observations and opinion
Justin Trudeau is the George W. Bush of Canadian politics: the amiable heir to a famous dynastic name, elevated to leadership by ambitious party operators. He is “Our Dubya.”
But in another, more curious sense, Justin Trudeau has become our nicer, sweeter Canadian version of Donald Trump: the man who already has everything. A man who has nothing to lose and who therefore can do anything he likes, to win.
But he will do it politely. This is Canada, after all.
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The Canadian election campaign is one month old and, despite minor tremors, the landscape is essentially unchanged: a close three way race, the NDP clinging to a negligible lead, the Conservatives stuck at or just below 30%. But ever so slowly, the Liberals have climbed out of the mid-20s and back into it. There are three reasons: (1) brutally dull campaigns by the Conservatives and NDP (2) the Liberal frontman, and the people behind him and (3) a very weird political climate.
That climate has two prevailing elements: a widespread, deep and intense dislike for the sitting Prime Minister, whose one-man government has irritated twice as many people as it has charmed, and the swirling discontent of the democratic masses worldwide. Maybe it’s social media, maybe it’s total disenchantment and despair, but something is happening out there. Voters aren’t doing what’s expected of them.
Around the world, democratic countries are going through a strange, disoriented period. People either hate government or despair of its impotence, or both. Government in the U.S. after a burst of activity from 2007-11, has fallen into an ugly game of inches. The EU is barely recognizable after its fistfight with Greece and its brutal response to the refugee crisis. Everywhere the electorate is disaffected and unimpressed. That, mixed with serious problems, opens the door to weird and unusual possibilities.
This is a busy and unusual political season in the democracies:Greece has been through craziness. In the UK, voters who supposedly hated David Cameron’s Conservatives, elected them with a majority. The Scots, having voted down independence, gave virtually every Parliamentary seat to the separatists. In the United States, the Republicans retook Congress yet the President, unshackled from re-election fear, suddenly is empowered (and the Supreme Court has helped him immensely).
Everywhere in the democracies we see a rising antipathy of voters towards traditional politics and politicians. The UK Labour Party, having adopted the kind of non-member “supporter” voting process which got Justin Trudeau to the top of the Canadian Liberal Party, will likely soon make leftist MP Jeremy Corbyn its next leader. Labour Party grandees, such as Tony Blair (whose three straight majorities were won at the centre of the political landscape) warn that doom is nigh, but also admit, the public ain’t listening.
There is a Corbynesque quality to what is happening right now in the U.S. Democratic Party. Disaffected by the behemoth front runner Hillary Clinton, many voters have gone into a swoon for a 73-year-old self-described socialist from Vermont; Senator Bernie Sanders is a genuine progressive – pissed off at how the rich have milked America and gravely disappointed in the Obama Administration. Sanders is enjoying one of those peaks of popularity common to no-hope candidates well before the actual voting day. Or so it seems. What may also be true is that his popularity signals the fundamental weakness of Clinton and the wide distaste among voters for yet more of the same. So too with the GOP, which isn’t biting on its dynastic candidate Jeb Bush.
In Greece, where real doom has been nigh for a while, distaste hardly describes what the voters experience. Mired in self-inflicted debt and Euro-inflicted austerity, they dumped the old government some months back and brought in Syriza, a socialist party led by the telegenic Alexis Tsipras. As we all know now, Mr. Tsipras has proven to be one very peculiar political cat: refusing a debt deal from the EU, he called and won a referendum mandating him to screw the creditors (and to hell with the consequences). Then of course, he was humiliated and schooled by the German-led EU into accepting an even worse deal. Now, Tspiras has called an election before things get worse for him. The guy is shameless.
Which takes us to Donald Trump and, to his north, Justin Trudeau. Trump, whom I have described as “the disease the GOP caught after screwing America”, has never been taken seriously by “serious” people in U.S. politics. His rapid rise to the top of the Republican nomination ranks – and his tenacious grip on the position – has dumbfounded just about everybody. With every ugly and stupid thing he says, he gains popularity. Donald Trump is the living embodiment of disaffection and disgruntlement, a demagogue whose comedic stylings disguise a dark, egomaniacal mind. Trump isn’t the favourite yet to win the Republican nomination, but he’s getting there, in spite all of conventional wisdom.
Something is going on here. There is a powerful, unsettled sirocco of populist feeling pushing across the political landscape. Whether it is earnest and sincere men like Corbyn and Sanders, or say-anything-demagogues like Tsipras and Trump, unusual figures are attracting attention and at least temporary support. Voters are unimpressed with the established, standard political types and are trying-on other types.
We have seen signs of this restless breeze in Canada. It began in 2011. The Liberal Party having drowned in a bathtub of its own cynicism, collapsed and the happy Jack Layton NDP burst up through the centre. In Alberta recently, the Wild Rose Party was supposed to win, then shockingly lost to the PCs, who then shockingly lost to the NDP.
The Canadian federal election on October 19th would not have been called had Prime Minister Harper not set the date in stone. Two-thirds of voters polled say they want a new PM. The “anti-Harper” vote, even counting for a real electorate that is older and more conservative than the population at large, likely stands around 50%. A lot of people hate Harper, and they’ve been waiting for the chance to exercise that feeling. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, just waiting for the opportunist of a lifetime, to grab it.
Many saw Mr. Mulcair as that opportunist. A Liberal by past association and a pretty conservative man compared to the rank and file of his party, Mr. Mulcair has presented himself as the sober, centrist, serious option – in contrast to the repeatedly inept, famously famous but not-so-impressive Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Muclair’s great hope was that the anti-Harper sentiment would coalesce around him, the serious man in Opposition. The NDP strategy seems now to be dignified, sound sensible, look electable and let the voters come to them.
Up until the election call, a third of voters asked said Mulcair was the one. But you have to wonder if a good portion of that vote was parked, but idling, waiting to see if another option would open up. And, in this strangely hot, shaky political season, the voters may well be ready for someone not quite so serious as the deadly grim Prime Minister Harper, or the supremely dad-like Mulcair.
Enter the Liberals. With a leader who tries to sound like a populist (but who in fact is the most manufactured, elitist political product since George W. Bush), the Liberals seem like the only party out there ready to take a risk. Having little to lose and being lightly burdened with modesty, the Liberals have hoisted a pretty kite into the hot wind of political distemper. It is starting to get airborne.
This week we see Mr. Trudeau continuing to beat the drum of refugee rights, in the wake of the well-publicized drowning of a Syrian child. Last week Mr. Trudeau burst onto TV to demand that Harper and his Immigration Minister apologize for killing a child they didn’t, as it turned out, have anything to do with killing. Oops. Not really oops, he’s not apologizing for asking for that apology. Instead, he’s demanding a meeting with Harper and Mulcair. Sure, that’ll happen.
Also this week we saw JT announce a Two Billion Dollar Tax Hike, to pay for fatter Employment Insurance benefits. He did this in beautiful Bouctouche, New Brunswick – rubbing in the faces of his most loyal voters that they can’t keep a job. I bet there are a few Maritimers who didn’t appreciate the insult but the Liberals are at 50% in the polls out there. This’ll get them to 55%.
The week before that, we saw the “budget will balance itself” turn into “but I won’t let it balance itself” – a new promise to run deficits in order to cure a recession which may already be over. The word “billions” has become a commonplace trope in Liberal advertising. In the face of a dour NDP pledge to balance the budget, we heard Mr. Trudeau and Paul Martin – Paul Martin!! – accuse the NDP of threatening austerity. Something weird is going on when the Liberals promise tax hikes AND deficits simultaneously. And before that, was the pledge, to “grow the economy from the heart.” Reporters chuckled, Liberals cringed in embarrassment and then….nothing. It didn’t hurt them at all.
One would think the collective laughter of a great nation would rise up at the sound of such things, but strangely, it has not. While the Trudeau Liberals have been tossing fiscal rectitude aside and hanging innocent men in effigy, their numbers have gotten better. One poll has them in first place, most have them in second. Another week or two like this and the Liberals will have a solid lead. For the Liberals “the lead” is holy ground. It’s what makes them electable. Getting there was the only reason they made Trudeau leader, after all.
The Liberals are winning the campaign, by not being serious. Solemn and self-righteous, sure, but not serious. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that in this weird, loud, braying season of Donald Trump – in a year where unlikely and unbelievable characters are becoming popular or getting elected– Canadians might be ready for something very different indeed.
If much of the voting public is flip and unconcerned with who holds office, blame the Conservatives. We’ve had ten years of their mantra that government isn’t important. Government can’t do much to improve life, so what does it matter who governs? Besides, if Pierre Polievre can do it, can’t anybody? The Conservatives told us the job was small, and then convinced people that Trudeau was too. That’s the ultimate irony: by ceaselessly pounding away that Trudeau was not a serious person, the Tories tenderized the electorate: Justin may not actually be “ready” but the voters seem ready for Justin.
In Canada today we are in the eye of a storm, made up of political cross winds mixing apathy, anger, anxiety and suffocating boredom. The right man in the right moment, unshackled from traditional norms and with nothing to lose, can ride that storm to success. Prime Minister Harper is too leaden and dark to rise to the occasion, Tom Mulcair may be too risk-averse. Harper or Mulcair can win, but if so, they will do it on the ground.
In Justin Trudeau, however, the Liberal Party has something going for them that no other party has – a front man who will either fly, or crash. A leader who is so different and so un-serious, in the traditional sense, that he will do many unexpected things, to keep catching attention. Because it works.
As Alexis Tsipras and Donald Trump have shown, you don’t have to be well-informed, consistent or even coherent, to win. You just need “serious” people to under-estimate you, and to be willing to say or do, whatever the moment calls for.
And that, “friends, Romans, countrymen…” is how he wins. To paraphrase a former Prime Minister: just watch him.