Michael Den Tandt: Liberals’ pragmatism makes opposition’s job tougher

The two main opposition parties are in a tricky spot — and not just because each faces a protracted leadership void. The Trudeau government appears to be finding its footing, much as ’s first government did a decade ago, by paying attention to sentiment beyond the Ottawa bubble.

It is a development the Conservatives in particular will rue, as they’d held out great hopes for a self-inflicted immolation on the scale of John Diefenbaker’s, following his historic crushing victory in 1958. Increasingly, that does not seem to be in the cards. Like Harper in his time, the Liberals are adjusting as they go.

The notion that Harper’s team ever paid attention to anyone but the man himself will strike some among his critics as risible. But in the minority years, 2006-2011, the Conservatives did just that, repeatedly.

There was the surprise overture to Quebec nationalists in late 2006, recognizing the Quebecois as a nation; there was the formal apology for Indian residential schools in 2008; there was, of course, Jim Flaherty’s $56-billion Keynesian deficit budget of 2009. There was the phased pullout from Afghanistan, announced ahead of the 2011 election. There was the dogged determination, throughout the Harper decade, to eschew even a whiff of social conservatism in official policy.

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Each of these moves was the result of consultations, which obviously included internal polling, but also less formal interactions that occur routinely between MPs and their staffs, constituents, professional bodies, agencies, business groups and non-governmental organizations. Harper could never have thrived as long as he did, without this system of listening posts. It began going awry in 2011, after he won his majority.

The emerging Liberal tweak is an apparently systematic effort to meet critics halfway on pivotal flash points, despite their big, 184-seat majority and an opposition in disarray. In the process, they are disarming the most ideologically strident of their critics, except perhaps in the phantasmagoric world of social media, where partisan harangues between a dwindling number of increasingly irrelevant trolls continue unabated, the political equivalent of an appendix.

Exhibit A would be the tone on pipelines and climate change, which has evolved rather quickly since last fall, in the aftermath of the Paris climate conference. Ringing declarations that “Canada is back,” have given way to a more nuanced and realistic discussion, significantly helped along by the leadership of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, of how this country can do its part to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, while furthering resource development and the well-paying jobs that go with it.

“We can’t have everyone in the oil sector losing jobs,” Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was quoted as saying, earlier this month. “You know what? I will become the environment minister that has no power. That is just the reality.”

We can’t have everyone in the oil sector losing jobs

Candid, that. And true. It will now be clear to fair-minded observers that Trudeau and his ministers are not anti-oil-patch zealots, but rather pragmatists trying to bring about pipeline construction, in an environmentally sustainable way, at a time when doing even this is fraught with political pitfalls. Had the Conservatives tried this route, might they still be in power?

Exhibit B is the $15-billion Saudi arms deal. Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion has been accused of botching his communications over this controversy, and such criticisms are fair. He should have slapped an “under review” tag on the deal three months ago, visibly made attempts to find another buyer, hauled Saudi diplomats on the carpet, then wearily allowed himself to be persuaded by grim economic reality and realpolitik to approve the export permits. Ultimately though, the equation was going to be the same: London, Ont., desperately needs the jobs.

In fighting for this deal, the Liberals have therefore won themselves thousands of quiet supporters in Southwestern Ontario. The more criticism they receive from journalists, academics and politicians up Ottawa way, the more that support will firm up.

Third and most recently there’s Bill C-14, legislation governing physician-assisted death, unveiled last week, as required by the Supreme Court of Canada ruling early last year. The reaction from adherents to the “slippery slope to a euthanasia free-for-all” school was muted; that’s because the legislation is considerably more restrictive than it was expected to be.

This may be why social conservatives and the most liberal right-to-die advocates are unhappy with it, while health professionals, led by the Canadian Medical Association, are supportive. Wait for the polls on this: Support from Main Street will be strong, even if there’s another lengthy court battle over the new law’s constitutionality. The Liberals will be deemed to have struck a difficult, compassionate balance in a situation in which pleasing everyone was impossible.

One makes a note, two a pattern, three a trend. Prime Minister and his team, even their diehard detractors must now quietly acknowledge, are learning from power, course-correcting as they go. For the Tories in particular, the uphill battle gets tougher yet.


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