How the Liberals are Taking on Their Toughest Files

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Anyone looking for members of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet who embody his vision of Canadian society has no shortage of likely candidates. Following him down that sunlit lane to Rideau Hall to be sworn in last fall, they were a political marketer’s dream: half of them younger than 50, precisely as many women as men, visible-minority ministers striding into several key portfolios. The flattering pictures told of youth, fresh perspectives and a changing of the political guard.

As a former Royal Bank of Canada chief economist and later Jean Chrétien’s defence minister, McCallum’s CV lends credibility to his no-nonsense tone. But he’s not the only Trudeau minister pivoting this fall to more pragmatic messaging. After all, the Liberals face harder policy decisions in the government’s testing second year than they did in its heady first months. And how much they accomplish on a few files—like home care and marijuana, as well as immigration—will go a long way to showing whether the Trudeau’s highly watchable crew merely reflects a changing Canadian society, or will actually drive social change.

So McCallum must sell immigration reform as smart economic policy, while trying not to disappoint the new Canadian voters who swung in droves to the Liberals from the Conservatives last fall. Health Minister Jane Philpott must stare down the provinces’ demands for health transfers that would strain Ottawa’s fiscal capacity, while coaxing them into helping her make good on a key platform promise to expand home care. And MP Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief assigned by Trudeau to deliver a plan for regulating marijuana, must somehow bring order to an increasingly free-wheeling pot marketplace that isn’t waiting for federal direction.

It was on marijuana that Trudeau first demonstrated a willingness to take risky stands on challenging social issues. When he declared his intention to legalize it way back in the summer of 2013, his party’s youth wing cheered. If some older Canadians remained wary, the 2015 Liberal platform tried to reassure them that a Trudeau government would “create new, stronger laws to punish more severely those who provide it to minors, those who operate a motor vehicle while under its influence and those who sell it outside of the new regulatory framework.”

A task force headed by Anne McLellan, a Chrétien-era justice minister, is slated to report back by the end of next month on how to proceed. After Blair grapples with that report, legislation is supposed to be tabled next spring. McLellan has already said she favours some sort of go-slow approach, but the entrepreneurs who have rushed to open hundreds of storefront marijuana shops in anticipation of Ottawa’s next step apparently have other ideas.

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