Grading the government

The Liberal government led by Right Honourable Justin Trudeau was elected on October 19 and sworn in on November 4, last year. So, how is the current administration doing?

The grading of a new government needs to start by setting out the context for assessment. However, setting the bar by the previous government is too low—a string of F’s is not a valuable tool. Canada is in new territory now and we need new tools.

Let’s measure the Trudeau administration’s performance against the Liberal platform promises and against the Speech from the Throne. The overriding priority of climate change is one that touches many portfolios, so it is a good criterion, too. As Bill McKibben has explained: ‘This is literally a math test, and it’s not being graded on a curve. It only has one correct answer. And if we don’t get it right, then all of us—along with our 10,000-year-old experiment in human civilization—will fail.’

So let’s do this for 13 key areas: democracy, climate action, environmental law, finance, immigration, health, foreign policy, trade, indigenous issues, justice, fisheries, agriculture and transportation.

Democracy: Incomplete

The major promise for electoral reform remains on the agenda, with the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform due to table its report on December 1, 2016. The hearings held by the ERRE across Canada attracted thousands of people as did the online submissions, primarily calling for proportional representation.

We have also seen appointments of Independent senators representing a high calibre of Canadians with strong backgrounds in public service. Impressive strides have been made in reducing the power of the PMO. Unprecedented transparency in letters of mandate also brings up this grade.

Climate: C

Full marks for leadership in Paris at COP21 and for prompt ratification of the Paris Agreement. The commitment to carbon pricing, despite some provincial resistance, brings up this mark. But the decision to maintain the same weak climate target brought in by the former Conservative government is very distressing. The Harper target (30% below 2005 levels by 2030) is incompatible with the Paris agreement’s goal of holding global average temperature to no more than 1.5ºC. The Liberal platform promised to end subsidies for fossil fuels, but budget 2015 has left them in place. As well, approving projects that will drive up greenhouse gas emissions, such as Petronas Pacific Northwest LNG, violates the first rule of holes: if you are in one, stop digging.

Environmental law: D

Removing the gutting of environmental law as forced through in the 2012 omnibus budget bills, C-38 and C-45, should have been accomplished as quickly as possible. But the post C-38 and C-45 versions of the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act are still the law of the land. The longer they remain in place, the graver the risk that they will remain in place.

In other areas, such as labour law and immigration, regressive changes by the previous government have been reversed. Rather than fix the omnibus budget bill’s damage three different ministers are approaching changes in different manners—and none of it urgently. (Caveat: it is true that the environmental community is split on how to proceed. Many are content with a long consultation process, despite the obvious risks).

Finance: C

The 2016 federal budget was a mixed bag. Commitments to indigenous peoples, housing, public transit, water works and waste water funding, relief on student debts and funds for marine protected areas partially met many Liberal promises. The budget fell far short on climate action. As noted by the PBO it did not deliver financial transparency. Unless corrected in the 2017 budget, the commitment to on-going LNG subsidies until end of 2024 is a campaign promise broken. The good news from the fall update is that budget 2017 will have substantially enhanced investments in GHG-cutting infrastructure. The commitments to legislate independence for the Parliamentary Budget Officer, open the Board of Internal Economy to daylight, and greater independence for the Chief Statistician of Canada are very welcome.

Immigration: B

Minister McCallum has moved to repair damage done to legislation, as well as to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. It has been remarkable to watch as thousands of Canadians opened their hearts (and their wallets) to help, but many more refugees await help. While much more needs to be done to repair the damage of the last 10 years to our immigration and refugee law, the changes to C24—ensuring one class of citizenship—deserves strong support.

Health: B

Minister Philpott has had a series of very tough files. Given that the Green Party could not support C-14 as it did not meet the tests of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Carter case, the mark is lowered. The May 2016 national conference on Lyme disease, mandated by my private members bill, was a high water mark in public health attention to the issue, but the national strategy is still incomplete. The mandate letter calls for bulk buying of pharmaceutical drugs, to bring down the price. Tough issues remain: the renegotiation of the health accord and legalization of marijuana.

Foreign Policy: C

A surprisingly weak start for the new Liberal government was the approval of the sale of armoured jeeps to a repressive regime of Saudi Arabia. Global Affairs minister Stephane Dion made a welcome announcement in June that Canada would become state party to the UN Arms Control Treaty, but rejected calls to tighten our export screen to reject arms sales to countries with dismal human rights records. Saudi Arabia, China and Algeria are among the top ten customers for Canadian arms sales. In a pattern of two steps forward and one step back, Minister Dion improved the record in committing that Canada sign on to the Optional Protocol against Torture, but disappointed the nuclear disarmament community in voting with the nuclear weapons states in the UN against a special round of negotiations in 2017 to ban nuclear weapons.

Trade: C

The triumphalism in signing the CETA is deeply disturbing. Canadians have never been granted a full debate about any of the deals that enhance corporate power at the expense of domestic environmental and health regulations. All the investor-state agreements need to be reviewed and assessed before entering new ones. Chapter 11 of NAFTA has cost us millions and reduced environmental protections. As it is secret, we have no idea how much the Canada-China FIPA may have already impacted our laws. CETA and TPP increase the number of countries from which foreign corporations will have a right to bring monetary claims in arbitrations–with varying degrees of transparency.

All deals increasing regimes for corporate rule and the reduction of national sovereignty should be opposed. Credit to the new minister for pursuing Canada’s appeal against the anti-democratic NAFTA Chapter 11 arbitration decision, in support of Bilcon, a US corporation.

Justice for Indigenous Peoples – First Nations, Metis and Inuit: F

$8.4 billion in spending commitments met with approval by AFN Chief Perry Belgarde, but much more needs to be done. As the vote in the house on the NDP motion to meet the needs of First Nations children demonstrated, there has been inadequate attention to funding for children’s services and not enough for suicide prevention.

But more significant than money is the commitment to truth, justice and reconciliation based on a nation-to-nation relationship. The approval of permits by this government for Site C violates fundamental treaty rights. It is a betrayal of Liberal campaign promises.

Justice: C

Welcomed decisions to drop appeals launched by previous governments, but more need to be dropped. The failure of the government to assess treaty rights impacted by granting permits for Site C dams is very worrying. The commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is welcome, but the growing inconsistency between government actions–such as on Site C and Pacific Northwest LNG—and that commitment is worrying.

Fisheries: D

The Fisheries Act remains broken without restoration of the provisions to protect fish habitat. The promise to implement the Cohen Commission recommendations for controls on aquaculture remains unfulfilled. The approval of the Petronas LNG project on Lelu Island off Prince Rupert threatens the survival of BC’s second largest salmon run, the Skeena salmon.

Agriculture: C

There is virtually nothing in the platform or the SFT on agriculture. Here’s hoping the Trudeau administration decides to take up the issue of helping family farmers, local agriculture and food security.

Transportation: D

We urgently need proper regulation and setbacks for LNG tankers and proposed transit routes before projects are approved. The LNG projects in Squamish, BC, and on Lelu Island, BC, should never be approved without a clear regulatory framework for set-back zones for LNG tankers. We need enhanced rail safety regulations and restoration of the Navigable Waters Protection Act. We need to support cross-country VIA Rail passenger service.