Opinion

Trudeau's Breathtaking Chance to Idle No More

Starved of statesmanship, Canada chose change. What an opportunity.

By Ian Gill 24 Oct 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

"Oh, you mean like Putin," a senior Australian businessman said to me last week after I'd offered him a brief sketch of Stephen Harper's dour, depressing and hypnotically undemocratic reign over Canada -- a premiership that just a few days later came to a shuddering halt, by gorry, by jingo, by gosh, by gum.* Or more to the point, by Justin Trudeau.

It so happens that I got to miss the last four of the 11 weeks of Canada's electoral clash of the clans, a campaign that mostly went unnoticed and unremarked in Australia. After all, Oz was in the thrall of a significant leadership transition of its own, Sydney's slippery silverback Malcolm Turnbull having finally slipped a shiv into the horned hide of Australia's cane toad-in-chief, Tony Abbott.

Now that Canada is taking measure of just how much of a sea change we can expect now we've vested our hopes for change in Trudeau the Younger, it was instructive to witness first-hand in Australia what happens when a deeply divisive leader, especially one radicalized towards a worldview so conservative that even Margaret Thatcher would blush, got the hook Down Under. And especially when that leader, the comically inept Abbott, was half of a mutual admiration society whose other member was Stephen Harper.

True, Australians didn't have to change political parties to change their Prime Minister -- in the opera buffa that doubles as Australian federal politics, the parties tend to take care of that themselves -- but the end of Abbott's short, pugnacious and incendiary turn at the top of the political heap there was greeted, on all sides, with palpable relief, in much the same way Harper's has here at home.

The National Australia Bank's monthly business confidence survey released on Tuesday last week reported "a partial recovery in business confidence in September" after what the bank politely called the government's "leadership uncertainties" had been "resolved." NAB's business confidence index rose four points to plus-five on the back of Turnbull's hostile takeover of Abbott's gilded chair.

Abbott, who had displaced Turnbull as Opposition leader in an earlier internal "spill," triggered in part by the latter's support for a carbon tax, didn't so much arrive in office after winning the 2013 election as he pounced on the prize like Gollum getting hold of the Ring. View this eight-second clip and you'll get a sense, aided by an uncanny physical likeness, of what Abbott's ascension to the summit of Australian affairs resembled.

By contrast, Turnbull, who has been Prime Minister-in-waiting since he was, oh, three years old, bided his time till Abbott began to set light to his own hair through a string of disastrous policy flips, public gaffes, and budgets that simply didn't up. Turnbull then staged a coup and glided into the job like he was steering a Bentley into the forecourt of his favourite club.

Remember, this wasn't voters doing the deciding. This was the Liberal (read Conservative) Party caucus dumping a reactionary leader who had brought them to power but who was unable to convert his snarling style into anything approaching statesmanship, let alone statecraft. This had the curious effect, according to a Wespac Melbourne Institute survey, of actually lowering confidence among coalition voters (the Liberal majority in Australia is achieved via a coalition with an even more right-wing National Party), and boosting confidence among Labor (i.e. opposition) voters, that the country finally had a prime minister who wouldn't be an outright embarrassment. The net effect is that Turnbull has the confidence of Australians in a way that no leader has had for years because even coalition voters who don't like him will vote for him, and lefties who loathed Abbott are so glad he's gone that they're willing to tolerate Turnbull simply because he's not Abbott.

In Canada, this week's election results aren't an exact match by any means. Trudeau's Liberals are more centrist than Turnbull's, but like Malcolm in the (almost) Middle, Trudeau has found a way to blur the ideological lines so as to move this country back to a place where a reasonably civil civic discourse is possible. Diehard NDP supporters here don't love the fact that Trudeau rolled over them while the Conservatives maintained the lion's share of their base, but they can at least console themselves with the fact that Harper is out.

That is as cathartic in Canada as Abbott's ouster was in Australia where, talking to Aussies of various stripes, I couldn't find a single person who lamented Abbott's dispatch. The country craved some combination of statesmanship, vision, and style from its premier, and Turnbull's more conciliatory mien was of the moment, just as Trudeau's is here. However, Turnbull is still at heart a market-loyal neo-liberal, while Trudeau now needs to deliver both a small-l and large-L agenda here that will tilt further left than Turnbull will be inclined or allowed to go in Oz.

But it is fair to say that in both countries, there has been a significant mood swing for the better. What can we expect as a result?

Great expectations

Trudeau has a longer list of things to do than Turnbull, who is leading the same government with a different cast in cabinet, and an opposition that's been neutralized by his having rescued the country from Abbott. Trudeau, by contrast, is expected to change everything, having rescued the country from Harper.

Some things on his playbook jump out: kill Northern Gateway for good; convene an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women; adopt the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; throw a lifeline to the CBC; initiate electoral reform; get Canada off a war footing in the Middle East; plan to take something credible to the climate talks in Paris that also translates into something doable back home with petro-state provinces who aren't all clamouring to be climate leaders; restore credibility to environmental assessment processes; restore confidence and authority in our public service, and especially among public scientists; get tens of thousands of refugees safely settled in Canada; deliver on infrastructure investments in public transit and affordable housing in our bulging cities; repeal Harper's more Putinesque legislation, like Bill C-51; hopefully renegotiate trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership; allow our non-government organizations and charities to be advocates free of the threat of charitable de-listing; and a whole lot besides.

He has already signalled that he'll aim for gender balance in a smaller cabinet, and that he'll be more available to the media and therefore the public. These are hopefully not merely symbolic gestures but intuitive responses to Canadians' demand for a more open and genuinely representative governing style in Ottawa. (Mind you, if he does want to do something utterly symbolic, not to say mischievous, he could recraft Ottawa's dreadful Tribute to Liberty that's planned to be installed next to the Supreme Court of Canada as a Memorial to the Victims of Harperism, not Communism; he could kill the Mother Canada memorial in Cape Breton before that folly finds its feet; and he could put an end to the rank militarization of our very streetscapes by scrapping names like the Highway of Heroes that insult veterans, not to say rush hour commuters, on stretches of Highway 1 like the run into Vancouver from Hope.)

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Outside Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Photo by Ian Gill.

But to return to the larger issues on which a True-deau vision will rise or fall, consider that what really cost both Harper and Mulcair in this election was their inability to sense that the public didn't share their morbid view that the only thing anyone cares about in Canada is the economy. What was mostly being asked of Canadians was to weigh whether Harper's plan to do more of the same (more recession?) was safer than Trudeau's plan to spend our way to prosperity or was more believable than Mulcair's promise to balance the books. Every promise was parsed and parcelled according to some kind of cost-benefit analysis, as if the only reason one might have, say, a national daycare policy was if it was ''good for the economy,'' or at least wouldn't endanger it. One wouldn't dare suggest such a policy if it were merely a good thing -- the right thing -- to do for families and kids. Every choice had to run a gauntlet of economic reductionism and be spot welded onto a policy framework only if a case could be made that the economy wouldn't suffer -- even if kids continued to. Until, that is, Trudeau threw out the script and said it was time to spend money on the country again.

Suddenly, he managed to pivot the debate away from mere fiscal management to one about whether, as a rich country, Canada could and should set a new course based on our natural compassion, our moral responsibilities, and a recovered courage to lead. There are (see above) any number of ways in which he might deliver on that promise. My own bias is that we set about doing the right things, not token things, for aboriginal communities -- maybe something like a Marshall Plan (dare one say, a Martin Plan?) that invests in aboriginal communities because it's the right thing to do, and not just because we think we can hornswoggle some remote community into signing their rights away to a pipeline company in exchange for clean water or a paved road. They live in Canada and they should have these things anyway.

Cleaning up

Let's again lead the world on environmental issues. In this election, the environment was finally on the national political agenda -- albeit framed through the lens of climate change and mostly as an economic issue that turned on which party was or wasn't advocating for a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system, or who's promised the most green jobs. It's time to get real about the environment again, which actually is the same thing as getting real about our obligations to aboriginal communities. The two issues are inextricably bound.

In the Globe and Mail midway through the campaign, columnist Jeffrey Simpson complained that the vision had gone out of Canadian politics. ''Is there nothing left that might appeal to the heart, to voters as citizens instead of just taxpayers, to collective endeavour, to something, anything, beyond individual self-interest?''

Certainly, the refugee crisis presents us with just such a collective, nation-rallying opportunity to act beyond our self-interest. But how about another pan-Canadian idea that might embody just the sort of sweeping and rallying appeal to Canadians that helps us regain lost ground as a country that doesn't just boast about its natural bounty in tourism brochures but sets clear goals to protect our air, land, and waters for now and future generations? How about a national strategy to increase our marine and terrestrial protected areas, and to set and meet tough, science-based biodiversity protection targets, like any civilized country would do? And to do that with the full participation and with the free, prior and informed consent of Canada's aboriginal people.

According to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Canada has protected barely 10 per cent of our landscape and only one per cent of our oceans. That puts us 152nd on a list of 240 jurisdictions that have reported the level of their land protection. It makes a mockery of our (Harper government) commitment five years ago to set aside 17 per cent of our land and inland waters by 2020 and 10 per cent of our oceans. And after 2020, what about a commitment to protect 50 per cent of Canada from industrial development and encroachment because, well, might that not be a good thing to do? It's what CPAWS believes should happen, but of course it cannot advocate for that because it would probably lose its charitable status.

Fifty per cent of the country protected from development? It might sound like a lot but, since 70 per cent of us already live in cities, why not protect our rural landscapes, our food sheds and watersheds, our inland and coastal waters, not to mention our air sheds, and diversify our natural resource economy in a way that also reconciles the land question for aboriginal peoples on their terms, not the Canadian government’s, and protects our shared natural capital rather that wastes it on a Faustian search for the last drop of oil or sniff of gas?

A nation's 'unfinished business'

One thing is for certain: there will be no genuine reconciliation with aboriginal people without a nationwide effort to allow them the same health, education, and economic opportunities as other people living in Canada without having to surrender their culture, language, and sovereignty in the so-called bargain. That idle idea won't fly no more.

In Australia the other day, Paul Keating, a former Labor prime minister, called on Malcolm Turnbull to reset the country's relationship with its aboriginal peoples -- the "unfinished business of the nation" is what he called it -- by contemplating not just recognition in the Constitution, which aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders inexplicably still don't have, but some sort of treaty, or compact, that acknowledges that "Aboriginal peoples need to be dealt with as a nation."

Who knows what Turnbull will do with that. But imagine an idea that bold, transposed to Canada. Imagine Justin Trudeau saying to all aboriginal people in Canada that we recognize their rights and title, whether or not they've spent 25 years and millions of dollars proving it in court, and that we are prepared to craft a national treaty, a national indigenous economic development strategy, a national conservation and environmental protection strategy, and that we will protect 50 per cent of the country in perpetuity for the health, welfare, and benefit of us all.

It would be devilishly complex, and I don't doubt it would be expensive, but the alternative -- that is, the status quo -- is all that, and then some. What an opportunity to do something breathtaking, something bold, something audacious, something Canadian. It would take real leadership, of course, not just populist glad-handing and endless selfies on the Hill. I bet if Justin Trudeau decided to get very serious about ending the war on our lands and on aboriginal peoples, which is what we've been waging for a couple of centuries now, Canadians would rally behind that. We need to become peacekeepers at home as well as abroad, and I bet we can also figure out how to pay for that. We're a rich country. We always do, by jingo.

* With thanks to e e cummings.  [Tyee]

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