CONSENSUS POLITICS IN CANADA: READING JUSTIN TRUDEAU

We’re now well into October, 2017, and Jagmeet Singh has been elected as leader of the New Democratic Party. He is the first visible minority to make that achievement in Canada. An important aspect of this leadership race, as with most, was about contrast. How did the candidates compare with one another on the economy, on the environment, on secularism, on democratic reform? And, just as importantly, how did the candidates stack up against the leaders of the rival political parties, Andrew Scheer and Justin Trudeau? The latter of the two was, understandably, much more central for debates between the New Democratic contenders. Now that we’re two years into the term of Trudeau’s government, we have the means to judge trendy sock-wearing style against policy substance.

It is surprisingly instructive to read Justin Trudeau’s political memoir, Common Ground, though not for the reasons he or his team intend. In it the son is keen to differentiate himself from the famous father. Justin describes himself as someone who, unlike the rather aloof Pierre, enjoys interacting with people in town halls and on the campaign trial. Yet he’s also quite keen to associate himself with Pierre’s intellectual and policy legacy, particularly the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We’re meant to see, in other words, that Canada’s second Trudeau PM is the more well-rounded, caring, but still principled leader, finely attuned to the necessities of good public relations in the twenty-first century. But as frequently as the father-son relationship is highlighted in Common Ground—with Justin trying to establish that he’s his own political man, that his political career is based strictly on merit and not at all on privilege—it put me in mind of someone else. That someone had run against Pierre Eliot Trudeau in his Montreal riding in the 1960s, and, I think it could be fairly argued, has spent the rest of his career trying to understand the kind of society Canada has become since that time. That someone is Charles Taylor.

In 1970 Taylor published a short book entitled The Pattern of Politics. In it, as a candidate for the New Democrats, the Quebec branch of which he helped found, Taylor tied Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal politics and “Trudeaumania” to what he saw as a politics of patrician consensus. This was (and remains?) the dominant pattern of Canadian politics. Taylor insisted that it was driven by a combination of paternalist-technocratic elitism, a woeful and basically immoral inattention to the structural inequalities of power and wealth, and a fundamentally anti-democratic attitude towards federal governance. As such a summary might indicate, the young Charles Taylor was a central member of the New Left. In his book he sought to outline the ways in which a deeper, structurally egalitarian, participatory politics could be rooted in purposive conflict. It was mystifying, he argued passionately and pointedly, for Pierre Trudeau to flap the muleta of consensus in an attempt to distract Canadians from the conflict generated by the distribution, operation, and mechanisms of power. Instead, Taylor countered, to invigorate democracy we must acknowledge division and difference where they exist, and we must work conflict into the means of decision-making about Canadian society’s common purposes.

It is refreshing to read The Pattern of Politics today, nearly 50 years after its initial publication. And that’s not least because Canada is now ruled by another Trudeau for whom consensus is once again central to his appeal. For the bread and butter of Canadian politics remains recognizably similar: front and centre are issues of federalism, democratic reform, multiculturalism, resource development, free trade, relations with the USA, and so on. Which isn’t to say there aren’t newly important topics of major political consequence—reconciliation with and justice for peoples and societies colonized by settler Canada, for instance. Still, to read Taylor’s book now is to be reacquainted with an enduring and powerfully trenchant critique of consensus politics in Canada.

By contrast, in his memoir and in his public appearances, Justin Trudeau obdurately insists that Canadians are tired of divisive and cynical politics. It would seem that Pierre’s “consensus” has become Justin’s “common ground.” Both leverage an imagined sense of unity in order to brandish it against their political opponents. But by talking about being tired of cynicism and division Justin and his Liberal Party have in mind primarily the politics of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Even so, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than those at the centre of the political spectrum in Canada taking Trudeau’s statement about cynicism in Common Ground at face value. For shortly after having made this pronouncement we read a self-congratulatory account of how the Liberal party, on its path to election victory over the Conservatives in 2014, “took a chance, running a campaign that believed in people.” Does Trudeau, or whatever team of public relations advisers who typed these transparently trite words, really expect us to believe (a) that they left their campaign strategy to “chance” or (b) that they alone and uniquely “believe” in people? Trudeau and his team expect us to nod in hope-and-change-y agreement. I leave it to the reader to determine the depth of their duplicity.

This rather cynical manipulation of sincerity is indicative of the wider tone of Trudeau’s book and, it seems to me, his political style. Ultimately this means one of two things. It is reflective of his own authorial voice or that of his strategists. Either way it makes for painful reading, as foolish as it may be to expect much from a political memoir serving as cover for what amounts to a lengthy campaign speech. At one point, astoundingly, Trudeau even suggests that as a small child he learned necessary leadership skills when he tried to settle a play-fight between his brothers. Common Ground frequently mines personal history for present political gain, rendering it at once shallow and tedious.

Much of Trudeau’s claim to be doing politics differently has to do with the simple fact that he isn’t Stephen Harper. Trudeau gets mocked for being the “selfie PM,” while Harper seems best characterized as someone who unironically dons an ugly Christmas sweater. But where Harper’s tactics were culled from calculating right-wing think tanks, Trudeau’s public relations strategy takes its cue from his career as a primary school teacher, retrofitted with the latest ersatz “insights” and “innovations” of “influencers.” Judged by what he chooses to reveal to us in Common Ground, which includes the speeches attached in the appendix, Trudeau’s pedagogical style attempts to draw out his student’s nascent abilities and interests, providing them with the opportunity to participate and collaborate in the exercise at hand. Such is the ideal. Meanwhile he, the knowing teacher, provides the necessary “leadership.” Those with less knowledge, experience, and pragmatic maturity, not only learn the answers, they do so while feeling as if they’re the ones responsible for that achievement.

It seems plausible to suggest, as Trudeau himself does in his book, that he has simply translated this style from the classroom to the town hall. It’s unclear whether or not he has thought through this analogy to the end, with its rather condescending implications for the intelligence of and respect due to Canadians as citizens. And although Trudeau acknowledges in his memoir that he has made mistakes, they’re relentlessly self-flattering. Time and again they provide him with the opportunity to “learn,” hence with a chance to display his pragmatic “leadership skills.” However, the veneer of approachability and open-mindedness doesn’t manage to conceal the fact that Trudeau’s political thinking and policy programme is largely settled. (To wit: his longstanding preference for ranked ballots nixed electoral reform.)

At several key moments in Common Ground Trudeau insists that respect in politics means separating personal attacks from disagreements. Few today would suggest that any meaningful debate can be achieved on the basis of disrespect, contempt, or malicious attacks. Yet it does not follow that personal character is totally irrelevant to politics. After all, this political memoir is at least partly an attempt to establish a public character for Justin, and to fuse that personality with a set of political convictions that resonates with a broad subsection of Canadian society. And if you listen to Canadian journalists (to name just a few: Andrew Coyne, Paul Wells, or Althia Raj), or to the opposition parties, when they speak with or about Trudeau and his government, they are clearly aware of the fact that, having made sincerity a central plank of their governing style, it pays to press Trudeau on it. If you make election reform a policy priority, for instance, both journalists and opposition parties will seize the opportunity to contrast a stated objective with its abandonment in actual practice. Far from “real change,” is that not politics as usual?

Besides, Trudeau himself isn’t afraid to make a few outlandish statements about his adversaries in Common Ground, even if they aren’t quite personal. You can utter sleek-sounding untruths about public and historical matters, it seems, so long as they don’t rely on arguments ad hominem. Which emboldens Trudeau to issue one-liners, such as a patently false moral and intellectual equivalency between Karl Marx and Ayn Rand. The Trudeau of “sunny ways” shows himself willing and able to deploy a longstanding rhetorical technique in the efforts to smear his adversaries—New Democrats (i.e. Marx) and Conservatives (i.e. Rand)—as impractical and dangerous, tainted by extreme ideologies. But even if Trudeau thinks he can defend this equivalency, he has conceded the more important point. Any attempt to cast his centrist liberalism as pragmatically neutral is belied by its ineluctable ideological normativity. While “consensus” and “common ground” sound like cheerful, all-in-it-together, non-partisan givens, such terms can be as deceptively ideological as they are motivational.

On several occasions in Common Ground Trudeau alludes to the fact that, over the course of the past 30 years, income and wealth inequality has increased in Canada. Yet he never once considers the question of why. Why has this happened and how can we make sense of it? It almost goes without saying that neoliberalism is not a word you will find in Trudeau’s vocabulary. Instead, to measure by the Liberal Party policy platform, finally delivered in 2015, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are to blame for Canada’s contemporary woes. But to raise questions about power and structure, to ask what neoliberalism is and analyze its impact on the shape of Canadian society in the recent past, would inevitably mean dividing some Canadians against others, which runs counter to the whole aim of Trudeau’s revised consensus politics. To put it slightly differently, addressing the consequences of neoliberalism in Canadian society would mean offering an assessment of the pattern of politics, much as Charles Taylor did 50 years ago. With no account of Canada’s recent social and political history, other than facile attacks on his main adversary at the time, Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau simply offers what he declares is the only way forward, one which, in the photoshopped world of inspirationally slick images, (middle class) Canadians come together to make things happen. In this memoir, it never really gets more specific than that. Hope and change and togetherness will lead to … hope and change and togetherness? And after two years of governing, much of the Liberal Party platform remains aspirational, if it hasn’t been abandoned altogether (bye-bye electoral reform, hello fighter jets). But I suppose this isn’t too surprising. If you don’t think that there are structural and fundamental problems of participation, inequality, and power in Canada, then you aren’t going to offer a programme that might attend to them. Charles Taylor recognized those problems 50 years ago and offered his assessment of how best to respond. Today, thankfully, we have a range of voices and perspectives offering fresh and important criticisms of the neoliberal order along similar lines, from the Leap Manifesto to the Courage Coalition to MPs such as Niki Ashton (whom, in full disclosure, I supported for NDP leader). To close by quoting Trudeau’s own policy platform: “Responsible governments do not walk away from challenges, or pretend they do not exist.”

DIARY: AUGUST 31, 2017

July and August were monotonous months. It was wintertime in Canberra, which, particularly in the evening, meant wearing “singlets” under sweaters under blankets. It was cold outside, it was cold inside. The purple wool throw—purchased in touristy enthusiasm in Melbourne—was in near-constant use. Every evening the temptation was an Australian fixture: a warming cup of Milo. (Australians do seem to love their sweets, if the size of the supermarket given over to chocolate is anything to go by.) Since our apartment only gets the tiniest sliver of direct sunlight during the day, and the difference between sun and shade is a matter of several degrees, it meant we couldn’t resist turning the heat on at regular intervals. At church, after a brisk twenty-minute bike-ride, Candace usually motioned us towards a pew directly under the buzzing heaters, glowing in orange contentment. Yet, for all that, even in winter Canberra remains remarkably green and sunny.

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The truffles used in cooking are, in terms of genus, fungus. More specifically, they’re a species of tuber, the part you eat being the underground fruiting body. This means that truffles are akin to mushrooms, though they don’t really taste, look, or feel anything alike. Truffles are more pungent, harder, typically blacker, and tastier. And that’s according to someone who enjoys mushrooms. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t that many places in the world where one can get local, fresh truffles, but in the past 10 years Australia has become one of them. Indeed, as we found out, not only can you buy truffles in Canberra, but there’s even a truffle festival. When Candace bought our first black truffle piece in July, she told me that the young woman in front of her—overhearing that she hadn’t ever cooked with them before—purchased $300 worth (weighing in at around 275 grams)! We spent a tenth of that amount, putting it in two different dishes: devilled eggs and a cream sauce fettuccini. When she asked him the best way to eat it, the truffle seller told Candace his most common way of preparing it was rather humble, in scrambled eggs. I can understand why. The black truffle pieces we bought were quite subtle. To my taste they possessed a light, yet rich, nuttiness. The trick seems to be to find a dish in which the truffle is accentuated or complimented, but not overwhelmed. I suspect that’s more difficult than it sounds. We only made the truffle pasta once, as good and simple as it was, because we found the truffle and devilled eggs combination to be an irresistible snack. But now that I think about it, I can’t help but wonder how truffle might taste in poutine.

Truffle. Taken 30/07/2017

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During the first few months in Canberra we shopped at a local farmer’s market for everything from meat pies to vegetables to doughnuts. The artisanal variety of bread on offer was very good, and we bought several loaves over the first weeks. But we found it a bit pricey. So eventually Candace decided to try making an overnight, no-knead bread. We haven’t looked back since. It’s incredibly simple, taking less than 15 minutes of total active time. You simply mix the ingredients, let the dough sit for 12 to 16 hours, flip and dust with flour an hour before you bake it. It costs pennies, you can mix in whole grain to make it a touch healthier, and, as I’m sure many people reading this can attest, there’s almost nothing quite like the smell, feel, and taste of freshly baked bread. In fact, as I was writing this the oven-timer went off. I dusted the dough, taking in its slightly yeasty smell, flipped it, and wrapped it in a tea towel. Very much on the plus side, as the season gets warmer here in Canberra, so the dough rises more and more. We can actually see summer coming in the shape of our bread.

No-knead bread. Taken 16/07/2017

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A short walk down the road from our apartment there’s a set of ponds, seemingly man-made, that are home to a range of birds. I first noticed this spot while out for a run, when a couple of brightly coloured birds meandered in front of me. Now, whenever I head out to take photographs, I tend to stop near the ponds to see if anything interesting is happening. To my pleasant surprise, there usually is. Next to a well-trafficked freeway, it’s unexpectedly peaceful and quiet here. The ponds and the canal that link them are at a substantially lower ground level, and the trees, bushes, and reeds that surround the water seem to mute much of the sound caused by passing vehicles. Most of the birds who live or stop here do not seem to be bothered by the nearby walkers, runners, or bikers. Though they tend to regard me with suspicion as soon as it’s clear I’m not just passing through. So far two of the most common species of bird I’ve seen at the ponds have been the Eurasian Coot and the Purple Swamphen, the latter being what I initially mistook for a colourful, wild chicken. The Coots tend to stay in the water and dive for reeds, while the Swamphens wander around, pecking at the ground, sometimes emitting a hilariously shrill squawk. Other birds that live near the ponds, or at least which I’ve photographed multiple times close by, include Black Swans, Australian Wood Ducks, Pacific Black Ducks, and Superb Fairy-wrens. The wrens are fast-moving, tiny, and jittery, tending to swoop in and out of the trees and bushes. The breeding males are extremely bright in colour, an eye-catching sky-blue, hoping around in pursuit of potential mates. My birding book, in keeping with irreverent Australian humour, describes these wrens as grouping together in “family parties.” Slightly less common, but seen on a few occasions, have been Masked Lapwings, Little Pied Cormorants, and White Face Herons. Only once have I seen an Australian White Ibis in the area, and unusually for the species, it was quite wary of me. In many places in Australia the Ibis is considered a “dumpster diver,” mostly because they congregate at beaches, parks, and waste dumps, eating the rubbish, rather like a seagull in Canada.

Purple Swamphen. Taken 31/08/2017

SEEING “FARGO” SEASON TWO

Albert Camus may not be a character in the second season of “Fargo,” but Noreen Vanderslice (Emily Haine) is repeatedly shown reading her way through one of his most famous texts.

The fundamental subject of the The Myth of Sisyphus is this: it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face.[1]

Death and life, right and wrong, health and sickness, purpose and chance, power and impotence – such are the polar tensions “Fargo” explores. The fundamental question of philosophy for Camus was suicide – is life worth living? His ultimate answer is in fact a resounding yes. However, it also entails a recognition of humanity’s constrained freedom and a happiness nestled in a symbol of ceaseless struggle. Continue reading “SEEING “FARGO” SEASON TWO”

“TAKING THE BIBLE AS IT IS”

Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes. A dubious adage if taken universally, it certainly captures an aspect of human experience. Perhaps more accurately, if less sagely, it could be said that familiarity transforms our relationship to things (and vice versa). For me, one of those transformative familiar things is a compilation of ancient texts, the Bible. Raised in the WASPy heartland of evangelicalism in Canada, the Bible has been part of my moral and imaginative vocabulary since I was a child. It has indelibly shaped the way I see the world. While I may no longer hold to the certainties ostensibly derived from it, and acknowledging its limitations, I am in fact quite grateful for the education evangelicalism gave me. Part of that gratitude stems from evangelicalism’s earnest attempt to maintain the sense in which a text from the past, the Bible, can speak to us in the here and now. Though it scarcely needs to be added that evangelicals are not alone in this. Just this week, on the bicentenary of her death, Jane Austen has been honoured with a place on the ten pound note in the UK. Several essays have been duly published in various newspapers and magazines that attest to the lasting influence her novels continue to wield. Continue reading ““TAKING THE BIBLE AS IT IS””

SEEING THE 2017 NATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAIT PRIZE OF AUSTRALIA

Several weeks ago I hopped on my bike and pedalled my way across the bridge over Lake Burley Griffin to the National Portrait Gallery of Australia. It was a bright, sunny, and typically cold winter day in Canberra. But I was determined to see this year’s competition for the National Photographic Portrait Prize. (To go to the official prize website and see all the photographs click here.) When I got there I promptly put down my wrinkly $10 and started walking through the exhibit, still a little warm from the 40-minute ride, camera in hand. One of the great things about visiting an exhibit, including the chance to see the photographs grouped together, comparing and contrasting and considering one another, is the fact that they are much bigger than you’re likely to see on a screen.
Continue reading “SEEING THE 2017 NATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAIT PRIZE OF AUSTRALIA”

“NO RELIGION”

According to the most recent census information, released this past week, nearly 30% of Australians have “no religion.” Understandably, that statistic was front and centre in much of the Australian news. The most recent available information for Canada comes from 2001, in which about 17% of Canadians reported that they had no religious affiliation. In 2001 that number was basically the same for Australia. Presumably Canada can expect similar census results in the near future. Continue reading ““NO RELIGION””

“A WHIP OUT OF CORDS”

So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

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Perhaps you’re familiar with this episode. If you grew up like mein white, Anglo, evangelical Protestant Christianityit likely featured in the sermons you heard and Sunday school lessons you learned. I rather like the image of Jesus that the Gospel of John gives us here. But not for the reasons given in my Sunday school classes. There Jesus was depicted as disrupting the legalistic priests who, in the minds of my well-meaning teachers, clung to the letter of the law when they should have been agents of God’s grace. That reading of the New Testament has a long history, but it is now regarded by a wide range of scholars as deeply mistaken (not least because it reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes). Continue reading ““A WHIP OUT OF CORDS””

HOLY WEEK: READING AND REMEMBERING

This Holy Week past I read the Gospel of John on the assumption that there is something to be gained by doing so in the form we currently have it. That may seem rather obvious. It’s certainly not a novel approach. And it’s worth observing that it doesn’t negate other readings. Those remain possible, fruitful, relevant. In my case I had started reading the Gospel of John because it was part of the liturgical schedule at church. What I mean by reading John’s Gospel as we have it is reading it in its final editorial form, as it has taken its place in the Christian New Testament. Biblical scholars remind us that this Gospel was probably first written for a particular community at a particular moment in time. This must certainly be the case in a general way, i.e. for the early Christian community (as scholars Richard Bauckham and others suggest), or in a more specific way, i.e. for the Johannine community (as scholars John Ashton and others suggest). Still, the challenge of understanding what the Gospel of John says remains complex. Continue reading “HOLY WEEK: READING AND REMEMBERING”

“COMMIT SOCIOLOGY!”

During his tenure in office as the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper repeatedly suggested that sociology does not explain violence or crime. When an alleged plot against a VIA Rail train was discovered in 2013 Harper stated awkwardly that we should not “commit sociology.” He insisted that we should instead focus on personal responsibility. When an inquiry into the disproportionately high number of deaths among indigenous women in Canada was demanded, after the death of Tina Fontaine in 2014, Harper said that such deaths were not “sociological phenomenon.” As Jakeet Singh pointed out shortly thereafter in an article for the Toronto Star, we should link these rather strange statements about sociology to the Conservative government’s abolition of an important social-statistical tool in 2010, the long-form census. Continue reading ““COMMIT SOCIOLOGY!””