Analysis

Justin Trudeau's Liberals still standing after bumpy fall: Aaron Wherry

Despite a few scandals and the daily outrage expressed on Parliament Hill, the Liberals have actually gained ground at the Conservatives' expense.

The prime minister caps a difficult season on a confident note

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during question period on Wednesday. The Liberals' difficult fall was bookended with byelection success. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The prime minister stood and feigned pity.

"You see, Mr. Speaker, as we come to the end of this year, you can't help but feel bad for the members of the opposition," he said, after the NDP's Nathan Cullen had wrapped together concerns about the prime minister's trip to the Aga Khan's island, the finance minister's share holdings and the process for appointing a new ethics commissioner.

"Because the results that we've got as a government, the job creation numbers ... the growing economy, the help for the middle class, the positive outcomes, leave them with nothing to do but fling accusations and throw mud."

It was not an easy fall for the Liberal government. But, in the waning days of 2017, Justin Trudeau was able to stand opposite his critics and alternate between commending the current situation and lamenting for the past.

Pressed by the Conservatives about the mess of the government's payroll system, the latest attempt to procure new fighter jets and the treatment of veterans, Trudeau stood and reminded the official Opposition of their recent responsibilities and failings.

Lest anyone forget, Trudeau reminded everyone once more that the Conservatives were just recently in power for nearly "ten years" — a point of reference he has cited some 200 times since coming to power himself in 2015.

Given two years of their own, the Liberals have at least not yet defeated themselves.

Two victories amid the tumult

Indeed, the government's turbulent autumn was bookended by two notable electoral victories: Lac-St-Jean in October and then South Surrey-White Rock this week.

Beyond the daily outrage expressed on Parliament Hill — and despite even their own regular efforts at making life difficult for themselves — the Liberals have actually gained ground at the Conservatives' expense. Other than the fact that Finance Minister Bill Morneau nearly blew himself up and a handful of other ministers were battered and bruised, it was a pretty good time to be a Liberal.

But that can't be attributed entirely to the Liberals.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has yet to find a winning issue for his party. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer smiles more than his predecessor, but has otherwise changed almost nothing about the party that won 32 per cent of the vote in 2015. He and his shadow cabinet have many questions about Bill Morneau's personal finances and they generally oppose anything that resembles an increase in anyone's taxes, but they don't yet have much to say about anything else.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's appeal, meanwhile, still exists more in theory than in practice. Without a seat in the House of Commons, he is only a passing presence in Ottawa. And whatever his time spent elsewhere, there is not yet any sign he's making an impact.

But nor can it be said the Conservatives and New Democrats are raising entirely frivolous concerns.

Whether the finance minister has put himself in a conflict of interest is something worth exploring and his pursuit of tax reform was clumsy. The process for appointing the ethics commissioner might be improved to allow for greater input from Parliament (although at least now the government has gotten around to appointing some officers of Parliament).

The government's efforts on any number of files — from fighter jets to taxation to Indigenous welfare — are deserving of questions. And the Liberals have, at various points, stumbled and bumbled and fallen short and disappointed.

All the while, there are simmering debates about taxes, government spending and priorities that might yet form the basis of the next election campaign.

But the din emanating from the echo chamber on Parliament Hill has apparently not yet become a noise so worrisome that the average voter is eager for change.

It has, after all, only been two years. And Canadians have historically demonstrated a high tolerance for noise.

Governing is about survival

The Liberals likely still derive some benefit from invoking the previous government's time in office, and the number of years it was afforded.

But with each passing day, Stephen Harper's record will recede further into the past. And Scheer's Conservatives will, sooner or later, start finding things to say for themselves. And the economy might yet slow down — and insofar as the federal government has limited influence over such things, a prime minister might want to be a bit cautious about using employment numbers to justify his government.

The complaints about the Liberal government will also, of course, continue to pile up. The weaknesses that were exposed this fall might still be exploited.

Governing is as much about surviving as it is about exerting power. And the Liberals have apparently survived the bumpy fall of 2017. 

It remains to be seen how many more tumultuous seasons they can endure.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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