Liberals sunny on the surface, much fudgier underneath

Justin Trudeau's Liberals seem just as capable as their predecessors of making promises they know they can't keep, Neil Macdonald writes. Similarities with previous governments are growing in other ways as well.

Liberal Ottawa just as capable as predecessors of making promises it knows it can't keep

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with his security and staff, walks across Parliament Hill earlier this month. With budget day approaching, tougher decisions are being made. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

It's probably time to dispense with the notion that the Trudeau government is really much different from its predecessors.

Granted, it's done a good job of portraying itself as sunny, transparent, inclusive, optimistic, diverse, affectionate, decent and just fundamentally different.

It may even believe it is all those things.

But on matters of policy, and governance, it appears just as capable of blithely making promises it knows it can't keep, and then blithely breaking them.

It is capable of speaking out of both sides of its mouth — it can voice concern about the Saudi human rights record, then proceed with sending the Saudis billions more in military equipment.

And pretty clearly, it is capable of running a tightly-controlled, centralized, non-transparent operation.


You don't need to speak to many of the people in the Trudeau government orbit, for example, to realize that he knew very well his economic agenda, and his promises, didn't square with national finances.

(Some of those people have asked me not just to keep them anonymous, but to avoid using any phrasing that those closest to the prime minister might recognize. Those aides are apparently just as capable as the Harper crew was of punishing those perceived of disloyalty or dissent. Thin-skinned, one Liberal told me, does not begin to describe them.)

Trudeau did not initially want to allow for deficits in his campaign platform. He balked, fearing that he'd be seen as flip-flopping, after initially calling for balanced books in opposition. But he came to understand two things.

Finance Minister warns balanced budget could lead to recession

8 years ago
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After announcing a possible deficit of more than $18 billion in 2016-17, Bill Morneau defended his plans to go ahead with planned spending on top of that.

First, the public currently thinks deficits are a good idea — stimulative — and has for some years. Everyone knows by now about the disasters that pigheaded austerity-for-the-sake-of-austerity programs have wrought in Europe.

And of course, everyone saw how obediently and unquestioningly governments were willing to run deficits in order to save Wall Street and corporate America (and Canada, in the case of the auto industry) in 2008-09, even after years of cutting social programs in the name of fiscal prudence.

Second, once you take the plunge and commit to a deficit, the number doesn't really matter. Most Canadians don't know the difference between debt and deficit, fiscal and monetary policy, and perhaps even a million and a billion.

I know that sounds terribly elitist, but there's not much doubt it's true.

So when Trudeau promised a few "modest deficits" not exceeding $10 billion, he knew that number was probably just fiction.

And it was. Now, it may well be $25 billion, or $30 billion, or more, depending on whether the Liberals keep the spending promises they made during the election.

Doesn't matter. At least not right now. Opinion leaders are all over the place on what an appropriate deficit entails, and until they achieve consensus, Trudeau will be free to borrow pretty much whatever he likes.

Plus, he has the added advantage of still being able to paper everything over with gauzy happy talk, which a majority of Canadians, if you believe polls, are still willing to swallow, because Trudeau is still not Stephen Harper. He is still sparkling with fairy dust.

No explanation given

That advantage applies to some of the other areas where the gap between government policy and reality is evident and glaring.

The Trudeau government is deeply troubled about Saudi Arabia's human rights record, and the civilian deaths its army, equipped with Canadian-made military equipment, has brought about in Yemen.

And yes, the law says the government must restrict sales of ordnance, like the $15 billion worth of armoured vehicles currently in the pipeline to Saudi, if significant human rights concerns exist.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion, flanked by Trudeau, Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan discuss ISIS at a press conference. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

And yet, for reasons that must remain secret, Ottawa is going ahead with the transaction, which is terribly distressing to the government's compassionate soul, and really isn't the government's fault, because it inherited the deal.

The foreign affairs minister does hint at huge financial penalties involved in cancelling the deal — which he still might do, mind you — but he can't really talk about that either. Privacy clauses in the contract with the Saudis, you understand. Ottawa is unhappily shackled.

It's difficult, being in charge.

That same foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, stood in the Commons last week and savagely denounced the Conservatives for tabling a motion condemning Canadians who support the economic boycott of Israel begun by the Palestinians a decade ago.

It was disrespectful to Canadians who support the boycott in good faith, and divisive, and just more wedge-issue Tory politics, and governments should not stifle debate in a democracy.

Then the Liberals voted to support the motion, all the time assuring Canadians how upset they were to be forced into doing so.

I watched the debate. "Antisemitism," which absolutely exists, was mentioned at least a hundred times. "Illegal settlements," which also absolutely exist, were not mentioned at all from what I heard, and I listened to almost all of it.

And suddenly, the unpredictably expensive F-35 fighter jet program, which Trudeau had repudiated in opposition, appears to be back in consideration. Again, no explanation given.


At a guess, Canadians can expect a lot more of this.

How long the happy talk lasts — or how long people are going to put up with it — is an interesting question. Barack Obama largely abandoned the hope-and-change stuff after a few months in office. 

What Trudeau is really doing is triangulation, attempting to find some sweet spot in between opposing views.

It can be cynical, and it can involve pandering, and it is not always very sunny, but it is effective.

As one veteran Liberal, someone I've come to know over the years, put it to me: "What did you expect?"

The answer: pretty much exactly what's happening. 


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.