Walkom: A few storm clouds invade Justin Trudeau’s sunny skies

After 20 months as prime minister, Justin Trudeau isn’t quite as sunny as he used to be.

He remains unfailingly polite. At an Ottawa press conference Tuesday to mark the end of Parliament’s spring sitting, he thanked reporters – as he often does – for what he called their contribution to democracy.

At the end, he kissed the press gallery president on both cheeks.

But from time to time during the 45-minute press conference, particularly when explaining his failures, he allowed a sober and sometimes bitter edge to creep in.

Prime ministerial press conferences are not always about news. A skilful politician can answer reporters’ questions at length without saying anything that is even remotely newsworthy.

But they can hint at the government leader’s mood. And this one did.

First, Trudeau seems confident about his controversial decision to run fiscal deficits. He brushed aside a question asking when he might balance the budget, saying only that Canadians had elected his Liberals to make investments in the economy.

He chose not to discuss his campaign pledge to bring Ottawa’s books back into balance by 2019 and, in effect, blamed the previous Conservative government for leaving him with a big shortfall.

He said he was not particularly concerned with brief upward and downward blips in economic indicators like the unemployment rate, but was focused on the long term.

Translation: Politically, things are going fine on the economic front. Unless that changes, there is no compelling need to alter course.

Second, the prime minister seems sobered by the difficulty of implementing his ambitious Indigenous agenda.

Asked why his government was refusing to comply with a 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that Ottawa spend more on First Nation child welfare programs, Trudeau went into a long riff on the dangers of paternalism.

“In the history of Canada, there have been occurrences when governments have tried to … put forward solutions to the Indigenous community that may have been well-meaning but ended up disastrous,” he said.

His aim, he said, was to meet immediate needs, such as access to potable drinking water, and at the same time help indigenous communities develop the capacity to run their own affairs free of interference from Ottawa.

That, he said, will take a long time.

“It took hundreds of years to get here,” he said. “It’s going to take many, many generations to end this legacy.”

Third, he blamed the opposition parties for his own missteps.

He was forced to abandon his electoral reform plans, he said, because the Conservatives and New Democrats wouldn’t go along with his idea of instituting a ranked ballot, in which voters list not only their first but subsequent choices.

In fact, the Liberal government never presented the Commons with any specific plan for electoral reform, ranked ballot or otherwise. The Liberals abandoned the idea of replacing the current first-past-the-post voting system because they calculated, probably accurately, that most Canadians don’t care one way or the other.

Trudeau also blamed the opposition Conservatives for the trouble he has experienced getting legislation through the Senate. In fact, the Senate’s unusually obstreperous behaviour stems from Trudeau’s decision to encourage nonpartisanship in the upper chamber.

Had he continued the practice of appointing partisan Liberals committed firmly to his government, he would have no Senate problems.

Fourth, Trudeau’s love affair with United Nations peacekeeping appears to have flagged.

Before becoming prime minister, he talked of ending Canada’s combat mission in Iraq and returning to UN peacekeeping.

Today, Canadian special forces are fighting in Iraq, where they shoot and kill enemy soldiers. But the government refuses to call this combat.

Meanwhile, a decision on where to send Canadian peacekeepers has been postponed indefinitely.

On Tuesday, Trudeau stuck by the fiction that Canadian troops involved in combat are not involved in combat.

He also said that Canada would commit troops only to a UN peacekeeping mission that has “a chance of success.”

That’s not a foolish criterion (although it does rule out most places where the UN wants to commit peacekeepers). But it suggests that the prime minister, while still chipper, is not as optimistic as he used to be.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs columnist.

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