OTTAWA — Twelve months from now, Canadians will pass judgment on the Trudeau government and decide whether its first mandate should be its last or if it deserves another four years.
As the one-year countdown to the next federal election on Oct. 21, 2019 starts ticking, Justin Trudeau's Liberals appear reasonably well positioned to win a second term.
But a year is a lifetime in politics and the coming one promises to be particularly challenging for the Liberals, beset by a growing phalanx of hostile conservative premiers determined to put a spoke in Trudeau's pre-election wheel.
In particular, they're aiming to upend the introduction of a carbon tax — one of Trudeau's signature policies, the central pillar of the Liberal plan for combating climate change.
It's the next big thing on the government's agenda and it's the pivotal issue upon which Liberal strategists privately believe the next election will turn. It's a fight they think they can win.
A recent Angus Reid Institute poll suggests they have reason for optimism.
It suggests half of what the pollster refers to as "maybe" Liberal voters — soft supporters of opposition parties who can be persuaded to back the governing party — agree with Trudeau on the need for a carbon tax. With his categorical opposition to carbon pricing, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer risks alienating soft Tory supporters.
Watch: Andrew Scheer says 2019 campaign will be a 'tough fight.' Story continues below.
At the same time, half of those maybe-Liberals also support Trudeau's insistence on expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline to carry Alberta's oil sands bitumen to B.C.'s coast for shipment overseas — the flip side of the Liberal climate plan, aimed at demonstrating the prime minister's contention that protecting the environment and growing the economy go hand in hand.
Hence, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's staunch opposition to the pipeline project "is a considerable liability" with soft New Democrat supporters, the polling firm concludes.
Overall, the poll suggests more Canadians are open to voting Conservative than any other party but, at the same time, those open to voting Liberal are the most enthusiastic.
"I would say that for now, if managed carefully and properly, it does look as though, of the three leaders, Justin Trudeau does appear to be heading into the next election cycle from a place of more strength than either of his opposition counterparts," said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute.
"Trudeau's base is fired up, excited by and very much approving of his job and his performance as leader. "
By contrast, Scheer and particularly Singh remain largely unknown quantities to many voters, she added.
That said, the poll also suggests that the Liberals are vulnerable on two particular issues: their management of the influx of irregular border crossers and their failure to deliver on Trudeau's promise to run modest deficits and return to balance by the end of the first mandate.
Kurl notes that the next campaign will get underway in earnest during the summer, just when another wave of asylum seekers could be pouring over the border from the U.S.
"Every time the Conservatives talk about this issue, it is one that resonates across the political spectrum," she said.
But University of Waterloo political scientist Emmett Macfarlane notes that the summer could also see more forest fires, flooding and extreme weather, all symptoms of climate change. And that could tip that balance against the Conservatives and their strategy of allying themselves with anti-carbon tax premiers.
"It has as much potential to backfire as to succeed," he said.
At the moment, Macfarlane believes the Liberals have "a lot of reasons to be fairly confident" heading into an election year.
The economy, he notes, is humming along nicely, unemployment is at four-decade low and voters generally don't turf a government under those circumstances — although Quebec voters did just that earlier this month.
Moreover, Macfarlane suspects the government will get credit for emerging relatively unscathed from the year-long tumultuous NAFTA negotiations with mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump.
Liberal strategists contend Trudeau will be able to go into the next campaign having done what he promised to do in 2015 — with a few notable exceptions such as balancing the budget and reforming the electoral system.
According to the TrudeauMeter, a non-partisan, collaborative citizen initiative that attempts to track the progress Liberals have made on keeping their election promises, Trudeau has kept 70 promises, 68 are in progress, 42 have not been started and 41 have been broken.
But on some of the big ticket pledges, Trudeau will boast that he has delivered some truly transformational changes to Canada in a short time: legalizing medical assistance in dying, legalizing recreational cannabis, turning the Senate into a more independent, less-partisan chamber of sober second thought, lifting some 300,000 children out of poverty through the enhanced Canada Child Benefit.
If the carbon tax goes according to plan, he will add setting the stage for the transition to a low-carbon economy to that list.
Compared to the more managerial approach of Jean Chretien's and Stephen Harper's governments, Macfarlane said: "This is a fairly active government on a number of big files."
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