Liberals regroup in Ottawa, trying to reconcile climate action with western alienation – CBC.ca

Liberals regroup in Ottawa, trying to reconcile climate action with western alienation - CBC.ca
Goodale reflects on his loss and the economic uncertainty driving anxiety in the West
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is meeting with incoming and outgoing Liberal MPs in Ottawa today to talk about approaches to the issue of climate change on one hand — and to growing tensions over the stalled western energy economy on the other.

Making his way into the informal meeting in Ottawa Thursday afternoon, Trudeau said giving Alberta and Saskatchewan a voice after a Liberal electoral shut-out is a "significant" matter for him.

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"I've been reaching out to premiers, to mayors, to business leaders, to colleagues and former colleagues," he said. "There's a lot of work to do to make sure that we're governing for the entire country."

“As I reflect on the need to work well with others, your example of how you’ve managed a minority government, working with the Greens in a very constructive, productive way, for Prince Edward Island, I look forward to picking your brain on how you’re working so well with others because that’s going to be important to me,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau described today's meeting as an opportunity to reflect on what they heard from Canadians during the 40-day election campaign, and to discuss how to respond to those concerns going forward. He said it's also a chance to talk about how defeated MPs can play a continued role, and to express gratitude for their past efforts.

“I think you’ve got to look at engaging but at some point in time you’ve got to stick to your core values,” he said. “We’re not going to stop wanting to have a greener, cleaner Canada and we’re not going to stop being against bills that are violating the charter. So there’s a limit to accommodation.”

Trudeau's Liberals went from third-party status to a landslide majority in 2015. This time, the party was reduced to a minority, with 157 seats.

Two top cabinet ministers were defeated on Oct. 21. Saskatchewan's Ralph Goodale and Alberta's Amarjeet Sohi were voted out in the two-province shut-out — a damning indictment of the Liberals' response to growing economic uncertainty in the region.

Evening Brief: New Liberal caucus gathers in Ottawa

Goodale said Trudeau is now examining every procedural and structural option for dealing with the lack of Liberal MPs in the region, but added the more important task is addressing the underlying roots of western discontent.

Video: Liberals MPs meet to discuss election results, future plans

"The more critical thing is the substantive issue of understanding, clearly and deeply, what the issues were and are that are deepest concerns to western Canadians, and to make sure those issues are addressed in a conscientious way that builds Canadian unity," he said.

Prairie voters are concerned about the impact of the transition off a fossil fuel-based economy but, as someone who’s run clean tech businesses in the past, Wilkinson said: “I think there are ways that technology can help us play a role in terms of bridging some of these conversations.”

Goodale said it's crucial for the government to offer reassurance to those worried about economic security so they can "enjoy and celebrate (prosperity) just like everyone else across the country."

Various current and former MPs said they expect Trudeau to expand his inner circle of advisers, which has tended to be dominated by people who previously worked for Liberal governments in Ontario, to include more westerners and Quebecers, and to find other ways of consulting people in those provinces.

The outgoing minister acknowledged that pushing ahead with a robust climate change agenda will be challenging in the face of mounting frustrations in the West over the carbon tax and the lack of adequate oil pipeline capacity to the coast.

"There's a very challenging circle to square here. A majority of Canadians on election night voted very clearly for the completion of the Trans Mountain expansion. A very strong majority of Canadians also voted for more vigorous ambition with respect to climate change," he said.

In an interview prior to the meeting, re-elected Montreal MP Alexandra Mendes expressed frustration with what she termed the populist, selfish, “me, me, me” attitude of some western and Quebec voters, who cared only about the interests of their provinces and not the country as a whole.

"And finding the ways to bring all of that together, as the government and the prime minister [have] said for years — proper policy with respect to the economy and energy need to go hand-in-hand with proper policy with respect to the environment."

He noted that a majority of Canadians voted for parties (Liberals and Conservatives) that favour completing the expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline but a majority also voted for parties (Liberals, NDP, Greens, Bloc) that promised tougher action on climate change.

After the meeting, Catherine McKenna, who held the environment minister when the election started, said finding that balance is possible if the country comes together.

"When we talk about the environment and the economy going together, we actually mean it. Of course we need to figure out how to bring the country together. There is no bigger issue than national unity. But we also need to tackle climate change and we can do this," she said.

Returning Liberal MP François-Philippe Champagne said Canadians sent the Liberals a "message of humility" and they heard it loud and clear.

Trudeau’s name is politically toxic in the two resource-dependent prairie provinces, where the vast majority of voters believe the Liberal carbon tax and other policies aimed at fighting climate change are detrimental to the already-hurting oil patch.

"We're not here boasting. We're here humble. We're here listening, we're here making sure that we plan the future together," he said.

Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who lost in his Winnipeg riding, said the government is attempting “a very tricky balance” between the economic and employment prospects of westerners and the desire of Canadians elsewhere to protect the environment.

Another minister, Jim Carr — who was recently diagnosed with blood cancer — said the message he heard repeatedly at the doorsteps during the campaign is that Canadians are seeking unity in the country.

"I told the prime minister that while we lead the country in per capita exports, and if we can export our political system — the refreshing political system that has been in place since the election in April — if we could export that to Ottawa it would be one of the proudest moments for all Islanders."

"There isn't much of an appetite for division, and for division politics. People are searching for common ground and that's a very important message," he said. "We can have our disputes and we … are robust in the way we articulate those disputes. But there is a time for a nation to come together, and that time is now."

King said he and Trudeau spoke about "a continuation of important files" such as health care, rural transportation, a new ferry between Wood Islands, P.E.I., and Caribou, N.S., and finding economic opportunities in environmentally-friendly technology and infrastructure.

Marc Garneau, the transport minister when the election began, said the reunion with outgoing MPs was an emotional one. 

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"It's not easy to be a politician. And when you put your heart and soul into something and it doesn't work out, it's not easy to take," he said. "But they were all very, very proud.

King, whose Progressive Conservative Party won a minority government on P.E.I. in April, met with Trudeau on Tuesday in Ottawa. He was the first premier to meet with the prime minister since Canadians voted in a Liberal minority on Oct. 21.

As McKenna left the meeting, she was asked if she expects to remain in the environment portfolio. She said that she serves at the pleasure of the prime minister and will do "whatever is required."

"I look forward to picking your brain on that, on how you're working so well with others because that's something that's really important to me as well," Trudeau said.

"Climate change is not a one-portfolio issue. It's everything. It's the economy, it's transportation … It's how we build our houses, it's reconciliation with Indigenous peoples," she said.

King said Trudeau will have to get "creative" in order to get legislation passed in Parliament as tensions remain high between the federal Liberal and Conservative parties. 

"I am happy to do whatever I am asked. It is a real honour and privilege to be in this job."

Trudeau, who has yet to announce when Parliament will return, said King has managed a minority government in a "very constructive and productive way."

Trudeau will swear in his new cabinet on Nov. 20. He will set the date for the new Parliament to begin after meeting with opposition leaders next week.

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Veteran Liberal cabinet minister Ralph Goodale says the government has a big challenge ahead tackling climate change while also addressing the alienation resonating in Western Canada.

"And I believe if he goes about the process the right way and is genuine, as I believe he is, I think he will find that."

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Goodale spoke to reporters Thursday ahead of the first Liberal caucus meeting since the election last month in which he lost his Regina-Wascana seat to a Conservative challenger.

It was one of two major surprise defeats that hit main frontrunners in the race — the Tories also lost veteran MP and cabinet minister Lisa Raitt from the Greater Toronto Area riding of Milton to Liberal Adam Van Koeverden.

It will take some time to sort through all of that detail but people were obviously concerned about economic uncertainty,” he said.

“That is the issue that was raising the anxiety level across Western Canada and it will be very important for the government to provide the necessary reassurance with respect to economic security prosperity and growth.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won his first election campaign in 2015 on a pledge to toughen environmental protections while also developing the Canadian economy and later approved — and purchased — the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion after its private sector owner abandoned the project.

The project had been mired in regulatory delays and became the target of opponents to further development to the oilsands in Alberta. The province has an unemployment rate above the national average and has been grappling for years with the lingering effects of the steep drop in the price of oil in 2014.

Trudeau promised in the 2019 campaign to go further and has repeatedly insisted that the “environment and economy must go hand in hand.”

Theres a very challenging circle to square,” Goodale said when asked that same question by reporters.

“A majority of Canadians on election night voted very clearly for the completion of the Trans Mountain expansion. A very strong majority of Canadians also voted for more vigorous ambition with respect to climate change and finding ways to bring all of that together.”

Pressed again on whether it is really possible to pursue tougher environmental protections while also also addressing Western alienation, Goodale was blunt.

Trudeau and the Liberals were returned to government but with a reduced minority compared to the majority they won in 2015.

However, the election last month resulted in the party being entirely locked out of Alberta and Saskatchewan. That means Trudeau has no members of Parliament from his party that he can include in his cabinet to provide a voice from either of those provinces.

Since the election, Trudeau has continued to face questions about how he plans to ensure a voice for the West around his cabinet table and in his government more broadly, given the rejection of his party by voters in those provinces.

He used his first speech to media since the election to say that he hears the anger and alienation of those in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Albertans and people in Saskatchewan have faced very difficult years over these past few years because of global commodity prices, because of challenges theyre facing, that for a long time they werent able to get their resources to markets other than the United States,” he said in that speech on Oct. 23.

We are moving forward to solve some of those challenges but its going to take all Canadians sticking together, helping out folks who are struggling in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan. This is what Canadians expect of their government.”

Days later, Trudeau tapped former Edmonton Liberal MP and cabinet minister Anne McLellan to join his transition team in what was widely viewed as a nod to Alberta while also naming a prominent Quebec business leader and Canada’s current ambassador to France, Isabelle Hudon, to that team beside her.

Goodale says Trudeau is taking seriously the need to reach out to Western Canadians and has been doing so.

But he gave few hints about what comes next for himself — or whether he thinks he can play a role in being a voice for the West in his party.

Ive always been very anxious to help the process in any way that I can. Sometimes as a member of Parliament, sometimes not,” he said.

“Well see what the future holds but right now Im focusing on making sure the transition from minister to private citizen goes smoothly, that my staff are properly dealt with, that all files are properly signed off. Im focused on that right now.