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John Ivison: The lesson Trudeau hopes Liberal MPs have learned — good government is boring government

You could tell the Liberal rookies after the 2015 election – there was a kind of new car smell and puppy dog naiveté about them.

One veteran MP shook his head as he recalled how the new government allowed its opponents to control the agenda.

“Once we got elected, people thought it would be just like the village council – everybody would get together and make Canada a better country,” he said.

“It was all peace, love, unicorns and rainbows. Harper ran it like Robert Mugabe but we went to the other side. The first piece of business we undertook at the human resources committee was a study by Niki Ashton of the NDP to review Employment Insurance. So we’ve been out of power for 10 years and the first thing we see is a motion by the third party.”

The Liberals chased a legislative agenda for much of their first four years, frustrated by the opposition in the House of Commons and the Senate.

By summer 2018, only 39 per cent of the legislation introduced in the House had been passed (excluding appropriation bills, which always sail through).

By the end of the 42nd Parliament, that number was a more typical 78 per cent but that conversion rate required the kind of iron-fisted power plays the Liberals used to decry.

Trudeau is banking on lessons having been learned during the first mandate – otherwise the current parliamentary session is likely to be an historic exercise in futility.

Stephen Harper’s majority government passed 77 per cent of the bills introduced into Parliament, but his two minorities were much less productive – a 48 per cent conversion rate between April 2006 and September 2008 and just 44 per cent between November 2008 and April 2011.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have already had a taste of minority government. The opposition parties combined to defeat the government in the very first vote held in the 43rd Parliament last month to create a special parliamentary committee to examine Canada’s relationship with China.

You don’t fix problems that you don’t have to. You don’t make decisions you don’t have to

That committee met on Monday and spent an eternity debating sub-amendments to clauses governing a sub-committee.

At the best of times, parliamentary committees are cul-de-sacs, down which ideas, patience and the will to live are lured and lost. From the government’s point of view, these are not the best of times.

At the Liberal cabinet retreat in Winnipeg, Trudeau offered some sense of his priorities – legislation implementing the new NAFTA trade deal will be introduced immediately. A new bill on medically assisted dying will come next month to comply with a court ruling that invalidated much of the existing law last fall.

And the government will bring forward a new law to outlaw the sale of assault weapons.

Beyond that, the prime minister talked in vague terms about fulfilling election pledges. Aside from the pressures of getting legislation through parliament, Trudeau has to keep one eye on spending. The debt to GDP ratio that he promised would continue to decline, even in times of deficit, is set to rise this year – and that’s before most of the $57 billion in election promises are added.

“We’re just getting started,” Trudeau told reporters in Winnipeg.

In reality, though, the level of ambition in this Parliament will be more aligned with the reality of minority government.

Trudeau is being judicious in his public statements, an apparent attempt to manage expectations in a way he did not in his first term.

As one of Jean Chrétien’s closest aides told his biographer Lawrence Martin: “You don’t fix problems that you don’t have to. You don’t make decisions you don’t have to. Nobody was sitting and saying: ‘Christ, we’re just maintaining the status quo – why don’t we do something exciting?’.”

Doing nothing much for the past three months seems to be working for Trudeau. A new poll by Mainstreet Research has the Liberals in majority territory at 40 per cent support, a number that has likely been bolstered by the prime minister’s adroit handling of the downing of Flight 752.

As Chrétien and Harper were quick to discover, good government is boring government.

With luck, Trudeau has realized belatedly that jumping on your horse, in Leacockian fashion, and riding off madly in all directions is not the best way to run a country like Canada.

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