National Column: Trudeau’s neo-liberalism comes with a human face

by Thomas Walkom

Justin Trudeau promised neo-liberalism with a human face. Those weren’t the words he used. But the phrase expresses the gist of the election campaign he successfully waged just over a year ago.

In that campaign, Trudeau said his Liberals would pursue most of Conservative Stephen Harper’s economic goals – including resource exploitation, pipelines and free trade. But they would do so in a way that distributed the proceeds more equitably.

In effect, he promised to be Tony Blair to Harper’s Margaret Thatcher – doing much the same as his political nemesis, but in a more acceptable manner.

He is at least partially succeeding.

The essence of neo-liberalism is globalization. Neo-liberals strive for a world in which capital, goods and even labour move effortlessly from country to country. The aim is to let the free market do its magic and maximize wealth.

Harper’s Conservative government was of this mould. But it was clumsy and ham-handed. Its efforts to circumvent environmental regulations in order to encourage pipeline construction backfired.

Its relationship with indigenous peoples – who claim much of the land where resource exploitation can take place – was fraught.

Its attempt to lower wages by importing thousands of temporary foreign workers was so blatant it caused a popular backlash. In the end, the Conservatives received so much political heat for this that they were forced to limit the use of temporary foreign help.

By comparison, the Trudeau Liberals are smooth. Last week, they eliminated a rule that prevented temporary foreign workers from staying in Canada for more than four years.

To make the move politically palatable, the Liberal government said it would also require employers to advertise among disadvantaged groups such as indigenous people and the disabled before turning to foreigners.

But the bottom line is that the new rule allows employers to use cheap foreign labour indefinitely.

Had Harper’s Conservatives done this, they would have been vilified for taking jobs from Canadians. The reaction to the Liberal announcement, however, ranged from ho-hum to vaguely positive.

Probably nothing has been smoother than the Trudeau government’s approach to resource extraction.

Like the big resource corporations themselves, the Liberals understand that the days of the swashbuckling freebooter are over. To mine resources successfully – in advanced countries at least – corporations and governments need the acquiescence of those with enough clout to hold up projects.

In Canada, that means wooing indigenous peoples and well-organized environmental groups. Trudeau called this winning social licence. And to win social licence for oil and gas pipelines, he worked on two fronts.

One was climate change. The government established its bona fides here by negotiating a path-breaking agreement with eight out of 10 provinces (plus three territories) to impose a price on carbon.

On its own, the carbon-price agreement is not enough to let Canada meet its climate targets. But in the end, it may be enough to convince enough Canadians that the pipelines from Alberta to the Pacific coast that Trudeau wants should go ahead.

Simultaneously, the government has been successfully wooing indigenous leaders – with promises of more money, a more respectful relationship and an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

This doesn’t mean that all First Nations will support all pipelines. But it does give these pipelines a better chance of being built.

Meanwhile, the Liberal government continues apace with its overarching globalization plans. The free trade and investment deal between Canada and the European Union is closer to fruition. A similar deal with China is on the agenda, as is some kind of free-trade relationship with Japan.

Are the rewards from Trudeau-style neo-liberalism being shared more equitably? That’s a harder question to answer. The government has gone ahead with its so-called middle-class tax break for those making between $50,000 and $200,000.

But its ambitious plans to pour billions of dollars into social and physical infrastructure are barely off the ground.

As for the hallmark of neo-liberal economies – the precarious workplace of low wages and multiple jobs – the advice from Finance Minister Bill Morneau is hardly encouraging.

In effect he has said: get used to it.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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