Writing these to help figure out my thinking on what is clearly becoming something that will go down in the history books, for good or ill.
Canadians are both very fortunate, and very unfortunate, that Justin Trudeau has been our prime minister since 2015.
On the fortunate side of the ledger: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Trudeau owes his prime ministership and political career to his almost instinctive understanding of the current social and political climate. By which I mean the general tendency in Canadian society toward inclusiveness. We saw this talent on display in the rebuke to the Ottawa protesters that drew the ire of the myopic Globe and Mail editorialists.
We shouldn’t underestimate either the political importance of being able to articulate widely held sentiments or the importance of these sentiments themselves. Trudeau’s innate grasp of common decency and the importance of inclusiveness helped the country survive the Trump presidency because it took as a given that Trump’s approach to politics is wrong and poisonous. As a result, we were able to keep Trumpism at bay, until now. That’s no small accomplishment.
A continued Stephen Harper prime ministership, on the other hand, would likely have been disastrous for the country. Right-wing populism is the poison of the moment, and it’s transmitted to the body politic through right-leaning parties. We’re seeing that play out now, but having a conservative party in charge during the Trump presidency likely would have accelerated it, providing a vehicle for extremists in the Conservative Party, like Pierre Poilievre, to sow chaos from inside the House. That Stephen Harper, post-prime ministership, has been cozying up to Hungarian authoritarian leader Viktor Orban, among others, only highlights further the bullet we’ve dodged until now.
And just imagine the chaos that we would’ve seen if these protests had taken place against the background of a second Trump term.
So, words matter. But so do actions.
Unfortunately, the other thing that’s characterized the Trudeau years is a consistent inability to rise to the occasion, to match words with deeds.
A few years into Trudeau’s government, in a livestreamed talk, Carleton University history professor and my MA supervisor Norman Hillmer gave Trudeau’s foreign policy to that date a B-, for exactly these reasons. That grade sounds about right.
And not just in foreign policy. Whether it’s climate change, or data policy, or platform governance, the Trudeau government’s policy responses have all been pointed in the right direction, but have been inadequate or unimaginative. He, and the government, have been saying the right things, but with little or insufficient follow-through.
About the only file on which this has not been true was the Canada-US relationship during the Trump years. It was blindingly obvious that Trump posed an existential threat to Canada’s economic survival, and the government reacted accordingly. The federal government has also done quite well in responding to the pandemic – not perfect, but reasonably imperfect.
But on anything else, where the short-term stakes seem lower and the existential crisis less immediate, there’s often little but words.
Most importantly, the government has failed to reinvest in the capacity needed to run a modern government to address modern problems. Another way of putting this is, we have leadership in words, but not actions.
To be fair, this is a widespread problem. We’ve seen the same embrace of communication strategies over policy responses from the provincial and municipal governments as well.
That Ottawa police have hired a “crisis management firm” to help with their messaging is the perfect confluence of the two dominant currents in what passes for politics in Canada these days: a focus on messaging instead of the work (in this case, of enforcing the law of the land), and outsourcing basic government competencies.
As I suggested in a previous post, the most shocking and consequential aspect of the #FluTruxKlan protests hasn’t been the protesters’ actions. They represent a tiny minority of Canadians, and every family, community, city and country has their fair share of straight-up jackasses and racists.
Rather, it’s been the across-the-board complete failure of the Ottawa, Ontario and federal governments to deal with what was always clearly an extremist movement, both before they got to Ottawa and once they arrived.
(Also to be fair, other cities and provinces have handled the protesters much better, but when the federal government, Canada’s largest province and the city’s capital continue to be MIA after over a week of ongoing lawlessness, that’s a huge problem.)
Once, and however, the occupiers are removed from Ottawa, politicians, police, and Canada’s security community must be put under the microscope. It won’t be enough to simply vote the bums out of office.
What is government good for?
In a sense, this is a crisis 40 years in the making. Since the 1980s and the Mulroney government, the conventional wisdom has been that the less government, the better. As a result, we’ve ended up in a vicious circle. Based on the belief that big government is bad government, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have eviscerated governmental capacity, which makes it ever-harder for government to do its job. Which justifies further cuts and outsourcing.
When you’re trapped in this cycle, leadership becomes little more than saying the right things, and government becomes a pantomime.
Most people are mostly good most of the time. When things are going well, governments can coast without their lack of capacity causing too many problems. The true cost of this performative approach to government only becomes clear in a crisis. Like this one.
At the very least, we need to get back in the habit of seeing governments and the collective action they enable as valued and important, so that our leaders focus less on comms strategies and more on the hard work of governing. At most, we need a full overhaul of how we conduct the business of government.
Because as bad as this occupation is, Canada is only going to face more destabilizing crises in the future, from an increasingly unstable United States and an increasingly hostile international geopolitical arena, to climate change-induced natural disasters. Responding to these challenges will take more than words provided by a hotshot consultancy.
As the Kids in the Hall knew, you can coast pretty far on charm. But at some point, you have to actually govern.