The disjuncture between Trudeaus rhetorical flourishes and his actions speaks volumes
Last month, in a speech to Frances National Assembly, Justin Trudeau raised one of his favourite themes: inequality. This, he declared, was eroding not only the standard of living of the middle class, but also the confidence of the population in world trade, international cooperation and liberal democracy.
It wasnt the first time Canadas 23rd prime minister had raised these issues with an international audience. Last year Trudeau made similar remarks to a dinner for civic and business leaders in Hamburg. When companies post record profits on the backs of workers consistently refused full-time work and the job security that comes with it people get defeated, he said. And when governments serve special interests instead of the citizens interests who elected them people lose faith.
While not exactly the stuff of Woody Guthrie songs, rhetorical maneuvers such as these have successfully convinced many observers that the Trudeau government is serious about reducing economic inequality from a leftwing, anti-austerity position.
A lurch to the left was how the Atlantics David Frum described Trudeaus victory in 2015, going so far as to compare him to socialists Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. This sentiment has largely been echoed within Canada, where commentators have variously gushed about the return of progressive government, or warned about the impending injection of populism into the Liberal agenda.
Despite such bluster, though, Trudeaus carefully choreographed crusade against inequality has always been more affectation than reality. Consider the disjuncture between Trudeaus rhetoric and his actions.
In 2015, the Liberals promised to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% while cutting them for the middle class. The pledge sounds attractive enough in principle, but in practice amounted to a small tax increase for top earners and a corresponding tax cut, the major gains of which went to people making between $89,200 and $200,000 a year. With a median family income in 2015 of $70,336, the beneficiaries are not exactly Canadas middle class, let alone its working poor.
Some of the countrys wealthiest corporate executives, meanwhile, got to keep a lucrative tax loophole allowing them to pay a 50% lower rate on compensation earned through stock options despite the Liberal campaign pledge to cap it.
His embrace of Keynesian economics has been equally ethereal. In 2015, apparently rebelling against the prevailing economic orthodoxy of austerity, the Liberal leader pledged to stimulate the economy through modest, deficit-financed social investment.
Upon implementation, however, some $15bn was channelled into an infrastructure bank, geared to attract private financing. The promises of socially useful, non-commercial projects like childcare or affordable housing to cash-strapped cities will take a back seat to those with revenue-generating potential. And while investors are likely to see big returns, it is the public who will shoulder much of the risk.
Trudeau has also remained ambivalent towards the kind of big programs that could actually redistribute wealth in a meaningful way. On childcare, for example, he favours a means-tested approach, rather than the universal, public provision of a desperately needed service. And in a 2016 conversation with a low-wage worker he dismissed the prospect of raising the minimum wage, echoing the talking points of the Canadian business lobby: Maybe everything just gets more expensive or we have jobs leaving. We have to be very careful about that. (A 2011 University of California, Berkeley study found the effects of raising the minimum wage on prices to be negligible at best. And the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has argued that service sector jobs that tend to pay the minimum wage are by their very nature immobile, which suggests the threat of mass job flight is a myth.)
Besides the obvious disjunctures between record and rhetoric, a closer scrutiny of Trudeaus actual attitude towards economic inequality is perhaps even more instructive. In a 2013 article for the Globe and Mail, Why its vital we support the middle class, he issued a warning to Canadian elites:
National business leaders and other wealthy Canadians should draw the following conclusion, and do so urgently. If we do not solve [the problems facing the middle class and low-income earners], Canadians will eventually withdraw their support for a growth agenda. We will all be worse off as a consequence. Rising inequality, he said, could lead to deepening divisions such that Canadians might begin to vote for leaders who offer comforting stories about who to blame for our problems, rather than how to solve them.
This is plainly the language of technocratic management, not moral urgency; first and foremost an appeal to the self-interest of elites rather than a coherent political demand directed at the powerful. In Trudeaus war, it seems, inequality is a faceless and abstract enemy a puzzle to be solved rather than an injustice to be stamped out.
And while the prime minister calmly informs struggling workers that raising the minimum wage may have unintended consequences, the countrys wealthiest corporate executives get to keep their cushy tax advantages. The phony war rages on.