Justin Trudeau’s No Good, Very Bad Summer Vacation
NAFTA. Pipeline bailouts. Doug Ford. The prime minister is going to need that legal weed this fall.
It has been a hot and grueling summer for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It started with Doug Ford becoming premier of Ontario with a mandate to troll the federal government. Then the opposition Tories proved they could drive national policy from the backseat by ginning up a “border crisis.” The feds painted themselves into a corner over the Trans-Mountain Pipeline Expansion by promising to bankroll construction come hell or high water before finally buying the whole thing outright—only to have the Federal Court of Appeal rule they aren’t allowed to build it anyway. The national carbon tax, capstone of Liberal environmental policy, is for all intents and purposes dead on arrival. And now, thanks to a clandestine agreement between the United States and Mexico, Canada has until the end of the month to salvage the North American Free Trade Agreement or sit atop the continent as the odd man out.
You know what they say: man plans, God laughs, and a small cabal of oil executives quietly take their winnings to the bank.
Some sympathy for the devil: it’s not entirely the Liberals’ fault. 2015 feels as distant from the world today as the murder of Julius Caesar. Few people guessed at the time that the White House would go rogue or that our creaky Enlightenment society would start collapsing under the weight of an ethereal internet. You can’t blame Trudeau for having a hard time navigating the erratic collapse of American empire; Hillary was supposed to win the last election. (In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a great idea for Canada to spend the 20th century attaching itself to Leviathan’s underbelly like a remora, but that’s life as a muddling middle power for you.)
But even accounting for the lashings of this particular historical storm, Trudeau has shown himself perfectly capable of running aground under his own power.
TMX is a true catastrophe, as far as signature national policies go. They bet the house on black but everything kept coming up red. As the government assures us Everything Is Still Totally Under Control, Albertans flirt again with separatist rhetoric. Our “national interest” now threatens to tear the country apart.
The whole situation could have been avoided had the Liberals bothered to a) read the Northern Gateway decision; b) follow through on their campaign promise to alter the obviously deficient Harper-era National Energy Board approvals process; c) actually consult with Indigenous peoples as if they have real constitutional rights that extend beyond rubber stamping resource megaprojects; d) not immediately volunteer to subsidize and/or nationalize the pipeline knowing—because, surely, someone knew—that there would be outstanding legal issues. Plus, $4.5 billion dollars could probably buy you some nice new green energy infrastructure instead of further underwriting a carcinogenic sunset industry, but that’s not likely to win many friends at a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers hospitality suite.
(For what it’s worth: the Liberals’ wager to marry pipeline development to proactive climate change policy was always, at its heart, delusional. A delusion that followed logically from the neurotic tangle of Canadian political thought, sure, but delusional all the same. So was the assumption that this ecological grand bargain could be rolled cleanly into “nation-to-nation” reconciliation with no extra effort or accomodation on the state’s behalf. It’s easy to wonder on the other side of all this how anyone ever took the plan seriously, but as we say in the biz: life comes at you fast. Especially when the conventional wisdom that has governed liberal politics for a generation is melting into air before your eyes.)
Anyway, regardless of your feelings about bitumen or the sweep of the zeitgeist, we can all agree that the Liberals fucked this one up big time. But a lot of reaction to the whole affair from the right has been that the TMX situation is a clear example of Canada’s needlessly complicated investment laws that constrict this country’s lifeblood in the name of virtue-signalling to various special interest groups like foreign-funded radical environmentalists or lawless Indigenous groups. It seems strange to read a court decision ruling the federal government was too blase about meeting its constitutional requirements to Indigenous peoples. If anything is a direct rebuke to this zombie idea that Trudeau governs by wokeness first and realpolitik second. This happened because the Liberals are fundamentally cynics, not because they are naive social justice warriors. If they took the reconciliation part of the file half as seriously as they claim, they probably wouldn’t be rapped across the knuckles for patronizing their development partners in the name of efficiency.
(This doesn’t really address the anxiety that all this onerous constitutional rights nonsense is making Canada “bad for investment.” But Andrew Coyne has helpfully written a column explaining to his right-wing fellow travelers that the rule of law is actually good for economic development. Hopefully capitalism gets the memo!)
The failure—sorry, delay—of TMX means this is in for a world of political pain. Thank God we’ll at least have legal weed, right?
If nothing else—and we really might get nothing else—Trudeau can rest easy in the knowledge that his first term is poised to enact one of the biggest drug policy overhauls in living memory. But while the end of marijuana prohibition in Canada is nothing to shake at, even this lonely Liberal flagship bears all the same Trudeauvian scars that sank the others: an impossible compromise (here between drug reform and draconian punishment for illegal drug use), deference to business interests over justice interests (e.g. former cops are getting cannabis production licenses while there are no plans to grant amnesty to those convicted of soon-to-be-legalized minor marijuana offences), and getting all the credit while downloading all the real design, regulation and enforcement work to the provinces (creating a pot law patchwork across the country). Maybe this is enlightened federalism; maybe it’s a joke. While I definitely appreciate legalization, it’s a little underwhelming if “smoking joints will be slightly less clandestine” is the most we get out of four years of #RealChange.
One can only hope that now, as they sit amid the rubble of their broken first-term dreams, that the Liberals have been humbled; that they will forsake their hamfisted moralism and the derisive politics it masks. But this is unlikely for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that every other player in Canadian politics is also a total trainwreck. Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has been missing in action all summer, and his party is flagging behind the others in both polling and fundraising. There is some whispering of mutiny in the ranks, which seems to be something of a trend in opposition politics these days.
The Tories would know. They were having a blast all summer whipping Canadians into a frenzy about “illegal immigration,” only for a schism to open up between CPC leader Andrew Scheer and runner-up Maxime Bernier over whether or not their were too many regulations on dairy products (and too few on visible minorities). We’ll find out in the coming months whether Bernier’s libertarian-ish party has teeth or it’s just a flash in the pan. Either way, soak up as much vintage 90s Canadian politics drama as you can.
It’s too soon to say how this might all play out a year from now—it’s only within the last two or three weeks that the Tories and Transmountain started unraveling, so who knows what other surprises lie between us and October 2019. But the Liberals must be relieved to know that their opponents have left a wide berth for Trudeau to fail upwards.
That’s summer in Canada, folks. Traditionally it was a relaxing season. Now it’s just a warmup for our winter spells of cabin fever.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.