Those who worry that the angry populism sweeping democracies around the world will take root in Canada might be feeling reassured by what they see in this federal election campaign.
Maxime Bernier’s new People’s Party of Canada is sitting at around 1 per cent in the opinion polls. Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have distanced themselves from the stumbling Doug Ford in Ontario. The Canadian left has produced nothing to match Bernie Sanders and his rants about the American oligarchy.
But it would be complacent to think that the wave will pass Canada by. Even if no populist voice has emerged in this campaign, the pessimism, cynicism and anxiety that many voters are expressing these days make Canada fertile soil for populism. At least three Canadian premiers – Mr. Ford, Jason Kenney and François Legault – already show populist tendencies. Populism, in a sense, is already here, and with room to grow.
Rob Ford grabbed the mayor’s chair in the country’s largest city on a platform of bashing the “elites” and sticking up for the regular guy. He might occupy it still if scandal and then a fatal illness had not intervened. His brother Doug won the premiership promising to take the province back from a self-serving, overspending political class and deliver government “for the people.”
Mr. Kenney came to office last spring on a surge of anger at Ottawa over the failure to get Alberta oil to market. He has threatened to hold a referendum unless he gets progress on pipelines and changes to the formula for equalization payments to have-not provinces. Quebeckers, like Albertans, are feeling misunderstood, labelled as intolerant and, perhaps even racist, because they support an objectionable new law that bans some public employees from wearing religious clothing or symbols. That sentiment has helped revive the Bloc Québécois, led by Yves-François Blanchet.
Canadians across the board seem to be fretful about their economic security, which is why the main political parties are throwing money at them with wild abandon in the form of tax credits and other measures. Their trust in government has been falling in recent years, often a precursor to the rise of populism. Polls show they are less confident than they used to be that they will be better off in the future than they are at present.
Pollster Frank Graves of the Ekos firm says that they are also less likely to consider themselves middle-class. All of this, remember, comes at a time when the economy is growing and the unemployment rate is touching historic lows. If Canadians are in a nervous and vulnerable mood now, how will they feel when the next recession arrives? And how long before someone comes along, at the federal level, to rally them with the trumpet of populism? We aren’t out of the woods yet.
In fact, the performance of the major parties in this aimless election campaign threatens to make things worse. None has managed to articulate a hopeful, coherent, persuasive vision of the future. Instead, surrendering to laptop-toting, number-crunching strategists, they have resorted to the modern practice of targeting various voting blocs with perks and breaks – a little something for the old, a little something for new parents; even a camping credit to help low-income Canadians visit the national parks.
If it is straightforward, plain-speaking, authentic political leaders that today’s voters seek, they will not find that among the rehearsed and programmed mannequins flying around the country this month. The televised debates were less a contest of differing policies and ideas than a jumble of carefully directed sound bites, with some schoolyard name-calling thrown in. Mr. Scheer took advantage of his debate spotlight to call Justin Trudeau a phony and a fraud, a discouraging moment whatever you may think of Mr. Trudeau. Even the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh was ready with prepared zingers.
A passage from Orwell comes to mind. In a 1944 column on political pamphlets, he wrote that “Nobody is searching for the truth, everybody is putting forward a ‘case’ with complete disregard for fairness and accuracy, and the most plainly obvious facts can be ignored by those who don’t want to see them. … To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable.”
Today’s party leaders not only ignore obvious facts; they casually twist each other’s words to scare voters away. The Conservatives say the Liberals’ carbon tax will make Canadians poorer, passing over the fact that a tax rebate that will leave most people ahead of the game. The Liberals suggest the Conservatives under Mr. Scheer will restrict abortion rights, even though he has insisted over and over he would do nothing of the sort.
It is precisely this sort of politics that has helped push voters elsewhere into the arms of politicians who promise to come into the stale room and bust up all the furniture. Don’t imagine for a minute that it could never happen here.
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