Slick, brand-driven star power legitimizes the neoliberal status quo, obscuring growing inequalities as the alt-right and climate crisis loom on the horizon. This is the backdrop for Martin Lukacs’ first book, The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent, a comprehensive and devastating analysis of Justin Trudeau’s dazzling rise to power and the bleak realities of his government.
The Trudeau Formula begins by describing a pitch made by the Liberal leader to the Bay Street audience of the Canadian Club of Toronto in May 2015: “If we don’t deliver fairness, Canadians will eventually entertain more radical options,” Trudeau explains. His grand bargain was to rehabilitate and polish the image of Canada, domestically and on the world stage. Implementing a few small concessions and a sprinkling of “fairness”, paired with egalitarian rhetoric, could establish enough distance from the Harper years, while subduing growing discontent across the country.
What Lukacs outlines in this well-researched book are the great discursive contortions that Trudeau paired with a largely status-quo agenda during his four years in power. His celebrity darling status in the international press, paired with grandiose pledges of transformative change, have ultimately proven not to line up with reality.
Consider, for example, Trudeau’s pledge to the United Nations Climate Summit in Paris to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Received with much fanfare, it was followed up with major fossil fuel infrastructure announcements including the Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipelines, a massive liquefied natural gas plant in British Columbia, seismic testing in the Arctic, and deepwater oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
The alleged ‘war on inequality’ declared by the Liberals in 2015 was also largely artificial. Trudeau had campaigned on closing a major tax loophole used by corporate executives, which allowed CEOs to pay themselves in lowly-taxed stock options rather than higher-taxed salary income. This cost the federal government $1 billion every year, but Finance Minister Bill Morneau backtracked in 2016 due to pressure from Canada’s largest corporate lobby group, the Business Council of Canada (formerly named the Canadian Council of Chief Executives). Similarly, Canada’s big six banks, as well as communications giants Telus, Rogers and Shaw, all lobbied the government intensely to water down and eliminate any consumer protection measures that might impede their profits.
The Liberals’ relationship with the fossil fuel industry makes for fascinating reading as well. Trudeau’s chief strategist Gerald Butts, who before politics served as President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada in 2008, quietly killed off the organization’s campaign against Alberta’s oilsands in 2010. As early as 2012, Trudeau called Alberta’s oilsands a “blessing”, and would go on to present himself to the oilpatch as a more sensible salesman than Harper, someone who “could soften the ranks of opposition with a cheerful disposition and diplomatic touch.”
Trudeau would prove to be more amenable to industries’ need to develop a national energy strategy, including its proposals for a carbon tax. Long opposed by Harper, the fossil fuel sector’s preference for this measure stemmed from the reputation and credibility it gained from the policy, while the costs associated with it were spread across the economy as a whole. Unfortunately, on their own, carbon taxes are woefully ineffective to address climate change, and require immense political capital to implement, while also constraining debate about more ambitions plans to tackle global warming.
Lukacs’ coverage of the reconciliation industry outlines one of Trudeau’s most cynical plays at co-opting the language of social movements to further the aims of corporate Canada. In the wake of Idle No More, the Trudeau government prepared to construct a new public consensus that would address the ugliness of the past and embrace Indigenous cultural expression, making use of the language of decolonization while steadfastly avoiding three forbidden topics: land, resources, and power.
While Trudeau offered tearful apologies for the wrongs of the past, the Liberals moved to create “certainty” over land claims, effectively a campaign to extinguish legal land rights claims. $650 billion of investment in mining, forestry, gas, and oil projects are on or near traditional Indigenous lands, and unresolved claims pose a risk for investors. Similarly, while Trudeau touted the importance of “free, prior and informed consent” for resource development on the 2015 campaign trail, echoing the language of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, by 2016, this became a more pliable commitment to “collaborative consent”.
Less image-driven but perhaps more sinister have been the Liberals’ efforts to entrench corporate power through free trade deals. This includes the Canada Infrastructure Bank, an effort to turn public infrastructure projects into a new frontier for private profit-making by large investment firms. This demonstrates that the Liberals have not learned any lessons from the failures of neoliberal privatization schemes. The risks of these partnerships are overwhelmingly borne by the public, who pay for the profits of investors through higher bills, user fees, government subsidies, and cuts in jobs and pay. Lukacs outlines how, outrageously, initial infrastructure bank schemes go so far as to guarantee eight- to ten-percent annual returns to a private investment consortium, which taxpayers will subsidize should the enterprise not reach profitable enough levels.
The Liberal government’s ultimate approval of arms sales to Saudi Arabia are a demonstrable example of the Trudeau formula in action. The sale of $15 billion dollars’ worth of light armoured vehicles—equipped with machine guns, a chain gun, and grenade launchers—was initially inked by Harper’s government and opposed by the Liberals. But when Trudeau came to power, his party consistently misled the public and took none of the opportunities they had to block the deal. Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen has killed more than 50,000 Yemeni civilians, while 85,000 children died of hunger within the conflict’s first two years. Saudi soldiers have shared social media photos of themselves in Yemen alongside convoys of the weaponized Canadian combat vehicles. Meanwhile, under Trudeau, Canada has become the second-biggest weapons exporter to the Middle East, after the United States.
Trudeau’s high-minded rhetoric about refugees and migrants offers yet another example of the disconnect between his words and actions. While Trudeau’s 2017 #WelcometoCanada tweet contrasted nicely with Trump’s Muslim travel ban, the reality is that Canada has not increased its refugee intake. Furthermore, asylum seekers who’ve applied for refugee status in the United States are barred from seeking refuge in Canada and automatically deported at the border, as the United States is deemed a Safe Third Country. Irregular crossings (not at a border post), however, receive a hearing, which means more risk and harm trudging across the border. To make matters worse, in 2018 the Liberals shifted rightward, establishing a new ministry of Border Security and Organized Crime, putting former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair (who presided over the G20 mass arrests) in charge.
Lukacs’ final chapter outlining the events of the federal NDP’s 2016 Edmonton convention and the Leap manifesto will be of particular interest to activists engaged in current Green New Deal proposals. Beyond the mechanics of the proceedings and the eventual ouster of Tom Mulcair as party leader, it suggests a real struggle between different generations of the left and how they interact with the party. Intriguingly, it raises questions that activists must ask themselves: whether a party that has largely faltered in responding to the neoliberal consensus will have the courage to break with the artifice of corporate-media image politics, and take on the status quo with the bold changes that Canadians want and deserve.
Joël Laforest is a graduate student with a background in philosophy and geography. He currently researches income polarization, organizes local reading groups, and is a researcher and panelist on the Alberta Advantage podcast.