When did the Liberal government go tone deaf?

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How does a government suddenly go tone deaf?

It's as if the Liberal cabinet was frolicking along among its doting public when an explosion went off at close range, rattling their hearing. Before, they had perfect pitch -- in opposition, during the election, even after it -- for instance, in how they handled the Syrian refugee issue. Then Kaboom -- they lose their sense of balance, they can't even hear themselves. Consider:

  • Chrystia Freeland walks out on the CETA talks. Our trade minister seemed near tears over not closing her deal with the EU. There's now a tentative resolution but if tears must be shed here it should be for the generations whose lives have been wasted by these deals for 30 years. That's a political reality, not just a human one: it fuelled the Brexit, Sanders and Trump movements.

Did she not get the memo about free trade deals being no longer immune from criticism -- even at official levels? The U.S. Congressional Budget Office says, contrary to hype, the deals have "relatively small positive impacts." An IMF research piece, "Liberalism Oversold," says, "Instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality." A Tufts University study calls previous models far too cheery; actually CETA could lead to "net losses in terms of employment, personal incomes and GDP in both Canada and the EU." Economist Dean Baker says they're about "redistributing income upward."

Inequality is an evil that Freeland knows well. It was the theme of her book, Plutocrats. She enthuses over free trade because it has raised levels in the Third World and that's a serious argument in its favour. But it did so while undermining the lives and bargaining power of working people in the developed countries: that's serious too. Why should they pay the price while the plutocrats get richer? As a minister, you ought to publicly acknowledge and deal with these questions -- versus suffering over your own foiled projects.

  • Bombardier, about to get another billion in public money, announces 2,000 job cuts. Their CEO said it's "to ensure the future of the company." Okay, that's his job. But innovation minister Navdeep Bains echoed him, literally: "As the CEO mentioned [ECHOECHOECHO], this is their way of reorganizing … this is such an important company … we want to make sure the company is set up for success …" Doesn't Bombardier have its own PR team? It sounds like, "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA," from the 1950s. He didn't even add the "good for the USA/Canada" part. This goes beyond tin ear, tone deaf syndrome. He bowed perfunctorily toward workers' job losses, but even a CEO would. Who does he identify with? Scary question. He said Bombardier's CEO was in touch with him the day before. He didn't say anything about talking to the union or workers but why would he? They've been neutered by free trade deals that shipped jobs elsewhere and left them without significant leverage.
  • Justin Trudeau at a labour youth congress has part of the audience turn their backs on him. "I think it reflects poorly on everyone who does want to listen and engage," he said, sounding for the first time ever like your vice-principal. Earlier his finance minister, Bill Morneau, told a Liberal meeting that eternal employment precarity for youth is "going to happen, we have to accept that." Spoken like someone who won't ever need to experience it. He said he wants to "soften the blow," which is like telling seniors that you know they're going to be eating cat food but you'll help them adjust. Trudeau said something just as offensive when he told the young workers that he'd addressed their issues by raising pensions. So you're in your 20s and by the time you're 65, you'll have a pittance set aside. All that comes in between is your life.

Jean Chrétien didn't reach this point of disconnection till four years after becoming PM when a waitress asked him something abrasive in a town hall. He never did another one. He used to love those settings.

Why does it happen? Life gets too comfy? (You never have to worry about your dry cleaning, said an ex-cabinet minister. It just gets done.) Or is it the Yes Minister factor: those silky deputies who effectively replace your outlook on the real world. When you were in opposition, the view was relatively unobstructed.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

PMO Photo by Adam Scotti

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