Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issues positive symbols, but won't stand up when real money is involved Photograph: (Getty)
His sincere and heartening political messaging can be meaningful, but it doesn't stand up to military contracts or Big Business
If the world is looking at Canada, it’s because of Prime Minister Trudeau’s heart and hair. He’s photogenic, which critics take as proof he's a selfie-taking cerebral lightweight (as if Stephen Harper fended off Vanity Fair photographers). Critics also mock Trudeau's pathologically progressive PR (handshaking Syrian refugees at the airport, proclaiming himself a feminist, etc) as affected or mawkish. Yet however cultivated Trudeau's media image is, it does seem to accurately reflect him as a person. Probably nobody thinks Trudeau is secretly a woman-hating xenophobe.
In an era where political campaigns are essentially advertising contests, should a serious person ignore a politician's chosen symbols? No. While it's definitely calculated, the symbolism a politician selects for mass appeal does reveal a lot, and does have intrinsic value.
Internationally, Trudeau’s aura is a meaningful breath of fresh air to millions of Indians tired of rancid patriarchy and caste oppression, or Modi speaking twee platitudes from one side of his mouth and strident hindutva from the other. Or to anybody tired and terrified of Trump. As leaders around the world tack right by appealing to lizard-brain paranoia, it’s understandable and meaningful that people are inspired by a symbolic counterbalance.
Policy matters above all, not talk or imagery. But no doubt Canada’s Muslims prefer that the Prime Minister doesn’t dog whistle at them (like Canada’s thrice-elected last Prime Minister). The marginalised shouldn’t be spat on by the person most capable of improving their lives. Politics of division from the top breeds violence. If inclusive branding does absolutely nothing but ensure the absence of that, that’s something.
But there’s a limit. Liberals believe in their ideals until they’re faced with a choice, to embody them or make a lot of money.
For all Trudeau’s outsized display of heart he presides over a government selling $15-billion worth of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, the generous sponsor of terrorists and radical Wahhabi madrassas around the world.
Trudeau enjoying a gay pride parade in Toronto, very much not in Riyadh.
Trudeau commendably supports the LGBT community whereas Saudi Arabia sometimes stones them to death, but rather than condemn the House of Saud he is weaponizing them. The Canadian-made “jeeps” will be mounted with machine guns, and possibly anti-tank missiles. The well-founded fear is they will be used against dissenting Saudi civilians. Saudi Arabia is currenly targeting civilian infrastructure in Yemen, also. This makes arming Saudi Arabia not just unethical but likely illegal under Canada’s weapons export laws. It’s worth considering that a Saudi Arabian openly expressing Trudeau's views in may be at risk of the Canadian-made weapons Trudeau's party signed off on. (Or just a public lashing, if he's lucky.)
The deal was brokered by Canada’s Conservative Party, who crowed about job creation (as if arming violent foes is honourable, if a Canadian is paid to do it). But Trudeau’s Liberals opted not to cancel it. That they didn’t initiate the deal gives the Liberals undeserved plausible deniability. Each party is blaming the other for a human right’s travesty, and they’re both right.
The Canadian tradition of speaking from the left and governing from the right is on display in Trudeau’s attitude to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP). The TPP, if ratified, would be the biggest “free trade” deal in history, but international trade is only a minor part of it. Corporations don't like being beholden to international law, so the TPP lets them rewrite it. Negotiations have been conducted in secret since 2010 (thankfully there have been leaks). In addition to impacting 18,000 tariffs, the deal includes measures to punish corporate whistleblowers, needlessly restrict copyright and intellectual property laws, and enable companies to sue governments if their social spending cuts into their market. The TPP only exists so that the profits of major corporations will legally supersede the public interest in court.
Either ideological TPP proponents are naive and gullible enough to believe that CEOs and politicians secretly met for five years to discuss how best to uplift the middle class and impoverished.
Or, the people praising the TPP are the very people who stand to profit by it, and they know the game is rigged because they supervised or participated in the rigging.
During Canada’s 2015 election Trudeau was officially non-committal to the TPP, unwilling to hastily sign an unknown thing. On becoming Prime Minister he hastily signed an unknown thing. Now he says he won’t ratify it, that being hasty.
Nobody, including Trudeau, has adequately explained why the onus is on the public to demonstrate what parts of the TPP are objectionable, rather than why it’s being thrust on the people in the first place. To the extent leaders are talking about the TPP at all, their justifications are dubious; jobs and the economies of twelve countries can’t all simultaneously grow. It’s a zero-sum game, something has to give. In physics, every action has an opposite and equal reaction. Only in the junk science of free trade deals does everything constantly expand without an eventual correction. NAFTA promised the US 200,000 jobs, and ended up costing over 600,000 in the manufacturing sector alone.
Either ideological TPP proponents are naive and gullible enough to believe that CEOs and politicians secretly met for five years to discuss how best to uplift the middle class and impoverished. Or, the people praising the TPP are the very people who stand to profit by it, and they know the game is rigged because they supervised or participated in the rigging.
Trudeau has worked to repair relationships with Canada's Natives. How he reconciles their interests and environmental stewardship with proposed pipelines will be watched closely.
To be sure, even if Trudeau resolved to stop selling the Saudis arms and halt the TPP, he’s a small cog international politics. All national leaders are surrounded by vulture lobbyists and purchased bureaucrats, who collectively decide things. For example, how Trudeau will reconcile the competing pressure to build pipelines with his pledge to protect the environment and improve relations with aboriginal people remains to be seen, but early signs lean towards big oil. Nobody should expect Trudeau to singlehandedly shape Canada, let alone the world.
In late September his cabinet approved the construction of a $11.4 billion (Canadian Dollars) terminal to export liquefied natural gas that has angered environmentalists and Canadian Aboriginal groups. The project has certain environmental conditions attached, to be named in time, but what they are and whether they're actually upheld remains to be seen. His image will take a beating if his base thinks his environmental, energy and economic juggling errs too much on the side of business.
But it isn’t that his sunshiney symbols are meaningless, just they have limits. Assuming any politician is authentically fond of the environment and opposed to militarisation or obscene concentrations of wealth, they're still pretty powerless against Big Business. Trudeau fits in here.
So while critics find his ostentatious shows of pluralism corny, at least they're not just fashionable masks for bigotry. The world needs more leaders who aren’t preprogrammed to whip up and then appeal to caveman instincts. Just nobody should think his theater for social, environmental or economic justice will translate into policy that adequately addresses, let alone fixes, the biggest problems facing the world.