OTTAWA – Another year, another crisis.
For Justin Trudeau, it’s become something of a routine.
Of his six years as prime minister, only one – his first – has been what might be considered a normal year of governing, with the usual ups and downs.
His first mandate was upended in the second year by the potentially calamitous election of Donald Trump south of the border.
His second had barely begun when COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the planet.
And now he’s heading into the first full year of his third mandate faced with what public health experts fear will be the worst wave yet of the pandemic, fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
And that’s not the only crisis his minority Liberal government is facing. There’s the climate crisis, the inflation crisis, the affordable housing crisis, the labour shortage crisis, the debt crisis – even a national unity crisis, according to the Conservatives.
With Trudeau about to turn 50 on Christmas Day – or about to mark “the twentieth anniversary of turning 30,” as he likes to think of it – some Liberals privately predict the coming year will be the one in which he decides he’s had enough, that it’s time to let someone else wrestle with the unrelenting upheavals.
Trudeau himself insists he intends to lead the Liberals into the next election, whenever it comes. But it begs the question, given the unprecedented challenges behind and ahead of him: why would he want to?
In a year-end interview with the Ottawa bureau of The Canadian Press, Trudeau acknowledged his tenure so far has been a relentless series of crises.
But it has also been “an extraordinary privilege to be able to serve Canadians who are so focused on being able to do the right things and get through these crises.”
What motivates him now, he said, is imagining what can be accomplished if the tools developed to get through the last few difficult years are applied to things like climate change, housing, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and generally “building a better future for Canadians.”
“What we’ve been able to develop as tools to be there for Canadians through unbelievably difficult times will allow us to do more and faster and better by Canadians into the coming years once we are through these (current crises),” Trudeau said.
“That’s something that really excites me and I’m looking forward to the challenges the next number of years will bring.”
Trudeau appears to have adopted a sense of urgency for his second, consecutive minority government, determined to get things done in short order. He shrugged off suggestions that he’s focused on legacy building or trying to make up for lost time.
Rather, he said the onset of the pandemic proved government can move at lightning speed in a crisis to deliver programs that make a tangible difference to Canadians’ lives. The challenge now is to apply that same “habit of mind” to other priorities.
During the brief four weeks of the new parliamentary session before the Christmas break, his government managed to deliver on its four immediate legislative priorities. With the co-operation of opposition parties, it was able to pass bills banning conversion therapy for LGBTQ Canadians, implementing new, more targeted pandemic aid programs, cracking down on harassment and intimidation of health-care workers and creating 10 days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers.
The willingness of opposition parties to collaborate suggests Trudeau may be able to keep his foot on the gas, at least in the short term.
At the very least, his minority government seems relatively stable and shouldn’t have to worry about being defeated in a confidence vote any time soon. Having campaigned bitterly against Trudeau’s decision to call an election last summer in the midst of the fourth wave of COVID-19, it would seem folly for any opposition party to bring down the government amid an even more rampant fifth wave.
But the emergence of Omicron may yet turn the new year – and Trudeau’s agenda – upside down again.
He boasts that Canada’s economy has bounced back further and faster than most of its peer countries because of the hundreds of billions his government poured into pandemic aid programs to keep Canadians and businesses afloat.
But that recovery is fragile and could easily be undone, says economist Armine Yalnizyan. While Canada has regained all the jobs lost during the first wave of the pandemic, there’s been a decline in the quality of jobs and an unexplained loss of women aged 55-64 from the workforce. And there are a lot of “zombie businesses” that have essentially been kept on life support by government aid programs.
Should Omicron lead to another round of lockdowns and trigger another recession, she says, “We’re starting from worse than where we were before.”
Omicron threatens to intensify choked supply chains, labour shortages and deficits, not to mention the strain on an already burnt-out health system. None of it, Yalnizyan says, is in the federal government’s control but it will have to “offset the impact of those things.”
As she sees the big picture, Trudeau’s government “is heading into 2022 with a debate about what is the role of government on its hands, how big a presence should it have.”
For the last 40 years, Yalnizyan says, the federal government has offloaded responsibility on the provinces and relied on a nostrum of “more markets, less government.”
Now, “all of the provinces are cash-strapped, all of the electorates in all of these provinces need more from their governments, markets can’t fix what’s ailing us right now (because) markets are the ones that are hurting.”
Consequently, she says: “We’re looking at an inversion of the overarching narratives of our day and how these guys handle it is up for grabs. I don’t know how they’re going to handle it.”