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200 Days: A better test for Trudeau’s promise of change

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau passed the “First 100 Days” test with high marks for a strong start, though a report card after 200 or 300 days will be more useful to assess performance. Perhaps we can also ditch the practice of checking off a “to-do” list of specific promises to evaluate good governance.

The focus on “the First 100 Days” for new leaders grew out of two trends. First is the public’s lack of trust in election promises. To counter this, politicians started to promise specific actions within 100 days to show they are serious. The second trend is reduced expectations; in the last decade we have been trained to think that governments can only do three or four specific things, and we should be happy with that. With the election of Trudeau, Canadians chose a new approach to government along with voting for specific promises.
 
Small steps, big impact
Analysts across the political spectrum agree that the tone and approach to government have already been changed through early steps, such as publicly releasing ambitious mandate letters for cabinet ministers; gender parity and diversity in cabinet appointments; restoring respect for the public service, and consulting with stakeholders. A more open and responsive relationship between the governed and our governors was symbolized when Trudeau directly answered tough questions from 10 Canadians from across the country on CBC National News. Equally important was quickly undoing many of the problematic remnants of the Harper government, such as unmuzzling scientists; restoring the census to have reliable data, and stopping the use of technical legal appeals to avoid action, such as the drawn-out legal case over indigenous child welfare. Ending the use of Canada Revenue Agency audits to silence charities that dared to question public policies is a small change with big impacts for our political culture. Using those resources to stop genuine tax evasion will also be more productive financially.

Some changes that don’t make headlines will have big impacts. Federal and provincial social service ministers, for example, met for the first time since 2006. Making federalism work for children and others in need, instead of letting them fall through the cracks of fragmented health and social service systems, could save lives and money. Cabinet ministers calling stakeholders for input, instead of just listening to lobby groups, holds promise for more balanced legislation and fewer unintended consequences of laws designed to appeal to narrow interests.

Early start on big issues
The early start on big issues also signaled change, although here too it is too early to assess progress. Taxes of middle-income earners were reduced in the first week, but the budget on March 22 will be the first real test of Trudeau economics. Making climate change a priority and getting provinces on board looks promising, but it remains to be seen whether higher targets can be met. A quick but careful start to a national inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of indigenous women and children was supported by the Tories, who had earlier rejected the idea, but big questions remain about its potential to bring change. With no time to lose, a non-partisan committee of Senators and MPs was quickly appointed to consider the complex issue of physician-assisted suicide; the test will be introduction and passage of a finely-tuned law before June. Trudeau’s announcement of a youth employment program on the 100th Day reminded Canadians of the high priority he puts on youth, which is likely to be reflected more strongly in the budget.

Launching the process of electoral reform signaled fulfillment of a promise than many thought might be put on a back-burner. Trouble brews for success on this one. Stay tuned. Senate reform, changes in parliamentary practice and more rigorous outcome measures across departments hold promise for much-needed improvement in the tools of governance.

Welcoming 25,000 refugees and active leadership at international events signaled a big change in Canada’s role in the world, creating some controversy. On one side, there was opposition to fulfilling the promise to replace bombers with ground training in the fight against ISIS. On the other side there is opposition to the decision to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. The true test of new priorities in foreign policy will be a longer-term increase in global peace and stability, over which Canada has limited influence.  

Next report card
Progress after 200 Days or 300 Days will be a better test. A challenge for Trudeau is that the first 100 Days raised expectations among advocacy groups who are being asked for input after years of being shut out of public policy discussions at home and internationally. Enough has been done, with positive public response, that the challenge for opposition parties is to articulate an alternative vision more than just point out what specific promises were not done. That is good for our public life.

Good governance is not a tidy check-list of “to-do” tasks. While the website TrudeauMeter.ca is useful for tracking progress on 217 specific election promises, this approach can become a straitjacket. It takes no account of changing context and misses more significant measures. Regional tension in Canada, for example, has increased, which will need to be well-managed to prevent side-tracking progress on the big issues facing Canada. Finding a way to measure accountability based on principles and norms such as the Biblical call to do justice for all and care for creation would lead to a very different kind of report card.

 

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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