The purple haze of Liberal politics

Evan Solomon on the legislative fog of the government’s agenda

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the 2016 Liberal Biennial Convention Winnipeg Saturday, May 28, 2016. (Photograph by John Woods)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the 2016 Liberal Biennial Convention Winnipeg Saturday, May 28, 2016. (Photograph by John Woods)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the 2016 Liberal Biennial Convention Winnipeg Saturday, May 28, 2016. (Photograph by John Woods)

Jimi Hendrix would have been perfectly comfortable with the purple haze of uncertainty that surrounds many of the Liberal government’s most pressing agenda items. Last week, when Toronto police made a wave of arrests at more than 40 illegal pot dispensaries, activists protested. Why charge citizens for doing something the government promises will be legal within a year? But why should this file be any different from the confusion around medically assisted death, the budget deficit or electoral reform?

Purple haze all through my brain . . . 

Forty-nine years ago, in the middle of the psychedelic revolution, Hendrix released his famous song Purple Haze three months before his appearance at the Monterey International Pop Festival. Back then music festivals defined political eras—something new was happening, but no one understood what. That’s what it feels like now in the parliamentary summer of legislative love. Liberals, high on polls and dancing to the grooves of the Justin Trudeau Experience, are suddenly coming down from their trip to the Winnipeg convention and realizing that seven months have bolted by and time is no longer on their side.

Lately things don’t seem the same . . . 

It’s unlikely, for example, that the newly unpredictable and independent Senate will pass the Liberals’ medically assisted dying legislation by June 6, the Supreme Court’s deadline. That will mean that the absence of law will effectively be the law. Peter Harder, the Liberal representative in the Senate, told me he thinks legislation is badly needed on this issue—and abortion, for that matter. He hopes the Senate passes the government bill this week. Hope is his only weapon in the newly wild Senate.

Acting funny and I don’t know why . . . 

The marijuana file doesn’t suffer from the same absence of law, but it’s very close. Cannabis Culture co-owner Jodie Emery contends that the pot market should be wide open because it falls into a liminal legal zone, a space between what’s technically criminal but politically acceptable. Police are as confused as anyone about what the Liberals’ new regulatory environment will look like, so they apply legal enforcement rashly, as they did in Toronto.

Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief and now the Liberals’ point person on the file, is alternately playing hard-liner and reformer on the issue. Blair insists that any pot businesses outside of the already-licensed medical marijuana companies are breaking the law, but he won’t rule out letting them open in a year’s time. Meanwhile, he refuses to decriminalize pot possession as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has demanded and he won’t promise amnesty when the law changes for those charged now. So, we are left in a weird haze, where municipalities are on their own, enforcing bylaws.

Excuse me, while I kiss the sky . . . 

But let’s break into the real strong stuff: electoral reform. From the very start, this file was going to be a downer. The Liberal plan to stack a consultation committee with members of their own party saw the Conservatives and NDP quite logically ask for more equal representation and even a referendum.

Maryam Monsef, the Liberal minister for democratic institutions, has been embarrassingly nonsensical on the issue, insisting that referenda are not necessarily democratic because . . . um . . .  many people don’t participate? Okay. After Chantal Hébert launched a nuclear missile of a column at Monsef’s handling of the file, the minister suddenly backed down, telling the Toronto Star: “We will not proceed with any changes without the broad buy-in of the people of this country.” And that means what? The Liberal promise of electoral reform is off? Who knows.

Don’t know if I’m coming up or down . . . 

Which gets us to the budget. The fiscal monitor revealed this week that the Liberals managed to turn the Conservatives’ small deficit—not a surplus as the Conservatives contend—into a bigger deficit. The former government faced a contempt of Parliament charge for not providing information to the Parliamentary Budget Office, so this government has a way to go before they reach the same level of obstruction, but they are making a gallant effort. As the current PBO has pointed out, the budget didn’t provide proper costing for the government’s proposed legislation. Add in the uncertainty around pipeline review process and health care renewal costs and you get a fairly thick political smog.

Canadians are feeling very good about the Liberals right now, partly because the former government was so bad on issues like transparency and partly because of the Liberals’ extraordinary communications strategy. But eventually people will come down from the high.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience didn’t last long, but in a short time, he accomplished a lot. We won’t be able to say the same about this government until the haze starts to clear.

Update: After this column was published,  Senator Peter Harder  wanted to expand on his comments regarding the abortion issue and he contacted Evan Solomon.  He wrote: “In my comments I was referencing the importance of law in medical assistance in dying. I have never supported the introduction of abortion legislation, I do support choice.  And I do support the medical assistance in dying legislation now before the Senate.  If I was otherwise unclear, I hope this helps.”