Successful political parties strive to create big tents. They want to be seen as consultative and accommodating within a political process that we like to see as being about consensus building and compromises that leave everybody happy.
As a result there is an unfortunate and unmistakable tendency on the part of our leaders to avoid taking firm positions on issues seen as highly contentious . It is a strategy that seems to work reasonably well in election campaigns. It allows politicians to avoid the kind of clarity on policy issues that might lead to a loss of votes.
For instance, if some people I know had been told that a Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was going to approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline they likely wouldn’t have voted Liberal. But Trudeau’s vague promise to do a better job balancing the environment and the economy than Stephen Harper, however, was more palatable.
There is a downside to this strategy. It is one that inevitably catches up with you in the end.
Politics, after all, is ultimately a competition of interests, ideas, beliefs, and values. Everyone can’t get everything they want all the time in politics. It is just not possible. Eventually platitudes have to give way to hard choices. And those hard choices erode the electoral coalitions that bring politicians to office.
This is part of the reason that the Trudeau government lustre seems to be gradually fading. It’s not necessarily the government’s fault. It was inevitable.
On the issue of building new oil pipelines, the Trudeau Liberals did their best to play both sides of the field, speaking of the need to “balance the economy and the environment” (a cliche so ultimately meaningless given the variety of ways the two can be “balanced” that I’d like to see it excised from the political lexicon, but I digress). They also spoke of making decisions based on a proper review of all of the evidence.
All of this was perfectly defensible as an initial political position. But eventually more concrete decisions had to be made — were they going to allow pipelines to be constructed or not? With a number of different projects being proposed, the government went with the compromise approach of permitting the Kinder Morgan and Trans Mountain pipelines while rejecting the Northern Gateway proposal.
But as I said, even compromises can be unpopular. For some, one new pipeline is too many and the decision to allow some projects to move forward was a profound disappointment, particularly in the context of the Paris climate change agreement ratified last year. For others, the country’s economic engine is sputtering and we need to build as many pipelines as possible. I suspect there are more people in the first category than the second.
While the government’s handling of the oil pipelines file was relatively skillful and largely minimized the political damage, the move from generalities to specifics on other issues has been downright painful to watch. Perhaps the most cringe-worthy file to witness the Liberals bungle this past year has been electoral reform.
During the last campaign the Liberals promised to reform our electoral system, going so far as to say that the 2015 election would be the last contested under the first-past-the-post system.
The promise was vague enough that it left all the very important details open to near endless debate, but just specific enough that the failure to deliver a reformed electoral system could be called a broken promise by the government’s opponents. The government promised to consult with Canadians on how to reform the system and has spent the last year doing just that, a process that many observers considered ham-fisted and amateurish. And it isn’t over yet.
It is not clear to me how the Liberals expected these consultations to play out. The mechanisms by which we choose governments have a profound effect on what those governments ultimately look like politically. The Conservatives weren’t going to back any reforms that deprived them of their disproportionate seat share and effectively ended their ability to secure majority governments. The NDP has long been pushing for some form of proportional representation — which is problematic for the governing Liberals who owe their historical political success to the current system and likely envisioned more of a tweak than a total overhaul.
Thankfully for the Liberals this is hardly an issue that has galvanized Canadians and their sorry efforts are hardly a game-changer electorally. But there are some for whom this issue is fundamental and they feel let down by the process.
There are more examples that are beyond the scope of this column. The platitude of better federal-provincial cooperation has been employed by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall so that any time he doesn’t get his way it is a promise broken by the Liberals. There have been grumblings about a lack of concrete action on general promises made to First Nations people.
Will all of this have any effect on the next election?
The Liberals are still riding relatively high in public opinion polls, and voters tend to have bizarrely short memories (who remembers when Donald Trump’s groping comments were the beginning of the end of his presidential candidacy?). The next election is a long way off.
But next time around the Liberals will have a record that they will have to answer for as their years in power will continue to force them to show their hand as they move forward. They still have to deal with the specifics of general promises they’ve made regarding controversial security legislation, popularly known as Bill C-51, marijuana legalization, and a review of various popular (yet expensive) tax credits.
Next time they will be unable to be all things to all people.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.