Canada

   
 

Key Challenges

Strong economy despite U.S. unpredictability
Canada’s macroeconomic situation remains strong, even if short-term trends remain tightly tied to the United States. As such, macro-trends are unlikely to have an overriding effect on the 2019 federal election or the political situation going forward. The country’s ability to absorb people from diverse cultures will continue to help mitigate the growing gap in the prime working-age population, although recent immigrants do not fare as well in Canada’s job market as Canadian-born workers. Dealing with an unpredictable U.S. administration will continue to be a challenge, but an equilibrium of a sort seems to have been achieved over a revised NAFTA.
Unfinished business from last campaign
Many items from the government’s election platform are still pending, some are poised to face serious obstacles and some have been abandoned altogether. One of the government’s signature projects, the Canada Infrastructure Bank is still in the early stages of operation. The Liberals’ proposed bill to revise the controversial security legislation passed by the previous government remains before the Senate without a clear political constituency. Like most political leaders, Prime Minister Trudeau pledged to lead a more open, transparent and accountable government. However, despite significant changes in the day-to-day transparency of the Prime Minister’s Office and departmental mandates, the issue remains fundamentally unresolved. The proposed reform bill on access to information has been heavily criticized and may undermine the government’s credibility. Similarly, the Liberals’ decision to abandon electoral reform has resulted in disillusionment with the government in some quarters.
Climate-change policy will be key focus
Implementing efforts to combat climate change will be a central challenge over the next year. The government has committed to imposing a carbon tax on provinces that do not implement a comparable program by January 2019. The provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick are all opposed to the plan, and are expected to be joined by Alberta after the upcoming provincial election. Since many policy areas are shared between provinces and the federal government, acrimony over this issue may prove dangerous to the federal government’s other priorities.
Relations with provinces will remain tense
Indeed, relations with the provinces are poised to become a more salient concern going forward. Health care in particular, which is a key area of shared responsibility, will likely be a contentious issue with looming disputes over necessary policy reform on the provincial side and funding levels on the federal side. Largely due to Canada’s aging population and the associated rising health care costs, the Parliamentary Budget Office considers current fiscal policies in the provinces and territories to be unsustainable, and projects substantial budget deficits.
Relations with First Nations must be improved
Improving relations with First Nations and other Indigenous groups in Canada remains a fundamental challenge for the government. The Liberals have reinstated previously frozen funding for First Nations, but it will be years before the effects of this are measurable. Many of the government’s other promises remain unfulfilled and relations have been soured by Indigenous opposition to major pipeline or energy projects, and by the widely perceived failings of the government’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Improving relations will require substantial restructuring of departmental mandates to ensure that policymaking respects indigenous rights.
Reforms should proceed despite coming elections
In summary, although the Liberals under Trudeau have moved forward in several areas of sustainable governance, significant gaps remain. Many overdue institutional reforms, which were once praised, have been inadequately pursued or abandoned. Success will depend on whether the government can revisit reforms to evaluate their effectiveness and continue with reforms in the face of institutional inertia. With the next election imminent and the economy humming along strongly, the Liberals should resist their natural instinct to make cosmetic changes and please incumbents. Rather, they should focus on making enduring reforms that will yield long-term political and economic benefits. Other actors should recognize this confluence of government capacity and political sustainability as an opportunity for civil society to guide and support fundamental reforms.
 

Party Polarization

System produces parliamentary majorities
Canada is a parliamentary democracy and its first-past-the-post electoral system generally produces absolute parliamentary majorities for the winning political party, which are further strengthened by strict party discipline. As a result, the Canadian government can implement its policies irrespective of how polarized or hostile opposition parties may be.
Large federal parties drawn to political center;
smaller parties becoming more ideological
Still, all large federal parties have historically pulled toward the center. This is especially true for the governing Liberal Party, which has always emphasized “big tent” politics, and garnered support in the last election by promoting middle-of-the-road policies and compromises. However, in past years, other political parties have been moving further toward their respective ends of the left-right political spectrum, with the left-leaning New Democratic Party taking a more socialist stance, and the recent schism in the right-leaning Conservative Party that led to the formation of the populist People’s Party of Canada. Overall, therefore, parties are arguably more likely to be defined by their ideological stance than previously. However, it is important to note that relatively speaking the main parties of government (i.e., the Liberal Party and Conservative Party) are close enough to find common ground on broad topics (e.g., free trade) regardless of recent shifts.
Party discipline hinders cross-party cooperation
At the same time, cross-party cooperation is hindered by what allegedly is the strictest form of party discipline in the world. Members of parliament rarely vote against party lines, and party leaderships maintain strict control over speech content and committee work. In a report by advocacy group Samara Canada, members of parliament stated that party lines were rigid and it was difficult to work as an individual. Multipartisan deals are largely only possible when the party leadership is negotiating – it is difficult to deal with members of parliament themselves. (Score: 9)
Citations:
Johnston, Richard (2015). “Canada is polarizing–and it’s because of the parties,” in Political Polarization in American Politics, eds. Daniel J. Hopkins and John Sides. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015, pp. 120-125.

Samara Canada (2017), “Flip the Script”, available at https://www.samaracanada.com/docs/default-source/reports/flip-the-script—by-the-samara-centre-for-democracy.pdf?sfvrsn=2d09002f_2
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