After four months in office, what have the Trudeau Liberals accomplished? According to Andrew Coyne and other critics, not much of substance (See Andrew Coyne’s article: Trudeaus First 3 Months In Power: Big on Symbolism, Short on Substance). Coyne argues that the actions taken by the government so far have a “relentless symbolic focus,” and that many of the policies formed and actions taken lack evidence or fact to support them. With the help of the Trudeau Metre – a site tracking which Trudeau election promises have been achieved, broken, are in progress, and have yet to begin – I evaluate the actions of the Liberal government in order to determine whether these criticisms are warranted, and to explore whether their symbolic actions are of value.
As of the close of February, there are 217 election promises being tracked by the Trudeau Metre team. According to the metre, 77% percent of these have not begun and nearly 15% percent are in progress. This statistic isn’t surprising given that the government has four years to achieve all 217. What is promising is that 14 promises, or 6%, have already been fulfilled. This compares to four broken promises thus far – comprising 1.8% of all promises made.
Of the 14 achieved promises, Coyne is correct in his assertion that the majority are more reflective of symbolism than substance. Take, for example, the equal gender cabinet, the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, the revoking of rules to muzzle government scientists and the expansion of the Compassionate Care Benefit. These are all hugely symbolic, but their symbolism does not compromise their importance. They represent Canadian values, and those values should be considered when crafting policy and taking action. Upholding human rights, gender equality and freedom of speech are all values of critical importance to Canadians, and, unfortunately, were not top of mind for the previous administration when making policy. For example, the Harper Conservatives’ creation of the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act or the refusal to fund an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, were seen by most Canadians as negative.
An additional argument forwarded by Coyne is that the Liberals are spending too much time trying to prove that they are different than the Harper Conservatives. In my opinion, it is completely natural that the Liberal government would try to differentiate themselves from the previous administration – it is after all this difference that Canadians voted for. Furthermore, symbolic actions are easier to implement within a short time frame than substantive actions. We should therefore not be surprised that the Liberals are prioritizing acting on the election promises that appease Canadians, promote Canadian values and are easier to implement. This should not be held as a criticism against them when also considering that they have started to act on many substantial election promises as well.
Recent action by the Liberal government to end airstrikes against ISIS, to reinstate the mandatory long form census and alter the middle income tax bracket are all more substantial in nature. These actions are not primarily based on symbolism and promoting values. Each of these actions serve a distinct, tangible purpose – fighting terrorism on the ground, supporting the need for accurate Canadian data, and supporting the economic needs of middle class households. Additionally, many of the Liberals’ ‘in progress’ promises are based on issues of a substantive nature. The actions to legalize marijuana, normalize relations with Iran, invest in Youth Employment and ensure clean water on reserves all serve a more substantial than symbolic purpose. Because of the substantial change these actions promise to bring about, they will understandably take much longer than 4 months to implement.
Critics are also quick to point out how the 4 broken promises are proof that the Liberal government lacks evidence-based decision making. Of the two economy-focused election promises that have now been broken, these critics are correct – at least partially. So far we know that the Liberals have broken their promises to ‘run short-term deficits of less than $10 billion in each of the next two fiscal years’, and to have ‘the middle class tax cut offset by the new 33% tax bracket’ (Trudeau Metre). The latter is clearly an example of the Liberals not doing their homework – some quick math and one would have seen that this promise was not financially feasible.
Considering the former promise, under the new spending plan the Liberals are estimating a deficit of “$18.4 billion in 2016-17 and $15.5 billion in 2017-18” (Susana Mas, CBC News). Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s justification of this change is based on the continued downward trend in the price of oil and the uncertainty in the global economy. While the deficit spending has certainly grown and there is reasonable concern about mismanagement, I argue that it is too soon to mark their plan for more spending as a failure. Most of the economic unease originates outside of Canada and therefore the Liberals must react accordingly to drive the Canadian economy in times of international turmoil. Additional spending is one way to drive the economy; however the success of their plan will depend on the areas in which they decide to invest. For more details on those areas and to properly evaluate this broken promise, we will have to wait until the full budget is released on March 22nd.
The other two ‘broken’ promises are the following: the failure of the government to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, and the failure to immediately implement the imported gun marking regulations. Reasonable Canadians should not lose much sleep over either of these failures as both were time sensitive and over-eager to begin with. The refugee promise held a large upside for the affected people and the PR of the government, and the downside of failing was small. To date, this promise has officially been met, (Michelle Zilio, Globe and Mail) whereas there seems to be no action on the gun marking promise (Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press). While not necessarily concerning in their failure, both promises do prove to be an example of what Coyne calls “announce policy first, then figure out the consequences later” (Andrew Coyne, National Post). In both cases the Liberal Party promised something that was nearly impossible to achieve in the mandated time frame without conducting the appropriate background research.
Though many of the achieved election promises are certainly ‘big on symbolism,’ as Coyne puts it, we should not be concerned about this – yet. Symbolic action requires fewer resources and consideration to act upon relative to issues of substance. It is fair and even smart to prioritize these actions up front, as long as there are issues of substance being addressed as well. I am encouraged that many of the “in progress” promises will drive substantial change in the long-term. Although symbolic action alone is not enough, I feel it is too soon to judge the Liberals on a lack of substantial action at this point in their administration. After all, they have another 44 months to act on their 199 unfinished promises.
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Authored by: Candice White, Co-Founder mPolitics.co
Picture source: Flickr