The Trudeau Report Card: A look at the bumpy road ahead

A year after a stunning majority win, the hard work of delivering more than 200 campaign promises has just begun

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Prime Minister Trudeau is briefed prior to interviews with Buzzfeed and CNN in New York. September 19, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

Prime Minister Trudeau is briefed prior to interviews with Buzzfeed and CNN in New York. September 19, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in New York, September 19, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

A year after a stunning majority win, Maclean’s adds up the stumbles and successes of Justin Trudeau’s government in our Trudeau Report Card. The hard work of delivering on more than 200 campaign promises—and breaking some along the way—has only just begun. Read our analysis of how the Liberals are handling security, immigration, the economy and more in our full Report Card coverage here.

Looking hard at the workload of Justin Trudeau’s government can be like peering into a dense thicket of promises. He made about 200 of them in last fall’s Liberal election platform. Some he’s kept and a few he’s broken, but of course most of those policy pledges remain, after only about a year in power, works in progress.

Still, the first anniversary of the Oct. 19, 2015, election is a good moment to take stock. It’s not just a matter of sorting out what’s unfolding promise by promise, although we do a good deal of that in our Trudeau report card. It’s also possible to discern a two-part theme emerging that goes a long way to defining the Trudeau government so far: the interplay between “inclusive prosperity” and “diversity.”

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From his earliest days as Liberal leader in 2013, Trudeau began honing, with his inner circle, a message about boosting middle-class prosperity. He argued that economic growth had for decades mainly benefited those at the top of the income scale, and must be made to better the lives of those around the middle. That’s the inclusive part. But to generate enough new wealth to spread around, the economy must be rebooted to expand faster. That’s the growth part.

The title of the Liberals’ 2015 platform—A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class—left no doubt it was this economic promise that Trudeau & Co. most wanted voters to hear. But news has a way of intruding on the communications plans of political strategists, and two stories that broke during the 2015 campaign forced the contenders to react.

First, the heartbreaking photo of a drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, on a Greek beach instantly turned the Middle Eastern refugee crisis into an urgent election issue. Next, federal judges rejected the Conservative government’s bid to stop a few Muslim women from wearing face veils while taking their citizenship oaths. On the campaign trail, Trudeau’s stand for diversity played far better than Stephen Harper’s appeal to a narrower sense of identity.

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau is accompanied by his wife Sophie Gregoire as he arrives to give his victory speech after Canada's federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
Justin Trudeau arrives to give his victory speech after Canada’s federal election in Montreal, Quebec on October 19, 2015. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

After the Liberals won their majority, government strategists expected inclusive prosperity to settle in as their core line of business. Indeed, last spring, Trudeau himself listed three middle-class pocketbook moves—creating a new child benefit, reforming the Canada Pension Plan and cutting the middle-income tax rate—as his government’s biggest early achievements. However, just as events outside his control had made diversity such a hot campaign theme, more news kept feeding that fire throughout his first year in power.

South of the border, who could have predicted the rise of Donald Trump? Across the Atlantic, who expected the Brits to vote to exit the European Union? At home, who foresaw Ontario Tory MP Kellie Leitch, in her long-shot bid to succeed Harper, proposing a values test for would-be immigrants, throwing into sharp relief—again—that telling contrast between some Conservatives’ identity anxieties and most Liberals’ diversity values.

And so, at the one-year mark, top Liberals are still thinking as much about diversity as they are about growth. Can they successfully marry the two themes? They’re trying. For instance, Liberal strategists say Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland’s recent bid to salvage the Canada-EU trade deal with a mission to Germany and Austria will succeed—if it succeeds—thanks to Trudeau’s popularity in Europe. And his admired image is founded on goodwill and great media images generated by Canada accepting about 30,000 Syrian refugees.

Canada's Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, Canada November 24, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on November 24, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Immigration Minister John McCallum, who spearheaded the refugees project, now talks of moving on to the task of attracting more highly skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants here faster. He says policy must rest on more than feel-good moments—a reality that extends beyond his portfolio to the entire government. “We are now coming into the phase where it’s not just selfies,” McCallum says. “It’s also real decision-making, where not everybody in the population will be happy with every decision.”

Conservatives will never be happy with Trudeau. But welding “diversity” and “growth” together as Liberal values in the popular imagination might solidify his standing among centre and centre-left voters long beyond a honeymoon period. For that to happen, though, growth will have to feel meaningful. Unfortunately, most economists view the slow economy of recent years, for which Liberals tried to pin the blame on Harper, as a deep-seated phenomenon. Craig Alexander, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, points to familiar culprits, including a shrinking, aging workforce and stubbornly low business investment in productivity-enhancing equipment. “Realistically, even with smart policy, you might move the rate of growth from 1.5 per cent [of gross domestic product a year] to, say, 1.8 per cent,” Alexander says. “You’re not going to create policies that will return us to growth rates of, say, the 1990s, which were close to three per cent.”

That doesn’t mean the Liberals won’t try. Watch for the fulfilling of key promises on stepped-up infrastructure spending and some sort of innovation policy—along with whatever Dominic Barton, the global business consultant Trudeau has named as his growth guru, recommends later this fall.

So the economy looms as the biggest challenge. But a raft of hugely ambitious promises—improving the lives of Indigenous people, changing how elections are held, stepping up support for UN peacekeeping abroad—also vie for attention. Can the government maintain momentum behind so many challenging files at once?

Much depends on the public appetite for the sort of change Trudeau promises. Some experts see the revived craving for more activist government as a powerful phenomenon. Pollster Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates, says strong polling numbers for the Liberals after a year in office reflect widely held, deeply rooted progressive views—not a transient response to Trudeau’s likeable persona. “This is not a blip, it’s a transformation,” he says.

If Graves is right, then Trudeau’s sustained popularity as he enters year two as PM represents a public willingness to give his government a chance to get a lot done. The policies we examine in this package of stories might be hard to crowd into a single frame, but they all belong to a singular moment in Canadian politics—a point when growth and diversity are the big ideas in the air, as Trudeau turns from creating a political image to, just maybe, building a policy legacy.

Maclean’s complete Trudeau Report Card:

OVERVIEW: A bumpy road ahead

ECONOMY: A sluggish start to delivering on promises

ELECTORAL REFORM: A long way from a breakthrough

CLIMATE CHANGE: After flexing muscle, year two will tell

SECURITY AND MILITARY: Lowering expectations

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE: A relationship sours

TOUGHEST TASKS: Immigration, marijuana, home care

LEADERS: The six change influencers to watch in year two