Prime Minister Justin Trudeau begins a two-day cabinet retreat in London, Ont., today, taking stock of what remains on the Liberal checklist as he looks ahead to the next election.
Government sources told CBC News that ministers are acutely aware the clock is ticking to 2019 and plan to drive a message to Canadians that strong numbers and high consumer confidence are signs Liberal policies are working.
A spokesperson for the prime minister said continuing the plan to create jobs and grow the economy in all parts of the country is at the top of the cabinet agenda.
“Discussions throughout the retreat will focus on advancing our government’s key objectives of strengthening the economy, ensuring equality of opportunity for all Canadians and growing the middle class,” said Cameron Ahmad.
“Cabinet will also discuss implementation of our economic agenda and delivering concrete results on our commitments.”
Cabinet ministers, joined by Peter Harder, the government’s leader in the Senate, met for a private dinner last night at a downtown hotel, where senior staff also gathered.
Budget in the works
Michael Barber, who advises the government on “deliverology,” and Dominic Barton, who chairs the government’s council of economic advisers, will attend the meeting in southwestern Ontario.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who is now preparing the next federal budget, has been tweeting about the government’s track record.
In 2017, Canada added 422,000 new jobs – the best job creation in a single year since 2002. This is what real progress for the middle class looks like, and in 2018 we’re going to keep working hard to build an even better Canada. pic.twitter.com/Pm5kvbecOY
Chloé Luciani-Girouard, a spokesperson for Morneau, said he’s building on a “proven plan” and that the government remains committed to growing the economy while promoting gender equality.
Last year’s budget introduced the first-ever gender statement and increased funding for gender-based analysis. That will be expanded, she said.
“These were important steps — but they were just the beginning,” Luciani-Girouard said. “As we prepare for budget 2018, we are building on that commitment and making sure gender issues and equality for women and men are top of mind as we consider each and every budgetary decision we make.”
Liberal checklist of promises
Beyond the federal budget plan, ministers meeting in London will also be whittling down the list of Liberal priorities that remain unchecked, including legalizing and regulating marijuana, launching an infrastructure bank and ending long-term boil water advisories on First Nations reserves.
There’s also the challenge of dealing with the Trump administration amid escalating trade disputes and growing uncertainty over the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The London retreat comes as Trudeau holds a series of town hall meetings, where he has faced a rash of tough questions from the public, ranging from a multi-million dollar payment to Omar Khadr to rehabilitating former ISIS fighters who have returned home to Canada.
The prime minister is also reeling from an ethics commissioner’s report that found he violated four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act by vacationing on the private island resort of the Aga Khan.
Conservative MP Peter Kent said Trudeau will not be able to escape that ethical lapse by turning the channel to the economy.
“A lot of talk, not a lot of substance, and [there are] serious concerns about the transparency, accountability and the ethical behaviour beyond the letter of the law that the prime minister talks a lot about, but apparently regards himself to be above those rules, regulations and laws,” he told CBC News.
Time running out
NDP house leader Peter Julian said the Liberal messaging on helping the middle class runs counter to the fact many families are going deeper into debt just to maintain the same standard of living.
“It’s a bit of a delusion for the Liberals when we’re seeing all the hardship that comes from this record level of family debt and the increasing poverty and increasing homelessness,” he said. “For the Liberals to say things are great — they are simply not, for the average Canadian.”
Julian said the Liberals are running out of time to deliver on key promises, and have already broken several related to electoral reform, the environment and housing for First Nations.
“I think the government made a series of promises a lot of Canadians agreed with. But when you look at their track record, for the most part they’ve broken those promises,” he said. “They have to understand that Canadians will hold them to account in 2019 for the broken promises of 2015.”
Trudeau will hold a town hall at London’s Western University tonight, in an auditorium that holds 2,300 people.