Building Back Better: Is Justin Trudeau a (Big) Risktaker?

Next month's Speech from the Throne will outline the Liberals' Recovery Plan and expectations are rising. Life, it is said, comes down to a few choices. For Justin Trudeau, this is one of them.Circumstances sometimes magnify the power of elected office – perhaps far beyond what anyone thought possible. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal redefined America. Winston Churchill's famous “We will fight them on the shores” speech arguably halted Hitler's advance.Leadership moments like these are, of course, the exception. Making history is not only hard, it is risky. Even when the circumstances seem right, lots can go wrong.Take Brian Mulroney. He promised to bring Quebec into the Constitution “with honour and enthusiasm.” In fact, his initiative split the country and tore the old Progressive Conservative Party apart, resulting in the rise of the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party. Aspiring leaders should take note, which brings us to the present.The pandemic may feel like a medieval scourge but, politically speaking, there is an upside. It has revived options that only six months ago were unthinkable. Progressives around the world are urging governments not only to reset their agendas, but to plan for major social change.The Trudeau Liberals say they are on board, but how far will they go? Much depends on Trudeau's personal views. For all the talk of “evidence-based decision-making,” the most difficult decisions ahead don't turn on evidence, nor do they have precedents. They involve trade-offs – between risks, values, and goals, some of which are dear to the Liberal Party.Below are three basic questions (challenges? choices?) that we think go to the heart of any acceptable Recovery Plan. For reasons that should be clear, the answers can only come from the leader. Our comments aim at shedding some light on the risks and trade-offs that he will face.Deficit and Debt: How willing are Canadians to “invest” in their future?The pandemic has exposed gaping holes in the social safety net, from long-term care to employment insurance. As Canada moves into the recovery phase, progressives are calling for tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild the economy and fix the safety net.Interest rates, they say, are at an historic low, so borrowing has never been cheaper. Moreover, over the last two decades, the stock arguments against deficit spending have been found wanting. If there was ever a consensus among economists, it is gone, and lots of highly respectable ones think that big spending is now in order – if it goes to the right things.Still, in his quieter moments, the prime minister must wonder how deeply Canadians' tolerance for deficit spending runs. And what consequences it will bring. Publicly, he may declare that “investing” in Canadians will create millions of new, high-paying jobs. But he surely knows that this doesn't make it true – any more than Donald Trump's assurances that COVID will magically disappear. So, how much debt is the Liberal government willing to take on?The Green Shift: Will it unite the country or divide it?Progressives not only want their government to rebuild the economy, they want it to invest in a rapid transition to a sustainable economy. But for Trudeau, this is a two-edged sword. How will an ambitious green plan affect the oil and gas industry in western Canada – or Newfoundland?If the plan seriously competes with hydrocarbons (as it likely will), Alberta and Saskatchewan could see it as a plot by Central Canada to undermine their industry and their prosperity – and using their own tax dollars to do it.Alternatively, Trudeau could look for ways to bring these provinces onside by bringing the industry onside. But that won't be easy. It means finding a green plan that is acceptable to the oil and gas industry and environmentalists.It is hard not to think here of Pierre Trudeau's oil wars with Alberta in the '70s and '80s. They shut Liberals out of western Canada for a generation. Justin Trudeau came to office with a promise to balance climate and economy. Now he must decide whether this is even possible. Is he ready quietly to decide that, politically, he, like his father, must write these provinces off?Activist Government: Can Liberals bring Canadians along with them?The pandemic has highlighted the important role that governments play in ensuring Canadians' well-being. Progressives think this has rekindled interest in activist government. Perhaps. Or will public enthusiasm for an ambitious green plan (and huge deficits) quickly fade?No one knows for sure, but one thing seems clear. The days are gone when governments could ask for an electoral mandate, then push ahead with a controversial agenda till the next election.Today, an ambitious economic and/or social plan requires ongoing public involvement. Canadians must feel they have some real ownership of the plan and some control over the agenda. Without this they may quickly turn on the government. Is Trudeau ready, willing, and able to bring Canadians along on this journey, step by step?


Whether they are on the left or the right, we think opposition parties should welcome the Liberals' plan. For those on the left, it commits the government to initiatives they support. For those on the right, it provides new fuel for their role in opposition and a golden opportunity to debate the principles and policies that will best serve Canadians.As for us, we think national politics just got a lot more interesting.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.