In 2017, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals wanted to talk about 2027. And that might set things up for 2019.
Buried within the 280-page budget book tabled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau in March was a two-page section entitled “Canada in 10 years.” Between the numbers and graphs and charts of the rest of the tome — little of which, one presumes, was read by anyone outside Ottawa — the government’s writers allowed themselves to get a bit dreamy.
“Within 10 years,” it was imagined, Canadian cities would have “world class public transit systems,” while Canadians would benefit from cleaner air, less congestion, bustling ports, digital networks, greater housing, support and care.
“This is the brighter future that all Canadians deserve.”
Regardless of whether Canadians deserve it, the Liberals now have less than two years to prove they can be trusted to keep building it.
Lots to worry about in 2018
Complicating matters will be all the other things the Liberals have to worry about.
Barring an indictment, Donald Trump will still be U.S. president. NAFTA will still be up for renegotiation, unless it’s suddenly cancelled. The Trans Pacific Partnership hangs in the balance and free trade with China is still an open question.
There’s a G7 meeting to host in June. The new infrastructure bank is expected to open. The Trans Mountain pipeline will or won’t proceed, inciting protest in either event. The dissolution of the department of Indigenous Affairs will presumably continue. The provinces have until September to put a price on carbon emissions. And at some point in the summer of 2018, marijuana will become available for legal consumption.
But underlying all that will be the big plans the Liberals have now made.
The best-laid plans
The backbone of the promise for 2027 was set in the fall of 2016, with what was billed as a 12-year, $186-billion commitment to infrastructure. The Liberals added $95 billion to what the previous government had budgeted for.
From that follow other long-term plans: an 11-year agreement with the provinces to fund child care and early learning services, a 10-year commitment to affordable housing and the federal-provincial framework on climate change.
But Liberal commitments for the next decade go beyond infrastructure.
The new defence policy announced in June forecasts spending through 2026-27. In August, the Trudeau government completed a 10-year, $11-billion commitment to fund mental health and home-care services with the provinces.
Funding for “superclusters” — regional hubs for innovation and technology — goes to 2022. An increase in funding for Indigenous communities is budgeted through 2021.
A new national housing benefit, funded between the federal government and the provinces, is to be launched in 2020.
Some of the above might seem presumptuous, perhaps even cynical. The Liberals will have to be re-elected at least twice to still be in government in 2027.
Extending the timeframe of a commitment allows them to announce a bigger dollar figure. (Granted, that can work both ways. Long-term fiscal projections, for instance, can be used to forecast great piles of new debt.)
But it would also likely be counterproductive to demand that governments restrict themselves to their current mandate. Some amount of forward planning and long-term thinking is surely of benefit to the nation’s stability and direction.
The Liberals’ challenge for the next two years is to demonstrate they can be counted on to make good on at least the next four years.
Significant outlays are planned before the next election: billions for infrastructure, housing and child care. How many buildings, roads, transit lines and child-care spaces will the prime minister be able to pose in front of over the next year and a half?
The more that is built and done with that money, the better the government’s case for re-election might be. Meanwhile, voters should get a sense of what life is like with a price on carbon (including, potentially, any federal rebate that is applied where the federal plan is imposed).
That re-election campaign will presumably feature some call to stick with the Liberal plan. Presuming, of course, that the plan is working.
To 2019, and beyond
All these commitments might limit the Liberals’ ability to make many new promises in the 2019 campaign. (At the very least, it should be difficult for them to match 2015’s 353 promises).
But could these long-term promises also curtail the Conservative party’s ambitions?
Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives will no doubt vow to repeal the federal carbon price. But they will presumably also want to run on a platform that includes reduced taxes and a quicker return to budget balance.
Can they do that without cutting into some of the Liberal agenda? If not, which pieces do they want to take on?
Regardless of whether the Liberals are still governing at the end of 2019, the federal government could be contending with their plans for years to come.