Despite lacklustre record, Trudeau Liberals enjoy smooth anniversary waltz

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Trudeau Liberals in power. Already, the national media have weighed in with their assessments of the government’s accomplishments, challenges and broken promises.

Accomplishments would include the vaunted middle class tax cut, establishment of the inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, declaration of a carbon price and a big bucks infrastructure program. Challenges would include getting the provinces to co-operate on carbon pricing, striking a deal on health funding, getting the economy rolling and improving the lot of first nations communities. The broken promises tend to be in the eye of the beholder. However, backing off some commitments to First Nations, and hedging on electoral reform, the F-35 fighter jets and fixing the Conservatives’ notorious Bill C-51 would top many lists.

As for the Atlantic provinces, there is not much to report in terms of accomplishments, challenges or broken promises. With regard to the latter, it has recently become commonplace to suggest that the Liberals are guilty of taking us for granted down here. The awkward handling of the replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Cromwell started the ball rolling. Lately, the fact that the Minister responsible for the ACOA hails from Toronto has some people riled up.

But if the Liberals are taking the support of Atlantic Canadians for granted, it started long before the 32-member sweep of last October. With polls showing Liberal support in the 50% range once Trudeau took over as leader in 2013, the 200-promise Liberal platform of 2015 contained nothing specific for voters in Atlantic Canada. But we voted overwhelmingly Liberal anyway.

EI Oh!

One of the few campaign policy statements made in this region was a pledge to reverse the Harper government’s edict requiring EI recipients to take lower paying work away from their home communities. It was never clear how many individuals were actually affected by that crackdown, but its repeal has had little impact on the number of Maritimers receiving EI. In August the number of Maritimers receiving regular EI benefits was 2.4% higher than In August 2015, compared with a national increase of 4.4% over the same period.

The high national numbers reflect the fact that the Maritimes were left out of the Liberals’ most significant change to EI – longer benefit periods in 15 “commodity-based” regions that have experienced the sharpest increases in unemployment. Four of those regions are in Alberta, three in Saskatchewan, two each in Ontario and British Columbia and one each in Manitoba, Nunavut and Yukon. Newfoundland, hit by the drop in oil prices, also qualified for extended benefits, but the Maritimes didn’t. Our unemployment rate is relatively stable because our job losses – we’re down more than 10,000 in September compared with a year earlier – have been matched by a labour force that’s shrunk by 6,000 over the same period. Presto. Unemployment problem solved.

The way EI changes have rolled out is typical – the Liberals promised us little during the campaign and have delivered even less once in power. The middle class tax cut is another case in point. As we reported last December (Middle Class Tax cut not exactly as advertised), because the reduction only kicks in for people making $45,000 or more, over 70% of Nova Scotia taxpayers receive no direct benefit.

Per capita,sometimes

And then there are the health transfers. Despite the tendency of some to see a broken promise here, the Liberals were very cagey on this issue on the campaign trail. They never said they would reverse the Harper government’s plan to hold transfer increases to 3% starting next year. They talked about mental health and pharmacare, but the only commitment with a dollar figure attached was for home care – $3 billion over four years. During the election campaign Liberal provincial governments in the Atlantic provinces held out the prospect that provinces with older populations might get a bigger chunk of the new home care funding – thus offsetting the negative impact of the Harper government’s move to per capita health transfers. The likelihood of that happening appears slim at this point, although something could emerge from the first ministers’ meeting next month.

The celebrated infrastructure program has also delivered less than advertised. If the employment numbers are anything to go by, the program has clearly not stimulated the economy in this region. And the formula used to dole out the $3.4 billion in public transit infrastructure was an eye-opener. The Liberals abandoned the long established per-capita approach to infrastructure spending in favour of a formula based on ridership per province. Because public transit remains under-developed in this less urbanized region, the Atlantic provinces, with over 5% of the population, received only 1.4% of the transit money. Most of that went to Halifax.

Aa good as it gets?

With no opposition members from this region in Parliament and a generally toothless media watchdog, none of this stuff is having any impact yet on Liberal popularity in Atlantic Canada. According to Eric Grenier’s threehundredeight.com, the aggregate of four national polls conducted in September showed the Liberals at a Putin-like 63.8% down here, almost matching the 68% support for them in the post-election honeymoon month last November. The polling also showed a correlation between Liberal support and perhaps the only government measure that provided a direct benefit to many Atlantic Canadians – the increased payouts through the Canada Child Benefit that arrived in families’ bank accounts in July. There’s no firm evidence that the two are connected, but support for the Liberals in Atlantic Canada went up, along with the richer benefits, from a post-election low of 54.5% in June to 64.5% in July.

It is quite possible that Liberal support has nowhere to go but down. Trudeau’s threat to impose a carbon price and the negative reaction from Liberal governments in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland may cost support, especially in rural areas. If the Liberals fail to deliver something more on health transfers for the next fiscal year provincial Liberal governments in the region may finally be forced to take a strong stand. And if the economy continues in the doldrums, voters may stop blaming the price of oil and focus some of their concern on a federal government that has no plan for economic development in this region beyond Scott Brison photo ops and recruitment of  a few hundred well-heeled immigrants some time in the future.

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About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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