This past week marked the two-year anniversary of the 2015 federal election. It also marked the week in which Canada’s leading politicos and columnists glued themselves to their desks to dissect the Liberal government’s record thus far. Who is up in the Cabinet? Who is down? What, if anything, do the polls suggest moving forward? What has been accomplished?
I will leave that space to the professional prognosticators and instead focus on what I see as the defining feature of the Trudeau Liberal government. Thus far, this feature has been the deceptive technique of “helping the Middle Class” that the government tends to employ in justifying their policy vision for Canada. Put simply, it is the tendency to use the myths of the Middle Class in order to purposefully obfuscate why to implement, or negate implementing, an electoral promise. While previously a routine government function, this accountability mechanism has taken on new and heightened meaning in the era of alternative facts. It has been further eroded over these past two years and will continue to be without heightened vigilance on the part of citizens.
To be clear: disingenuous political messaging has existed long before Trudeau came to power. It is ostensibly a part of political life, a way in which politicians bend the norms of language so they may successfully sell their ideological product to a large enough plurality of the voting public, and thereby accede to governing the country.
However, for most scandal-free politicians, the ways to justify policy choices fall neatly into one of three categories:
- Tell everyone that you will execute your policy, then actually do it and deal with the criticism after the fact. This is easily justified by the appeal to strong-headed decisiveness or political principles. See the slog that was getting Obamacare passed.
- Tell everyone that you will execute your policy, knowing that there is no way that you will do it, and get the public to understand that fact toute suite. This is called being two-faced, or just plain lying, and easily justified by the appeal to bigger priorities, or national unity, or the general good of the country. Move on with life as soon as possible. See most Conservative party MPs and Stephen Harper on environmental issues.
- Tell everyone that you will execute your policy, because you personally, genuinely believe in the cause. Prepare legislation, go through the process, engage citizens. Justify abandoning said promise because of your carefully veiled political considerations (read: re-election), and apologize or blame profusely. This is also known colloquially as the BS excuse technique, and is difficult to execute. See Québec politicians proposing to increase, then freeze, tuition rates in 2012. They were subsequently turfed.
The problem with the Liberals is that they have come up with a fourth category that is even more distasteful than the ones above: tell everyone that you will execute your policy, and justify action or reneging exclusively by judging its worth for a totally undefined constituency.
For Trudeau, this constituency is the Middle Class and Those Working Hard to Join It.
Now, taken at face value, this strategy seems neither awful, nor foolish, nor bad for the country. Doing what satisfies a certain constituency generally gets a politician elected, especially if that constituency – the Middle Class – is broad and easily identifiable. The strategy is brilliant in both theory and practice because really, who doesn’t consider themselves a part of the Middle Class? And if not, you are Still Working Hard to Join It, right?
However, since the very first Liberal press conferences back in October 2015, the Prime Minister has consistently and sometimes only explained his choices by falling back on the old canard that Canada’s middle-incomes are being so hollowed out that the country will one day resemble the United States’ level of income inequality, or perhaps even worse. Apart from this narrative being debunked by the data showing reasonably strong wage growth since the Stephen Harper era, the Prime Minister has been incapable of clearly defining the group of people that he is clearly so concerned with helping.
To sum up then: Justin Trudeau is telling Canadians publicly that he makes decisions to satisfy a constituency that he cannot publicly identify and that does not even empirically need the most government assistance. Here are some of those decisions that motivated him to “help” as the country’s Prime Minister. A quick search of keywords in Hansard, Canada’s official parliamentary record, “helping the middle class and those working hard to join it” was given as an answer for the following Liberal moves, nearly all of which have now been taken:
- Cutting taxes for people making two times the national median income.
- Approving the construction of heavy oil pipelines to the west coast.
- Reneging on a promise to strengthen Canada’s environmental targets for the Paris Climate Accord.
- Reneging on a promise to implement a new, fairer voting system.
- Spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars to fly the Prime Minister to the Bahamas for a vacation, in direct contravention of conflict-of-interest rules.
- Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on military equipment and contracts, contrary to a commitment to peacekeeping. See the new military spending here, and the absent peace mission here
- Rejecting better accountability for the independent financial watchdog of Canada’s budget.
I could go on. This last point is sufficient though, as it is the most revealing: the elected officials of the government of Canada opted not to improve tracking of public dollars because they believed that better, democratic accountability would hurt the middle class. This should be a shocking who cares about the health of democracy in our federation.
If we are to take the Liberal position at face value, then we must place our blind trust in the most powerful people in the land because they are so deeply in tune with the electorate and thus do not need average citizens to worry about the affairs of the country.
As highlighted in the three categories above, justifying hard or bad choices is an incredibly high-wire act, and usually ends up in the defeat of a political party. The example given on justifying abysmal environmental performance by the previous Conservatives was definitely a factor in the government’s downfall but I can at least respect that honest lie more than what the Liberals are doing. Liberals have gone one step farther by using their electoral strategy of appealing to an ambiguous group to deliberately obfuscate their incompetence, their broken promises, and the public’s right to basic information. This trend continues to play out to this day, as the government is currently advancing a bill that would only compel, not require, the release of information from minister’s offices subsequent to a request from journalists or the opposition parties. This is deeply stressful for a supposedly functional democracy. No matter though, as it is all in the name of the Middle Class and Those Working Hard to Join It.
I tried very hard to write this piece without mentioning the bulbous He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named figure that currently occupies the White House. And yet, I struggle to ignore the parallels that can be drawn between the lack of accountability common to both Trump and Trudeau. The former never takes responsibility for his actions, be it hurricane response or health-care repeal failures. The latter does, but then refuses to answer why those responsibilities go beyond anything but “helping” a particular group.
The public deserves to know what its government is doing. It is another reason why Conservatives lost to Trudeau in 2015. The last two years have been an excruciating exercise in figuring out what the Liberals have actually done, or intend to do, fuelled by simply justifying anything and everything with the Middle Class. What we do know is this: the Real Change that the Liberals assured to bring to government has not materialized. Take a look at those broken promises mentioned above. The electorate deserves a reasonable, if slightly spun, answer to why this occurred. Anything less and the reality of decision-making, or accountability, or politics in and of itself, is changed and confused, which is what this Prime Minister seems to want. It is up to us to take back control of our information and demand the why behind the what of any government action.
Graham Gerein is a fourth-year student at the University of Ottawa, studying environmental economics. He is an avid cyclist, a proud Albertan, and a critic of the national political scene. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured photo credit: pixabay.com