Justin Trudeau, Liberal Let-Down
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pose for a photo at the 43rd G7 summit in Taormina, Sicily, Italy in March 2014. Photo by the European Council (Flickr.)
It all started so promisingly. It’s hard to forget the bright, warm day in early November 2015, when Justin Trudeau, in a perfectly fitted suit and with perfectly tousled hair, strolled with his new cabinet members to the steps of Rideau Hall, opened to the public to witness the swearing-in ceremony of Canada’s new Liberal Party prime minister. Onlookers took in the equal number of male and female ministers, the first gender-balanced federal cabinet in Canadian history. “Because it’s 2015,” Trudeau explained, a line soon celebrated in the columns of newspapers across the world.
His cabinet of outdoor enthusiasts promised to “give to our children and grandchildren a country even more beautiful, sustainable, and prosperous than the one we have now.” His speeches were peppered with empathetic nods to the struggles of Canadians with inequality, precariousness, and poverty. He pledged that indigenous peoples were his “most important relationship.” He personally greeted Syrian refugees at Toronto’s airport, telling them, “You are home, welcome home.”
The hopes invested in Trudeau peaked when Donald Trump took over the White House. “At any moment I could leap into the arms of Justin Trudeau,” American comedian Samantha Bee said, summing up the feelings of many men, women, and more than a few beleaguered governments. Rolling Stone magazine splashed a photo of him across its cover, asking “Why Can’t He Be Our President?”
Trudeau’s new administration, we were frequently reminded, was filled with the best and brightest. He had won a commanding majority, defeating the socially retrograde Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had ruled by carefully pandering to an electoral base that amounted to just a third of voters. The media consensus was that Trudeau was assured a second term in office. If he were to act on the clear mandate he had won for bold policies, the people of Canada would undoubtedly back him. Everything was ripe for transformation.
That wasn’t what happened. Long before photographs of Trudeau partying in black-face and brown-face in his twenties surfaced in the fall of 2019, his carefully cultivated image as a champion of progressive causes was looking tattered. Trudeau had promised to replace an antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system as part of sweeping democratic reforms, but reversed his position when it became apparent that the wishes of Canadians for proportional representation would not favor his incumbent government. In June 2018, he bought into public ownership the Trans Mountain pipeline from US magnates for $3.4 billion, in order to expand the export of Alberta’s dirty tar sands oil, spending far more on a piece of fossil-fuel infrastructure than on any single renewable energy project. Each year since his government had signed on to the Paris Climate Accords in 2016, the gap between Canada’s official carbon reduction targets and its spiralling emissions has grown wider.
Trudeau had declared to global plaudits in 2015 that his government would usher in a “nation-to-nation” relationship with Indigenous peoples, giving “unqualified support” to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But he eventually sent his justice minister—the first indigenous person to hold the position—to inform First Nations leaders that its implementation was “unworkable,” and in early 2018 dispatched heavily armed federal police to batter down a peaceful blockade erected by the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, who were trying to put into practice those rights by stopping a fracked gas project in northwest British Columbia.
In late 2018, this avowed friend of labor legislated away the right to strike of a postal union that wanted safer working conditions; this champion of equality gave profitable multinational corporations giant hand-outs, maintaining multibillion-dollar subsidies to oil companies and granting $10.5 billion in tax breaks on the heels of similar measures by Trump; and this advocate of women’s rights set a record selling weapons to the theocratic, patriarchal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, even as their war on Yemen escalated. Private wealth continued to soar, without any discernible benefit to the public good. Much-needed universal social programs like childcare or the extension of healthcare to cover the costs of medicines in Canada—which are the second highest of any country—never materialized. Within a year of Trudeau’s election, Canadians stopped hearing much at all about his vaunted assault on income disparities—except for an occasional proclamation, usually issued abroad to a less discerning international press corps, to sustain the impression that economic justice was still at the top of his agenda.
Shedding tears about the injustices of the country’s past, inveighing against the inequalities of the present, pledging a dynamic politics of the future: Justin Trudeau was a dazzling simulation of defiance against the social and economic order that he would ultimately seek to defend.
In 2015, Macleans, one of Canada’s leading centrist magazines, declared with confidence that “we’re not beset by any grave issues of inequality, poverty or class that might lead to social disruption.” But beyond the myopic perspectives of the media elite, Trudeau’s Liberal strategists knew the reality was otherwise: the dizzying growth that had made the country extraordinarily wealthy had been captured almost exclusively by the richest. Between 1980 and 2015, the real income of the richest 10 percent of Canadians had gone up by half, that of the richest 1 percent had more than doubled, and that of the richest 0.1 percent had almost quadrupled—while the real income of those Canadians in the bottom 90 percent had come to a shuddering flatline.
In the years after the financial recession, the bottom fell out from under the middle class—not an actual social category, though favored by Liberal rhetoric, but one symbolizing popular aspirations to a stable, improving economic life. According to polling by the EKOS agency, 40 percent of those who identified as working-class at the outset of Trudeau’s term in office say they had been middle-class ten years before. They had seen personal debt and working hours increase, while good job opportunities and leisure time had shrunk. Food banks and food agencies grew to parallel the number of Tim Horton’s outlets. All this was accompanied by an explosion in racial inequality—so much so that in Toronto, Canada’s supposed beacon of diversity, a person of color earned just 52.1 cents for every dollar earned by a white person. Though the standard of living has not fallen to US levels, the generous welfare state on which Canadians once prided their country was now more an ideal they clung to than a reality.
This was the result of a nearly forty-year program of privatization, deregulation, corporate tax cuts, and reductions in social spending—implemented, to different degrees, by Liberal and Conservatives parties alike. It was, in fact, under the tenure not of the Conservatives but of the Liberals in the 1990s that the state underwent its most dramatic downsizing, an agenda locked in by the biggest corporate tax giveaways in the country’s history. The irony was that the Liberal party more successfully advanced such right-wing economic policies because Canadians trusted them. “The Liberals were not perceived as black-hearted accountants,” the most senior civil servant noted at the time. “They were perceived to believe in government.”
Another poll from the EKOS agency, in 2014, which Liberal strategists scrutinized closely, suggested that supposedly quiescent Canadian voters were beginning to stir in revolt. The polling company presented Canadians with the following statement: “If the current patterns of stagnation among all except those at the very top continue, I would not be surprised to see the emergence of violent class conflicts.” An astonishing two out of three people endorsed the view.
Just months before becoming prime minister, Trudeau offered a warning at the Canadian Club of Toronto, the ritziest lecture series on Bay Street: a backlash against the elites was looming, if confidence in the economic system could not be rebuilt. The country needed a plan “aimed squarely at restoring that sense of fairness,” he told the assembly of financial elite, otherwise “Canadians will eventually entertain more radical options.” A hush fell over the room. Trudeau asked for their support for a modest “tax hike on the one percent,” allowing him to channel the rhetoric of the Occupy movement.
This was the maneuver the Liberal Party succeeded in pulling off in that year’s election: building buzz about how a Trudeau victory would be an anti-establishment breakthrough, while signaling to the business elite that its interests would be safeguarded. It was a vital function served by Canada’s Liberal Party over their long, successful history: cushioning discontent in every generation in which it has peaked, like a shock-absorber for the establishment.
While the previous Conservative prime minister had made his loyalties to certain sections of the elite brazenly obvious, provoking widespread resistance, Trudeau struck a much quieter compact with the oil and media barons, arms manufacturers, banks, pharmaceutical companies, Silicon Valley billionaires, and Toronto’s Bay Street financiers. Trudeau’s technocratic approach savvily passed off the corporate elite’s preferred policies as the vehicle for progressive political transformation. Thus he sold a carbon tax, which the business lobby had advocated as a green fig-leaf for expanded tar sands oil production and pipelines, as a solution to climate change.
In those early days, often wearing a trade-mark denim jacket, Trudeau put on a credible show of reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples: paddling down rivers with indigenous youth, making repeated apologies for past mistreatment, and becoming the first prime minister to adopt the language of “decolonization.” But the spectacle merely disguised the fact that appropriations of land were not only continuing but even accelerating, as the government pursued a long-term goal of eliminating the land rights of indigenous peoples to achieve a stable basis for unhindered resource extraction.
A trade agenda that had helped hollow out Canada’s manufacturing core and industrial jobs was rebranded as “progressive and inclusive.” A restrictive immigration system was lauded for accepting 30,000 Syrian refugees—vastly less than comparable industrialized countries like Germany—while it continued to indefinitely detain or deport thousands of other asylum seekers, increased the numbers of exploited workers without official immigration status, and upheld an absurdly outdated policy recognizing the US as a safe country for refugees. The Liberals boosted military spending by 70 percent, to take place over ten years, something that would have elicited howls of protest under Conservative Stephen Harper, even as Trudeau burnished the country’s image as a global human rights icon. And taking direction from BlackRock, the ascendant titans of Wall Street, Trudeau began opening up transit projects to privatization, with his ministers’ talking points—written by the investment firm in secret meetings—enthusing about the miracle of innovation.
If working-class Canadians continued to struggle—with nearly half of the country’s citizens $200 away from insolvency at the end of each month—the view from the top was rosy. Two years ago, the top five Canadian oil-producing companies made $46.6 billion in profits. Last year, the big six banks bagged $45 billion—nearly twice what they made in 2010, and the eighth consecutive year they’ve set a new high. Since Trudeau came to office, the amount of money the richest Canadians have stashed away in offshore tax havens nearly doubled to $353 billion.
Meanwhile, 4,000 new foreign millionaires from Europe, Asia, and Latin America moved to Canada last year, turning the country into one of the most popular destinations for the uber-rich escaping higher taxes and more regulation elsewhere. Despite a four percent tax rate hike on the richest Canadians, their incomes still increased faster than anyone, and they continued to benefit from major loopholes retained by the Liberals. The pageant of splashy announcements and bold initiatives from Trudeau’s government that had seemed to disrupt politics-as-usual had in fact mostly shored up prevailing disparities of wealth and power.
It was no wonder that Trudeau became a darling of Davos, idolized by a global liberal establishment that felt increasingly besieged by surging challenges from the left and right. And while the popularity of French President Emmanuel Macron—the other centrist savior of the era—crashed within a year of his ascendance, Trudeau continued to ride high. The self-awareness about his role was apparent in a moment of unscripted candor, when he told The Guardian, in 2016: “We’re actually able to approve pipelines at a time when everyone wants protection of the environment. We’re being able to show that we get people’s fears and there are constructive ways of allaying them—and not just ways to lash out and give a big kick to the system.” Getting gains for the fossil-fuel industry while hoodwinking popular anger at a hoarding elite: Trudeau had never stated so baldly that his goal was not to transform the status quo, but to smoothly defend it.
Three years later, the hunger among Canadians for the “radical options” about which Trudeau had warned the Bay Street financiers has not diminished. The modest reforms that Liberals have delivered—a monthly payment to families raising children, better representation of women and people of color in cabinet and in the civil service, and incremental measures to reduce carbon emissions—have done little to address the root causes of racism, deteriorating public services, or climate breakdown. Canadian liberalism—with its commitment to free-market orthodoxy, its insouciance about inequality, and its loyalty to extractive industries—struggles to provide answers to the crises of our age.
And Trudeau’s formula for winning office—the latest, most glitzy attempt to prolong discredited neoliberal Third Way politics—may no longer be effective. Decades of slow, grinding cuts to the social safety net and the public sphere has left a dignified existence—decent wages, affordable housing, accessible education—out of reach for growing numbers of people. Nearly 60 percent of Canadians polled now say they have a positive attitude toward socialism. But the country’s social-democratic New Democratic Party has struggled to revive its traditional politics of redistribution and solidarity, just as insurgent politicians in the US like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are demonstrating the renewed currency of such ideas. This has created an opening for a resurgent right to seize on the anger and insecurity unaddressed by Liberal policies and direct it toward scapegoats, rather than vested interests.
For the first time in a quarter-century, Canada has experienced an uptick in anti-immigrant sentiment. Under Trudeau’s term in office, the number of active white nationalist groups has tripled. All this has set up the glaring contradiction of Canadian politics: although opinion polls frequently suggest that Canadian society has become more compassionate and tolerant, more supportive of wealth taxation, ambitious social programs and climate action, the right-wing is now in a position to exploit the absence of a bold left-wing alternative to establishment liberalism.
At the provincial level, a tide of right-wing parties enacting austerity have already swept into power, including an elite-bashing pseudo-populist in Ontario, Doug Ford. If there was a distinguishing mark of his 2018 election campaign for premier, it was his supposed loyalty to the “little guy”—despite his having inherited a multimillion-dollar business from his father, a conservative politician, and coasting into a political career thanks to Stephen Harper’s political machine.
In October’s election, Trudeau may hold onto power in a minority government, and perhaps even win another full-length majority term. If he does so, it will be in part because of his luck that the Conservative Party currently lacks a leader at the federal level who can summon such pseudo-populist energies. This may only delay a political eruption a few years down the line. The liberal formula is unravelling, in Canada as elsewhere. The question is what sort of politician, offering which flavor of radical options, will step into the breach.
Adapted from The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent, published by Black Rose Books.
Martin Lukacs is an independent journalist living in Montréal, Canada. He writes regularly on the environment for the Guardian. Follow him on Twitter @Martin_Lukacs.