Let’s be straight: there’s a lot to be said for the charge that Justin Trudeau didn’t deliver on his promises or provide much in the way of effective government during his first term as Prime Minister, despite his unassailable majority in the House of Commons. He campaigned on “sunny ways”, contrasting his approach with the dour, Politburo-like style of Stephen Harper, yet once in office ran a government out of the Prime Minister’s Office that was every bit as tight-lipped and opaque as his predecessor’s. Carrying on as if Alberta had no leverage within the federation, he portrayed himself on the campaign trail as the greenest climate change warrior in the Western World, yet his government soon bought the Trans-Mountain Pipeline Extension program from private hands and worked strenuously to approve the pumping of yet more oil west toward Asian markets; meanwhile, his climate change initiatives were mild, bordering on symbolic. With a naiveté veering toward political idiocy, he promised not merely to chase, but to wrangle, the eternally elusive chimera of election reform, an effort he’s probably glad he never undertook, given that his government now holds over 30 more seats than the party that won the popular vote. He made pleasing sounds toward First Nations peoples, then didn’t do all that much about their admittedly often intractable problems. Then there was the business-as-usual Quebec-centric corruption scandal involving SNC Lavalin, nothing new to the Canadian scene, but not exactly a sign of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, either.
Not the sort of press clippings you take to the electorate for a second resounding mandate, but Trudeau’s bacon was saved by the sheer mediocrity of the Conservative alternative, which had the misfortune of looking too much like the one that Ontarians chose provincially two years ago, and quickly came to regret. Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer wasn’t quite in the same league as Ontario’s clueless, pop-eyed vulgarian Doug Ford, but his platform was similarly empty, and his only messages seemed to be, as ever with this crew, that your taxes could be cut without really affecting the social fabric, and that climate change, while perhaps real, didn’t need to be tackled with the sort of gusto that pretty-boy Justin would have you believe. He’d figure something out, and it wouldn’t hurt at all.
So OK, if that’s the choice, fine, let’s have Trudeau again. It wasn’t all bad, after all. Even symbolic climate initiatives are better than climate change denial. A million jobs were created. Anti-labour legislation of the prior government was repealed. Lots of trade agreements were negotiated. The Canada Pension Plan was improved. A lot was done, actually, to improve certain aspects of indigenous life, such as the quality of drinking water on reserves. He put a stop to the prior government’s muzzling of federal scientists, and increased funding for the arts. There was a sizeable infrastructure program (just not sizeable enough, but that’s politics). He couldn’t get anything done on electoral reform because nobody can agree on what to do. Maybe the problem was expectations. You promise the Sun Moon and Stars, and anything that you’re actually able to deliver comes off as “meh”. Have a look at Justin’s real record here:
So I’m glad Justin won. I’m just not inspired.
This time it’s a minority government, traditionally regarded as the worst way to get things done within the Westminster system, being fragile and prone to collapse. Minority governments typically have trouble passing budgets, have to worry daily about confidence motions always looming just over the horizon, and are leery of bold action. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m old enough to remember a Liberal minority government under Justin’s father Pierre that accomplished a great deal in collaboration with David Lewis’s New Democratic Party, which propped up the regime in order to get NDP priorities reflected in legislation – priorities that in many cases a Liberal government could live with happily. Just before my time (well, I was a little kid), but decidedly to my personal benefit, a minority Liberal government under Lester Pearson cooperated with the NDP to bring in universal health care, the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, the Canada Assistance Plan, the Canada Student Loans program, official bilingualism, and labour legislation that pioneered the 40-hour work week. That was extraordinary, but something like it could happen again. Each of the NDP and the resurgent Bloc Quebecois, both progressive parties, hold more than enough seats to propel bills through Parliament over the objections of the Conservatives, and even if no sort of stable coalition government emerges, much could be done case by case. On many policy matters there isn’t all that much daylight between the avowed priorities of the Liberals, Bloc, and NDP.
Yet in so many ways this country feels almost ungovernable, and democracy seems unequal to the gigantic tasks ahead.
For as long as I can remember, the standard political message, especially from the right, has been more or less the same: you can get more for less, and I’m going to give it to you. Taxes can be slashed, expenditures increased, yet budgets balanced. Or the expenditures shouldn’t happen at all – wouldn’t it better to keep that money in your own pocket, from whence it can be spent wisely, not squandered by spendthrift bureaucrats in City Hall/Province House/Ottawa? No need to worry – there is no crisis! No immediate sacrifice is required. There will be no pain. Vote me, and I will grow the economy and improve your standard of living by cutting red tape. This is no time for radical and disruptive policies. Nobody knows what to do anyway – do you want to be on the losing end of a misconceived social experiment? Regulations are bad. Government itself is bad. Sure, I want to run it, but I hate it too. Etc. To his credit, this wasn’t Justin’s approach, but that’s the strong current anybody who wants to advocate useful public policy has to swim against, and this steady stream of antisocial bullshit has acted like a narcotic, lulling the electorate into believing that we can maintain everything that we inherited from prior generations, and do more besides, without having to accept messy compromises or go through any painful ranking of priorities, much less pay for any of it.
This was bad enough when the worst things we had to face were crumbling infrastructure and ballooning costs for health, education and welfare, with unfunded liabilities running into the trillions stretching as far as the eye could see. Now we have to layer a new, even bigger – much, much, bigger – problem on top, one the solution to which bids fair to place disproportionate hardship on certain regions of the country, and could tear this nation apart at the seams: the way we live is killing the world, and if we don’t change things fast the fate of civilization itself is uncertain.
Tackling climate change is, to use an old cliché, the moral equivalent of war, and I don’t see anybody, certainly not myself, ready for what that might mean. Nobody is even remotely prepared for what’s coming, and nobody who governs us is really doing anything much to plan for it. We won’t let them. If anyone dared run on a platform that admitted even a few obvious truths about what we’re in for, not in a hundred years, or even thirty, but more like ten, none of us would consider voting for him. Who’s going to tell Albertans that it doesn’t really matter whether their expensive bitumen ever again becomes economical – they’ve got to find something else to do because the basis of over a century of their prosperity is an activity that constitutes a grave threat to all multicellular life, which includes Albertans? Who’s going to tell the Quebecois that like the rest of us, they’re going to have to give something up as we all pitch in to mitigate the economic agony that must be visited upon the West? Who’s going to prepare the public for the massive outlays that are going to be needed in the near future to repair everything that’s broken, which is just about everything?
Nobody. That’s who. It seems clear that we’ve passed the point at which we can save the status quo; the crisis will hit, the disruptions will be hugely painful, and then, finally, we’re going to have to snap out of it and figure out how to tough it out in a former world of plenty in which everybody, now, has to do with less until we can figure out a better way to get back to more. It seems that can’t happen until we each experience the hardship in our own lives, and can no longer believe the politicians still brazen enough to tell us there’s not that much to worry about, and everything’s going to be fine, so we can go about our business unperturbed. We aren’t there yet. We’re still asleep, and this latest election did nothing to change anything important, not really, and couldn’t have. We all have to suffer first.
Or perhaps I’m wrong, as usual? Is there somebody who could enter the scene in the nick of time, rouse us from our decadent torpor, and issue a call to arms that would stir us in our millions to save the world that was? Somebody with more power and authority than an adolescent girl from Sweden? I’m not saying there isn’t. I say merely that this likely ain’t him: