Chantal Hebert

Opinion: A strong position, but only in comparison

Justin Trudeau snatched a second victory from the jaws of defeat earlier this fall.

And while his party remains short of a governing majority, the fact that none of his opposition rivals met their own electoral expectations allows the prime minister to finish the year in the winner’s circle. Not every government leader in Canada is so fortunate. In Alberta, the days of Jason Kenney as party leader and as premier appear to be numbered. The same is true federally of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

But Trudeau’s position is mostly only strong by comparison to the competition. Whether that is strong enough to face the headwinds that await his government around the corner of 2022 is an open question.

The coming year could turn out to be the most challenging of his tenure to date.

The platforms the parties championed in the recent election were all crafted at a time when inflation was seen as a passing phenomenon. That assessment has since been revised and the consensus is that inflation and its attending cost of living woes could be with us for a while.

Changing circumstances will inevitably command significant policy adjustments.

On that score, the recent fiscal update – with its almost exclusive focus on the pandemic – can best be described as an exercise in treading water.

More by coincidence than by design, the Liberal choice to present a minimalist update was validated by the latest pandemic developments. When it comes to setting a post-pandemic course, governments are still flying blind.

The narrow scope of the update has allowed Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to push pause on fulfilling many of the big-ticket items in the last Liberal election platform. Whether they will all still fit in a changing economic picture by the time of the spring budget is not a given.

The absence of a definitive fiscal road map opened the Liberal government up for criticism that it rushed the country into an election only to then put off the heavy lifting for yet another day.

Fair enough, but the fact is that a fluid situation is almost certainly best addressed by flexibility.

Clouds are accumulating on the Canada/U.S. horizon. The assumption that Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House would result in a return to the pre-Trump environment is not panning out.

The relationship between Ottawa and Washington may be more predictable, but conflicting currents agitating the U.S. political scene make it no less challenging.

At the same time, the global political climate is deteriorating. There is more and more sabre-rattling emanating from Russia and China. That coincides with a leadership vacuum of sorts. In France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the political scene is very much in flux.

Trudeau may be the de facto dean of the G7 leaders, but here at home he is backed by an untested foreign affairs cabinet duo.

Mélanie Joly, his rookie global affairs minister, brings little hands-on experience to the file. At national defence, Anita Anand clearly has the political backbone required to force a much-needed change in the military culture vis-a-vis sexual harassment. But when it comes to the actual core mission of her ministry, she too faces a steep learning curve.

At year’s end, the pandemic looms larger than anyone had hoped.

Finally, some familiar unity fault lines are emerging over Quebec’s Bill 21, the provincial law that prohibits some public servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.

On that score, it is probably good politics on the eve of an Ontario municipal election year for the mayors of Toronto and Brampton to jump at the opportunity to pick a fight by proxy with the Quebec government by financing those who are challenging the law.

But in so doing, John Tory and Patrick Brown made Premier François Legault’s week. The first consequence of their intervention has been to make it easier for Legault to argue that those in the province who oppose Bill 21 are doing the bidding of Quebec-bashers in the rest of Canada.

Chantal Hébert is a National Affairs writer.