As cabinet meets in Winnipeg, Trudeau government's agenda remains unclear

The federal cabinet is gathering in Winnipeg to lay out its agenda for the months ahead. There have only been a few clues so far about what the Liberals’ plans may be.

Newsletter: Liberals gather to hammer out plans for the return of Parliament

This article is part of CBC News' Minority Report newsletter, which is your weekly tip-sheet to help you navigate the parliamentary waters of a minority governmentSign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

It's been three months since the election. Can you believe that? I can't. It feels like just yesterday we were talking about increasing regional tensions and whether Andrew Scheer should resign as Conservative leader. 

Events, as I wrote last week, change a lot. The devastating shooting down of a passenger jet carrying 57 Canadians - and, as we learned Friday, 29 permanent residents of Canada - has rightly consumed the government. 

And yet, there hasn't been a lot of criticism of the Liberal government's response to this file. There is, more largely, a critique from the Conservatives on the Liberal government's general foreign policy towards Iran, which the Tories say is too tender, but on the handling of the crash itself, all of our Power Panelists, of all party stripes - even the few Conservatives who still talk to the CBC, lol - were united this week; the prime minister has struck the right tone. 

But Justin Trudeau's attention will now have to turn elsewhere, to a degree. Cabinet is, as you read this, meeting in Winnipeg for the first time this year, and of course, for the first time since the downing of that jet. And beyond responding to this awful tragedy, there will be questions from reporters, that are aimed at trying to figure out what this government will be about.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way back to his off after holding a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

There have been only a few clues so far. The government's throne speech (which happened just six weeks ago - but doesn't it feel like at least year?) echoed much of what we heard during the election: a focus on climate, on reconciliation and a tax cut. We know what the tax cut looks like, but not a whole lot about the rest.

The one piece of legislation we can be sure is on the way, is the amendment to Canada's medically assisted dying law. The law was found to be, in part, unconstitutional by a Quebec judge last year. The courts in that province gave the federal government six months to fix the law. The six months will be up in early March and the government has telegraphed that it will likely meet that deadline with a change to the law that will ease the requirement that a person's death must be "reasonably foreseeable" in order for them to qualify for an assisted death.

But I've been racking my brain (I mean granted it's full of other things too; like, should I buy a snowblower, but still...) because aside from the assisted dying, and the the CUSMA implementation bill, I can't think of another specific piece of legislation we know is coming. And when I talk to people in government, and I ask them what might be coming, I don't get a lot of detail  -- which wouldn't have been the case, say, in 2015.

Will the government, for example, introduce legislation to hold itself accountable on its climate targets? Speaking of emission reduction targets, when will the government release its full plan for reaching them, and when or how will it fulfil its promise to be more aggressive on those targets? 

On regional tensions, which consumed us after the election and appear to dominate Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland's time these days, what will come of her listening tour and multiple meetings with political leaders in Alberta and Saskatchewan?

Alberta wants $2 billion in back payments for its struggling economy. Will they get a decision on that big ask before the budget, or will the answer come with the budget? It remains unclear. 

The new Liberal cabinet pose for a family photo following their swearing in at Rideau Hall in Ottawa last November. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Speaking of the budget, when's that coming? My contacts say it won't be an early one, possibly even as late as April. That's important because the budget will likely provide a specific indication, and measure, of the government's priorities. 

It's not surprising that it might not happen until spring, there is a lot of frustration among even political staffers about the pace of change in government right now. The prime minister's chief of staff only announced the senior leadership team last week. Communication teams are just now falling into place, but I've had multiple people in those offices tell me it was a painful process; decisions were slow and many loyal staffers felt left in limbo for longer than usual.

You can feel that hesitancy in the way some ministers communicate on their files, hedging specifics on plans with the caveat they will need support from, and to consult with, the opposition. 

Now, It's a fact to be sure - that in a minority Parliament, the government does need the opposition's support. But will that fact create an overly cautious government agenda? It seems that way right now, but we should have a better idea with this cabinet retreat -- and then most definitely when Parliament resumes in a week.

Subscribe to the full newsletter

This is just one part of the Minority Report newsletter. In this week's issue, Éric Grenier looks at the last time Peter MacKay was leader of a conservative party and what that means for his pitch to replace Andrew Scheer. Plus, the Power Panel offers advice on what the parties should be doing in the week ahead. To read all of that and more sign up for the newsletter here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now