Comment: Is Trudeau keeper of dad’s legacy?

To mark the 50th anniversary earlier this week of the election of Pierre Trudeau’s first government, Radio-Canada’s version of CBC’s The Current set out to look back on what it called 50 years of Trudeauism.

But can the last half-century of federal governance really be summed up as the pursuit of a so-called Trudeau doctrine? And is the current prime minister little more than the keeper of his father’s legacy?

Over his first years in office, Justin Trudeau has revealed himself to be a risk-taker, a prime minister willing to pursue what he believes to be sound policy even when it is not obvious that it makes for good politics.

For better or for worse, he already has more transformative initiatives to his name after little more than two and a half years as prime minister than Stephen Harper at the end of a decade. (By the same token, Trudeau has also broken more promises over a shorter time span, starting with electoral reform and modest deficits.)

His government’s landmark policies cover contentious issues ranging from carbon pricing and the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline to the appointment of independent senators and the legalization of cannabis.

But before concluding that Trudeau is walking in the footsteps of an activist father, ask yourself whether the same would not be said if the prime minister’s last name were Mulroney. He, too, embraced a high-risk transformative agenda.

As it happens, albeit largely for reasons beyond his control, Trudeau has spent more time in government defending Brian Mulroney’s free trade legacy than any part of his own father’s. His re-election next year may ride, at least in part, on the success of the NAFTA salvage operation.

At the same time, the prime minister’s approach to the running of the federation often seems to borrow more from former Tory prime minister Joe Clark’s community of communities than the Liberal dogma of a strong central government.

On mental health and on social housing, two social policy areas to which the Trudeau government has pledged more funds, it has negotiated bilateral agreements tailored to each province. And in both cases, it has maintained an asymmetrical approach to Quebec.

In the same spirit, it has been left to each province to decide how to go about marketing cannabis and which carbon pricing formula to adopt to meet the targets set in the federal climate-change framework.

But it was Stephen Harper who most aggressively sought to replace the provinces’ securities commissions with a national one and who sought to go around the premiers to unilaterally make the Senate an elected house.

It was the previous Conservative government that would rather destroy the Quebec data of the defunct federal long gun registry than transfer it to the province so that it could use it to create a system of its own.

Trudeau and his ministers have just spent the spring hammering the message that the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and the B.C. coast is in the national interest. The federal government will defend its constitutional prerogative to see such infrastructure projects through in court.

But before concluding that this is a prime example of the Liberal way of doing business with the provinces, ask yourself whether Harper, were he still prime minister, would have been any less inclined to use all the powers at his disposal to get more pipelines built than Trudeau has in the case of the Trans Mountain expansion?

Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of the DNA of the federal Liberal party. But when it comes to his unequivocal defence of abortion rights, Justin Trudeau has not so much been upholding his father’s charter as using it in support of his own government’s decisively pro-choice stance.

In this, as in Trudeau’s championing of gender parity, there are departures of sorts from his prime ministerial father.

The elder Trudeau did not at first see fit to include gender equality in his proposed charter and, at the time of its adoption, he had assured the House of Commons that it was not conceived to extend or even cover women’s reproductive rights.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs columnist.

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