National Column: Rising nationalism a test for Liberals

by Paul Wells

It’s way too early to guess how this will turn out, but it’s becoming clear that Justin Trudeau now leads a government in crisis.

It’s not a crisis Trudeau made, but heís stuck with it. How he responds will go far toward making or breaking his career as prime minister.

I’m talking about the crisis of globalization: the broad challenge to the gospel of open borders, free trade and elite accommodation that was viewed, by many Western leaders, as synonymous with progress from at least the late 1980s until the financial crisis of 2008.

In Europe, this strong consensus around a few simple ideas led to the rapid expansion of the European Union into the continentís post-Communist east, the unification of Germany and the creation of the common euro currency. In the United States, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton brought in NAFTA.

Later, in Britain, it was the era of Tony Blair. In Germany, it was Angela Merkel.

The Trudeau government is built entirely on the driving assumptions of the era. That’s why a former foreign correspondent and CNN talking head like Chrystia Freeland is the trade minister, why former bank economist John McCallum is in charge of accelerating immigration, and why if you’re wondering where the prime minister is on any given day, youíd do well to seek out the nearest gathering of foreign CEOs and pension fund managers.

And yet the Trudeau government finds itself operating in a world that’s sprinting away from these assumptions. The biggest warning shots were the U.K.ís vote in June for Brexit and Donald Trump’s election this month. Smaller signs abound, from the nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland to the near-certainty that Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant Front National will make it to the second round of next spring’s presidential election in France.

The nationalist counter-revolutions donít want open borders. They view outsiders as trouble. They see free trade as a scheme for shipping good jobs out.

And they’ve grown to despise the eggheads and the swells whoíve spent the last 30 years coming up with these schemes.

Not all the new nationalists are on the political right. Tom Mulcair spent the last two weeks of the 2015 election campaign running full-time against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the same trade deal Trump says he’ll kill on his first day as president. Opposition to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), in Canada and in Europe, comes mostly from the labour left.

For decades pro-globalization elite leaders commanded substantial benefit of the doubt from voters. But a lot of voters arenít sure the doubt has been repaid in better lives. That doubt is leading to one electoral upset after another.

So this is the burden Trudeau carries. What’s remarkable is that he kind of predicted this crisis. “The growth we have seen over the past three decades has been the product of a broadly supported agenda,” he told a Liberal convention in Montreal in 2014.

“Investments in education, fiscal discipline, openness to trade. All of which the middle class voted for, repeatedly.”

But “the original promise of that agenda was that everyone would share in the prosperity that it creates. That hasn’t happened,” he added.

“If we donít fix it, the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda.”

That’s pretty close to whatís happening now in a lot of countries. Which is why Trudeau’s peculiar relationship with money matters. The Conservatives have already developed a shorthand critique of his governing manner. The PM, Rona Ambrose says, “likes hanging out with billionaires.”

A lot of what Trudeau’s government does is designed to ensure that the middle class keeps supporting his agenda. It’s why the biggest spending item in his first year was on an enhanced tax benefit for parents. It’s why his election platform and his finance ministerís first budget carried titles that referred to the middle class.

But when Trudeau comforts the caricature of an out-of-touch elite governing for its own ends, not the public’s – when he meets Chinese billionaires at a stately private home in Toronto, when his time seems dedicated to advancing their interests, or his party’s – he plays into the very narrative that has shaken the European Union and his Democratic allies in the U.S. this year. Given the stakes, thatís a problem Trudeau should take very seriously indeed.

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

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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