National Column: Can Trudeau counter populist angst?

by Paul Wells

In his meeting with the Star’s editorial board the other day, Justin Trudeau said some things about the rise of populism in western politics that bear another look.

At least since the beginning of this year, the prime minister has been careful not to talk about Donald Trump much, or to analyze the political currents that brought him to power. Trudeau doubted Trump could get elected. But he didn’t rule it out, and he didn’t want to buy trouble. There will be enough challenges ahead without picking fights, he reasoned.

But when my colleagues put some general questions to him in Toronto the other day, Trudeau went further on the general question of what might be termed “Trumpism” than he has before.

Is Canada isolated from the populist currents in other countries? he was asked.

“Canadians faced an election, a year ago, that was filled with very similar rhetoric as we’re hearing right now,” he replied. “Whether it was the ëbarbaric practices’ line (a Conservative campaign proposal that people could call police to inform on neighbours who were behaving in ways deemed unCanadian). Whether it was the Islamophobia – carefully, sometimes not so carefully veiled. The politics of, you know, pointing and isolating and demonizing different corners of the country.

“We as a country chose a different option than some of the other countries seem poised (to choose), or have chosen.”

But that outcome isn’t guaranteed, Trudeau said. “Unless we make significant changes around who gets the benefit of economic growth – unless we’re much better at including everyone in the success of the country – then people will start to lash out.”

In fact, Trudeau seemed to draw tentative, limited parallels between his own political success in 2015 and Trump’s a year later.

Stephen Harper “ran a campaign very much on ëyou should be thankful for how well we’ve been managing this economy, and how good you all have it,’ ” Trudeau said. “And we highlighted, ëNo! The middle class is falling behind, and we need to do significant things to boost it.’ ”

What sort of significant things? Trudeau’s a Liberal: he’s pretty sure the measures in his first budget went a long way toward delivering on his promise. He listed his middle-class tax cut, his Canada Child Benefit and his attempts to reconcile “protecting the environment and growing the economy at the same time.”

But his 2015 election campaign, Trudeau argued, was not a rebuttal of populism, but an attempt to channel the frustrations that drive it. “That was my contention, and it reflected better the angst and the frustration that so many Canadians were feeling – that, quite frankly, people in the middle class around the developed world are feeling. We didn’t do it to the same degree of anger – we tried to channel it into hope instead – but the recognition of the same issue was there.”

The prime minister clearly doesn’t think he’s finished meeting this challenge. “People are feeling … that they’re not well suited for the pace of change that the planet and our western economies are going through,” he said. “And how we demonstrate that we are aware of those challenges … whether it’s in training or support, or opportunities for their kids, is going to be really, really important.”

This analysis offers a handy frame for guessing what Trudeau will do next. One assumes further action on “training or support, or opportunities for … kids” will be forthcoming.

It’s also, inevitably, a lens for testing whether the Trudeau government’s actions rise to the level of his objective, which is no less than to stave off a global tide of reaction against mainstream politics.

“I think it’s really important that we acknowledge the very diverse range of voices across the country, on all different sides of the spectrum, and try and govern in ways that try to show we’ve heard people – whether or not we agree with them as much as we’d like,” he said.

Voters can – indeed they certainly will – decide for themselves how well Trudeau is doing just that.

“I’m very confident in the nature of Canadians, where we understand that our neighbour’s success doesn’t take away from our success, but it adds to it,” Trudeau said. “That’s something that has always been true in this country, and (something that) we continue to need to have to work on and improve, because it hasn’t been as true as we’d like. But people get that we’re better off together. And I think a leader that emphasizes that, and a team that showcases that, is going to do better than someone that preys on division, fear, and insecurities.”

We will certainly see.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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