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opinion

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on during a childcare funding announcement in Montreal, Thursday, August 5, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau has transformed the role of the federal government in the life of the nation. What do you think of that transformation? That is what this election is about.

It’s hard to overstate how much things have changed under this Liberal Leader. He has shattered the Ottawa Consensus forged by Jean Chrétien in the 1990s.

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The former Liberal prime minister concluded that Canada could not afford the social entitlements established by previous Liberal and Conservative governments. On his watch, Ottawa slashed spending, balanced the budget, and granted provinces more control over their jurisdictions. Conservatives had been demanding all these things.

What Mr. Chrétien had done with reluctance, Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper pursued with enthusiasm. During his decade in office, the Ottawa Consensus evolved to include lower taxes, free trade deals and even greater provincial autonomy.

Mr. Trudeau upended all of that. Even before the pandemic, his government ran substantial deficits, just to show it could and would. The Liberals used the federal spending power in health care to compel provincial governments to place a greater emphasis on mental health and home-care programs.

Mr. Trudeau demanded that provincial governments establish carbon taxes to fight global warming, and imposed a federal tax on those that refused. Immigration expanded from 250,000 people a year, under both Liberal and Conservative governments, to more than 400,000 this year.

During the pandemic, Ottawa massively intruded into the economy, offering a temporary guaranteed income for laid off workers and subsidies to businesses.

April’s budget announced a new national child care initiative that will reduce costs to $10 a day in those provinces that don’t have a similar program already in place.

And in the latest assertion of power, Ottawa is requiring many workers in federally regulated industries, and many travellers, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The cumulative result has been breathtaking. The Ottawa Consensus lies in ruins. The federal government exercises greater control over the country than at any time since the Second World War, with massive spending on infrastructure and social services.

The costs have been breathtaking, too: a federal deficit last year of more than $350-billion, with no plans to bring the budget back into balance, ever. The $9-billion to be spent annually on child care will surely contribute to a permanent structural deficit: a budget that cannot be balanced unless spending is cut or taxes raised.

The Liberal government’s dictatorial approach to federal-provincial relations revived the previously moribund Bloc Québécois and gave birth to the new Maverick Party in the West. The federation is dangerously strained.

Are the benefits worth the cost? Polls suggest many Canadians think so. Somewhere between three and four voters in 10 support the Liberals. Two voters in ten support the New Democrats under Jagmeet Singh, who wants to go farther, faster.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is not well known and not well liked. He is fighting internal disunion within his party, and his plan for governing, while more fiscally cautious, offers nothing fundamentally at odds with the Liberal agenda.

But we shouldn’t write the Conservatives off just yet. In a Liberal ad released Saturday, Mr. Trudeau urges: “Let’s think even bigger, Canada. Let’s be relentless.”

Mr. O’Toole, as prime minister, would at least put a bit of a brake on relentless state expansion. He has even promised to balance the budget – in a decade or so. He would be more respectful of provincial rights. He would listen more closely to voices in the West. People might welcome that.

Or they may prefer the NDP alternative: a national pharmacare program, housing subsidies, cheaper postsecondary education and much more, along with higher taxes and deficits. Voters have plenty of choices.

I suspect this is Justin Trudeau’s last election. If he wins a majority or minority government he will eventually step down, rather than seek a fourth consecutive mandate, which no prime minister has been given since Wilfrid Laurier.

Mr. Trudeau has already reshaped the federal government into what he believes it should be: bigger, bolder, more controlling. He has also left us divided and deeply in debt.

Now we’ll find out whether Canadians want to give him one last chance to finish the job.