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COMMENTARY: A disastrous week for the Liberals, and the impacts will be far-reaching

The Liberals’ political fortunes are in doubt as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government faced several tough blows this past week, Rob Breakenridge says.
The Liberals’ political fortunes are in doubt as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government faced several tough blows this past week, Rob Breakenridge says. Chris Young/CP File

What a difference a week makes.

Two Thursdays ago, the remarkable political defection of conservative gadfly Maxime Bernier was seen as a tremendous boost to Liberal fortunes, the beginning of a fracture on the political right that would all but guarantee another Liberal majority next fall.

Fast forward to this past Thursday, however, and the prime minister was reeling from the remarkable political repudiation by erstwhile ally Rachel Notley. The Alberta premier’s angry abandonment of the federal climate plan capped off a catastrophic day for the Liberals, which more than compounded the woes of an already forgettable week as problems mount on the NAFTA and irregular/illegal border-crossers files.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau determined to build Trans Mountain pipeline and tackle climate change, despite court ruling

Suddenly, the Liberals’ political fortunes are in doubt once again.

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Unfortunately for Trudeau and company, things aren’t likely to get better any time soon. Much hinges on NAFTA, and as of this writing the prospects for a NAFTA deal still seem somewhat favourable. The U.S. and Canada missed Friday’s deadline, but the Trump administration sent a letter to Congress indicating the U.S. would still like to sign a deal with Canada — “if it is willing.” Talks between Canada and the U.S. will continue after Labour Day. However, we’re now to the point where the closest thing to a political win for the Liberals is being able to say they didn’t botch the deal.

Based on what the U.S. and Mexico have tentatively agreed to, a revised NAFTA is almost certainly going to be an inferior version of the current deal. Any possibility that might have once existed of snagging a major concession and crafting this as a “progressive” deal that only a Liberal government could have negotiated has long since evaporated.

Anything short of securing a NAFTA deal would only add to the perception that the Liberals are bungling every major responsibility they’ve been tasked with overseeing. Certainly, that’s now the perception on the pipeline file, as the Federal Court of Appeal has taken the government to task and quashed the approval of that very expensive project that Canadian taxpayers now own.

READ MORE: Trump says Canada-NAFTA negotiations ‘totally on our terms,’ newspaper says

The Liberals have long argued that the previous government had merely paid lip service to the environment, Indigenous rights, and the importance of meaningful consultation with First Nations. Under the Trudeau government, these important matters would be properly addressed, meaning Liberals would achieve the sort of pipeline progress that the Conservatives could not. This past week, that narrative imploded in dramatic fashion.

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The Trans Mountain pipeline project is now clinging to life, specifically because the Liberals failed to deliver on these very aspects on which they had so loudly touted their bona fides. Conservative critiques may be somewhat undermined by their own similar failure on the Northern Gateway pipeline, but the Liberals had specifically promised that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated.

Trudeau comments on Alberta pulling out of climate plan, says will still pursue Trans Mountain pipeline
Trudeau comments on Alberta pulling out of climate plan, says will still pursue Trans Mountain pipeline

WATCH ABOVE: Trudeau comments on Alberta pulling out of climate plan, says will still pursue Trans Mountain pipeline

Moreover, the Liberals have now backed themselves into an awkward corner where they have been forced to purchase a project that may never get built. On top of that, their much-hyped national climate plan is in tatters with Alberta refusing to play ball. As Notley correctly noted Thursday, “Without Alberta, that plan isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

What should worry the Liberals is that it’s extremely unlikely that any of this will have changed for the better by this time next year. The pipeline will still be in limbo, the Liberals’ purchase of it will still stand, and their centrepiece climate change plan will still be decimated.

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The headache of the irregular/illegal border-crossers isn’t going away, either. Like NAFTA, this political predicament is partly a by-product of the whims of an erratic U.S. president, but like all of these other issues, the public is losing faith in the government’s ability to manage it.

READ MORE: Handgun bans, safe third country agreement assigned to Bill Blair in new mandate letter

A poll released last month shows that two-thirds of Canadians feel as though this problem is reaching “crisis” levels. Despite public assurances from the government that all is well, a leaked letter that emerged earlier this week shows that privately, the government is acknowledging that the “situation is not sustainable” and that it’s now “far beyond” what the system can deal with.

The new mandate letter issued this week to Bill Blair, the minister responsible for border security, puts more pressure on the minister to get results on this file, but there’s no quick fix in sight.

Pipelines, NAFTA, and the border-crossing situation represent probably the three biggest issues in Canada at the moment. And on all three, to varying degrees, basic Liberal competence has been called into question. This bad week may be over, but these problems are most certainly not.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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