Trudeau's First Steps

by adam rasmi


Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves at the conclusion of a news conference in Ottawa, Canada, November 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves at the conclusion of a news conference in Ottawa, Canada, November 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Read the original at Foreign Affairs

"Sunny ways, my friends. Sunny ways. This is what positive politics can do,” said Justin Trudeau, the new Canadian prime minister, in hisvictory speech in Montreal on October 19. The remarks were a direct nod to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a former Canadian prime minister known for his pleasant manner and ability to forge compromises. Trudeau’s speech underscored how different he would be from his conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, whom the Canadian historian Robert Bothwell recently called “the most cynical prime minister in Canadian history.”

After a 78-day campaign in which identity issues featured prominently, Trudeau’s first steps have been to emphasize diversity. His 31-member cabinet, which he unveiled as one that looks “like Canada,” is the most diverse the country has ever seen. Two indigenous Canadians were tapped to become minister of justice and attorney general; a Muslim woman of Afghani descent, Maryam Monsef, who came to Canada as a refugee in 1996, became minister of democratic institutions; four members of the Sikh community were appointed to various posts, including Harjit Sajjan, who became minister of national defense (Canada now has more Sikhs in its cabinet than India); and 50 percent of the cabinet is made up of women, another notable first.

And there is more. The minister of environment has been renamed the minister of environment and climate change; the minister of citizenship and immigration has become the minister of immigration, refugees, and citizenship; and the minister of state has become the minister of innovation, science, and economic development. Moreover, of the 31-member cabinet, 16 chose not to be sworn in by religious oath—including Carolyn Bennett, the minister for indigenous and northern affairs, who took her oath holding an eagle feather and a tuft of sweetgrass.

Leaving aside the benefits such diverse appointments may have on policy, they are worthy gestures in their own right. Yet Trudeau has not stopped there. The newly elected prime minister has revoked Harper-era rules that had muzzled government scientists, something the conservative prime minister used to maintain strict messaging control so as to minimize criticism of the oil sands. Trudeau also penned an open letter to Canadian diplomats promising a “new era” in civil service, and he visited the National Press Gallery hours after his election to signal greater openness toward the media.

But important as these steps may be—both in tone and substance—Canadians must still be cautious of expecting too much from Trudeau. Two of his most prominent cabinet appointments, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and President of the Treasury Board Scott Brison, suggest that his economic policies may not represent as drastic a shift as hoped. Morneau was formerly a donor to the Conservative Party and was chair of the pro-business C.D. Howe Institute, a Toronto-based policy research organization, between 2010 and 2014. Brison was first elected to parliament as a Conservative member in 1997, unsuccessfully running for the party’s leadership in 2003.

Moreover, much has been made of Trudeau’s pledge to run modest deficits of up to $10 billion for three years (the New York Times’ Paul Krugman wrote an article titled “Keynes Comes to Canada”) and to reduce middle-class taxes and raise them for the wealthiest Canadians. But $10 billion is a relatively small sum for a $2 trillion economy, and many of Trudeau’s big-ticket economic policies resemble Stephen Harper’s, including his support (in principle) of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade deal negotiated among 12 countries that critics have called “NAFTA on steroids.” (The deal is expected to cost manufacturing jobs and minimize the government’s regulatory power, all with uncertain economic gain; no economic impact assessment has been released.)

As for the environment, the Trudeau government has heeded the concerns of climate change activists, but on some crucial issues, still supports policies that put businesses first. Trudeau supported the Keystone XL pipeline (which the Obama administration recently rejected) and the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, recently said the government is willing to back the much larger Energy East Pipeline, which would increase Canada’s carbon emissions by up to 32 million tons per year. In one of the more telling incidents from Trudeau’s campaign, he reportedly sought the endorsement of the environmental icon David Suzuki but was rebuffed. Suzuki pointed out that 80 percent of the oil sands had to stay in the ground if the government was serious about the environment. (Trudeau called Suzuki’s views “sanctimonious crap”; Suzuki responded by calling him a “twerp.”)

The Trudeau government was praised for its “inclusiveness” after inviting Green Party leader Elizabeth May to join the Canadian delegation to the UN climate summit in Paris later this month (Harper had refused to include opposition parties in past summits). But the Liberal government has yet to offer any new climate reduction targets beyond what the prior Conservative government already pledged. Even if ambitious targets are announced, it will be hard to square these with advocating pipeline projects that will boost oil sands production. (On October 14, Trudeau’s campaign co-chair, Dan Gagnier, resigned after it was made public that he was advising officials from pipeline firm TransCanada Corp. about how best to lobby a new Liberal government.) Taken together, these first signs are hardly reassuring.

On the foreign policy front, Trudeau has vowed to end Canada’s role in the bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (the Canadian military has continued its bombing campaign and will do so until receiving a stop order), promising to send in more non-combat ground personnel to help train Iraqi security forces. Because Trudeau has repeated this pledge even as some politicians and commentators have called on him to backtrack after the Paris attacks on November 13, he seems likely to follow through. Doing so will push the country toward a more multilateral role—which Canadians prize.

Ultimately, Canadians have replaced a conservative government with a more centrist one. Trudeau may have campaigned on the left, but he would not be the first Liberal to govern from the center. Nevertheless, his policy platform includes many redemptive elements, including plans to transform Canada’s relationship with its indigenous population by enacting all 94 of the Truth & Reconciliation Committees’ recommendations, resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by year-end (unlikely to happen on time, but still ambitious), and scrapping the winner-take-all parliamentary system called first-past-the-post that has traditionally favored the Conservatives and Liberals at the other parties’ expense.

Two weeks into office, three of Trudeau’s 184 campaign pledges have already been fulfilled (eight more remain in progress; none have been broken), according to the watchdog trudeaumetre.ca. Like any politician, Trudeau will surely break some promises, probably several of them, at some point down the road. But for the many Canadians tired of nine years of divisive Conservative rule, the new Liberal leader’s “sunny ways” feel like a promising return to a more hopeful form of politics.