'Real change' comes early — to Liberal promises

Justin Trudeau wraps up the year with many of his campaign promises on a collision course with reality. In response, many pledges are fading into mere hopes.

Hopeful campaign goals on a collision course with reality

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks at a campaign stop in Brampton, Ont., in September. As a prime minister, the view from the podium seems different. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Promises? Those were goals, not promises! Totally different! 

From ships and planes to deficits and refugees, many of Justin Trudeau's promises are being comprehensively Photoshopped.

And the folks at Adobe, creators of the photo-editing software, clearly received their licence fee, because the program is running fine.

For deficit numbers, select the colour red and crank it up. For refugees, erase the deadline.

And, for CF-18s, just blur the outlines until nobody has a clue what the policy is.

Still bombing: CF-18s in action again

Let's begin there. From northern Iraq, we hear of a battle near Mosul on Dec. 17. An ISIS offensive was beaten back by Kurdish forces, aided by Canadian trainers on the ground and two CF-18s in the air.

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Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told reporters in London Friday that Canada's plan to withdraw its six CF-18s and focus on training local ground forces remains unchanged, even after the jets helped repel a major attack by ISIS in northern Iraq. (CBC)

Visiting London, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan applauded.

"Our CF-18s have played a significant role," said the Afghan combat veteran. "They just happened to be on station at that time."

"Very fortunately, it happened to be our jets. I would have loved to be able to have our jets when I was in combat in Afghanistan," he said. "Very fortunately, in this case here, our CF-18s were there.… It also goes to show the great capability of our CF-18 pilots."

So: our trainers are fortunate that Canadian planes were there to back them up. Why, then, do the Liberals want to pull them out?

To date, neither Trudeau nor his ministers have explained why, exactly, the bombing of ISIS is something Canada should not do. We only know that they keep promising not to do it.

The former chief of defence staff, retired general Rick Hillier, is one of those who are baffled.

"I haven't heard the clear articulation yet of why we would bring home those CF-18s," Hillier told CBC Radio's The House.

"I think what happened these last several days underscored the fact that this entire military mission … is under-resourced. More resources are needed in the military fight, not less."

We'll be out in … 6 months?

But, if that's unexplained, what explains the fact that we're still bombing while promising to stop?

Explaining this is hard, and the defence minister has been struggling with it. He told the Huffington Post that pulling out the CF-18s would decrease the coalition's firepower, which he doesn't want to do suddenly.

The Liberals have been reluctant to put a firm date on their pledge to pull Canada's CF-18 fighter jets from the fight against ISIS, making the promise a moving target. (Department of National Defence)

"For us to just make a snap political decision and extract right away, right now, it will decrease capability."

He went on, "We want to make sure that it is done in a manner that it does not decrease the capability within the coalition's air package."

Well, OK then. Plainly, the government has just not figured out how to square the evident utility of the bombing with the promise to end it.

Sajjan, though, insists that the jets will be withdrawn in "less than six months." Which is interesting, because he did not pledge to withdraw them by the end of March, when the mission's existing mandate expires. 

"Less than six months," in other words, suggests an extension of the bombing, not the end of it.

Promises, promises

Benching the CF-18s, though, is only the latest Liberal pledge to get a makeover.

Already, the pixelation of the first promise seems like ancient history. The plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year got the Photoshop treatment just 20 days after the swearing-in. Poof! The deadline was deleted and reappeared at the end of February.

Immigration Minister John McCallum has had to walk back from a promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year's end, and has faced questions about the revised pledge of 10,000. But so far, Canadians seem to be giving the government some slack. (Bilal Hussein/Associated Press)

No doubt, that amended promise will also be adjusted in its turn. But who's complaining? The government's critics always said the deadline was impossible, so they can hardly object that it's not being met. So far, Canadians seem content to see the promise kept on a more realistic schedule.

Trudeau's fiscal promises are a different story.

"We're leaving these commitments in the dust," said Tory finance critic Lisa Raitt in the first question period of the new Parliament. And, indeed, the Liberals' commitment to cap the deficit at $10 billion has been reconfigured as a nice idea, not a promise.

In a two-step process, the Liberals first re-enacted the ritual discovery that the previous government had left the cupboard bare. Then, they said the $10-billion deficit cap was merely a hope.

Instead, we are told, the key is to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio going down. Which just happens to allow for deficits as high as $25 billion.

But don't be alarmed! "We hope for and are certainly striving towards modest deficits of $10 billion every year," said Trudeau, adding that "at the same time, we committed on an ongoing basis to keep you apprised if the situation worsened."

And ... promise kept! The government did, indeed, keep us apprised that the situation had worsened — partly because still another promise was Photoshopped.

Revenue neutrality is so last week

Remember the "revenue-neutral" tax cut? They airbrushed out the neutral part.

Trudeau said his tax cut for the middle class would be offset by the tax hike for the rich. But it depends what you mean by "offset." If you mean, "not even close," no problem. The tax cut will actually cost $3.4 billion a year, but the tax hike will only raise $2 billion. Do the math.

True believers, of course, will count the other promises that the government is keeping or trying to keep: a new deal for First Nations; scientists unmuzzled; the return of the long-form census; a parade of talented women in the cabinet; and an attack on climate change. OK, that one's just a promise, but still.

Naysayers will add on still other commitments that are headed for the dustbin. The huge savings from not buying the F-35? An illusion, say the experts — meaning the resulting boost for shipbuilding is also fiction.

But why spoil the honeymoon? Christmas is coming and Trudeau still flies high. In the New Year, though, he may need that airbrush again.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.