October 11, 2017 1:37 pm
Updated: October 11, 2017 2:03 pm

COMMENTARY: The Liberals sure are suddenly screwing up a lot of things lately

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday Sept. 19, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
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It takes a lot for a Canadian government to leave me officially unimpressed. I have a pretty low bar for our politics. This week’s performance for the Justin Trudeau government, though, was still notable for its unimpressiveness.

It all started with a weird report about proposed tax changes — no, not the ones we’ve already heard so much about. What in God’s name, I wondered when I read the news, were the federal Liberals doing going after employee discounts as a taxable benefit?

WATCH: An employee perk could soon have a hidden cost


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I didn’t agree with all of the proposals the Liberals had recently been touting regarding Canadians doing businesses through personal corporations, and I certainly felt the roll-out of the plan was botched. The Liberals seemed caught flatfooted by the backlash and never really recovered. But at least I could set aside my own biases (disclosure: I run freelance income through a corporation) and understand what the Liberals were doing from their own perspective.

READ MORE: Do Trudeau’s tax changes really only hit the rich?

Did I like the plan? No. Did I think it was worth the effort? No. But did it make sense to me that the Liberals would see political advantage in picking a fight with relatively well-off Canadians? Absolutely. I found it cynical and contemptible, but I got it. Indeed, until recent days, when they announced they would rethink (translation: water down) their proposal, it seemed a winnable fight for them. In the final analysis, after all, there aren’t that many Canadians who’d be directly impacted, and many of them probably don’t vote Liberal, anyway.

So picking a fight with business owners and doctors, while odious, still could be seen as a smart tactical move. Going after retail employees for discounts they get on store merchandise? Taxing discounted fast food gobbled up by the fry cook on his break? Trying to figure out a way to tax the landscaping crew at a golf course for the holes they’d hit at the end of the day? It was madness, top to bottom: stupid, toxic, miserly, and utterly unenforceable.

COMMENTARY: When ‘taxes’ ceased to be a dirty word in politics

Again, I thought: what the hell were they thinking?

They weren’t, apparently — that is to say, someone else was doing the thinking. After first seeming to confirm on Wednesday that the government was all-aboard with treating employee discounts as a taxable benefit, the Liberals slammed on the brakes and (if you’ll pardon a mixed metaphor) hurled bureaucrats at the Canada Revenue Agency under the nearest bus.

“This was a decision taken by the Agency without the Minister’s approval,” a staffer for Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier told The Globe and Mail in a statement. “There has been no change to the tax policy and our government is not going after Canadians who work in the retail sector.” The statement added that the government was “deeply disappointed” by the CRA’s posting of new rules, which led to the uproar.

Of course, who knows if that’s true. Maybe it was indeed the CRA acting under its own (broad) discretionary powers, catching an unsuspecting government unawares and giving it a hell of a headache. Maybe this was a dumb government policy that got yanked in the face of immediate backlash. I find the former more likely, but couldn’t honestly say one way or the other.

The specific point at hand is this: the notion seems dead.

READ MORE: Trudeau: ‘Let me be blunt. We are not going to tax anyone’s employee discounts’

But there’s a broader point: this is a government that seems prematurely aged. As shocked as I was at the notion of a Canadian government taxing employee discounts, I realized only today that on another level, I wasn’t shocked at all. The Liberals are accumulating dumb policy moves and communication flops at a rate beyond what I expected. This boneheaded move would have weirdly fit right in.

WATCH: Trudeau hopeful Netflix deal leads to Canadian stories told globally

I’m not a Liberal voter, it’s true, but I have a lot of respect and admiration (even affection, in a few cases) to many in that government. They ran a good campaign in 2015, and have smart people in key jobs. Whatever my own political views (they lean rather more to the right than Trudeau’s), as a Canadian, I always wish our federal governments well. Their success is eventually my family’s, too.

Still, consider just the last few weeks. The Liberals are hellbent on screwing up the replacement of our CF-18 fighters; even by the abysmally low standard of Canadian military procurement, their interim fighter purchase plan stinks. It has been so badly handled, in fact, that the government found itself cancelling its own dumb idea so they could pursue the equally dumb idea of maintaining the constant pandering to Bombardier no Canadian government seems able to avoid.

They somehow found a way to botch the rollout of Netflix‘s $500 million investment in Canadian culture by angering Quebec, which wasn’t promised a specific piece of the pie. (Netflix, for its part, immediately raised their subscription fees in Canada — so we’re paying a kind of Netflix tax after all.)

WATCH: Trudeau hopeful Netflix deal leads to Canadian stories told globally


Their proposed transparency initiatives are being widely panned by the government’s own transparency officials, the budget is drowning in red ink and the prime minister’s vacation of almost a year ago remains under an ethics investigation.

The Indigenous affairs file is a constant source of dysfunction — the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry lost more personnel to resignations just days ago. As mentioned above, they’re already in retreat on their proposed corporate tax changes.

They even found a way to blow dedicating a new Holocaust memorial in Ottawa — it turns out they forgot to mention the Jews. On a plaque about the Holocaust.

This is a pretty grim tally for a government that is, after all, still relatively young. And it’s all pretty recent. The timing is awful, too — both the Conservatives and NDP have full-time leaders now. It only gets harder for the government from here.

They still have Justin Trudeau, of course, who remains popular with Canadians. We’ll see if the NDP’s new leader, Jagmeet Singh, who has many of the same surface advantages of the prime minister — good looks, youth, charisma — eats into that advantage any. If I were the Liberals, I’d be worried about that.

But not as worried as I’d be that a government, that came to power with so much support and enthusiasm less than two years ago, already seems to be running out of steam across so many fronts all at once. It’s not panic time yet, they’ve still got two years to get their act together. But at the rate they’re screwing things up, they might need every minute of that time to regroup ahead of the next election.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.

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