Hebért: Cold, hard reality to hit Liberals on three fronts

If you have been enjoying Canada’s comparatively cool political climate since Justin Trudeau became prime minister, make the most of what may be the last days of the season.

By all indications, the political temperature is about to rise as deadlines loom on three potentially troublesome fronts for the Liberal government.

Between now and the end of the year, the prime minister’s capacity to forge a consensus in Parliament, on the federal-provincial front and, possibly, within his own caucus will be tested as the rubber meets the road on some key campaign commitments.

On or before Dec. 1, the special committee that has been exploring a reform of Canada’s voting system will report its findings to the government.

If the Liberals have a principled position on this issue, they have been doing a great job of keeping it under wraps.

The committee report should signal the beginning of the end of the Liberal game of hide-and-seek.

The opposition parties hold the majority at the electoral reform table and, in any event, no government is bound to implement the prescription of a committee.

If such an obligation existed, Canada’s new law on medically assisted suicide would be a lot less restrictive. But if Trudeau is presented with an opposition consensus as to the way forward on the voting system he will, at a minimum, have to come up with the kind of coherent response that has been sorely lacking to date.

This week, Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef reported, on the basis of her own consultations, that there was no consensus within the public as to a preferred voting system. The representations made to the committee on the other hand have tended to favour a more proportional system. Consensus, in this instance, is very much in the opportunistic eye of the beholder. But more on that later in this column. The odds of a majority committee report increased this week when the NDP signalled that it could support the Conservative call for any new voting system to be put to a national referendum. If there is solid majority within the electorate to be found for anything pertaining to electoral reform, it revolves around the notion that a change should be approved through a national plebiscite.

One way or another, it does seem that at least one part of Trudeau’s promise will not be fulfilled. In the still unlikely scenario that the Liberals sign off on a national plebiscite, the debate would shift to the rewriting of the federal referendum law and then to the actual holding of a national vote. Getting all that done within the time frame Elections Canada says it needs to put a different voting system in place for 2019 would be extremely difficult. And that is, of course, assuming a reform proposal wins the day.

On Dec. 9, Trudeau is tentatively scheduled to meet with the premiers to put the finishing touches on the country’s climate change strategy. The first ministers have not gathered since the prime minister signalled his intention to set a floor price on carbon. In the interval, Donald Trump’s victory and the expectation that his administration will not follow up on the Paris climate accord have added grist to the mill of opponents of a Canadian carbon tax.

Trudeau does not lack for provincial allies on carbon pricing, but the same is not true of his plan to cut the annual increase of the health transfer to three per cent. The prime minister wants to avoid a linkage between the files. Absent some conciliatory federal move on health-care funding, that linkage may be hard to avoid next month and not just on carbon pricing.

Dec. 19 is the deadline for the federal cabinet to decide the fate of Kinder Morgan’s plan to increase the capacity of the TransMountain pipeline. It links Alberta to the coast off Vancouver. In the wake of the American election, Energy Minister Jim Carr has argued that Trump’s victory and the prospect of a revival of the Keystone XL project did not diminish the need for more pipeline capacity in Canada.

Trudeau has long said he would not proceed with a pipeline absent a so-called social licence for the project. If his government applied to the quest of a pro-pipeline consensus in British Columbia the same loose criteria it is using to declare that there is no consensus in sight on electoral reform, the TransMountain pipeline would be dead on arrival.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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