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23 October 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 1:20pm

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. 

By Claudia Chwalisz

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.

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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.

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