With their recent actions, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government risk creating the conditions for right-wing populism to flourish in Canada.
The trend is becoming clear in the West: if the choice is between out of touch, elitist, neoliberal corporatists, or right-wing populists, the right-wing populists have a good shot.
The defense against nationalist populism is not to mock and scoff at its adherents or call them a “basket of deplorables.” It is, as the Liberals promised, introducing an honest, transparent and ethical government that shows enough respect for the electorate to make an earnest attempt at fulfilling its promises. However, the Liberals are beginning to demonstrate the type of arrogance and hypocrisy that led to the rejection of Clinton in the U.S. and delivered the Brexit vote in the U.K.
Across Europe and the U.S., establishment politicians have their backs against the wall because of their inability to defend free-trade and globalization, because of their links to shady financing and crony capitalism, but mostly because of their doublespeak. The electorate can handle a questionable policy here and there or a few contradictions in words and action — what they are in no mood for is the kind of hypocrisy that takes them for dummies.
Surely the Liberals have taken stock of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the so-called “alt-right.” There are some international journalists who frame Trudeau and Canada as the last bulwark in the West against the fascist mobs overturning the global liberal order. Yet we all heard the “Lock her up” chant in Alberta last month — and we know the political ideology behind it.
Canada is not there yet, but we are nearing the precipice. It is not insignificant that we see the boundaries of our political discourse pushed to the far right by certain Conservative leadership candidates. Nor is it insignificant that Rob Ford held the mayorship of the largest city in Canada. If the general slide of western democracies toward cultural and economic nationalism hasn’t served as a warning, the Liberals might be more disconnected from the changing political tides than any of us can imagine.
Our prime minister trumpeted his own party’s “Open and Accountable Government” guide. He then proceeded to make a mockery of it with ongoing cash-for-access fundraising. Overall donations (and foreign donations) to the Trudeau Foundation have skyrocketed in the past two years, from $172,211 in 2014 to $731,753 last year. The electorate is right to be suspicious of why all this new money is flowing into the Trudeau Foundation.
Justin Trudeau lectures Canadians about women’s rights and calls himself a feminist. He then sells $15 billion of weapons to the Saudi Arabian internal security force and delivers a press release from a gender-segregated place of worship. He says we are not at war with ISIS, yet we get reports that our special forces are regularly engaged in ground combat alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.
The Liberals said 2015 would be the last first-past-the-post election, then they did everything they could to make sure it couldn’t happen. Critics were right to point out the whole process was a charade.
The electorate turned on Hillary Clinton for her influence peddling, arrogance and disconnection from the masses — and it is fair to say that in many circles, the same general narrative is fortifying around Trudeau.I t’s as if Trudeau is taking cues from one of Clinton’s unreleased speeches to Wall Street, unearthed in her hacked emails: “So, you need both a public and a private position.”
Both Trudeau and Clinton engaged in cash-for-access fundraising, leading to personal donations to their family foundations. Both seem hopelessly out of touch with the electorate — Trudeau with his celebrity persona, and Clinton with her millions received for giving speeches to Wall Street. Both may not have entered the public theatre, or have had success there, without a recognizable family name. Both talk a lot about the middle class, but neither seems to have much understanding of the sensibilities and struggles of those without university degrees.
Trudeau deserves credit for making some bold headway on certain files, such as the legalization of pot, and striking a climate deal with the provinces. However, Trudeau’s political instincts are drifting so far out of touch these days that it seems he is either unaware of the pressure western democracies are facing, or he is arrogant enough to believe that his image-over-substance approach is enough to stem the tides of right-wing populism in Canada. Wishful thinking.
The antidote to right-wing populism lies not in labelling its adherents racist, xenophobic or sexist, but rather in providing a clear alternative in a transparent and ethical government that shows enough respect for its electorate to not speak from one side of its mouth and govern from the other. Trudeau still has time to redirect the story, but for now, an undeniable narrative is taking root around him — and the result could be dangerously close to an upswing in nationalist populism.
Hailing from Newfoundland, Greg Squires is an educator, writer and adventurer who is interested in the intersection of education, culture and politics, with an eye for media criticism. He has lived and worked in multiple provinces, the U.K., Qatar and the U.S.
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Image: PMO/Adam Scotti