New government may be aiming to loosen the strings on an old Conservative fund to jump-start infrastructure spending
OTTAWA—As it turns out, one of the first orders of parliamentary business of the new Liberal government might be spending an old Conservative fund.
Justin Trudeau’s majority Liberal government returns to the House of Commons on Monday morning bursting with ambitious priorities following a post-election whirlwind of international travel.
Three heady months after Canadian voters ended a decade of Conservative rule, pollsters say the Liberal Zeppelin still hasn’t returned to Earth.
The looming slog of a long, cold Ottawa winter and being under daily fire in Parliament has done nothing to deflate Liberal effervescence.
“No, not at all, the luxury of having won the election is to have an ambitious agenda that captured the imagination of Canadians, that we believe is responsible and transformative,” Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal House leader, said Sunday outside a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill.
It’s an agenda that includes fixing the Crown’s ever-troubled relationship with Canada’s indigenous people, getting provincial agreement on a national carbon price, reforming the electoral system, addressing the health care funding model, legislating physician-assisted death, dealing with Senate appointments and ending the bombing mission in Iraq and Syria—just to name a few. Those daunting election platform priorities are in addition to a Canadian economy being pummelled by $30-per-barrel oil and a diving loonie.
LeBlanc, like the prime minister at the World Economic Forum last week in Davos, Switzerland, is sticking to the script of stubborn, steadfast optimism.
“That is a great position to be in and Canadians should have, in my view, every confidence that their government will be diligent and meticulous in implementing the commitments we made in the election,” said the New Brunswick MP.
Increased infrastructure spending is one of the first priorities, given the state of the economy. Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi says he’s talking to the provinces about how to allocate existing cash from the $10 billion New Building Canada fund set up under the previous government.
As part of a 10-year, $60-billion election pledge, the Liberals promised to spend $20 billion over the next two years on infrastructure, half of which had already been budgeted by the Conservatives. Sohi says he’s not looking at speeding up the timetable of the new Liberal spending—which can’t be doled out until after the Liberals bring down a budget, likely in early March—but he’s signalling he’ll immediately loosen the purse strings on the existing fund.
If the Liberals appear sanguine about the daunting task ahead, maybe it’s because they’ve talked to pollsters.
Liberal support shot up after the Oct. 19 election and has continued to float high above all the bad economic news, says Frank Graves of Ekos Research.
Ekos polls on confidence in the direction of the country are the highest it has recorded since 2001 under Jean Chretien, said Graves, and that confidence comes despite “acute” public anxiety over the economy.
“There’s a broad amount of gloom about the economy but there’s actually a sharp uptick in optimism about the five-year or medium-term future,” said the pollster. “People feel they’ve put a longer term wager with this last election.”
Graves notes that while there’s widespread public optimism, the Conservative base of just less than a third of the electorate is “extremely unhappy with Mr. Trudeau.”
Conservative supporters’ confidence in the government is in single digits, he said, while among all others it’s around 70 per cent.
“There are two different worlds out there.”
With the House back, Conservatives say they plan to expose the wide gulf between Liberal promises on “sustainable” pipeline development, environmental protections and rewriting the environmental assessment regime.
“What they’re talking about in these processes is a never-ending series of moving goal posts,” House leader Andrew Scheer told CTV Sunday.
Peter Julian, the NDP House leader, says he’s hearing some buyers’ remorse from voters.
“People are starting to feel that the Liberals may have been talking a good game but aren’t intending to walk the talk,” he said in an interview.