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Trudeau’s an establishment prime minister in an age of rebellion

By Sarah Schmidt      

Justin Trudeau is a rich kid who grew up at 24 Sussex as the son of a connected and wealthy prime minister. The ever-changing talking points about these tête-à-tête sessions among the elite is just making matters worse.

If there's anything that screams establishment in Canada, it's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, writes Sarah Schmidt. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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TORONTO—Honest question: can you think of anybody more establishment in Canada than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

The answer didn’t matter during the 2015 election campaign. A sizeable chunk of the country was desperate to kick Stephen Harper to the curb, and what better antidote to a man thought of as grumpy and mean-spirited with a touchy-feely guy associated with happy, shiny things.

As we head into 2017, and with more than a year of governing under his belt, Trudeau’s shine is a bit more dull, the smile a little strained. That’s to be expected when you start to disappoint key constituencies of your voting coalition. The Harper hangover is also receding with time.

But there’s a much bigger challenge facing a government whose success is built on the popularity of the Trudeau brand. Once that goes, so falls the government.

Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells recently flagged this emerging issue.

“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,” Wells wrote following Donald Trump’s spectacular win in the U.S. presidential race.

“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. … The Trudeau government is built entirely on the driving assumptions of the era.”

Or, in the words of civil rights leader and CNN political contributor Van Jones at a recent Broadbent Institute event in Toronto, “We’re in this age of rebellion. The rebels are on the rise and the establishment is on the ropes.”

On trade and globalization, the government is all-in as cheerleaders of the post-NAFTA, next-generation trade deals. But instead of using a regular guy from the Vancouver suburbs as their pitchman, as Harper did, the Trudeau government tapped establishment darling Chrystia Freeland.

On privatizing public infrastructure (after promising to use historic low interest rates to tackle Canada’s public infrastructure deficit), the Trudeau government is using Bill Morneau, who screams establishment, as the face of the privatization scheme that will see billions flow to larger corporations and wealthy money managers here and abroad.

Then there’s Trudeau government’s apparent allergic reaction (at least for now) to a proportional voting system, despite campaigning on a promise to “make every vote count” in the 2019 election.

This just reinforces Team Trudeau as Team Establishment. That’s because a proportional voting system, the key recommendation of the special parliamentary committee on electoral reform is about taking power away from the elites and putting it in the hands of regular people.

The alternative is keeping the status quo (a system invented by the English aristocracy to protect their power in Parliament) or taking a huge gamble and actually try to push unilaterally a different way to count ballots in our current majoritarian voting system (a system favoured by Liberal Party elites to protect party interests).

The backdrop to all these policy choices is the ongoing cash-for-access scandal.

There are few actual pictures coming out of these private events being held at rich people’s mansions, but the image couldn’t be more devastating for a government whose image is built around a rich kid who grew up at 24 Sussex as the son of a connected and wealthy prime minister. The ever-changing talking points about these tête-à-tête sessions among the elite is just making matters worse.

So, in this age of rebellion and with the establishment on the ropes, it’s not an inconsequential question to ask about Trudeau’s street cred as the face of Canada’s establishment.

Sarah Schmidt is director of communications with the Broadbent Institute in Toronto. 

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