Trudeau #First100: Reasons for Optimism; Challenges Ahead, Says Panel

Friday marked the end of the first 100 days in office for the 42nd Parliament and the government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. The October 19th election last fall saw not just a change in government, but the beginning of a highly ambitious agenda of grand promises and firm deadlines along with the day-to-day priorities of governing. So, 100 days later, a panel of experts gathered at the University of Guelph to talk about how it’s going so far.

Prof. Anna Esselment from the Political Science Department at the University of Waterloo noted that Trudeau’s move to rename key ministries put an “emphasis on evidence-based policy and making sure that it will be taken seriously,” while his mandate to make half the cabinet made up of women is “still being talked about. It means wonderful things for women who have aspirations to get into politics.”

Esselment also noted the unusual fact that Trudeau named himself Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, a role usually taken by premiers but not prime ministers, but recognized his role as Youth Minister as “symbolism” with “the Prime Minister putting himself in charge of youth as an acknowledgment that there were quite a number of young people interested in [him].”

Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield, on break from his duties in Ottawa to perform his duties in Guelph, praised his colleagues in cabinet saying that they have “a depth of knowledge in the area where they’re ministers, it’s like a skills based ministry. […] You look under the hood of any minister and you see that’s why they were put in the place they were put in.” Longfield added that his seat-mate, New Brunswick Southwest MP Karen Ludwig, called their caucus “the coolest home room you’ve ever been in.”

Prof. Matthew Hayday, whose specialty is nationalism and identity politics in the History Department at the University of Guelph, recognized that the Trudeau cabinet’s trend toward diversity extends beyond gender parity to being more inclusive of other races, First Nations people, and French speakers from outside Quebec. “It’s being done in a way that’s not looking like its tokenism,” he said. “There’s more of a symbolic shift indicating a willingness to engage with Indigenous People, at least on the surface, in their own terms.

Prof. Tamara Small, who specializes in modern digital campaigning in the Political Science Department at U of G, said “I really like seeing a prime minister that’s a human.” She noted that Trudeau presently has a 57 per cent approval rating, meaning that he’s currently got the support beyond the people that voted Liberal back in October. She also noted that despite the image of Trudeau as a selfie machine, “[former Prime Minister Stephen] Harper put out as many photos, and there was enough video of Stephen Harper that none of us wanted.” What’s changed is that there’s a great deal of interest about Trudeau from outside this county.

Longfield, from his vantage point on the inside, said that while Trudeau is aware of his “rock star status”, and is aware of the effect it has, he also knows where he comes from. “He got there [to Parliament] the same way as all of us,” Longfield said. “His first job is to represent the people of Papinau, then he’s the Prime Minister, and then he’s a rock star.” Longfield add that Trudeau “runs hard,” and under him caucus always starts at 10 am sharp!

After acknowledging how much people love Trudeau and the new Liberal government, the topic of conversation turned to when the honeymoon might end. Esselment said that Trudeau’s done a “relatively good job of harnessing [good will] because people right now are listening I don’t know how long that’s going to last.”

Hayday added that Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly had recently tweeted that the major accomplishment of the Trudeau government in the first 100 days was a change in tone. He pointed to the unmuzzling of scientists, the return of the long form census, the beginning of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and shifts around ideology, like the end of planning for the Mother Canada monument and the relocation of the Victims of Communism memorial, are all examples of that change in tone, but the real challenge will be when the passing of potentially unpopular legislation and when hard decisions have to be made.

When the floor was opened to questions from those in attendance, one of the first things asked about was the mission against ISIS, and the Liberal changes to coalition war effort, which has been criticized by both sides. “[The mission] is going to be something Canadians will be proud of something different and it was going to take a while [for us] to figure out,” said Longfield. “How important is [the fight] versus humanitarian and democratic support?” Small added that the direction of Canada’s contribution to the ISIS fight is “consistent with desire to get into UN and the way Liberals handle these types of issues.”

On the subject of electoral reform, Small wondered if maybe “the Liberals painted themselves into a corner,” with the promise to have a new electoral system in place in 18 months. Longfield said in making 18 months the timeline, the Liberals were thinking, at the time, that a win for them would mean a minority government, and that they would have to get reform in place quickly. Having said that though, Trudeau and the Liberals are “going to stick to 18 months,” and an April 2017 deadline. As for whether or not reform will come without a referendum, Hayday added that our “history with referendums is terrible,” and having said that, the Liberals are “never going to get the Conservatives to agree,” but “with multiparty consensus,” there may be less of a call to hold a nationwide vote on the matter.

Still, good will and the question of when it might evaporate was a question the panel was unable to shake. Longfield foresaw two potentialities that would derail the government’s agenda: an underperforming economy with great negative global pressures, and a terrorist event in Canada. That’s on the extreme side, but Small said that a “weaker opposition” will keep the pressure off the Liberals to a degree. The Conservatives, although they still have 99 seats, “have their own issues, and Rona Ambrose will do the best she can, but they have their own baggage that’s going to be hammered out.”

Long story short, the Liberals have enjoyed a very positive first 100 days in office, but the challenges ahead will put their popularity to the test, not to mention their dedication to the Prime Minister’s “Sunny Ways” agenda.

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