Consensus politics in Canada

Common Ground by Justin Trudeau. HaperCollins, 2014, 352pp.

We’re now well into October, 2017, and Jagmeet Singh has been elected as leader of the New Democratic Party. He is the first person of a visible minority to attain that role 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 ran 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 students’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 his governing style, it pays to press Trudeau on it. If you make electoral 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.”

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