After two years of walking on political water, Justin Trudeau is learning some hard realities. And he’s not the first prime minister to go through this.
Brian Mulroney hit this point on the learning curve less than a year after being elected. It was Black September in 1985, when the new Mulroney government was forced to prorogue the House of Commons for several weeks because the PM was up to his neck in scandal.
Like Justin, his dad, Pierre, also hit the end of his political honeymoon two years into his first mandate. In fact, the elder Trudeau was in deep trouble in the polls at the time. Had it not been for the FLQ kidnappings in the October Crisis of 1970, which gave the government a bump in the polls, the first Trudeau government might not have survived the 1972 election.
There’s no reason, at this point, to think the government of Trudeau the Younger can’t survive the 2019 election. His predecessor, Stephen Harper, dropped to 26% in the polls at the two-year point of his first term, yet remained PM for another seven years. Still, the current predicament will be a learning experience for Justin. Let’s look at a couple of lessons for him:
– lesson 1: There really are two governments in Ottawa: one is elected; the other isn’t. The Public Service is the government that will continue to be around after its elected counterpart is long gone. So, public servants are accustomed to doing things their own way, and running things their own way. Often, the unelected group makes policy changes and lets the elected government take the rap.
The short-lived ruling by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) that retail workers getting employee discounts have to pay taxes on them is a prime example. The bureaucrats decided to reinterpret standing policy and post that decision on the CRA website. And a government that got elected by promising to be nice to the middle class was being seen as heartlessly squeezing nickels and dimes out of retail store clerks.
National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier insisted her government did not know this was coming – and she’s probably telling the truth. But governments don’t like to admit they have been caught by surprise by their bureaucrats; a centuries-old system of ministerial accountability says ministers must be accountable for everything done by their departments.
Modern government, however, is a many-headed hydra. Ministers can no longer keep on top of everything their departments do.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals also probably were sandbagged when the National Energy Board brought down last-minute environmental rules and killed the Energy East Pipeline this autumn. This is why Harper wasted no time intimidating the public service early in his mandate. Harper ruled with an iron fist, and every bureaucrat knew who was boss. Trudeau needs to take a sterner hand with the Public Service mandarins, just as his father did.
– Lesson 2: Communication is just as important as policy in government. Whatever you do, don’t dump an esoteric policy paper on tax changes on the electorate in the middle of the summer and expect docile acceptance. This is why a humiliated Bill Morneau had to backpedal on tax changes for small-business corporations in mid-October, then had to cut the small-business tax rate to 9% by 2019 from the current 10.5%.
There are signs Trudeau has learned his lesson here already. Justin To, a trusted aide in the Prime Minister’s Office, has been dispatched to the Department of Finance Canada to oversee things. The gnomes at Finance Canada aren’t likely to be trusted with communicating major tax changes on their own ever again – with this government, at least. And the 2018 federal budget will be Morneau’s last if he can’t stop screwing up.
So, what needs to change? I have noted in this space before that Trudeau needs a deputy prime minister, as his father had. That advice still stands. The ongoing (U.S. President) Trump issue will continue to eat up the energy and time in the Prime Minister’s Office. They need to delegate.
There are too many rookies in cabinet for the sake of optics. This government has plenty of experienced, streetwise veterans, such as Wayne Easter, who should be on the front line.
Watch for Trudeau to prorogue Parliament after the autumn Economic Statement and start fresh in the new year – and, possibly, make some cabinet changes.
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