Provincial ministers’ summer gabfest hands Trudeau a gift he could not refuse

, , Comments Off on Provincial ministers’ summer gabfest hands Trudeau a gift he could not refuse

A political pot fight is just what Justin Trudeau needs to shore up his left flank.


First published on Monday, July 24, 2017 in The Hill Times.


OTTAWA—The pot thickens.

The provincial ministers annual summer gabfest handed the prime minister a gift he could not refuse.

A political pot fight is just what Justin Trudeau needs to shore up his left flank.

Traditional New Democratic voters across the country fled their party to support the Liberals in the last election.

Some simply could not stomach the possibility of another term of Conservative government under Stephen Harper. They voted Liberal to block the Tories.

Others liked Liberal promises, including the pot legalization proposal and the claim that the current electoral system had run its course and would be replaced before the next election.

Promise No. 2 has been shelved indefinitely. When the parliamentary committee, chaired by the opposition, delivered a split decision on the matter, the governing Liberals abandoned any changes.

It was an open secret that the prime minister did not favour proportional voting, and would have preferred a change to a ranked ballot electoral change. When the committee excluded that option, the Liberals decided to make an early break from the well-publicized promise that, “We are committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post.”

The Trudeau team was banking on the fact that the electoral reform promise really only appealed to a narrow group of voters, mostly those who were already committed to their party of choice and unlikely to switch allegiance.

The pot promise, on the other hand, taps into a broad swathe of millennial voters whose recreational vice of choice is marijuana.

That younger voting cohort is spread across the country, and very motivated to punish any party that stands in the way of the legalization timetable.

It was not surprising that the proposal by the government of Manitoba to delay implementation was met with little support from most of the premiers.

The premiers’ framing of unresolved issues was also fairly revealing. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, usually the most Conservative of premiers, appeared more concerned about revenue stream details than the safety issues emphasized by his only Conservative counterpart, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.

“Labelling, public health, who’s selling it, what’s the split, road safety—there is a great deal of issues here,” Wall said.

Despite public claims of fear for safety, the real issues seem to revolve around what jurisdictions will manage distribution and who benefits financially.

Road safety issues can be challenged because, presumably, today’s highways are already crawling with pot-smoking drivers currently securing their product illegally. There is scant evidence that legalization measures will promote a spike in the number of users or potential pothead drivers on the road.

There is evidence that the regulation and distribution decisions will be an economic boon to governments, and the provinces want to solidify their bargaining power in an effort to claim a bigger share of the literal pot.

Premier Brian Gallant of New Brunswick characterized the legalization as an “economic opportunity.”

And he is right. The biggest fight revolves around the splits, which is why some cities are already making noises that they need to be compensated directly for the costs associated with legalization.

That approach ignores any costs associated with the current system. The rational behind legalizing pot is to break the monopoly currently enjoyed by criminals, who upsell their young clients to encourage more addicts and include deadly pills in their repertoire of sales items. Legalization should save money in the long term.

The popularity of marijuana use was not lost on premiers. Manitoba stood alone in its demand for an immediate delay in the implementation timetable.

The rest kept that option open but left enough wiggle room for the federal Liberals to drive a truck through.

Trudeau will be the lead driver. He would love nothing better than a fight with any premier who attempts to delay the implementation date.

That fight would simply solidify Liberal support amongst wavering voters who are disappointed in the government’s reversal on first-past-the post changes.

It could provide a direct foil to NDP premiers in Alberta and British Columbia, who cannot afford to fight too hard against the Canada Day deadline next year.

Most Liberal premiers were guarded in their response to Premier Pallister’s proposal for delay. They were tepid in public statements but did leave the door open to potential delay, if the negotiations hit an impasse.

If money is the only sticking point, premiers cannot afford to overplay their hand for fear of a voter backlash.

The premiers delivered Trudeau a battle royal.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.