In just one year, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has gone from being an agent of change to a scion of entrenched power. Though the dozens of consultations the Liberals have unleashed are ultimately discrediting the party, they may have already opened the door to a more hopeful and democratic future.
We’ve heard the story of Trudeau’s quick trip from hope to demoralization a few times at this point, but here’s a quick recap.
The federal Liberals were a elected with a strong mandate, enhanced by high youth turnout: to redistribute wealth, tackle climate change, reconcile with First Nations, achieve justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women, save Canada Post, create jobs, and reform an electoral system that handed power to the Conservatives for 10 years. A month or so ago, Trudeau even promised to keep his promises. And now, after a series of shambolic consultations, the Liberals have begun breaking their promises in earnest.
Pipelines have been approved, billions in fossil fuel subsidies remain in place, postal promises have been all but thrown out by a hand-picked panel of corporate B-listers, Indigenous rights have been denied and humanitarian crises ignored, infrastructure investments have turned into giant corporate handouts, and of course, we’ve been told that as long as the Liberals are popular, we won’t be changing the way we elect governments.
We’ll be hearing a lot more about broken promises and how they will hurt the Liberals. But there’s a deeper danger — and a deeper hope — inherent in this process.
First, the danger. If a Trump-like right-wing populist exists in Canada, they will come to power because cynicism sets in and most voters stay home. If Liberals leave first-past-the-post elections in place and demoralize the youth surge that brought them to power, they could be setting the stage for an even more toxic Conservative comeback in the 2020s.
Now the hope.
When the Liberals came to power, they set up a slew of consultations, on all of the aforementioned topics and then some. We know that the story of consultations ends with Trudeau and company ignoring all the results of all those painstaking meetings, the piles of letters and hours of testimony, of people taking the time to share their opinions as if they mattered. Consultations have been rightfully criticized as flytraps for activists and cul de sacs of popular participation.
We know that story’s beginning and end, but let’s take a closer look at the middle.
Before the Liberals big reveal that Bay Street billionaires were behind the curtain the whole time, something else happened: people spoke, not just to the government, but to each other.
We found out that 88 per cent of the experts who spoke on voting reform back proportional representation. We know that over half of the people who submitted to the Canada Post review supported postal banking and an expansion of services, and that a postal bank would start with over a million customers. We saw consultations on the Kinder Morgan pipeline host some extraordinary speechifying, and the venue itself became a catalyst for a demonstration of popular unity in opposition to the pipeline.
Consultations rebuilding the public imagination
It wasn’t always like this. Before the Harper era, we relied on governments and media outlets to mediate our conversations. During Conservative rule, we saw fear instilled and control tightly gripped.
We ended the Harper era as we began it, by giving a party absolute control of government with a minority of the votes. And that government has ended policy discussions as Harper did, by handing final say on all decisions of consequence over to a shadowy club of Bay Street billionaires.
But there was a moment, between the beginning and end. At the apex of the Trudeau arc, when what went up had not yet begun to come down. It was a moment of weightless possibility.
Before their results are unceremoniously discarded, the consultations showed us that the government has the ability to take an accurate snapshot of what people want. We’ve learned that given the means, a majority can be rallied around a progressive consensus that reaches further than any government has been willing to go. If we look at the resources that have been put into the neoliberal assault on the public imagination, that’s a remarkably hopeful starting point.
The sheer volume of consultations has shown us something else: that democracy can be a constant process that reaches into all of our government services to make them more responsive and serve the pressing needs of people and planet.
Postal workers have some lovely illustrations of this. The Delivering Community Power campaign reimagines Canada Post as an engine of transition to green transportation, logistics and energy, and proposes an extra layer of services for an aging population.
The campaign’s demands, if they are realized, would be a de facto assertion of community control over a crown corporation. Postal workers even take it a step further: many are calling for democratic input into decisions about how the bank is run.
That’s where the light gets in
After being slammed shut under Harper, the door to a democratic society has been cracked open just a skosh. It’s social movements — not electoral promises — that can push it wide open.
As movements push successfully (and ignore Bay Street’s complaints about the draught), it becomes easier to start imagining democratic input into the operations of every major institution, from hospitals to elections to post offices. Why shouldn’t workers and community members shape the priorities of these institutions directly? The innovation that this kind of popular control would unleash is nothing short of what is needed to address the twin social and climate crises we face.
Federal Liberals are starting to realize that it can be hard to shut a door that’s been opened — especially when people are pushing. Their attempts to muddy the waters of electoral reform have reached comical proportions (though it’s not yet clear who will be laughing last).
Liberal consultations may be a sham, but the potential of participatory democracy has always been revolutionary, and a small taste can be all it takes. If we can imagine democratic processes around electoral reform, the post office, or climate change, we can imagine democratically setting high-level goals for public services. If we can imagine that, we might start thinking of running our workplaces, banks and the economy using constantly-improving participatory methods.
Of course, building a twenty-first-century post office or a new electoral system are harder than opposing pipelines or privatization. On the ground, there are real choices to be made.
One response will be to tune out or retreat into smaller projects. Another will be to badmouth the Liberals while opposing their worst policies while hoping for an NDP leader to emerge in time for 2019. But the one thing that social movements can learn from consultations is that there is an appetite for big, ambitious changes – if movements can convince people that they are possible.
The beginning and the end of Liberal populism are demoralizing. But if we focus attention on a freeze frame in the middle, we can see a clear picture. It shows us that the task of building visionary politics happens in movements and nowhere else, and more importantly, it shows us that there’s a political opening for large-scale positive changes right now.
Dru Jay is Executive Director of Friends of Public Services.
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Image: PMO/Adam Scotti