Chairman's Desk

PM’s pipeline, carbon tax decisions challenge ‘sunny ways’ story arc

Many challenges threaten to upend the peace that has descended on the Canadian political scene since Trudeau’s election, and with it, the narrative of a sunny and consultative government the Liberals so confidently promised.

This article appeared in the Toronto Star on October 9, 2016.


One of the first things we are taught about literature is the narrative arc; the underpinning of all stories. Without narrative direction, you end up with a rudderless tale that the reader can’t follow.

The same rule applies to communicating in politics.

Take back control for Britain. Make America great again. Sunny ways for Canada.

All three are formative slogans and statements used by politicians and political movements that have shaken political establishments in the Western world. While each drastically different, each spoke to, and captured, nascent desires in electorates better and more effectively than any other campaign.

During the campaign on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union, there was near-unanimous support for staying among the elites of civil society. But a restlessness existed among Britons who felt left behind by London’s economic success. The sinking economic performance in rural England and a significant uptick in immigration coincided with the increase of European Union regulatory control. The result? Many, too many, average Britons were left feeling powerless.

The call by Nigel Farage and his ragged band of outsiders to ‘take back control’ spoke to these disaffected voters. Three simple words encapsulated what so many voters felt, but had been unable to articulate.

An equally simple statement has defined a political movement in the United States. ‘Make America great again’ is almost absurdly uncomplicated. And yet its clarity addresses the worries and frustrations of so many Americans who fear America’s superpower status has evaporated, and that the likes of China and Russia have superseded America’s natural position in the global world order.

Rising anxiety has led to the triumph of Donald Trump among many Republicans and independent voters despite not having the support of most of America’s business and political leaders.

Although the actual phrase was not used by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau until his victory speech following the Oct. 19, 2015, election, the Liberals were swept into power by preaching the virtue of ‘sunny ways’ to an electorate that had experienced 10 years of tough economic circumstances, and with a Prime Minister’s Office, and a government, in near constant conflict with the media, other levels of government and the Supreme Court.

When Trudeau spoke of the possibility of an open government that worked collaboratively with others, he spoke to people who had grown weary of the previous government’s approach. They rallied to his cause: young voters turned out in numbers not seen for decades, urban voters abandoned a sinking NDP, and significant numbers of suburban voters responded to the siren call of optimism and our better selves.

Sunny ways had securely captured the Canadian political imagination.

And, for the last year, the federal government has worked to deliver on that sunny approach. Since the election, it has completed more than 300 consultations. Polls show the Liberals are still riding high and Canadians are satisfied with the country’s direction. And Trudeau remains astronomically popular among young Canadians.

However, as this week has demonstrated, it may not be all blue skies ahead.

Inevitably, governments must make difficult policy choices and decisions. That a government’s best day is its first day is not a clich’ by accident. Each day that follows means actions that will inevitably alienate supporters and embolden opponents.

Two such decisions, recently made, threaten to interrupt the Liberal’s narrative of a sunny, open government.

Cabinet’s approval of the LNG pipeline in British Columbia was met with protest by both the indigenous community and environmentalists.

And after the government announced a plan for a carbon tax, three provincial environment ministers walked out of a consultative meeting, with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said ‘the level of disrespect’ shown by the government was ‘stunning.’

Only time will tell if there is consequential fallout from these decisions. While Canadians know well the government must make difficult decisions, their willingness to embrace these decisions is not universal.

What’s more, many more challenges threaten to upend the peace that has descended on the Canadian political scene since the election, and with it, the narrative of a sunny and consultative government Justin Trudeau and the Liberals so confidently promised.

Either that or the Liberal government could be fashioning a new narrative — one of a government boldly unafraid to act on items related to its core ideology, whether or not it provokes the usual hue and cry of protests all governments face.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.