It is true that governments in Canada do not technically have “mandates” to govern, as scholar Philippe Lagassé has pointed out. But for lack of a better term, let me use it to describe the four-year period a majority federal government is given to achieve particular policy objectives and otherwise govern the country before it has to return to electors for a performance review.

Four years may seem like a long time in the early, promise-filled days following an election win. But as I have written previously, it passes in the blink of an eye; moving quickly on an agenda in the early days while political capital remains relatively intact, and before the barnacles associated with governing have begun to accumulate, is essential.

It seems like not so very long ago that the Trudeau government emerged triumphant from the 2015 election campaign, with a long list of ambitious promises and a very different style from its predecessor. And yet, it too has now reached the final year of its mandate. What happens in the final year from a policy and political view? How does the last year differ from preceding years, from the government’s perspective?

The policy agenda

For policy staff, the last year is commonly referred to as the “red zone.” To the extent possible, a government will want to avoid measures that are controversial or prone to stirring up voter concern. If a government has been planning properly, it will have saved good news items for the end of its mandate, and will have concluded — or at least be well on its way to wrapping up — difficult or politically sensitive files. Examples of the latter include expenditure reviews, tax or fee increases, program funding reductions or terminations, structural changes to large benefit or entitlement programs like OAS, CPP or EI, and anything requiring a large effort on the communications front to sell. Initiatives to be avoided also include those requiring significant policy work and cabinet time, but that do not have a clear political payoff.

In particular, a government in the last year of its mandate will want to avoid getting enmeshed in files that are “vote-movers” — those that have a decisive influence over voting choice and behaviour. For this reason, the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision that halted the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion could be a blessing in disguise for the Liberal government. While a majority of British Columbians may support the pipeline, it is unlikely to influence their voting choice. Meanwhile, staunch opponents of the pipeline, including the left-leaning NDP supporters who were key to Trudeau’s success in 2015, are far more likely to abandon the Liberals in the face of a visible and aggressive push to construct it.

In short, a government is not engaged in long-term planning or thinking during the last year of its mandate but is focused on measures that are short-term and voter-oriented in nature. To a much greater degree than in previous years, the focus is all politics, all the time. The government is looking in particular for quick wins that it can showcase leading into an election period, especially those that appeal to a specific region or community or a certain desirable demographic.

For external stakeholders, this is good time to approach the government with smaller, concrete requests that can be easily implemented and have broader communications or political benefit. It is not a good time to argue for complicated multijurisdictional national strategies or corporate tax cuts, for example, which have a limited appeal at the best of times.

For the Harper government, in which I worked, good news items scheduled for the last year of the majority mandate included doubling the Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) contribution limit, reducing small business taxes, expanding the Canada Student Grant program and increasing veterans’ benefits, creating a new Public Transit Infrastructure Fund, implementing income-splitting for families and balancing the budget. All of those items aligned with the Conservative Party’s preferred brand, which focused on lower taxes, support for families, and fiscal responsibility.

To a much greater degree than in the early years of a mandate, policy work will align with a party’s chosen brand and its campaign narrative. All government communications will begin to parallel that political narrative as it is developed over the final year. Because the Conservative Party wanted to run on balancing the budget, for example, the policy work to achieve balance had to be completed by the government shortly after the start of the final mandate year, and was showcased in the Harper government’s final budget document in April of 2015.

For a number of reasons — partly poor planning and execution, partly the complexity of its promises and partly unanticipated events — the Liberal government is not yet well positioned to enter election season. Complicated and hot-button files remain outstanding, with the faltering Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change and its regime of carbon taxes being the most notable of those.

Another budget deficit is likely, with no satisfactory explanation for its existence or medium-term plan to reduce it. Meanwhile, good news items like the tax cut for the middle class, an increase in child benefits and an enhancement to the CPP program have receded far into the rear-view mirror. Legalization of cannabis this October might be a positive story if its smooth implementation could be assured, but that is very far from a sure thing.

Another problem for the government is its less-than-ideal progress on the agenda it campaigned on, with about one-third of its promises completed so far. As a government approaches the end of its mandate, it will want to show that a substantial percentage of its promises have been achieved, if for no other reason than to bolster the credibility of its subsequent platform. Accordingly, a priority for the Liberal government in this last year of its mandate will be actions, whether symbolic or otherwise, that allow it to complete files under way or at least reach key milestones. Demonstrating progress will be particularly important on aspirational promises identified as early priorities, including advancing a renewed nation-to-nation relationship through the creation of a new Indigenous rights framework.

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Of course, any government will inevitably be dealing with large and controversial files in its final year for which it cannot necessarily plan. For the Harper government, negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement continued through the last year of its mandate, concluding inconveniently in the middle of the election campaign.

For the Liberal government, the elephant in the room is NAFTA negotiations. A bad outcome on that file — the imposition of auto tariffs, for example — could significantly impact its electoral prospects. The government will be required to manage that political risk either by signing some kind of deal, with appropriate transition measures for impacted sectors, or by running against US President Donald Trump and providing funding and retraining support to affected industries and workers. While the first scenario would clearly be better news, either scenario could function as political cover for a larger deficit.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons following a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sept. 18, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Lately the government has not seemed in control of the agenda, but rather captive to it; that perception will need to be reversed over the final year of its mandate. However, the Liberal government is nothing if not politically savvy and will understand the critical importance of pre-election positioning this year. If, like former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, it chooses to prorogue Parliament mere months before an election and deliver a new Speech from the Throne, that Speech will function both to set the campaign narrative and to provide a comprehensive listing of the government’s positive accomplishments. (The Harper government’s last Throne Speech in 2013 functioned primarily as a mid-mandate “mini-platform,” but also contained a precampaign-style listing of achievements.)

The pre-election budget in 2019 will similarly serve as a campaign document and basis for the Liberal Party’s platform, much as the 2015 budget did for the Harper government. Promises designed to attract important voter groups (national pharmacare, for example) will be fleshed out in greater detail in the budget, as will smaller, politically motivated proposals targeting key regions, like a ban on handguns. The government will also decide which prior, unfulfilled commitments it will revisit for the upcoming election campaign, either by necessity or by choice. The Harper government first introduced “life means life” legislation around sentencing in March of 2015, as an example, promising during the campaign to resurrect it if re-elected.

Political personnel and process

At the political level, the summer leading into the last year of the mandate is when senior staff are normally asked to make the decision to stay or go. Personal and professional considerations argue in favour of leaving demanding and insecure positions before voters make the ultimate decision. However, loyalty to one’s leader and belief in the work he or she is doing — along with the chance to continue playing a small role in making a great country even better — mean that rational arguments often go unheeded.

For staff who stay, getting campaign-ready and focusing on the upcoming election can be challenging. It is particularly difficult for those who have known nothing but a majority government and for whom the loss of power is theoretical only — and there will be plenty of bright, talented Liberal staffers in that position. It is easy for less experienced staff to spend every hour working on the important business of governing until the day the writ drops and be terribly resentful that crass politicking has interrupted their important work, forgetting that they serve at the pleasure of the Canadian electorate. The increased influence and presence of party campaign personnel during the final year of a mandate can be helpful in reminding staff that they will be required to present their case for re-election in a matter of months.

As the year progresses, many staff will be “double-tracking” the regular business of government with campaign preparation — and hopefully avoiding the use of government resources for the latter. Much work needs to be done summarizing the government’s record, listing notable successes and preparing for issues that may arise during the election (in this respect, the final year of a majority mandate looks very similar to every year of a minority government). That work will feed into materials that government MPs will use during increasingly frequent door-knocking campaigns in local ridings, as well as central campaign planning.

As the year reaches a conclusion, political staff will prepare for the interregnum of the writ period, ensuring, to the extent possible, that files can be put to “sleep” and that nothing unexpected will arise. The business of government is curtailed strictly during the election campaign; a skeleton staff will remain in most offices to deal with routine business and any truly urgent matters, but guidelines under the “caretaker convention,” released publicly by the Clerk of the Privy Council in 2015, emphasize a policy of careful restraint. And, of course, staff will also be putting their papers in order in case the election results necessitate a quick exit. The transition period between governments in Canada is very short, and staff will have two to three weeks at most to hand over their offices to a new, incoming government.

Thus, the last year of a government’s mandate tumbles into the election campaign, and political staff vacate their offices overnight for the very different environment of the central war room or local campaign office. And then, after a season of campaign scripting, planning leaders’ tours, conducting debates and chasing down voters, they will head back to Ottawa — if they’re lucky — to do it all again.

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applauds with his party as he stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sept. 17, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Rachel Curran
Rachel Curran is a lawyer by training, and she has nearly 15 years of experience in public affairs, including extensive experience providing strategic and policy advice to the Prime Minister of Canada and federal and provincial cabinet ministers. As director of policy to former prime minister Stephen Harper, she oversaw all major governmental initiatives including the preparation of the annual $280-billion federal budget.

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