Why liberals were always wrong to idolise Justin Trudeau

The Canadian leader is a vapid sloganeer.

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For many who watched Canada’s 2015 general election from abroad, the victory of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals was cause for euphoric celebration. Having ended nearly a decade of Conservative rule, Trudeau arrived on the international scene as a progressive saviour and a social media savant, boasting a brand instantly synonymous with feminism, human rights and the fight against economic inequality.

The prime minister’s reception was hardly less rapturous at home, where his party’s popularity soon exceeded the vote share it secured at the election (39.5 per cent). After the nightmarish ascendancy of Donald Trump a year later, Trudeau’s reputation as a progressive white knight was only enhanced. He swiftly became the darling of magazine covers and op-ed sections on both sides of the Atlantic.

Across much of the Canadian left, these developments were more demoralising than they were uplifting. For one thing, Trudeau’s victory had come at the expense of the left-wing New Democratic Party, which early campaign polls had suggested might form a government for the first time in its history.

Once again, it seemed, the Canadian tradition of the Liberal Party gesturing to the progressive left then governing from technocratic centre right was recurring.

And there was good cause to doubt Trudeau’s progressive credentials long before the election (and his recent calamitous India trip). The son of former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who led Canada for 15 years, never seemed a likely tribune of transformative social change. A penchant for ideological triangulation (“Too much government is the enemy of freedom and opportunity, but so is too little”) and vapid sloganeering (“We are who we are and Canada is what it is because in our hearts we’ve always known that better is always possible”) had been visible in Trudeau’s leadership style from the outset, as had his timid opposition to the most noxious aspects of the Conservative agenda.

Among the clearest Liberal commitments was a pledge to end Canada’s antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system, which Trudeau duly discarded with stunning cynicism. His promise to implement “fully and without qualification” the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been violated repeatedly as the government pursues aggressively the construction of new oil pipelines in indigenous territories without full consent.

Yet besides these obvious breaches, it is the disparity between Trudeau’s rhetorical posturing and political execution that perhaps best illustrates the essential conservatism of his government. Social investment and Keynesianism, supposedly the defining pillars of Liberal economic strategy, have given way to corporatism and stealth privatisation.

Even as Trudeau performatively condemns corporate elites, his supposed war on inequality has amounted to tinkering with income tax brackets while opposing a $15-an-hour minimum wage for federal workers. The legalisation of marijuana looks increasingly like a cynical revenue-raiser for avaricious former politicians and ex-cops, rather than a deserved reprieve for those criminalised by the previous system. And while Trudeau’s government was talking up feminism and human rights abroad, it was also signing the export permits for $15bn-worth of armoured vehicles – including some labelled “heavy assault” – to Saudi Arabia.

These contradictions have yet to prove fatal for Trudeau. But his disastrous odyssey in India (where he opportunistically wore traditional outfits) and declining popularity in Canada have, for the first time, removed the aura of invincibility that once surrounded him. As the Conservatives challenge the Liberals from the right, and the New Democratic Party embraces an unambiguously social democratic programme under new leader Jagmeet Singh, the general election of 2019 will be a volatile one – and  could prove the ultimate test of Trudeau’s fragile ideological balancing act. 

Luke Savage is a Canadian journalist whose writing has appeared in Jacobin, Current Affairs, and the Globe and Mail.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war