Dark clouds threaten Justin Trudeau’s sunny ways in 2017

Executive Chairman
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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on 20170115.

The coming year will prove a challenge for the prime minister as he faces tough issues and must please increasingly upset provinces.

It has been, to use a shopworn clich’, beginning of a winter of discontent for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

As temperatures began to sink in late November, the Prime Minister’s polling numbers — previously untouchable — also dipped. It seemed that the government was hit by news story after news story that threatened to damage the upbeat year that had been 2016.

Let’s not make any mistake: the Liberals’ numbers have only moved from sky high to high. But the barrage of negative stories, coming as they did together, cannot have been good for Liberal morale.

A stop-and-start bid to reform our electoral system that had no plan and no message. A heartfelt eulogy for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro that went viral and was mocked on Twitter. The decision to approve two pipelines that earned the government the ire of environmentalists. A holiday visit to a private island that ended with calls for an investigation by the ethics commissioner.

It would have been a frustrating several months for any government, but was no doubt even more so for a government that had received little public pushback since its stunning election victory.

Looking to turn the page, the prime minister has shuffled his cabinet and is off on a listening tour, aimed at reaching Canadians who may have become disenchanted by the negative media attention. Make no mistake, the Liberals are determined to reset things for 2017.

It is certainly a serendipitous year for the government to regain a positive foothold: as Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, there will be no shortage of funding and photo opportunities.

The government also has policies in store that will continue its efforts to break from the Harper government years. Legislation legalizing marijuana, renewed health agreements with the provinces, and shovels in the ground on numerous infrastructure commitments, all promise to show the government is working hard on behalf of middle-class Canadians.

However, challenges await. We know of those posed by the change of administration in the United States, but there are a number on the domestic front, as well.

Trudeau’s first year in government was defined by the remarkable compliance of provincial governments. The premiers, often happy to go to war with the federal government, were quite conciliatory toward the prime minister’s activist government. On issues from environment to pensions to infrastructure, there was a harmony that has rarely been reached in the federal-provincial relationship.

This harmony, which previously had been punctured only by the occasional objections of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, promises to be disrupted in the next year.

Wall, who early in the Trudeau government’s mandate was the only conservative premier left standing, has been joined by Manitoba Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister, a former member of the Harper government. Pallister has joined Wall in criticizing the federal government’s carbon pricing plan and has sharply criticized the government’s approach on health funding.

The two premiers recently won mandates, and are all-but-guaranteed to stick around for the rest of the Liberals’ mandate.

A quick survey of upcoming provincial elections is not particularly promising for the federal government, either. British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, a hesitant ally of the federal government, currently trails the B.C. New Democrats, who have staked out ground as sharp critics of the federal government’s position on pipelines and are advocates of increased federal health transfers.

The Liberal governments of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick have been steadfast allies of the Trudeau government. But the implementation of carbon pricing has affected that support in provinces where energy costs are already among the highest in the country. The three governments, while relatively stable, have less reason today to be as sympathetic as they have been.

The premiers of Canada’s two largest provinces find themselves under fire in the latter half of their mandates. Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario and Premier Phillippe Couillard of Quebec are polling either behind or tied with opposition parties as they try to extend the mandates of governments that have been in power for years.

Wynne and Couillard, once partners and allies of Trudeau, have little room to manoeuvre. On issues such as health-care transfers, they have little option but to push the government, lest they provide fodder to their opposition at home.

With 2017 comes opportunity for the federal Liberals to turn the page on the last few months. However, the road ahead is significantly rockier than it was when they were elected in October 2015, and the pastures along the way don’t look to be getting any greener.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

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