The Justin Trudeau Brand of Photogenic Austerity

This week’s guest contributor John Clarke argues that the Liberal Party and Justin Trudeau’s recent electoral victory in Canada is not one to be celebrated by the anti-austerity left. Rather than pursue alternative policies, we can expect the new Canadian Government to ‘stealthily’ pursue the Austerity agenda and continue a raft of reactionary policies implemented by the Conservative Harper administration.

Having replaced the crudely reactionary and rather charmless Stephen Harper as Canadian Prime Minister, the photogenic Justin Trudeau is being presented in the media as a breath of fresh air.  However, millions of working class and poor people, impacted by an intensifying austerity agenda, have grievances that will not be solved with sound bites and selfies.

Unlike the UK, where the Liberal Party went into decline in the first part of the 20th Century, its counterpart in Canada has remained a front rank political formation up to the present day.  With social democracy here playing very much less of a role, the Liberal Party has taken turns in governing with the Conservatives over generations.  It is often said of the Liberals that they ‘campaign from the left and govern from the right’.   In these times of mounting austerity, this becomes truer than ever.  Trudeau won the election by beating back an upsurge of support for the New Democratic Party (NDP).  He did this by outflanking the decidedly Blairite NDP leadership on the left. While there leader, Thomas Mulcair, vowed to be tougher than the Tories on the deficit, Trudeau adopted a Keynesian mantle and proposed limited deficit financing to stimulate the economy.

This electoral ruse was not without irony, given that it was employed by the Liberal Party.  In 1993, austerity at the federal level in Canada, took an unprecedented leap forward at the hands of the Liberal Chretien Government.  Social housing was downloaded onto the provincial governments, transfer payments to the provinces were cut massively and the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) was eliminated.  This had provided federal money for provincial income support systems for the unemployed and disabled, while setting national standards for these programmes.  The impact of the destruction of CAP has been enormously regressive.

There is no serious possibility that the present Trudeau Government will implement serious reforms such as a national housing programme, improvements in income support systems or reverse the decline in health care standards unless they are faced with a very serious social movement that fights for such things.  In fact, the crisis that sparked post 2008 international hyper austerity, seems to be deepening in Canada to a deeply troubling degree.  The significantly resource based economy has been hard hit by the fall in oil prices. The downtown is centred in but by no means confined to the western province of Alberta, where unemployment has skyrocketed and food banks are being overwhelmed.  Moreover, as the economy slumps, Canada has a dangerous household debt level that is the highest among G7 countries.  None of this suggests any great prospects for the Liberals rediscovering their former and very dubious progressive credentials.

Since taking power, the Trudeau regime has taken care to overturn some particularly egregious measures the Harper Tories had undertaken.  Harper, for example, had tried to prevent Muslim women from taking the oath of Canadian citizenship if they wore a niqab.  When the courts struck down this hideous requirement, the Tories launched an appeal.  Trudeau was only too happy to ostentatiously kill that appeal and ‘celebrate diversity’ at no cost.  On the more decisive question of the austerity agenda’s close relative, endless war, the Liberals have been somewhat less progressive.  Harper’s shameful $15 billion arms deal with the Saudi Arabian torture state will not be cancelled and armoured vehicles, perfectly suited to murdering protesters on the streets, will be delivered as planned.  The election pledge to end Canadian airstrikes in Syria and Iraq has not only been broken but the killing and devastation has actually been intensified.  When it comes to the implementation of austerity measures, we may expect the Trudeau Government to act more stealthily that the former Tory regime but to maintain and even intensify its regressive course.

The federal system of government in Canada makes the implementation of austerity a more collaborative effort.  Some direct federal social programmes do exist, such as unemployment insurance and the Canada Pension Plan, but for the most part, social provision is in the hands of the provinces. The federal government can cut funding but not directly implement regressive policies.  If Iain Duncan Smith lived in Canada, he’d have to impose his Work Capability Assessments on the sick and disabled in one of the ten provinces.  However, the Liberal Party is at work on the austerity project in a number of Canadian jurisdictions.  In Quebec, the government of Philippe Couillard is forging ahead with unprecedented austerity measures in the face of a huge social mobilisation.  Public services and the workers that deliver them are under enormous attack.  Despite being a Liberal, Couillard has proudly acknowledged that his greatest political role model is none other than Margaret Thatcher.

In Ontario, the Liberals have been in power since 2003. They took over from a hard right wing Tory regime and have craftily consolidated and deepened the austerity measures they inherited.  They are an object lesson in the role of the Liberal Party as a kind of political chameleon.  The present leader, Kathleen Wynne, took over the job claiming she would be the ‘Social Justice Premier’.  Since 1994, social assistance payments to unemployed and disabled people in Ontario have lost at least 55% of their spending power.  This decline continued after the Liberals came to power and despite the fact that they passed a Poverty Reduction Act that they have violated by making people poorer.

The austerity agenda in Canada will be ‘kinder and gentler’ under Trudeau and his Liberal provincial counterparts only in form but not in substance.  We are really dealing with austerity in sheep’s clothing.  The contradiction in dealing with such duplicitous regimes is that they are less hard-nosed and can be forced to retreat somewhat more easily than overtly right wing governments but, at the same time, they are far more skillful in the art of political demobilisation. Dialogue and consultation are their stock in trade. It may, however, be Justin Trudeau’s misfortune to have taken on the role of Prime Minister at a time when the intensity of the austerity agenda and the social resistance it engenders will more than his charm and photogenic qualities can deflect.  Unlike David Cameron, the present Canadian Prime Minister would never stand up in the House of Commons and refer to people in a squalid refugee camp as ‘a bunch of migrants’.  His brand of austerity, however, is every bit a vicious and harmful as Cameron’s and those impacted by have just as much reason to mobilise and fight back as do people in the UK.

John Clarke is a political activist based in Canada, and founding member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. He writes regularly on political and economic issues.

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