Opinion | Justin Trudeau: the liberal icon who has fallen from grace4 min read . Updated: 26 Aug 2019, 10:45 PM IST
He may yet form a government in Canada, but as a political hero high on style over substance, his high-flying days are over
Early readers of this column will know that I am an admirer of Stephen Harper, the former prime minister of Canada. During his tenure as the country’s leader, from 2006-2015, he managed the almost impossible task of moving a political economy, which is firmly centre-left on economics and social policy, decisively toward the centre-right. But by 2015, the laws of politics had caught up with Harper, and Canadians returned to power the centrist to centre-left Liberals, Canada’s “natural" governing party according to its acolytes and establishment historians.
While I have never especially been an admirer of the Liberals, I am even less so of the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Indeed, those who follow India-Canada relations will be aware that I was at the forefront of critical commentary on Trudeau’s disastrously failed visit to India in February 2018. I had predicted before the visit that in the absence of real substance, and Trudeau’s sanctimonious grandstanding on “progressive and feminist" trade policy on all his foreign travels, the India visit would be overtaken by the Khalistan issue, and, as the visit got underway, I described it as a slow-moving train wreck. Even Trudeau’s most ardent fans cannot deny that this is how things played out. Indeed, it was even worse than I myself had imagined it would be.
His India debacle perfectly encapsulates the failures of Trudeau. A second-generation political dynast, with little or no training in, nor understanding of, economics, foreign policy or defence, what Trudeau offered the Canadian public in 2015, and what they lapped up until recently, was a political brand high on style and low on substance. The substance, such as it was, focused almost exclusively on what one would call progressive social policy. Thus, after nearly four years in office, the only tangible accomplishment one can put under Trudeau’s name is the legalization of marijuana, an issue which animates some, but certainly not serious commentators on Canadian politics who have decried the absence of any intellectually coherent foundation to Trudeau’s governance.
For the first three years, really until the shine began to come off after the India visit, Trudeau was a darling of the international media, and became a veritable icon for the brand of liberal internationalist politics that was under siege in the US, UK and elsewhere in the Western world. In the way that the UK was under the then prime minister Tony Blair in the 1990s, Canada under Trudeau was cool, and seen as a beacon for the Davos crowd and globalists the world over.
In a sense, Trudeau managed to replicate the popularity and media savvy of his late father, Pierre, who was Canada’s prime minister for the very long tenure from 1968-1980, with a brief interregnum in 1979-1980, when the hapless and witless Conservative, Joe Clark, was briefly prime minister.
But there is one crucial difference between Trudeau father and son, which is that whether you agreed with him or not (I did not), the former had an intellectually coherent vision of what he wanted Canada to be, and he managed to imprint his stamp on the nation to an extent that even his successor, the very successful and ideologically driven Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, who was in power from 1984-1993, was not able to efface it. That vision was one that may be best described as solidly socialist on economic policy and firmly progressive on cultural policy.
Thus, Pierre Trudeau shrewdly converted the twin policies of bilingualism (English and French) and biculturalism (old stock Anglo-Saxon and French-Canadian) into the modern policies of bilingualism and multiculturalism (rather than biculturalism). One may laud the move, but, as many French Canadians will tell you, Trudeau’s real goal, and one in which he succeeded, was to bury the French identity in a welter of other competing identities of new immigrants to Canada, whether East European, Chinese or Indian.
Much like Napoleon III had some of the style and elegance of his uncle, Napoleon, but none of the substance, Justin Trudeau has some of the style and elegance, but none of the substance of his late father, Pierre. This would not have mattered much, but, in the absence of substance, style can only take you so far when things go bad. And badly they have gone for the Canadian leader, with aserious corruption scandal involving the direct interference of the Prime Minister’s Office with the attorney general’s investigation into the activities of a well-connected and powerful Quebec firm, SNC Lavalin. Things are so bad that Trudeau has been officially censured by the government’s official ethics watchdog, although the latter’s office has no power to impose any sanctions on the prime minister or his government.
Still, the timing could not possibly be worse for Trudeau, with federal elections due in October. At the moment, according to most national polls, the Liberals are in a statistical tie with the opposition Conservatives, led by the soft-spoken, mild-mannered, thoughtful and distinctly unglamorous Andrew Scheer, a devout Anglo-Saxon Roman Catholic, whose image is as different from the playboy persona of Trudeau as one could possibly get.
Trudeau may yet be able to scrape by and form a minority government, but, in one way or another, his high-flying days are over: to which I can only say, “hallelujah".
Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist.