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The big files save Trudeau from a sophomore slump

After a first year in which Justin Trudeau's Liberals gained a lot of plaudits, the consensus was that Year Two would be more difficult. Tough hurdles awaited them. How would they deliver on pipelines and, at the same time, climate change? Carbon taxes were opposed on the right, pipelines stirred protests on the left.

How would they get the provinces on board for a new Canada-wide health-care agreement? Opposition was stiff.

What about the shock election of the Republicans south of the border? On trade and immigration and many other issues, Donald Trump looked to be so much the opposite of Mr. Trudeau. With Barack Obama, there was so much compatibility. It was nice. It was easy.

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So what has happened?

Related: Trudeau's Liberals: A midterm report card

On the development vs. environment quandary, the party of the middle found a middle way. The Liberals gave the green light to pipelines while introducing a plan to reduce fossil fuel use through taxing carbon. It was a logical compromise, one that Mackenzie King, the ultimate compromiser, would have saluted. Anticipated hellstorms of protests never materialized.

On health care, provinces rejected Ottawa's initial offer in December. This time the Grits opted for a divide-and-conquer strategy. They began negotiating side deals with the provinces, eventually getting all, except Manitoba, to sign on to a new 10-year pact.

In dealing with the new White House, Mr. Trudeau decided to play nice. No use alienating the side with the bigger club. He got on board with the erratic President by engaging his daughter Ivanka Trump on women's issues. He made sure Trumpians were aware of bilateral-trade realities. He employed bipartisanship, enlisting old Tory Brian Mulroney to open doors and curry favour.

It's been a year and half since Mr. Trudeau's election on Oct. 19, 2015. Year Two has seen many stumbles, including the failure to deliver on a new electoral system, significant ethical transgressions and the breaking of several campaign pledges. But on the files that are most important, he's made headway.

Last week came the legislation to legalize marijuana, making Canada the first country after Uruguay to take the step. By most accounts, the legislation is well thought-out.

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The record to date leaves Trudeau opponents searching for something hard to hit him with. There's carbon taxes, but most Canadians appear to accept them, and his tilt on pipelines takes some of the bite out of Conservative attacks. Electoral reform is a big issue for the left but not the right. The economy just posted very high first-quarter growth numbers.

On ethical malfeasance, given their own dismal record on integrity, Tories risk coming across as hypocrites. Having brought in the mother of all democracy-degrading omnibus bills under Stephen Harper, they denounced Mr. Trudeau last week for using one that was minor by comparison. He deserved criticism, but coming from the Tories, it was amusing.

Not to be overlooked, though, is the degree of animosity toward the Prime Minister in right-wing precincts. Online comment boards overflow with insults. Right-wingers understandably find his progressive agenda grating, but the high-gloss style grates just as much. For a segment of conservative Canada, the word Trudeau is – and always will be – toxic. Given that both Pierre Trudeau, who also benefited from his charisma, and his son have been politically successful, that's unsurprising.

In place of the sarcasm of his father and the grim grudge-bearing nature of Mr. Harper, Justin Trudeau comes at his work with the goodwill and optimism of a Ronald Reagan. It works. And not to be underestimated is the substance, the grit behind the glitter. While other governments turn inward, his wins praise in international circles because of its forward-looking agenda with respect to open borders, refugee settlements, carbon pricing and now soft-drug legalization.

Year Two was supposed to be harder for Mr. Trudeau, and in some respects it has been. There have been faux pas aplenty; his popularity has waned. But on major issues there is little slippage. On the big stuff he moves the yardsticks.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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