Chantal Hebert

Chantal Hébert: Trudeau growing up

The federal Conservatives and the Green party changed leaders in 2020. The latter made history by becoming the first federal party to be led by a Black woman.

In British Columbia, Canada’s sole New Democratic government scored its biggest election victory in a generation.

Meanwhile, over on the conservative side, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney traded places on the popularity index.

While the former’s connection with Ontarians grew stronger over the pandemic, Kenney lost a significant part of his provincial audience to his management of COVID-19 and, along with it, the moral authority over the other premiers that his long-standing experience in politics had earned him.

But perhaps the biggest change in Canada’s political dynamics at year’s end involves Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s style of leadership.

A little more than a year ago, electoral geography saved the Liberals from being banished from power after just one term. In the 2019 election, Trudeau could not even convince a plurality of voters that he was a superior alternative to then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

But 15 months later, there is not a lot of buyer’s remorse in the air.

That may be because 2020 is the year when Trudeau’s government finally had to grow up. Its days of being associated with unicorns and rainbows are definitively behind it.

Instead, a government first elected for its so-called “sunny ways” has had to adapt to Canada’s longest rainy season.

The updated version of the prime minister is more cold-blooded.

His decision to prorogue Parliament – theoretically to reset the government’s agenda as a result of the pandemic but in practice also to turn the page on an embarrassing scandal – speaks to that evolution.

So does the Liberals’ insistence on holding a confidence vote early in the new session. The tactic of forcing the opposition majority to fish or cut bait on toppling the government was lifted straight out of Stephen Harper’s take-no-prisoners playbook.

There have been other shifts in tone and substance.

Over their first term, Trudeau’s Liberals acquired a well-deserved reputation for offering a lot of talk but little or no meaningful followup action. As often as not, they were bold in name only. The prime minister himself came across as Canada’s equivocator-in-chief.

On that basis, few on the opposition benches expected the Liberals to be game to fight the next election on a hike in the carbon tax that’s high enough to give Canada its best shot ever at meeting its emissions-reduction target.

Five years in, the opposition parties – and in particular the Conservatives – had become so used to seeing the government fail to meet the expectations it set for itself that it led them to fall into a trap of their own making.

By setting the bar abysmally low on the government’s vaccine deployment, the Conservatives – with the help of the Bloc Québecois and the NDP – handed the Liberals an easy win.

It is not just in the House of Commons that Trudeau has become more inclined to play hardball.

Over the past few weeks, the prime minister has made it clear he is determined to set the terms of engagement on the federal-provincial front.

That starts with health-care funding and the premiers’ dead-on-arrival call for a larger, no strings-attached federal contribution.

On the way to the latest federal announcement on carbon pricing, the prime minister did not even go through the motions of haggling with his provincial counterparts.

Earlier this month, the Liberals finally made good on their promise to introduce a bill to align Canada’s laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). A half-dozen provinces were arguing for yet more time to explore the possible consequences of the move.

Much could still go wrong for the Liberals between now and a federal campaign that could come as early as the spring.

The Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the constitutionality of the federal carbon pricing scheme.

The federal power to set a floor price on carbon for the country is at the core of Trudeau’s climate change strategy.

Should the top court strip the prime minister of that power, it would seriously diminish his capacity to lead a national battle against climate change.

And then the government’s fortunes ultimately rest on the success of the deployment of the COVID-19 vaccines.

At this juncture, the status of that operation sits somewhere between that of a successful photo opportunity and a timely solution to the pandemic crisis.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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