A Four Year, Seismic Shift in Fortunes Sets the Stage for a Wide-Open Election Campaign

It was to be a bold agenda, outlined by a campaign platform that spoke of resetting the course of governing on several fronts: Indigenous relations, the environment, “Canada’s place in the world” … even how Canadians elected their Members of Parliament would be changed, with the promise of electoral reform. Guiding it all would be the priorities of a struggling “middle class and those hoping to join it.” This was the broad coalition of supporters Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won over during the 2015 campaign. It was an electorate who hadn’t felt any measurable improvement in their finances or quality of life, despite the economy’s slow yet steady resurgence from the recession of 2008.

Immediately after forming government the Liberals put in place a strong trio of initiatives: a middle-class tax cut, a Canada Child Benefit, and a revamped Canada Pension Plan. This was done with the aim of setting the foundations of long term economic growth for the “minivan families,” families predominantly residing in the suburbs of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, whom the Trudeau Liberals had relied upon to kickstart their campaign momentum and bring them their eventual, resounding majority victory.

Just barely a year into power, the ground began to shift precipitously, and it played out in concentric circles, from the international to the intergovernmental and finally at the Cabinet level. The full implications of a Trump presidency came to the fore with the renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the implementation of tariffs targeted at steel and aluminum production here in Canada. Strained relations with our biggest trading partner pulled the focus of Trudeau’s PMO and his Cabinet, as they sought to counter any further threats to our industries, not least the auto and agricultural sectors. What was to follow at the provincial level was the formation of a resurgent, Conservative beachhead in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and finally Alberta that put the government’s ambitious plan to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions – “the carbon tax” – in its sights. Outlying British Columbia elected an NDP government that was no more congenial, particularly with resource sector projects. With the Trans Mountain pipeline project, initially supported by Trudeau and suddenly put in jeopardy by BC’s new government, the Trudeau government opted to purchase it while it was still under review. It was an outcome that seemed to please no one, despite the stated intention of balancing the concerns of the Indigenous communities and environmental groups with the imperatives of economic development. Yet the final, arguably more seismic shift for the Trudeau government to contend with came from within, with the SNC-Lavalin affair creating a rift that led to the eventual expulsion from caucus of two of Trudeau’s strongest Ministers, Jody Wilson Raybould and Jane Philpott.

From the hairline cracks of NAFTA to the emerging fault lines at the provincial level to the tectonic shift in fortunes over the last few months for Trudeau, another four years of Liberal government is far from certain, and the sunny days – and sunny ways – of those first mandate promises seems a distant memory.

While all of this drama played out, there was a quieter shift in government dynamics that was no less significant for the legislative agenda: the formation of the Independent Senate Group (ISG) and the emboldening, activist stance the Red Chamber took on key legislation. Close to one-quarter of all bills passed over the last four years were significantly amended within the Senate. The Chamber effectively became the locus for many of the substantive debates over environmental assessment, oil tanker traffic, Indigenous rights. Even the budget bills faced stern – and significant – delays and opposition. Herewith, in consideration of all these factors, is our review of what the Trudeau government can consign to the win and loss columns. They can take some consolation in the strong performance of the Canadian economy over the last four years. As former Obama-whisperer David Axelrod famously counselled, they can say they’ve “gotten the big things right” for growth and development. With close to 300,000 children lifted out of poverty, those hoping to join the middle class do have better prospects. And yet much work has been left on the table after four years, as the points below starkly confirm.

Mandate Review: Hits and Misses from 2015-2019 

October 2015 Results vs. June 2019 Projections

What’s Next? 

As the summaries and graphics attest, the Trudeau Liberals are heading into their first campaign as incumbents with decidedly mixed reviews. However, the bleeding of their support has ceased over the last month, and they can look forward to the imminent ratification of the USMCA as a signal victory, an agreement that could arguably provide the best assurance of economic stability over the next four years. They have also been helped, to some degree, by the sinking fortunes of Jagmeet Singh’s NDP and the tentative, “soft” support for Andrew Scheer the Conservatives have yet to firm up as the campaign nears. Yet the road back to a majority for the Liberals remains unmapped and in question. An early read of the tea leaves suggests either a Conservative or Liberal minority – or at best, for Trudeau, a reduced majority.

A lot can happen in the weeks and months before October 21st. Change comes fast, as anyone working in Trudeau’s government over the last four years would only too readily attest. “On the ground,” as the strategists say, the Prime Minister remains an effective campaigner. “The middle class and those hoping to join it” may rally around their champion once again if Scheer struggles to connect in the country’s banquet halls and barbecues in the weeks ahead.

Where the Parties Stand

As an indication of what will be discussed at those banquets and barbecues, here is where the parties stand on key issues going into the campaign.