Trudeau’s duplicity as Canadian Prime Minister is costing him in the polls and may open the way for a dangerous right wing resurgence, writes John Clarke
When I commented previously on the calling of a Canadian federal election by the Trudeau government, I suggested that the Liberals, as a party of the neoliberal centre, were holding onto power by default. Despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the governing party, neither the New Democratic Party (NDP) to the left nor the Conservatives on the right, had been able to pose a sufficiently credible alternative to unseat the Liberals since they won office in 2015.
As the campaign has unfolded, however, it appears distinctly possible that Trudeau may have miscalculated. He hoped to call an election, well before his government’s mandate was up, so as to regain a majority in the House of Commons, but the polls are increasingly suggesting that the Liberals will do well to remain in power, let aside increase their share of seats. Calling an unnecessary election is a bit like jumping out of a plane. If the parachute doesn’t open, it’s too late to change your mind and Trudeau is trying to look confident and photogenic as he tugs on the ripcord.
Though things could change between now and polling day on September 20, it’s clear that the dream of ‘sunny ways’ that Trudeau peddled in 2015 has long faded and that a general sense of disappointment in his government is complimented by a sharp hostility towards him personally. An Angus Reid poll shows the Tories with 33% support, ahead of the Liberals by 3% while the social democratic NDP registers 21% support.
The NDP will continue to advance policies somewhat to the left of the Liberals and their success in holding, or even increasing, their share of seats will influence the Liberals’ prospects significantly. From the standpoint of the electoral outcome, however, the big question is whether the Tories can maintain their forward movement. Their gains so far point to a major political upset.
‘Worker friendly’ Tories
Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, has done a surprising effective job of appeasing his party’s base of core reactionaries, while not alienating the moderately conservative voters he must win over to unseat the Liberals. With the horrible discoveries of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at residential school sites, the crimes of Canada’s colonial history have become a livid political issue in recent months.
In the spring, his promises of ‘reconciliation’ undermined, Trudeau ordered federal facilities to fly the Canadian flag at half mast. O’Toole had to challenge this on the election trail but made every effort do so in a way that was not overly jarring. He suggested that Canadians "should be proud to put our flag back up" but stressed that “Reconciliation will be important for me as will be pride in Canada.” A pretty nimble performance from someone who had previously asserted that the residential schools were a well-intentioned effort to educate Indigenous children.
There is a serious effort underway to present the Conservatives as the champion of ‘working Canadians.’ Their election manifesto, ‘Secure the Future,’ comes with photo of O’Toole that was obviously crafted to make him look anything but a representative of business interests. The pamphlet, though couched in predictably patriotic terms, spares no effort to drive home the message of a party that understands the needs and concerns of working class people. It speaks of a shared prosperity that will centre around a drive to ‘rebuild Main Street.’
Earlier in the campaign, O’Toole, announced that, if elected, he would require federally regulated businesses to appoint at least one worker representative to their boards of directors. No real details were provided but, in Canada, the Liberals have more expertise in co-option and collaboration and this was quite subtle by Tory standards. Last November, the right wing National Post ran a story that stressed how the Conservatives were working to find ‘voters among the working class and lower middle class who have drifted away from the left and become disengaged from electoral politics.’
The article included an account of O’Toole speaking before the elite Canadian Club in Toronto. He told the audience that “It may surprise you to hear a Conservative bemoan the decline of private sector union membership” and went on to tell them that unions had helped create a “balance between what was good for business and what was good for employees.” Doubtless, O’Toole has had very different private conversations with some of those who sat listening to him that day but it still represents a repackaging of the Tory Party.
This turn towards ‘worker friendly’ Conservatives has to be placed in some longer term context. Canada’s parliamentary system and its two main capitalist parties, were based on the British model. However, there are important differences in how things have developed. In Britain, the Liberal Party went into a state of faded glory in the first part of the 20th Century, while in Canada the Liberals have remained a strong contender for political power. The Conservative Party has also developed in rather different ways, especially in recent decades.
In 1993, the Tories suffered a near-death experience. In the election of that year, they went from a 169-seat majority to having just two elected members. At the same time, a new western-based right wing populist Reform Party, captured 52 seats. In 2000, Reform gave way to a new formation called the Canadian Alliance and this, in turn, merged with the still convalescing Tories three years later under the official title of Conservative Party of Canada
At this time, the head of the right wing Alliance was none other than Stephen Harper, who would be the Conservative Prime Minister from 2006-15. This infusion of a more right wing element into the party of mainstream conservatism has had a major impact on Canadian politics and not just at the federal level.
Since Harper moved on in 2015, the Tories have floundered and the Liberals have been able to hold onto power mainly by virtue of the travails of their main rival. The present effort to mount a Conservative challenge to Trudeau is clearly making some significant progress. The politically shallow but image conscious Liberal leader, moreover, has come to personify everything that is cynical and duplicitous in parliamentary politics. He is now scrambling to reignite the old magic that worked for him in the early days.
Right wing protesters, including anti-vaxxers, have been hounding Trudeau as he campaigns. Obscenities and death threats have been hurled at him and events have had to be cancelled and delayed. He has promised not be to intimidated by such interventions, telling the media "No, I'm not going to back down on a message that Canadians know is the right path forward, and that's why Canadians need to choose to move Canada forward in this pivotal time."
The idea of Justin Trudeau ‘facing down the mob’ conjures an image of his father, Pierre, who, as the new Liberal leader in 1968, stood on the reviewing stand at the St. Jean Baptiste Parade in Montreal and, as bottles and rocks were thrown by some supporters of Quebec independence, Trudeau refused to take cover. His father, however, was made of sterner stuff than Justin and it’s hard to imagine a repeat performance that would turn the election around.
If present trends continue and the Tories form a government, there is no doubt that their role as champions of working people will prove to have been for electoral consumption only. Though the Liberals are a safe and reliable alternative to them, the Tories are certainly the weapon of choice for the bulk of Canada’s capitalist class. If O’Toole maintains this winning streak, in the harsh present conditions of pandemic triggered crisis, we may expect a seriously escalated employer and state offensive on workers and communities. The need for resistance in the face of this will be even greater and more urgent than it is at present.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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