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Trudeau’s tough talk helps on Boeing hinders on tax changes

Justin Trudeau's news conferences are usually full of syrupy generalities and non-answers but on Tuesday we also saw the other side of the Prime Minister, the tough guy.

It's worth noting when tough Trudeau comes out because, despite what his opponents say, it's a real part of this PM's personality. Mr. Trudeau himself usually prefers to play up his touchy-feely image as an empathic listener. But the tough side is there, like an iron hand inside rainbow-coloured cotton candy, and occasionally he displays it.

This week, he threatened Boeing: If the American aircraft manufacturer doesn't drop its trade complaint accusing Montreal-based Bombardier of dumping planes at below-market prices, he warned Monday, Ottawa won't buy their Super Hornet fighters. On Tuesday, when asked about Canadian aerospace firms that are complaining the threat might hurt their business with Boeing, Mr. Trudeau told them they should go talk to Boeing.

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Related: Trudeau asks Canadian aerospace industry to direct pressure at Boeing

It was a piece of Trumpian trade bravado that you don't expect from Mr. Trudeau, who after all has been pleading for calm heads and predictable rules, not arbitrary threats, as he makes the case for the North American free-trade agreement.

But Mr. Trudeau knows that when the U.S. Department of Commerce reveals its preliminary finding Sept. 25, it's going against Bombardier. Whether or not Bombardier – a repeated recipient of government aid that appears to have sold some of its C Series jets to Delta Airlines at a loss – really broke trade rules is only one part of the equation. Preliminary findings usually back U.S. industry complaints, and the real litigation comes later. Monday will likely bring bad news.

Mr. Trudeau's tough stand is pre-emptive positioning. When well-paid Montreal jobs are threatened, the PM can't afford to look like a pushover.

It is by no means a solution. Boeing may launch a trade complaint against Ottawa, too. And Mr. Trudeau has been hoisted on his own petard: He promised not to buy Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighters, so his government had announced a stall-for-time plan for an interim order of 18 Boeing Super Hornets. Now, it's looking at second-hand Australian F-18s – still Boeing planes, which means buying Boeing parts. Yet, the tough bravado is still good politics.

But the real tough guy came out when it didn't look like good politics. Mr. Trudeau has been taking a beating on the Liberals' proposed changes to small-business taxes, from small-business groups, doctors, Conservatives across the aisle and his own nervous backbench. But he's marching ahead.

Just about everyone is telling him this is bad politics, but he's doubling down. And the wedge-politics rhetoric is getting tougher: On Monday, he essentially accused the Conservatives of standing with "wealthy doctors" instead of the nurses who work alongside them. It's uncomfortable: He was trying to dodge questions about whether he had personally gained from tax breaks over the years when he made the PR mistake of saying that his finances are in a blind trust, so he no longer has a say in the "family fortune."

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In theory, the Liberal proposals, aimed at preventing people from using a private corporation to lower taxes on their personal income, are things most Canadians would probably think fair. Ordinary salary earners can't sprinkle their income to relatives, so they probably think others shouldn't get that break, either. The other breaks benefit high-income-earners. But so far, it's mostly the people who think they'll lose money who are paying close attention to this issue – and small-business groups and Conservatives are accusing the government of undermining modest small businesses that create jobs.

But Mr. Trudeau clearly doesn't just think he's got a point. He thinks he's going to win the politics on this issue.

On Monday, in Question Period, he dared Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to promise that the Tories would undo the tax changes if they took power. Why? Because he thinks most of the public is going to side with him, and come to see the Conservatives as siding with the affluent few who control corporations.

Maybe Mr. Trudeau is right that he will turn the tide. But that's still a big gamble that many of his own MPs are telling him not to take. Mr. Trudeau isn't pleasing people with sunny ways, he's taking on a backlash with wedge politics, brushing aside complaints from his own party, and going ahead.

Trudeau not worried by Liberal MPs opposing tax changes (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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