Another Trudeau takes over
By : Mahir Ali
Back in August, the Toronto Star published a cartoon depicting Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper prostrating himself in front of a statue of Richard Nixon and asking, “What now, O great one?”
It wasn’t by any means the first time Harper had been portrayed as the putative heir of an American president particularly renowned for covert efforts to corrupt democracy and more than one of the political scandals that dogged him has been compared with Watergate.
It is surely something of an irony, then, that the man who decisively sealed Harper’s fate in last month’s election was once toasted by none other than Nixon as “the future prime minister of Canada.”
Justin Trudeau, who will be sworn into that role today, was just four months old at the time, the firstborn son of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his considerably younger wife, Margaret. In taking up residence at 24 Sussex, the prime ministerial abode, he thus returns to the house where he grew up.
Canada has hitherto been a stranger to dynastic politics. At the same time, although it’s highly likely that the younger Trudeau’s surname helped him to win the Liberal leadership two years ago as well as lead the party to a decisive victory on Oct. 19, the 47-year gap between Pierre’s first inauguration and Justin’s debut as head of government is by any measure a decent interval.
Besides, there is little evidence that Justin Trudeau saw his ascendancy as a birthright, given that he spent years in a series of fairly ordinary jobs before opting for a political career. When he did, he wasn’t parachuted into a safe seat but succeeded in wresting one back from Bloc Quebecois, and thereafter retained it each time with increased majorities.
At the outset of what was one of the longest election campaigns in Canadian history, his relative inexperience was derided in a key advertisement by Harper’s Conservatives that pronounced him “just not ready” to take on prime ministerial responsibilities. That appears to have helped Trudeau by lowering expectations of his abilities as a campaigner.
He won over skeptics by refusing to stumble on the campaign trail. What’s more, his party’s policy platform succeeded in outflanking the New Democratic Party (NDP) — which had become the official opposition in 2011 when the Liberal Party was relegated to third place — on the left.
Given the widespread disenchantment with Harper’s rule, the NDP was deemed just a couple of months ago to be in with a chance of winning power outright. Its leader, Tom Mulcair, made the mistake of wedding himself to the mantra of a balanced budget, though, implying that the austerity of the Harper years would remain in place. Trudeau, on the other hand, promised to run small deficits while plowing billions into infrastructure.
Partly as a consequence of these divergent economic visions, the number of NDP seats fell from 103 in 2011 to 44 this year, while the Liberal Party’s tally rose from an abysmal 34 to 184. That’s a huge leap, believed to have been based to a substantial extent on the immigrant votes that Harper lost because of his insensitivity to multiculturalism.
Interestingly, the Liberal and NDP vote adds up to almost twice the level of the Conservative vote and the large proportion of the electorate that wished to transcend the more than nine-year Harper era with a return to a kinder and more progressive-looking Canada will no doubt find some cause for satisfaction. Would it be wise, though, to expect much more than a shift in atmospherics, a change of tone, a more upbeat mood music?
Trudeau has promised a great deal, none of it particularly radical — from a gender-balanced cabinet and a less hawkish military posture to a greener economy, electoral reform to tackle the inequities of the first-past-the-post system, greater empathy towards indigenous concerns, and a different tack on terrorism (even though the Liberals went along with some of Harper’s most controversial legislation in this regard and backed his dubious bill against “barbaric cultural practices”).
The NDP has long argued, with some justification, that the Liberals adopt a relatively left-wing pose while in opposition but shift back to the right when in power. The charge is not inaccurate, given that even Harper failed to match the Liberal spending cuts that preceded his tenure. It remains to be seen whether Trudeau will have the courage to restore the chunks that have been bitten out of a welfare system that once justifiably gave Canadians cause for pride.
It is said that income inequality is a particular bugbear for Trudeau — one that has resonated since he was a kid. Given that Canada’s richest 86 people are now said to own as much as the 11.4 million poorest, he has his task cut out if he really wants to make a difference.
That’s unlikely. But it doesn’t mean we can’t, for the moment, sit back and relish the change of tune.
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