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In September, Did the Liberals Out-Harper the Conservatives?

On climate, foreign workers, and unions, Trudeau government moves this month have rankled progressives.

Jeremy Nuttall 29 Sep

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funder Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here. Support his work here.

The key players in Stephen Harper’s government would have been high-fiving after the month Justin Trudeau’s is finishing up.

In September, the Liberal government took a hard line stance with a public union, held steady to the Conservatives’ greenhouse gas targets, approved a liquefied natural gas plant and pipeline assailed by environmentalists and Indigenous groups, and some say signalled it may extend, rather than curtail, powers to spy on citizens granted by the Harper government’s controversial Bill C-51.

For good measure, Trudeau’s Liberals also suggested making it easier for businesses to bring more temporary foreign workers to Canada, taking a position even Harper had backed away from after abuses of the federal program hit the headlines. The Conservatives tightened restrictions on who can hire foreign workers under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Earlier this month, a Liberal-dominated Parliamentary committee released a report recommending easier access to the program for businesses.

Trudeau rode to victory in October by running to the left of the NDP on many issues. In New York this month, he painted his government, and Canada, as progressive beacons to the world, particularly in welcoming refugees.

But at home, the Trudeau government’s actions have left many progressive Canadians feeling frustrated and misled.

Even Conservatives are concluding that Trudeau’s team has come to embrace Harper’s political agenda.

Conservative Colin Carrie, Oshawa MP and critic for health, says the Liberals’ decision to “copy” Conservative policy shows the Harper government was on the right track.

But that’s not what Trudeau ran on, notes Carrie, who said the list of broken promises by the Trudeau government is mounting. 

LNG gets Trudeau’s backing

As prime minister, Harper was always under fire from environmentalists for pushing the oil and gas industry’s interests, but Trudeau’s government just gave the industry one of its biggest boosts in years.

Already under fire for approving permits to allow the controversial Site C dam in northern British Columbia to go forward, Trudeau’s government Tuesday approved the Pacific NorthWest LNG project on the province’s north coast, although with 190 conditions.

The $36-billion liquefied natural gas project is projected to generate 4,500 jobs during construction and about 600 long-term jobs.

But environmentalists say the project poses a serious risk to salmon habitat around its site on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert and call it a “carbon bomb” due to the greenhouse gas emissions it will create.

“The federal government’s recent decisions are not the climate leadership millions of Canadians voted for,” said Toronto-based Environmental Defence in a release. “Instead of speeding up the transition to a low-carbon economy, the federal and B.C. governments are deepening the dependence of Canada’s economy on fossil fuels.”

The Liberals insist the project will meet rigorous environmental standards in harmony with Ottawa’s priority to “get our natural resources to market.”

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr told reporters in Ottawa Wednesday that the approval is a sign of things to come.

“This sends a signal that Canada is taking very seriously the riches that are our endowment as we make these international markets available to Canadian entrepreneurs,” Carr said. “And that’s very important.”

Tory-made GHG targets in doubt

Less than a year ago, new Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, in the afterglow of one of the biggest political comebacks in Canadian history, stood over the corpse of the 10-year-old Tory political reign and kicked it with criticism of its unambitious greenhouse gas targets.

The Conservative plan called for Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to be cut to 30-per-cent below 2005 levels by 2030, a target short of those set by most other Western nations.

Days before the Paris climate talks were set to begin, McKenna told reporters the country needed more than impressive promises, and promised action.

But for all their criticisms of the Harper-era targets, McKenna and the Liberal government have now decided they’re good enough.

And, like the Conservatives, the Trudeau government is facing criticism from some experts who say Canada will not meet the targets based on current actions.

Tory MP Carrie, who was parliamentary secretary to the environment minister under Harper, praised the Conservatives for not making climate promises that couldn’t be delivered. “We stuck to those policies that we knew we could deliver.”

Opening door for more TFWs

The Conservatives were in the second year of what turned out to be their final term in government when the Temporary Foreign Worker Program sparked a controversy that plagued the government for the rest of their time in power.

In 2012, the program hit the headlines when a mine in northern British Columbia applied for 200 TFW permits to bring workers in from China. Shortly after, Royal Bank and Husky Oil were also in the headlines for their use of the program, with critics alleging Canadian workers were being denied access to jobs because the government had allowed businesses to import more than 300,000 temporary foreign workers over a few years.

Other corporations followed. Stories of poor people from developing nations seeking a better life in Canada being abused by employers emerged.

It was a political nightmare for the Tories.

Eventually the Conservatives, including Harper in a secret news conference for ethnic media, acknowledged there were problems with the program and it needed to be fixed.

His government brought in tighter restrictions on how many employees could be hired under the TFW program, scaled back the eligible industries, and started a blacklist of employers found to have been abusing the program — though hardly anyone ended up on it.

After taking office, the Liberals promised a thorough review of the program and lined up more than 60 witnesses to testify at a hearing earlier this year.

In the meantime, they froze a 20 per cent cap on the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers a company could hire, rather than reduce it to 10 per cent as planned by the Conservatives, and relaxed restrictions on what industries could use the program.

The report out of the program’s review hearing was released last week, and it recommended easier access to the program for businesses.

Labour leaders and opposition MPs have alleged the hearing witness list was stacked in favour of businesses that wanted to see the program made more accessible.

Bill C-51 still chugging along

Announced by the former Conservative government in February 2015, Bill C-51 — the Anti Terrorism Act — started its life being slammed by privacy advocates and civil liberties champions alike.

Groups like OpenMedia, an internet rights organization, said the bill allowed government to monitor the online activities of Canadians far too easily.

Protests began, and polls taken months after the proposed legislation’s unveiling put its popularity at a dismal 33 per cent.

The Tories, however, refused to budge on the legislation while the NDP demanded it be repealed. The Liberals said they would make specific changes to the bill if they won the election.

In September, the Liberals announced an online consultation process to decide what changes should be made.

But the same civil liberties groups who demanded the bill be withdrawn say that not only is the consultation not good enough, but like the TFW panel it is also skewed.

Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association expressed concerned that the “green paper” of the consultation, a kind of mission statement to guide discussion, was written as a “PR exercise.”

Vonn said the language of the paper tries to soften the consequences of the bill while putting the focus on measures that law enforcement agencies have wanted for some time.

“Beyond C-51, what we see in the consultation is Santa’s wish list from the police and intelligence agencies about all the extraordinary powers they would like have under their Christmas tree,” Vonn said.

Acrimony with public unions

The Conservatives, who appointed staunch right-to-work booster Pierre Poilievre as employment minister, had an acrimonious relationship with Canada’s public sector unions.*

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents 90,000 public servants currently negotiating with the Treasury Board, issued a release in September accusing the Liberals of continuing that relationship.

Unions fought with the previous Conservative government over how the sick pay system operates for employees, the muzzling of scientists, sweeping changes and the phasing out of home delivery at Canada Post, and tough bargaining.

But Trudeau pledged to reverse the trend in a Sept. 25, 2015 open letter to public servants.

“Respect and trust for our public servants by the federal government has never been so low, and I want to take this opportunity to assure you that I have a fundamentally different view than Stephen Harper of our public service,” reads the letter. “Where he sees an adversary, I see a partner.”

According to PSAC, while the relationship started off well enough, lately it has reverted back to its Harper-era nature, highlighted by recent labour negotiations where Ottawa offered the same deal to the union as Harper did.

Bob Jackson, regional vice president for PSAC in B.C., said alarm bells first rang during negotiations in February when the “tone” at the bargaining table was similar to the one when the Conservatives ran the show.

Jackson said the tone has not eased up as the negotiations have continued.

“It seems like everything the Prime Minister and the president of the Treasury Board are saying is not being translated to the negotiating table,” Jackson said. “Which leads us to believe that there is no change in mandate.”

Honeymoon is over: Tory MP

Tory MP Carrie says people are “starting to pay attention” to the Liberals’ actions now that the political honeymoon is ending and the government needs to make some tough decisions.

He predicts a hard landing for the high-flying Liberals this autumn as they continue to face difficult choices and decisions on various files. “At the end of the day they have to make these decisions, and it’s showing that our Conservative policies were the best policies,” Carrie said.

The Liberals have been delivering the opposite of what they promised, he notes, pointing to the health file. Earlier this year the Liberals released a budget that did not include $3 billion in funding promised during the election for home care. 

“The facts are the facts, and the results are the results,” he said. “You can’t in any political situation make everybody happy.”

*Story clarified Oct. 2 at 9:30 a.m.  [Tyee]

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