100 days of (mostly cosmetic) Real Change™

Image description: Justin Trudeau stares intently into the camera, smiling slightly. In the top left is the Liberal Party logo. At the bottom, in white letters over a red background, it says: “I’m voting for real change”. The word “real”, unlike the other words, is in a hand-printed-esque font. (Image credit: Justin Trudeau/Twitter)

Though it’s hard to believe, it’s now been one hundred days since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office. The hundred-day mark has held symbolic significance ever since U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in office, in which he made a big show out of accomplishing certain campaign promises in his first hundred days.

Since then, the milestone has become an inflection point for new administrations, after which they cease to be new and begin to be judged in earnest on what they have done rather than what they have promised to do. When looking back on the first few months of a new government, one is often able to clearly see the priorities, methods, and style which will come to characterize its entire term in office. (One hundred days is, after all, not a trivial length of time, amounting to around 7% of the government’s term.)

So what can we discern about the Justin Trudeau government, looking back at the events which have transpired since that sunny November day on which he and his cabinet were sworn in with much pomp and celebration? The answer necessarily varies by issue, but one general trend is abundantly clear: in its first hundred days, the Trudeau government has demonstrated a commitment to changing the tone and style of politics in Ottawa, but that change has, with only a few exceptions, not been matched by a corresponding shift in the substance of the government’s policies on most major issues. 

On issues of style and tone, no one would dispute that Trudeau’s government has departed markedly from its predecessor. This much was clear from Day One – between the most diverse cabinet in Canadian history and a swearing-in ceremony featuring Inuit throat-singing and smudging, Trudeau was eager to indicate a break with the stuffy, stodgy, white-bread ways of the Harper Conservatives. The Prime Minister’s flippantly memeable and instantly iconic response to the question of why he’d prioritized gender diversity around the cabinet table – “Because it’s 2015” continues to be employed by political columnists despite the fact that it in fact isn’t 2015 anymore – gave the clearest indication yet that this government would be more relatable, more humorous, more sympathetic.

Since then, in all of the stylized aspects of politics, Trudeau has shown himself to be a natural. At the Davos Summit of obscenely wealthy capitalists fretting over the future of their piles of cash, Trudeau worked the crowd like an old pro, and without saying much of substance managed to earn plaudits from pundits worldwide. Here in Canada, he’s doing everything he can to keep his political honeymoon rolling. From entering Parliament through the front doors like backbench MPs do to conducting frequent and wide-ranging interviews and press conferences, Trudeau has demonstrated a masterful understanding of the art of politicking, presenting the image of Real Change at every opportunity.

And it’s vital to the success of his government that he’s convincing in this endeavour, because Real Change™ is the reason his government got elected to begin with. You can argue – as I have – that the Liberals were not the party with the most ambitious agenda of change in the last election, but the reason they won so decisively last October is that enough people believed that they were the Party of Change. Trudeau radiated positivity and hope for the future on the campaign trail, and the Liberals’ hypnotically repeated slogan – Real Change – managed to capture in two words the most fervent desires of an overwhelming majority of voters weary after a decade of corporatist bullying proto-fascist Conservative rule.

So, to steal a phrase from Sarah Palin, how’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out?

Broadly speaking, pretty poorly. On many issues, it’s too soon to be definitively certain, because we still don’t have to good of an idea what exactly the government’s position is. There are, however, strong negative indications even here.

The government has eagerly embraced the strategy of widespread public consultations on major issues. (Check out this HuffPo video titled “Liberals Friggin’ Love Consultations“!) Here’s a partial list of the consultations they’ve launched so far:

There are consultations underway — or soon to begin — on everything from the pre-budget submissions (the department says there has been a record level of public participation), to CBC’s future, to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), to Canada Post home delivery, to legalizing marijuana, to employment insurance reforms, to a full review of the environmental assessment process, to changes to the electoral system, to ending gender-based violence, to Canada’s official languages act, to consultations on what the inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls should look like, to future child care delivery models in Canada, to a pan-Canadian climate change plan, to changes to the Access to Information system, to an open government plan, to the sustainability of fish stocks, and the list goes on.

Consultations seem to be serving two purposes for the Liberals. First, it’s allowing the party, which after all was a marginal third-place force before the last election and was definitely not expecting to win a majority government, some time to figure out what exactly they want to do on major issues for which they had a pretty thin platform. Second, and more critically, it’s helping to create that aura of Real Change by projecting an image of including the public in the decision-making process.

But how well is the public actually being included? If you take a look at, for instance, the TPP, it looks like the consultation process is hasn’t exactly been broadly representative of the range of opinion out there:

First, the vast majority of consultations have been with groups supportive of these agreements: Provincial government ministers, business groups, industry reps, universities, etc. Of 74 such meetings (as of Jan. 31), there have been a handful with “students” (but not with student council representatives who have actually studied the TPP) and a couple with labour — with the Canadian Labour Congress and Unifor.

There have been no meetings with NGOs who have taken the time to examine the TPP closely, like the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with First Nations (whose agreements with governments can be trumped by ISDS) or environmental groups.

Obviously there is still time for such engagement, but the process so far does not bode well for balanced input.

Or consider the consultation process being established regarding the legalization of marijuana. First of all, the process is being led by former Toronto Chief of Police and civil liberties violator Bill Blair, who, as longtime legalization advocate Marc Emery argued recently, is uniquely unsuited to bring about the type of actual real change that activists have long been pushing for.

Then there’s the structure of the consultations themselves, which will include federal, provincial and territorial representatives, as well as law enforcement agencies, but not, so far as I’ve been able to find, any input from marijuana users, advocacy organizations, or victims of Prohibition’s punitive policies.

Consultation can also be deployed as a way of foisting responsibility off onto others. Trudeau memorably endorsed a limit of no more than 1.5°C of warming at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris last December, a stance which set him apart from most of the global North, which favoured a more modest (and more deadly) 2°C target. The ambitious tone he struck was celebrated by casual environmentalists here in Canada, but what was less noticed was that Trudeau went to COP21 with Stephen Harper’s emissions reduction plan. To be fair, he’d been in office less than a month at that point, but that was only part of his justification – Trudeau insisted that Canada’s climate change plan should be decided by the federal and provincial governments working in conjunction.

To call this disingenuous is an understatement. Getting all of the provinces to agree with the federal government on anything more complicated than a date and venue for a meeting place has historically been a massive undertaking that has led to a great deal of national acrimony. Furthermore, as demonstration of how likely a realistic plan is to come out of such a conference, the premiers just last summer met (minus the federal government) to discuss exactly this issue of climate change, and came out of it with a word-salad nonsense agreement to support more tar sands extraction and more pipelines.

And indeed, while Trudeau talked a good game on getting a truly national climate change plan together while he was in Paris, in recent days, with the actual provincial climate conference approaching, the government’s been doing its best to lower expectations:

The smiles and interprovincial harmony that was apparent at the international climate summit in Paris is giving way to emerging tensions between premiers as they attempt to strike a plan that will deliver on Canada’s emission-reduction targets.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, as well as British Columbia and Ontario, are playing down expectations of a deal at the meeting, scheduled for March 3 in Vancouver. It was originally promoted as the gathering that would hammer out the details of Canada’s Paris pledge.

Rather than announcing a deal, Ms. McKenna said Ottawa and the provinces are looking to set up working groups that would dive into specific sources of emissions – including buildings, the energy sector and transportation – to come up with the policies that would ultimately form a new plan and potentially more ambitious targets.

“What will happen in March is we will start the discussion on the plan,” she said.

They’re gonna make a plan to make a plan? That’s almost meta-consultative!

While rhetorically the government has brought change to the conversation about climate change, when it comes to taking actions that actually would reduce carbon emissions, the Liberals have waffled. Although it’s not surprising coming from a party which campaigned on restoring public faith in pipelines (and which employed a TransCanada lobbyist as its national campaign co-chair), the Liberals are vigorously commited to, as they unfailingly phrase it, “get Canada’s resources to tidewater“. This priority runs directly contrary to the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists that the vast majority of the tar sands must remain in the ground if the worst consequences of climate change are to be averted.

When it comes to pipelines, the new government is as much of a booster as the previous one, although it may not appear to be at first glance. The Liberal Party has made it clear that they share the ultimate goal of the Conservative Party on this issue – to help the oil and gas industry in the tar sands grow and sell its product abroad – with the chief difference between them being that the Liberals recognize the potency and power of pipeline resisters and are therefore attempting to placate and/or co-opt them rather than steamroll and/or ignore them.

Hence their widely touted – and just as widely condemned – interim “reforms” of the pipeline review process. These reforms seek to restore credibility to a broken process that systematically favours the voices and interests of oil and gas companies – but critically, the reforms did little or nothing to assuage the concerns of critics. And, ironically for a government that’s been so relentlessly pro-consultation in other fields, the changes were an indication to many First Nations leaders that the new government isn’t willing to listen:

Trudeau promised to engage First Nations on a true nation-to-nation basis, said Ghislain Picard, the regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) but then he ignored a letter that several aboriginal groups sent him in December outlining changes they wanted to see in the pipeline review process.

First Nations were not consulted on the Liberal government’s announcement regarding the interim pipeline review process for Energy East or Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipelines, Picard said…

Picard said he and other chiefs fear they are starting to see a familiar pattern.

“It raises a lot of concerns from our First Nations leadership,” he told HuffPost. “We feel that, on the one hand, they speak about the partnership and renewal of the partnership and the relationship and, on the other hand, what they seem to be doing doesn’t reflect that intention.”

Trudeau’s rhetoric on First Nations issues has been one of the hallmarks of his agenda of Real Change and one of his most radical departures, stylistically at least, from the Harper years. There has been a lot of talk about respectful nation-to-nation relations, about indigenous sovereignty, and about honouring traditional knowledge. This is a welcome and long-overdue change in tone. And to be fair, one of the unequivocally positive accomplishments of Trudeau’s tenure thus far has been the commencement of a long-demanded national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women.

But here are a few hard facts: Justin Trudeau is backing down from his election pledge to respect First Nations’ right to veto resource development projects on their territory, in essence saying that in some circumstances his government would be willing to force pipelines onto Indigenous territory. His government’s changes to the pipeline review process still do not allow for proper consultation of First Nations as required by the Constitution. And while he talks of dealing with the legacy of the past, his Justice Minister responded to calls from Indigenous leaders for an inquiry into the massive state violence at Ts’Peten (Gustafsen Lake) in the 1990s by saying that such an inquiry is not a priority.

This isn’t what respectful nation-to-nation relations look like.

This just scratches the surface of the not-so-new-anymore government’s behaviour to date. On C-51, they promised to fix it and remove its worst abuses, but early indications are that most of the disruptive police powers enshrined in the bill will emerge unscathed. On the Conservative government’s highly controversial arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the Liberals have not even bothered to bring Real Change to their rhetoric on the issue. On issue after issue, the changes that the Liberals have brought has been mostly cosmetic.

They have made a great deal of fuss out of the tone and style of their approach, of the appearance of Real Change. But when it comes to the substance, there has been far more continuity with the Conservative government than any of the PMO’s spin doctors would ever be willing to admit.

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