There must be days when Justin Trudeau, his patrimony notwithstanding, must be asking himself why the heck he wanted to be prime minister.
The easy days of happy selfies with adoring fans and rave reviews in foreign media are fading. Sunny ways are being overtaken by harsh reality.
For Trudeau, reality means no more playacting as Donald Trump’s obliging northern neighbour and best pal. Reality now means fending off the bully who amuses himself by alienating his closest allies and trading partners, a president who thinks trade wars are good politics and are easy to win.
A president who thinks it is good sport to insult his host when he leaves a summit conference in Canada, then unleashes his attack dogs to consign the prime minister to “a special place in hell” on the Sunday talk shows. Appalling behaviour from an ignorant cheap-shot artist!
Closer to home, reality means dealing with Doug Ford, who, as the new Progressive Conservative premier of Ontario, becomes the second most powerful politician in the country.
In Kathleen Wynne, Trudeau had a centre-left soulmate to whom he could turn when push came to shove, as it often does in federal-provincial affairs.
In Ford, he faces an ideologue posing as a fiscal conservative who stands opposed to most things on the federal agenda – a politician who employs hollow rhetoric to disguise a paucity of principle.
Ford is one of those politicians who, incapable of selling himself on his own merits, must have someone or something to oppose, to attack. He won Ontario by attacking Wynne and her clapped-out Liberal government while offering no coherent alternative program.
The Globe and Mail nailed it the day before the election in a long editorial that, labelling Ford “a magnet for chaos,” said bluntly: “Mr. Ford is unfit to be premier. No one should be fooled by his performance in the election campaign – a tightly scripted production built around a series of populist slogans recited off a teleprompter, followed by curt Q&As with reporters kept at a safe distance.”
Fit or unfit, Ford is the choice of Ontario voters. Now he, like Trump, presents a challenge that the federal Liberals must overcome. They know they can no longer anticipate ready support from Ontario on national priorities.
Ford does not believe in climate change, for example. He opposed the Wynne government’s cap-and-trade policy for reducing carbon emissions. With conservative allies in Saskatchewan and potentially in Alberta, he is raring to lead a provincial crusade against Ottawa’s carbon-tax legislation. He campaigned on a promise to cut the retail price of gasoline by 10 cents a litre – a move that would surely increase consumption and carbon emissions at a time when the world is struggling to move in the opposite direction.
Trudeau faces some tough days. NAFTA may be doomed. If Trump is bent on a trade war, Ottawa may be unable to protect Canada’s steel and aluminium producers – and perhaps its supply management system – from crippling tariffs.
And if Doug Ford’s brand of aggressive populism takes hold in other provinces, the federal government will find it increasingly difficult to forge a national consensus on important federal-provincial issues.
This is the bad news.
The good news is that adversity can produce opportunity.
As PM of America’s closest neighbour and ally, Trudeau has a chance to be in the forefront of world leaders standing up for freer trade in the face of Trump’s “America First” isolationism. As Jean Chrétien, who refused President George W. Bush’s request to join his war in Iraq, can attest, standing up to pressure from Washington can be good politics in Canada.
The same might be said for a prime minister who, facing a general election in October 2019, rises to defend the interests of the nation against the demands of subnational leaders, even the premier of Ontario.
If Doug Ford wants to create chaos on the national stage, he may find that he is over his depth.