For the better part of two days members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet met behind closed doors in St. John’s, plotting strategy for the fall legislative session, while outside their opponents, critics and interest groups declared open season on significant parts of the Liberal agenda.
Instead of controlling the debate this week, instead of getting out their message first, the Liberals found themselves responding to problems that, in most cases, were of their own creation.
Whether it was convincing the public that police will have the tools they need when pot becomes legal next Canada Day, or that the proposal to close tax loopholes available to small business is really about fairness, or that the government did all it could this week to get Canadians out of island nations ravaged by Hurricane Irma, it was all catch-up, nearly all the time.
“We recognize, of course, that there are difficult situations and difficult decisions that any government faces, and we are taking those responsibilities seriously and ensuring that we live up to Canadians’ high expectations of this government,” Trudeau told reporters at the end of the retreat.
“Every day is an opportunity to reflect on how we can do better to serve Canadians.”
Even so, for a government that’s been in power for almost two years, and with only two years before the next election, even some Liberal MPs worry their government is struggling to manage issues and to effectively communicate plans to the public.
Start with Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s proposals to change the tax structure for incorporated small businesses.
Morneau and the prime minister insist it’s all about fairness. They are adamant that it’s only the very richest individuals who are taking advantage of the system by putting spouses and adult children on the corporate payroll even though they do little or no work for the company, or who use so-called passive investments inside their corporation to shelter profits from full taxes.
Courting the middle class
Doctors, lawyers and small business groups say these changes are a blatant tax grab by a government that’s already bringing in more revenue than expected. They argue it will drive some of them out of the country or prevent them from keeping enough money on hand to grow or expand their business or to pass on the family farm.
Right or wrong, real or exaggerated, those groups’ arguments dominated the early public discussion. And the prime minister knows it.
“A lot of those wealthy folks are really fighting to keep those benefits they have, and they’re making a lot of noise,” Trudeau said in an interview with CBC News in St. John’s.
“We’re just reflecting on the fact that the tax system as it’s set up gives too many benefits to wealthy people and not enough to the people who really need the support.”
The Liberals have internal polling that suggests this tax-the-rich agenda plays very well with their voting base and with many NDP supporters whose votes they need to continue to hold power.
They believe that portraying these changes as tax fairness is easily understood by middle-class Canadians, that big mass of people every party needs to hold on to or to gain power.
Meeting the pot deadline
The government also intends to press ahead with its plans to legalize marijuana by next Canada Day — despite testimony at committee hearings this week from senior police officers that there’s no chance they’ll be ready, or that the government can achieve its goal of breaking gangs’ control of pot distribution.
“This legislation will not eliminate organized crime in the cannabis industry,” said Thomas Carrique, co-chair of the organized crime committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
The committee heard police forces need more time to train officers about the new laws and to certify those who will conduct roadside tests for drug impairment.
It fell to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale on Wednesday to defend the timetable.
“The government has put some very substantial resources on the table to make sure the goal is reached,” Goodale said on the way into the cabinet session. “The time frame is a solid one. The deadline is 10 months away, or 11 months away. So there is time to move forward.”
Asked if the government is prepared to agree to the delay police are requesting, Goodale said it will be taken into consideration.
Better is always possible
For ministers of a government that loves to consult the public on all manner of policy, Morneau and Goodale seemed to suggest their only role is to listen. Changing plans because of public pressure? Well, that’s another thing altogether.
In fact, the only concession this week from cabinet ministers is that their efforts to rescue Canadians caught in Hurricane Irma and its aftermath — including widespread looting on some of the Caribbean islands — might have been better.
“We sympathize with Canadians who experience a terrifying ordeal,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said after she met one of the commercial flights to Toronto loaded with Canadians who’d been stranded by Irma.
“But as the prime minister says, ‘Better is always possible.'”
It’s a motto the cabinet might want to keep in mind this fall as they push through key parts of their agenda and prepare for the next election.