes on.”
For some listeners, the promise of a positive campaign followed by that accusation was a jarring juxtaposition that made the prime minister sound hypocritical. The Liberals make no apologies, saying they won’t be shy about calling out their opposition rivals on policy and tactics.
While Trudeau cites the role of conservative-minded third parties, groups on the left have been taking aim at Scheer and his Conservatives. Earlier this year, Engage Canada, a union-backed progressive group launched a month-long advertising blitz painting Scheer as a “yes-man” to the wealthy and linking him to Ford. And the union Unifor has characterized itself as the “resistance” to the Conservative party.
10. “I’m ready to hit the campaign trail. I know you are too. And Canadians are looking forward to seeing you.” Well, it’s up to you to decide whether Trudeau’s last point hits the mark.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier