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The PM's plane is transformed into a metaphor
I stopped by the Conservative Convention on Thursday night, just briefly. The mood (which I ascertained by asking several Conservative acquaintances “What’s the mood?”) was cautiously optimistic. The Conservatives I met — a random sample, skewed older because I haven’t met a new generation of Conservative activists — sounded pleased with Pierre Poilievre’s summer. But they also figure they’re getting a second look because voters have given the Liberals a hundred looks and they always see the same thing.
Later, word came from India that Justin Trudeau’s airplane had malfunctioned, stranding him, one hopes only briefly. It’s always a drag when a politician’s vehicle turns into a metaphor so obvious it begs to go right into the headline. As for the cause of the breakdown, I’m no mechanic, but I’m gonna bet $20 on “The gods decided to smite Trudeau for hubris.” Here’s what the PM tweeted or xeeted before things started falling off his ride home:
One can imagine the other world leaders’ glee whenever this guy shows up. “Oh, it’s Justin Trudeau, here to push for greater ambition!” Shall we peer into their briefing binders? Let’s look at Canada’s performance on every single issue Trudeau mentions, in order.
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On gender equality, the World Economic Forum (!) ranks Canada 30th behind a bunch of other G-20 members.
On global health, this article in Britain’s BMJ journal calls Canada “a high income country that frames itself as a global health leader yet became one of the most prominent hoarders of the limited global covid-19 vaccine supply.”
On inclusive growth, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has a composite indicator called the Inclusive Growth Index. Canada’s value is 64.1, just behind the United States (!) and Australia, further behind most of Europe, stomped by Norway at 76.9%.
On support for Ukraine, the German Kiel Institute think tank ranks Canada fifth in the world, and third as a share of GDP, for financial support; and 8th in the world, or 21st as a share of GDP, for military support.
Almost all of these results are easy enough to understand. A small number are quite honourable. But none reads to me as any kind of license to wander around, administering lessons to other countries. I just finished reading John Williams’ luminous 1965 novel about university life, Stoner. A minor character in the book mocks the lectures and his fellow students, and eventually stands unmasked as a poser who hasn’t done even the basic reading in his discipline. I found the character strangely familiar. You’d think that after nearly a decade in power, after the fiascos of the UN Security Council bid, the first India trip, the collegiate attempt to impress a schoolgirl with fake trees, the prime minister would have figured out that fewer and fewer people, at home or abroad, are persuaded by his talk.
But this is part of the Liberals’ problem, isn’t it. They still think their moves work. They keep announcing stuff — Digital adoption program! Growth fund! Investment tax credits! Indo-Pacific strategy! Special rapporteur! — and telling themselves Canadians would miss this stuff if it went away. Whereas it’s closer to the truth to say we can’t miss it because its effect was imperceptible when it showed up.
In a moment I’ve mentioned before because it fascinates me, the Liberals called their play a year ago, as soon as they knew they’d be facing Pierre Poilievre. “We are going to see two competing visions,” Randy Boissonault said in reply to Poilievre’s first Question Period question as the Conservative leader. The events of the parliamentary year would spontaneously construct a massive contrast ad. It was the oldest play in the book, first articulated by Pierre Trudeau’s staff 50 years ago: Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative. It doesn’t work as well if people decide they prefer the alternative. It really doesn’t work if the team running the play think it means, “We’re the almighty.”
There may yet be years — two, anyway — before we get to vote in a general election. Obviously much can change. I’ve made it clear, just about every time I’ve written about specific Poilievre policies, that I’ve seen no reason to be optimistic that a change of government would guarantee any improvement in public administration. But what we’ve seen elsewhere — most spectacularly in provincial elections in Quebec and Ontario in 2018 — is that sometimes voters stop caring about that question. They have a simpler question: After a decade in power, does the government in place even notice large, obvious things?
I see the Liberal caucus will be in London, ON this week. Here’s a chance for them to practice noticing large, obvious things. MPs would do well to walk around the city’s downtown core after dark, east of Richmond St., between Dundas and York. If they travel in small groups they’ll probably be safe.
While they witness what a Canadian city looks like in 2023, they might remind themselves that their unofficial 2015 election slogan was “Better Is Always Possible.” And ask themselves how much trouble they’ll be in if voters still believe it.
Lately when I write about the Liberals I upset my Liberal subscribers and when I write about Conservatives I upset my Conservative subscribers. I know it can feel like shtick, but it reflects my conviction that the partisan joust, and the genuine feelings that underpin it, are easier to address than the wicked problems of a chaotic time. And therefore way too tempting to an entire generation of political leadership.
For the Liberals, the challenge has been obvious since 2019: Does Justin Trudeau learn? In 2015 he ran as a disruptor, a guy who had noticed large, obvious things — interest rates were low! Small deficits were more manageable than they had been in years ! — and was willing to be cheeky in ignoring the other parties’ orthodoxies. Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair were reduced to sputtering outrage that the new kid was making so many cheeky promises on fighter procurement (whoops), electoral reform (never mind), admitting Syrian refugees, legalizing cannabis, and more.
Since about 2017, inevitably, the Trudeau government has undergone a transition that’s common when disruptors become incumbents. He is increasingly forced to defend the state of things, rather than announcing he’s come to change it. He’s changed positions from forward to goal. All his opponents need to do is notice the big, obvious things he seems unable to see. The biggest: It’s become punishingly difficult for too many Canadians to put a roof over their head.
The old Trudeau would have done big, surprising things to show he could see such a thing. The Trudeau who ejected every senator from the Liberal caucus and broke a decade’s taboo against deficit spending would shut down the failed Canada Infrastructure Bank this week and put the savings into a national crisis housing fund. Or, I don’t know, some damned thing.
But of course, the surprising Trudeau of 2015 hadn’t been prime minister yet, had he? This hints at a question a few Liberals are starting to ask themselves. Does he have any juice left in him for more than pieties? He might still have some fight in him, but does he still have the job in him?
He’s already been in the job for longer than Pearson and Diefenbaker were. His indispensable right hand has been chief of staff longer than anyone who ever held the job. They have, for years, already been noticeably eager to administer lessons to others. Would they view a Liberal election defeat as their failure — or ours?
Would a prime minister who views a G-20 summit as a learning opportunity for every country except Canada view an election defeat as anything but further proof that Canada never really deserved him anyway?