Illustration by Remie Geoffroi
In early November, hundreds of Liberal Party members descended on Mont-Tremblant to enjoy the latest instalment of the annual Banff Forum. In Parliament the party might have been knocked down to minority government status just a few weeks before, but the mood at Quebec’s favourite ski resort was cheerful and confident.
After all, Liberal MPs in the strongholds of Ontario and Quebec had almost universally retained their seats, many with increased vote margins. And Conservative leaders across the country, after huffing and puffing for a few weeks, were already in retreat from their principal election battleground of the carbon tax. Even Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government in Alberta had quietly brought in a tax on industrial polluters and other premiers were adopting a more conciliatory tone. For many people at the summit, the situation looked positive.
Though the Liberal contingent is usually high at the Banff Forum, most of the attendees in Mont-Tremblant were not formal representatives of the party. Known as “Banffers,” they were, however, drawn from its main demographic base: lawyers, heads of non-governmental organizations, venture capitalists, bankers, policy and public relations types, tech entrepreneurs, and cultural industry executives. “Old enough to have something substantive to contribute,” the forum’s website enthused about the participants, “yet young enough to be open to new people and new ideas.”
The three-day confab is officially billed as a public policy forum, but it’s not exactly that. It is by invitation only. Conversations take place under strict confidentiality rules. And alongside the obligatory panels and fireside chats there are the equally important organized hikes in the woods, soaks in hot outdoor pools, and late night parties—clubby opportunities to forge social cohesion. “Dazzling amount of good ideas circulating here at Mont-Tremblant,” read a tweet from Jesse McCormick, until recently the director of policy and Indigenous relations for former environment minister Catherine McKenna. “A-Type personalities abound!”
The entry fee clocked in around $1,500, or slightly less if you were under the age of 40. The rest of the cost of organizing the forum was picked up by corporate sponsors, including some of the country’s heftiest corporations: Suncor, Telus, CN Rail, TD Bank, Coca Cola, Enbridge, Bell, Power Corporation of Canada, etc. This year, organizers said they made a concerted effort to recruit more political variety, which meant in practice many more Conservatives and a handful of New Democrats.
An all-female panel of former provincial premiers—Kathleen Wynne, Kathy Dunderdale and Rachel Notley—was well received by the audience. But so was another panel on Quebec’s Bill 21 that lacked even a single critic of the legislation, which prohibits teachers, police officers and other public servants from wearing religious symbols at work. An event on the future of Canadian energy, featuring three proponents of the Trans Mountain pipeline, ended on a buoyant note and slideshow photograph of shovels breaking ground, heralding the completion of that tar sands expansion project.
All in all, the Banff Forum offered a glimpse of liberal strategy today. The picture we get is one of class solidarity between the rich and professionals, for whom politics is a glamorous and privileged festival of ideas, accentuated by credentials and elite diversity. This kind of politics is naturally more comfortable tilting right than left and can evince only shallow concern with the profound environmental, racial and economic crises bedevilling the age. As a ruling strategy it proved remarkably successful for the first Trudeau government. Whether the prime minister can pull it off in a minority situation is another question.
The days and months after the last election were shakier for Justin Trudeau than for others in his party. In the wake of media coverage of his repeated blackface episodes, international news outlets no longer run columns about Canada’s “lurch to the left,” as the Atlantic put it in a 2015 article. They are no longer describing his thematic socks as a long-sought-after ingredient to world peace. And interest has finally faded in what seemed, from the coverage at least, like a new national pastime—sightings in nature of a shirtless Trudeau.
In fact, in the month after the election, Prime Minister Trudeau wasn’t seen out much at all. At the swearing-in ceremony in 2015, he and his cabinet had bounded up the pathway to Rideau Hall together. This time, Trudeau slipped in quietly through a side entrance. And whereas the Liberals spent the first few months after their election in 2015 basking in and playing up Trudeau’s new status as a global progressive icon, this fall they have been clearer where their real priorities lie.
In public announcements and mandate letters issued since October, the government has committed to building the Trans Mountain pipeline; moving ahead with tax cuts that will primarily benefit higher-income families; issuing a memo whitewashing Canadian complicity in the Saudi war on Yemen; and endorsing a right-wing military coup in Bolivia. The shift from campaigning on the left to governing on the right was fast enough to give any good faith observer whiplash.
Yet what I’ve named the “Trudeau Formula” has powerful durability and is still very much in play. This formula—in many ways a Liberal Party heritage but one that Trudeau is especially good at practising—revolves around making a close study of the values and aspirations of the country’s progressive majority and co-opting its protests, language and demands. Selective concessions to the left may follow. But the progressive aspirations behind these policies are frequently hollowed out as part of a quiet compact with the corporate elite, whose policy priorities are channelled, repackaged and advertised as a captivating option. Demobilizing and integrating progressive challenges in this way, the government manufactures consent for the prevailing social order and captures the voting blocs necessary to win or remain in office.
The clearest expression of this formula was articulated by Trudeau himself, in a speech to the ritzy Canadian Club of Toronto in May 2015. It was not long after the Liberals had announced their marquee policy of a new tax on the top one per cent, to which his audience that day universally belonged. The establishment media had howled about Trudeau’s “redistributionist dogma.” But Trudeau’s team had a savvier message for the country’s financial barons.
The status quo was not sustainable, said Trudeau in his speech, which ran through statistics many leftists would be comfortable citing: growing inequality, stagnating wages, soaring personal and family debt, and an increasingly insecure social safety net. A “sense of fairness” had evaporated in Canadian society, said Trudeau. If a government could not put forward an agenda “aimed squarely at restoring that sense of fairness,” he warned, “Canadians will eventually entertain more radical options.”
It was a polite way of saying: it’s me or the pitchforks. If Bay Street could lend support to a mild tax hike, Trudeau promised, he could harness the rhetoric of the Occupy movement and stifle any backlash against the elite, restoring confidence to the economic system. (Indeed, the wealth of the top one per cent would grow, rather than diminish, over the next four years of his government.) In short, Trudeau’s pitch was that only he would be able to save neoliberalism from growing calls to replace it.
To be fair, the Canadian Club would have heard this message before and known they could count on its power. The legacy of governments going back decades is not as a force for social progress and economic justice, but as a potent obstacle to the radical change that so many are hungry for, and which a livable climate now literally depends on. I would argue that everything Canadians have seen from the Trudeau government so far has amounted to a politics of changeless change—a spectacle of splashy announcements and bold initiatives that appear to disrupt business-as-usual, but in fact mostly shore up prevailing disparities of wealth and power.
We have witnessed the public drama of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples while the policies of land and resource dispossession from prior governments continue apace. The Liberal government has enthused about its infrastructure agenda, but in secret it studied the privatization of $200 billion worth of public assets including airports, highways, water systems and the postal service, while perpetuating the stealth privatization of transit projects through public-private partnerships. The Trudeau government has postured Canada as a human rights champion abroad while increasing military spending by 70% over 10 years and continuing to ship military vehicles and weapons to the Saudi dictatorship fighting a war in Yemen.
Not just in Canada, but around the world we have seen the emergence of an airbrushed, focus-grouped avatar liberalism—“yuppie simulacrum of populist breakthrough,” in Perry Anderson’s words—to face the challenge from a democratic-socialist left and an ugly resurgent right. This model of politics was ground-tested by the Obama administration and is today exemplified in the “extreme centrism” of Trudeau, French President Emanuel Macron, and U.S. Democratic politicians like Pete Buttegieg and Beto O’Rourke. What these men all share in common is an effort to forge a new consensus that can salvage the failed yet still pervasive neoliberal governing logic that counts extreme inequality and climate breakdown as its most obvious consequences.
Alongside a continued support for privatization, deregulation, corporate tax cuts, and a slow withdrawal of the welfare state, these political figures have tinkered around the edges to give their conservative economic policies a patina of emancipatory progressivism. Trudeau offered reforms, like a means-tested Canada Child Benefit, more representation of women and racialized people in cabinet and the civil service, and incremental measures on climate change. But none of Trudeau’s actions have so far threatened the authority of corporate interests to set the political agenda.
In rare moments, Trudeau has been candid about his role as a diligent manager of the status quo. Describing his government’s early achievements in a late-2016 interview with the Guardian (U.K.), the prime minister said: “We’re actually able to approve pipelines at a time when everyone wants protection of the environment. We’re being able to show that we get people’s fears and there are constructive ways of allaying them—and not just ways to lash out and give a big kick to the system.”
While the brand of the messenger of this formula has evidently been damaged since then, the formula itself lives on.
When the prime minister participated in the giant climate strike march in Montreal last September, the satirical news outlet The Beaverton pointedly observed, “Trudeau comes to Montreal climate strike to protest self.” The truth of this mock headline wasn’t lost on the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who reportedly told Trudeau in a private in-person meeting that afternoon that he wasn’t doing enough to combat the climate crisis. No doubt to the relief of the Liberal strategist Gerald Butts, whose idea it was to participate in the climate march, Thunberg would later generalize her point in remarks to the media, saying no politician was doing enough anywhere.
Still, according to formula, the potential backlash was worth the opportunity to burnish the government’s environmental bona fides. More importantly, it was very much in keeping with a broader strategy the minority Liberal government can be expected to continue to deploy on environmental and energy policy.
Photo from PM Trudeau's Flickr feed.
Days after the election, Finance Minister Bill Morneau tested out a new line to justify the government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion dollars. “We purchased it for a reason,” he said. “We now see how it can help us accelerate our clean energy transition by putting any revenues that we get from it into a transition to clean energy.” Morneau promised profits of up to $500 million a year would be spent on cleaner energy sources and technologies to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. This vaguely progressive sounding policy is in fact the logic of an addict, akin to suggesting the need to chain-smoke several packs of cigarettes to build up the courage to break a nicotine habit.
Canadians came to expect such mystification from former environment minister Catherine McKenna, whose office was lobbied almost as much as the natural resources department in the government’s first three years. During the 2019 election campaign, McKenna introduced the promise to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, but told the media there was no plan yet for how to do it. Just trust us, she said, and we’ll figure it out when we’re back in office.
That task has now fallen to new Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, a former cleantech executive who has indicated that the government will invest far more significantly in technological silver bullets like hydrogen energy. When referring to oil and gas developments, he has emphasized not overall emissions but reducing emissions per barrel. “We have a significant resource,” he told the Toronto Star. “The issue isn’t the resource, the issue is the pollution, and our focus is on reducing pollution.” Yet across the industry there has yet been no decrease in emissions per barrel, as they shift to even more high-intensity-emitting in-situ tar sands projects.
Even the government’s new pledge to reach Canada’s 2030 targets and get to net-zero emissions by 2050 sounds like having your cake and eating it too. “Net zero” is a shifty concept long pushed by the global fossil fuel industry to allow them to keep extracting, with the dim hope of technologies emerging to suck carbon out of the atmosphere (or to spray the stratosphere with potentially dangerous solar reflecting chemicals). The throne speech in early December offered an airy and vaguely progressive message that “Canada’s children and grandchildren will judge this generation [by its action on] the defining challenge of the time.” But it also indicated that the government would “work just as hard to get Canadian resources to new markets.”
Little of this approach has deviated from the pitch that Trudeau made to oil executives, before becoming prime minister, in a speech to the Calgary Petroleum Club in 2013. Trudeau made it clear then that there was little separating him from Stephen Harper when it came to support for the massive expansion of the tar sands. Where they differed was on tactics, with Trudeau pledging to be a deft diplomat for their interests, building alliances where Harper had burnt them, co-opting his opposition instead of demonizing it. Taking the direction of the powerful Business Council of Canada, Trudeau would brandish technological solutions and the carbon tax—universally supported by the leading corporative executives of all the high-emitting industries as early as 2008, but stymied politically by Harper—and use them as a green fig leaf for a business-as-usual agenda.
Meanwhile, the tar sands are now Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions, on track to eat up more than half of Canada’s carbon emissions budget within the next decade. In the latest UN report, Canada was one of 14 G20 countries that are on pace to miss their emissions reduction targets for 2030. In February, Environment Minister Wilkinson will decide whether to give final approval to Teck Resources’ Frontier Mine, which, at twice the size of Vancouver, would be the biggest tar sands mining project to date. With such projects on the table, Canada is second only to the United States in the planned growth of the oil and gas industry—counteracting any reduction gains from the Liberal government’s half-measures and making it impossible to meet Canada’s climate commitments.
The closeness of the Liberal government to Big Oil has actually been mapped. A new report by William Carrol, Nicolas Graham and David Chen of the Corporate Mapping Project (see their article in this issue) found that the level of contacts between fossil fuel companies and the current government matched those of the previous Conservative government. Over the first three years of the Trudeau government (to 2018), oil lobbyists had a staggering 3,791 contacts with officials. Yet somehow the Globe and Mail still thought it was appropriate, in 2019, to describe the Harper government, and not this one, as being “in cahoots with Big Oil.”
Thankfully, the Indigenous and youth-led resistance to pipelines will likely put a hamper in the Trudeau government’s plans for tar sands expansion (see the article in this issue by Hannah Muhajarine and Molly McCracken). But if no party makes a convincing case for a prosperous transition off oil, it may yet be the right-wing that harnesses the growing resentment, insecurity and anger in Canada for its own political advantage.
Entering the new decade, the appetite has not abated among Canadians for the “radical options” Trudeau warned Bay Street financiers about in his 2015 presentation. Some 67% of us, according to a poll in September, believe that the “economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.” Decades of slow, grinding cuts to the social safety net and the public sphere has left a dignified existence—decent wages, affordable housing, accessible education, etc.—out of reach for growing numbers of people.
Spending by the Liberal government has lifted a few hundred thousand people out of absolute poverty while child care credits have lowered cost of living for many people. But cost and quality of life dominated the last election as major public concerns. In mid-December, Statistics Canada reported, alarmingly, that more than 10% of all workers in Toronto and Vancouver are working in the temporary “gig” economy. Home ownership—a sought-after retirement strategy under our hollowed-out welfare state—is now an impossible dream for many people.
If “radical centrism” of the kind offered by Trudeau is not helping this situation, the question is whether it will be the right-wing who seizes on popular insecurity and directs it toward scapegoats, or whether a resurgent left can channel it in a movement against vested interests.
There are some hopeful signs. Class politics have made a return to western countries, however haltingly in Canada. Polls show enormous popularity for wealth taxation and programs like a Green New Deal. While the NDP under Jagmeet Singh has stopped its slow slide to the centre, its ability to advocate in opposition for the vastly ambitious policies that Canadians are evidently hungry for has yet to be seen.
The moral clarity and passion shown by a new crop of young left-wing parliamentarians suggests one way forward. But ultimately what we need is a voice for a radically different vision for the country—a vision rooted in redistribution, solidarity, and equality. Nothing less will test the Liberal government’s continued success in capturing voters by saying progressive things they may not ever mean.
Martin Lukacs is an investigative journalist who has covered Canadian politics for more than a decade. He has been an environmental writer for The Guardian (U.K.) and was a co-author of the Leap Manifesto. His book, The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in the Age of Discontent, was published by Black Rose Books in late 2019.