Trudeau’s rise is a victory for style over substance

Rory O’Neill argues that the widespread fawning over Trudeau’s rhetoric is misplaced and unwarranted


“Trudeau, like Obama and the U.S. Democratic Party, is the media-savvy face of liberal capitalism.”

Justin Trudeau struck quite a chord in May last year when he replaced the Conservative Stephen Harper as Prime Minister of Canada. Trudeau was welcomed as everything Harper was not —  young, progressive, liberal, and an ally to LGTBQ people and women. It is not hard to see what Trudeau has to offer to European liberals who have been cursing their lot with the likes of Farage, Boris Johnson, Enda Kenny and so on. No doubt many wonder why we can’t have someone like that — a handsome arts graduate who at least has the decency to say the right things about women and LGTBQ people — even if he doesn’t mean them.

It is hard to think of any world leader quite as skilful as Trudeau in this respect. As a posterboy for Progressive, Socially Responsible Capitalism ™, Trudeau could potentially outperform even Barack Obama. Obama spent many years weighing up the moral considerations on either side and profoundly contemplating the changing opinion poll trends before he was convinced by the argument for marriage equality. Awarding Ellen DeGeneres the Presidential Medal of Freedom was surely the coup de grace, the crowning achievement of heartlessly cynical liberal showmanship. Trudeau has at least another four years to conjure up his response.

The rise of Trudeau

“Centrist politicians, gifted with charisma and good looks, promising a departure from ‘establishment’ politics tend to amount to little.”

Trudeau’s election was facilitated by a retreat to the centre by the New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP, Canada’s instance of social democracy, had enjoyed a surge in recent years, particularly under the leadership of the late Jack Layton. His successor, Thomas Mulcair, however, was more of the Blairite mould. The NDP arguably had a real chance of entering federal government for the first time in their history on a clearly left of centre platform, but bottled the opportunity and retreated into the centrist comfort zone of pledging to “balance the books”. This was a gross miscalculation of how frustrated Canadians were with Conservative austerity policies. Trudeau and the Liberals rushed to fill the vacuum, offering themselves as the ‘progressive’ alternative.

After a year in government it is clear that this progressive facade was wafer thin. Canada remains one of the largest arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia, and despite claiming “Poverty is Sexist”, Trudeau’s economic agenda offers no departure from Harper’s neoliberalism.

Most significantly, for many young Canadians themselves, the mask is already beginning to slip. Trudeau was humiliated at the recent Young Workers’ Summit, at which he was drowned out by heckling and challenges from the floor. Much of the crowd turned their backs on him as he spoke. The concerns expressed by the workers did not speak to any narrow sectional interest but rather a profound disillusionment with Trudeau’s government. He was challenged on indigenous rights, environmentalism and the failure to secure well-paid work and stable contracts for young people. On all of these issues, Trudeau has fallen short of the mark.

Style over substance

“As a posterboy for Progressive, Socially Responsible Capitalism ™, Trudeau could potentially outperform even Barack Obama”

On the issue of Indigenous people in Canada, Trudeau was, as with everything, a master of appearances. He presented himself as a champion of the oppressed; the author of a new era of dialogue and cooperation between the state and Canada’s First Nations people. Trudeau’s government approved the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which will ship 19 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas a year from British Columbia to the Asian market. This will be among the largest fossil fuel developments in Canada, whose economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas. The project requires the construction of a major plant at the mouth of the Skeena river, located on First Nations land. In addition, Trudeau’s government has approved the construction of the ‘Site C’ dam on the Peace River in the same province. The Site C dam will flood 83 km of land which is home to First Nations people. West Moberly First Nations chief Roland Wilson asked: “If the relationship with Indigenous people is so important…why isn’t anyone listening to us?”. Anyone who supported the struggle of Native Americans to protect their land from corporate profiteering at Standing Rock should also recognise Trudeau’s failures on these issues. Any notions of Trudeau’s Canada being a tonic to an increasingly racist, white supremacist USA don’t seem to hold up to scrutiny when examined in light of both countries’ records on Indigenous people.

The Liberal government will also leave the tax breaks afforded to the natural gas industry in British Columbia untouched. Canada’s environmentalist activists say they: “expected better”. The provincial Premier Christy Clark claimed Trudeau would improve Canada’s global image, arguing “For a long time we have had a black eye on environmental issues and not really deserved it”. Any interested observers abroad should note that on the Liberal government’s first major test of their election promises to seriously tackle climate change — they failed.

The Liberals had also promised to overhaul Canada’s electoral system and promised that last year’s federal election would be the last one conducted under the First Past the Post system, which awards parliamentary seats to whoever has the highest number of votes. This system, used in the UK, allows parties to form majority governments with vote shares falling far short of a majority. Trudeau’s Liberals won a majority in parliament last year with 39% of the vote. First Past the Post often shuts the door on smaller parties and has been crucial in the creation of an effective two-party system in the United Kingdom. It seems, however, that the Liberals are backing away from their commitment. Trudeau recently argued, with impressive chutzpah, that the demand for electoral reform was “less compelling” because Canadians now had a government that they liked.

Backtracking on promises

“After a year in government it is clear that this progressive facade was wafer thin”

Trudeau’s climb-downs and backtracking are beginning to erode the trust and goodwill afforded to him by many of those NDP voters won by promises of progressive change. This effect shouldn’t be exaggerated. Trudeau’s approval ratings remain high. He has successfully pedalled his carefully curated media image while attempting to avoid any major policy confrontations so far. On those issues where he has been forced to been decisive, however, such as the LNG pipeline and the Site C dam, he has fallen short of expectations for anyone expecting a radical departure from centre-right politics. The direction of travel is clear. Trudeau’s, like every other Liberal government, will be a government of the rich, acting in the interests of Canadian capitalism at the expense of workers, the oppressed, Indigenous people and the environment.

None of this should come as any real surprise. The world has already lived through 8 years of this disappointment with Barack Obama. Centrist politicians, gifted with charisma and good looks, promising a departure from ‘establishment’ politics tend to amount to little. Trudeau, like Obama and the U.S. Democratic Party, is the media-savvy face of liberal capitalism. Trudeau’s liberalism, vacuous and hollow as it is, has bought him a significant honeymoon period. Yet over the next four years, his promises to reject austerity and deliver reforms for working people will be tested extensively. The Democrats have just discovered the bitter fruits of pledging change and delivering nothing. Time will tell whether Trudeau, and Canada, will meet the same fate.

Rory O'Neill

Rory O'Neill is a former Managing Editor of Trinity News, and a History graduate.