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Canada hasn't lurched to the left - it's returned to the centre

To describe Justin Trudeau's Liberals as a "leftward lurch" is to misunderstand how right-wing Stephen Harper's government was. 

Since the Canadian election on Monday, one of the most misleading claims in the international media is that Canada has suddenly “lurched to the left.” In a context where the Stephen Harper government has consistently moved the country to the right over the course of a decade, the only direction of travel for the opposition getting into power would be to move left… towards the centre.

The Liberal victory in Canada is not at all comparable to Jeremy Corbyn’s nomination as Labour leader in the UK or Bernie Sanders’ popularity in the Democratic presidential primary. In the British and American cases, these are internal party elections, among party members who tend to be more left-wing than the average voter. In Canada, Trudeau is a centrist leader who brought together disaffected conservatives as well as progressives, building a broad coalition of support that cuts across geographical, class, and educational divides.

The Liberals’ core manifesto pledges merely return Canada to its natural state of progressive centrism. Environmentalism, protecting Aboriginal rights, and supporting immigrants and refugees are core aspects of the Canadian identity which have been mauled by the Conservative government. Harper tried to convince Canadians to fear their own neighbours, to believe that enemies are lurking everywhere. His attempts to divide the country into “old stock Canadians” and ‘dangerous others’ failed miserably and sounded absolutely absurd to Canadian ears.

There is nothing radical about the Liberals’ economic policies either. They plan to cut income taxes for middle income earners and raise them for those earning over $200,000 – to levels that are still lower than in the UK.

The Liberals plan to scrap the regressive income splitting introduced by the Harper government last year – a policy whereby a high-income earner (typically a man) is able to transfer part of his income to a lower-earning spouse for tax purposes. The policy currently benefits 13 per cent of families – high income earners with stay at home spouses. It reinforces men’s dominant role in relationships and discourages women from working. Introducing income splitting was a “lurch to the right”; getting rid of it is merely a return to progressivism.

Among the Liberals’ other so-called left-wing policies are the reintroduction of the long-form census (meaning a return to evidence-based policy-making), the amendment of the anti-terror Bill C-51, which has been deemed unconstitutional by lawyers and experts around the world as an infringement on civil liberties, and the improvement of the Access to Information Act so that all government data is open by default.

While the party does not preclude the option of running a small deficit until 2019/2020 to invest in infrastructure, innovation and clean technologies, they are able to win support because the whole of their economic platform is credible and realistic. Some on the left are claiming that the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) lost because it promised a balanced budget, coded as “austerity”. This is only half of the sentence – they promised to balance the books while also promising the sun and the moon in spending and investments. A fantasy budget. The NDP dropped in the polls when all of the manifestos came out.

In an article for The Atlantic, David Frum argues that it is populist anger about inequality, similar to that expressed by Corbyn and Sanders, which is driving Canadians “to the left”. While this is of some concern, he misreads the root of Canadians’ antagonism.

Stephen Harper has utterly transformed Canada’s democratic nature. Most commentators abroad have only caught wind recently, but anger has been brewing for years in Canada. The Conservatives committed electoral fraud in 2011. Members of Team Harper have been caught misleading parliament. Civil servants and scientists have been prevented from speaking to the media. The government has outright lied to the public, has concealed evidence of crime, has been complicit in Senate scandals, has spied on opponents, has bullied and smeared members of its own party. Stephen Harper has prorogued parliament more than other Prime Minister in Canadian history. The government has targeted progressive think tanks through extensive audits. It has eliminated the independent elections monitor (the individual is now someone directly responsible to the prime minister), forbidden campaigns to encourage voter turnout, and increased the influence of money in politics. Even John Ibbitson, one of Harper’s biographers, concludes: “No prime minister in history and no political party have been loathed as intensely as Stephen Harper and the Conservative party.”

It suddenly becomes clear why 32 pledges to strengthen democracy, including electoral and Senate reform, were a core part of the Liberal manifesto. To say that voters chose Trudeau because of anger over inequality would be to miss the point. Canadians wanted a change of policies, but also of tone. The Liberals won offering Canadians a positive, inclusive, pluralistic counter-narrative to Harper’s portrayal of the country.

Canadians chose a politics of hope over a politics fear. The proposed moderate agenda merely brings the country back to the centre after a decade of right-wing rule.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”