Politics·Analysis

It's a new year, Mr. Trudeau. What do you want to do with it?

If there's anything to be said about the Liberal minority government so far, it's this: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inner circle don't seem to be in a hurry to do much of anything.

So far, the minority government's plans for Parliament appear vague

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question in the House of Commons Tuesday, January 28, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

If there's anything to be said about the Liberal minority government so far, it's this: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inner circle don't seem to be in a hurry to do much of anything.

That might sound harsh, given that Parliament just resumed for the first time since before the Christmas break. But beyond its push to get the new North American trade deal implemented as quickly as possible, the government has been reluctant to set out a timetable for accomplishing any of the things it vowed to do during the fall election campaign.

New measures to restrict assault-style rifles and ban handguns? It's complicated, says Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. So, apparently, is the question of whether to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to take part in Canada's 5G mobile network.

Pharmacare? Cutting taxes? Lowering cell phone bills? New measures to reduce emissions? All in the works. Stay tuned.

Even the budget appears set to land in late March, just before the end of the fiscal year.

The pressure of events

Now, some of the factors behind what looks like a light agenda may be due to events beyond the government's control. Its focus over the past three weeks has been on holding Iran accountable for the destruction of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 and the deaths of so many Canadian passengers.

The Quebec Superior Court's decision last fall to strike down part of the law limiting medically-assisted dying required an expedited round of public consultations. Those consultations have to respond not only to the court's March 11 deadline but to concerns about whether the law should be extended to mature youth. They also have to consider whether Canadians should be permitted to make advance requests for medical assistance in dying before they're caught in the grips of degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's.

Pedestrians wear protective masks as they walk in Toronto on Monday, January 27, 2020. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Relations with China are also fraught. Since the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the Americans — followed by the detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig by the Chinese in an apparent act of retaliation — the diplomatic relationship with Beijing has required constant attention.

And the new coronavirus is consuming official attention as federal and provincial authorities work to prepare for possible new cases in Canada — while easing fears that this could be the new SARS outbreak.

Government is all about setting priorities and delivering on commitments made. But Trudeau now leads a minority government that could last the full four years — or four months.

Read the throne speech, says Rodriguez

Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said the agenda hasn't changed: NAFTA first, then gun control and medically assisted dying.

"Other things will come," he told CBC News after Tuesday's cabinet meeting. "We have a full set of agenda that's coming. Look at the throne speech, it will give you a very good idea."

The speech, delivered Dec. 5, does provide clues. It talks about strengthening the middle class, continuing "to walk the road of reconciliation" with Indigenous people and positioning Canada for success in an uncertain world.

What it doesn't do is establish any kind of time frame.

The opposition parties, of course, are eager to fill any void.

Between now and June, the Conservatives are going to be distracted by their second leadership race in three years. They kicked off this week in the Commons by dusting off an old favourite: their running battle with the Liberals over the best way to fight crime and the illegal use of firearms.

"It's much harder to track down illegal guns. It's much harder to stop the flow of smuggled guns and it's much more difficult to infiltrate gangs and hold them accountable," outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said during question period on Monday. "But that is the work the Conservatives are prepared to do."

No timetable on guns

The Liberals are pledging to create an expanded list of prohibited firearms. Trudeau says his government also invested more than $327 million to combat gun and gang violence, and continues to consult mayors on proposals to allow cities to ban handguns if they choose to do so.

But he and Blair seem reluctant to offer a timetable.

"I tell you, there's a complexity in the work we are doing," Blair told reporters covering the cabinet retreat a week ago when asked about gun control.

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair speaks with the media following the Liberal Party caucus in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 28, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

He used almost the same line yesterday when asked about whether Canada might follow the U.K.'s lead in granting Huawei limited access to this country's 5G network.

"The security issues are well understood, but there are additional concerns," he said. "There are discussions taking place with our allies and with industry. We will make the decision that is right for Canada and right for Canadians and we will take the time necessary to do that."

Equally mysterious is the government's plan for pharmacare. In the Commons this week, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called on Trudeau to introduce a bill now.

"There are millions of Canadians who can't afford the medication they desperately need and the Liberals are telling them to just wait," Singh said Monday. "Well, we're not going to wait. We've announced that our first bill in this House will implement pharmacare for all based on the Canada Health Act principles."

In his response, Trudeau opted to look backward rather than forward — listing what his government did in its first mandate to reduce drug prices and reminding the NDP that the government commissioned former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins to recommend the best approach to pharmacare.

"We have taken action and will continue to take action," he said. "We are in discussions with the provinces and territories with a view to implementing pharmacare based on the principles found in the Hoskins report."

About that report — it said a national drug care plan should be in place by 2027.

At the rate the Trudeau government is moving, that's one deadline they should be able to make.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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