What to expect from Canada’s new Liberal majority government

Tonight’s election rings down the curtain on 10 years of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, and the advent of a Liberal majority government under Justin Trudeau.

The Liberals’ two challenges

To govern successfully, Trudeau and his team will face two defining challenges: scope and pace.

First, the scale. Harper’s government has fundamentally re-wired federal public policy in almost every arena. Fiscal policy, economic strategy, labour market development, foreign affairs, defence, energy, natural resources, justice and immigration have all been conducted under the Conservatives along lines that have diverged significantly from previous long-term courses. Other areas, such as urban affairs, environment/climate, and health care, have enjoyed little prominence in Ottawa ‎for a decade. Still others fields, notably cyber-security and contemporary biotechnology, are driven by accelerating technological change, and were barely on the policy radar when the Liberals last governed. (Hint: four-character passwords were big in 2005.)

Much more than just a stroke of the prime ministerial pen will be required to change, restore, or invent the new courses that Trudeau’s campaign has promised. The operating system of official Ottawa will be in for an overhaul, and in many cases, the institutional structures of decision-making will also require restructuring for the Real Change mandate to take ultimate effect.

So for the incoming Trudeau government, the critical challenge will be pacing.‎ Managing the public policy overhaul described above cannot be achieved in a do-everything-at-once scramble. (Indeed that approach was undertaken in 1968 by the Prime Minister-designate’s father, and resulted in four years of policy incoherence and a political near-defeat four years later.)

Start by changing the tone

Early public signals from Trudeau indicate that the strategy will be, therefore, to move quickly to establish an altered tone of governing from Harper’s, and identify and execute on a core suite of strategic priorities for delivery before the next election.

Finding this balance will not be an easy challenge for the incoming government. Simply getting a firm grip on the federal levers of power is a large task. Moreover, demands for immediate relief will be intense from interests (including some sizeable provinces, for example) who believe that the needs they represent have been neglected in Harper’s Ottawa. These arguments are frequently ones with which many Liberals will be broadly sympathetic. Maintaining agenda discipline, and ensuring trust and patience on the part of immediate change-seekers in non-core areas will thus test the political skills of the new Prime Minister and his team.

Don’t over-interpret the mandate

Managing these dynamics of scope and pace will also require some acute judgment about the electorate and its wishes. The Liberal mandate could easily be misunderstood as a consolidation of Canada’s urban left under Trudeau’s banner. This shorthand notion of a progressive roll-up doesn’t capture how small the parties’ ideologically-motivated voter bases have actually become, nor how much of the vote Trudeau attracted through the campaign was motivated by a desire to change the Harper governing style after 10 years.

A leftwards over-reach past the actual electoral mandate could put the Trudeau government offside the highly fluid voting population that has brought it to power.

For an overview of the Liberal platform, download our quick reference guide.

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