Ambitious policy agenda in full swing
Canada has been performing well economically, unemployment rates are at their lowest since 2008 and the government’s fiscal situation is strengthening. Two years into their mandate, the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continue to implement an ambitious policy agenda involving additional tax dollars for innovation and infrastructure, pension reform and tax reductions for the middle classes, and support for oil projects balanced against action on climate change. With respect to SGI criteria, Canada continues to receive high scores on economy, taxes and budgets. The government continued to focus on fiscal stimulus, which seems to be having the desired effect. Stephen Poloz, governor of the Bank of Canada, recently credited the newly introduced Canada Child Benefit program with the country’s strong economic performance, which in turn has helped to keep budget deficits below projected levels.
Trade, security, environment policies
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the European Union and Canada came into effect in 2017, and Canada has been renegotiating the terms of NAFTA since August 2017. The government has also revised national security laws to reign in the powers of security agencies and create an oversight committee to improve accountability. Balancing the needs of the country’s oil and gas sector against concerns for the environment, Prime Minister Trudeau worked with the provinces to establish a pan-Canadian framework for carbon pricing, energy efficiency and renewable energy strategies, while at the same time approving two highly contentious crude oil pipelines and expressing support for Keystone XL. The Liberals have also delivered on their promise to strengthen evidence-based policymaking. The government has consulted with experts, making ample use of advisory boards for policymaking, and created new departmental positions designed to incorporate evidence into the policymaking process.
Key election promises abandoned
Some glaring gaps between what the Liberals pledged and what they have accomplished since taking power in 2015 remain, however. The largely rookie government started out with a host of new initiatives and bold reforms, but quickly learned that structural reforms often run into organizational and administrative obstacles, do not happen overnight, and in any event tend to develop a life of their own. In early 2017, after months of public consultations, the Liberals abandoned one of their central election promises, namely changing the first-past-the-post electoral system. Shortly after, they had to back down on parliamentary reform. Most recently, their planned overhaul of corporate taxation has encountered fierce opposition from small businesses and professionals, and may yet be abandoned.
Slow progress on transparency in government
Although the Trudeau government tried to distance itself from the previous Conservative government in terms of transparency and accountability, little headway has been made. Access to information requests have piled up and processing continues to be slow. A first attempt at revamping access to information laws met with harsh criticism. Although the legislation would give the information commissioner the power to order the release of records, the reforms do not apply to the Prime Minister’s Office or other ministerial offices. The government also limited the powers of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to preform audits requested by members of parliament, a mechanism frequently used by opposition members of parliament to hold the government to account on policy decisions. This restriction has put the public’s ability to properly scrutinize policy proposals in jeopardy. The SGI indicators on accountability reflect this and will further decline in years to come if the Liberals remain on this path.
More needed for First Nations groups
On the positive side, since its election, the government has renewed efforts to mend relationships between First Nations and indigenous groups. Canada finally adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Following a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report (1996), the ministry responsible for indigenous affairs was split into one department focused on facilitating a nation-to-nation relationship, and a second dedicated to providing quality public services to indigenous people across the country. These changes have been widely praised, but in view of the continued challenges experienced by Canada’s indigenous groups, indigenous leaders and scholars have called for more meaningful change rather than symbolic gestures.
Sustainability gains slowing
Halfway through their term, there is no doubt that the Liberals have made progress in several critical areas of sustainable governance. The vast majority of this progress came during 2016, their first year in office, when there were notable gains in policy performance and executive capacity. Meanwhile, 2017 saw very little movement in the SGI indicators, as many of the Liberals’ planned structural reforms have stalled or been abandoned. Instead, the government seems to be shifting gear toward policies that deliver more immediate results.