Measuring change a year after Trudeau promised something different

Justin Trudeau promised change and, a year after his election, all kinds of things, from the census to Canada's approach to the Syrians, are different.

A year after the Liberals promised 'real change now,' how much has changed?

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau waves while accompanied by his wife Sophie Gregoire (2nd from R) as he arrives to give his victory speech after Canada's federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The last 12 months have not unfolded exactly as they would have had Stephen Harper been prime minister for another year. And not merely the incidents of public shirtlessness and that Vogue photo spread.

Of course, change was said to be precisely the point of what happened on Oct. 19, 2015.

"Canadians from all across this great country sent a clear message tonight," Justin Trudeau told a Montreal ballroom of delighted Liberals that night, a screen behind him projecting the words "Real Change Now."

"It's time for a change in this country, my friends, a real change."

Twelve months later, some might complain that change has been insufficient or too slow, but it can't be said that things aren't different.

A year of differences

The long-form census has been reinstated. Plans to raise the age of eligibility for Old Age Security and implement income-splitting for families have been cancelled. The bombing campaign against the Islamic State has ceased.

The children's fitness and arts tax credits are being phased out, and funding has been committed to reinstate the court challenges program. Federal funding to provide health care for refugee claimants has been restored.

The Kitsilano coast guard base has been reopened. Doctors can once again apply for special access to pharmaceutical-grade heroin to treat severe cases of addiction.

The previous government's attempt to ban the niqab during the citizenship oath was abandoned and the prospect of a barbaric cultural practices hotline was avoided entirely.

And those are just the things undone and not done.

Canadians earnings more than $200,000 per year are being taxed at a higher rate, the child benefit system has been redesigned and enriched, an agreement is in place to expand the Canada Pension Plan, the federal government has committed to a national price on carbon and 32,437 Syrian refugees have been resettled. 

Canada has committed 600 personnel to the United Nations' peacekeeping efforts, the Senate is being filled with unaligned senators, and the House of Commons has voted to change the wording of the national anthem.

And almost nothing happens in Ottawa now without the public being consulted.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper never marched in Pride parades, didn't call himself a feminist, seldom met with the premiers and rarely took questions from members of the press gallery. Nor would he appear shirtless.

All the while, the prime minister has been doing different things from his predecessor: Smiling, hugging people, wearing colourful socks, marching in Pride parades, calling himself a feminist, periodically meeting with the premiers, regularly taking questions from members of the press gallery.

Arriving amid the rise of Trump and the distress of Brexit has made Trudeau, and the country, a source of international fascination as a bastion of good-looking liberalism.

But if you prefer simple numbers: To the federal expenses that the last Conservative budget projected for the next four fiscal years, the first Liberal budget added $66.3 billion.

So what does all that amount to?

Some things haven't changed

There are likely durable changes here. Liberals can fairly believe that CPP expansion and the Canada Child Benefit won't be easily undone. A price on carbon might eventually make that list. A significant number of Syrians are now part of our national life. It might be difficult for any future prime minister to skip the Toronto Pride parade.

It is not all novelty and new ground though. The prime minister might be cheerier and the words might have changed, but he is still a tightly disciplined public speaker. Liberals might have brought a more genteel spirit to question period (no more applauding each other), but anyone listening is still now familiar with the talking points.

Between the courts ruling against chunks of the previous government's "tough-on-crime" agenda and the Liberals rewriting federal policy, the Harper legacy begins to look rather limited. But then, Trudeau hasn't moved to restore those two points his predecessor took off the GST (or the seven points that Harper's government took off the corporate tax rate).
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the media at a Liberal cabinet retreat on Aug. 22. On his file this fall are a host of issues Harper never resolved, including resource development, climate change, Indigenous reconciliation and economic policy. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

New Democrats will howl that the federal health transfer to the provinces and Canada's greenhouse gas targets for 2030 haven't changed either.

For all the talk of how the Liberals ran to the left of the NDP in 2015, it was still a campaign focused on cutting taxes for the middle class. Nine years after Paul Martin and Stephen Harper debated whether it was better to set up a national child care program or direct more money to parents, Trudeau's Liberals ran on the latter.

The Conservative party, meanwhile, still manages to raise more money than the current governing party, an impressive feat even if the Trudeau Liberals now have proved to have a higher ceiling of public support than the Harper Conservatives ever did.

What new course is Trudeau setting?

Michael Ignatieff used to argue that Stephen Harper wanted to take the centre of Canadian politics and move it ten degrees to the right.

Whether the median Canadian voter moved in that direction is debatable.

But Harper spent most of his decade in office articulating a basically conservative view of the world — on taxes, crime, social policy, the role of the federal government, and Canada's role in the world. In his wildest dreams, Harper might imagine that the centre has shifted a point more to the right than when he took office.

A year after Oct. 19, Trudeau seems to be moving the centre, or at least the focus, back towards the left.

  Regardless of the precise degree, Trudeau's legacy of change will be what new direction he takes the national conversation — on resource development, climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, economic policy, the health of our politics and all the other unresolved issues of the Harper era — and whether his successors have to accept those terms.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.