Matt Gurney: The left isn't cynical, Mr. Trudeau. It just calls you on your bullshit
Trudeau is a pretty normal centrist PM from a centrist party, but he desperately wants to be known as a world-leading progressive. He’s not.
By: Matt Gurney
Justin Trudeau has a problem with the left. He’s upset with it, in fact, and he said so in a recent interview with Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star:
“To be honest, what hit me harder, on a really personal level, was not the anger and the anti-everything of the far right, so much as the casual cynicism of the left,” Trudeau said during a lengthy interview on Monday.
The prime minister has referred to this cynicism before, during the leader’s debate in the election campaign, as well as in a meeting with the Star’s editorial board. It’s still on his mind, evidently, as one of the first things he wanted to discuss in a wide-ranging conversation over nearly an hour’s walk around the grounds of Rideau Hall.
“I expect the progressive parties to come and say, ‘you haven’t done enough, you need to do more,’” Trudeau said. “That’s fine. But to have them turn around and say ‘you did nothing?’”
The important thing there, I think, is Delacourt's observation that this is a recurring theme for the PM. His frustration with the left for its failure to properly appreciate him seems both sincere and sustained. Fair enough! We're all entitled to feel our feelings, or so the meditation apps say. Unfortunately for the prime minister, his diagnosis is wrong. The problem with the left — the actual left, not just the leftier flank of his own Liberal party — isn’t that it’s too cynical. It's that it has the gall to call our prime minister on his bullshit.
The prime minister, his cabinet, and their various supporters elsewhere have a long list of progressive accomplishments they point to when defending their left-wing bona fides. They’ve certainly delivered some goods to Canadian progressives. But the problem for our prime minister and the modern version of the Liberal party is not in the accomplishments, but the promises. What dings Justin Trudeau is not the list of things he has achieved, but the list of promises he has made and expectations he primed. He’s come up short, with little explanation beyond a shrug and a gripe about cynicism.
Trudeau is a fairly standard centrist prime minister of a centrist big-tent party. You could even say he tilts to the left of the Canadian political centre and the median Liberal. But that’s not how he sees himself, and not how he wants to be seen by others.
This is a man who seems deeply invested in his belief that he’s not just a progressive, but a leading, inspiring progressive on the world stage. If he was content to be a fairly typical Canadian centrist, head of the centrist party and prime minister of a G7 country, he’d be a much happier guy. But attacks from the left hit him where it hurts — the yawning gap between his branding efforts and his record in office.
Some of this probably just reflects a broader pattern among many Canadian centrists: many of them are actually quite uncomfortable being centrist; they want to be lefties, or accepted by them, but don’t quite walk the walk. The PM’s personal version of this just happens to play out on a more prominent stage.
Another one of these pesky gaps between Brand Trudeau and Prime Minister Trudeau resurfaced just this week. Stephanie Levitz, also of the Star and a very fine reporter, broke a story on Wednesday evening: the Liberals are setting aside a billion dollars to assist a province (or municipality, possibly) that wants to ban handguns. This is bad public policy, for reasons I could get into, and have gotten into, in many previous columns — a patchwork system of regulations to ban an object in some places but not others, when said object can be hidden in the crotch of one's pants, is a pretty manifestly bad idea if you’re actually serious about banning said objects.
But let’s just stow my objections for a minute and focus on the more relevant issue here: this proposal illuminates the conundrum of Trudeau, trapped between the prime minister he is and the man he wants to be seen to be.
Trudeau and his cabinet could ban handguns today. I don't think they should — I own three of them and hope to keep them! — but as a matter of policy and authority, they absolutely could. This is entirely within federal jurisdiction. The Firearms Act is federal legislation. The Liberals could do exactly what they did with the so-called "military-style assault weapons" they "banned" early this year: draw up a list, write up an order in council at the cabinet, and sign the thing. Boom. Handguns are banned.
But they haven’t done this. They could, but they haven’t. Why?
The answer is actually quite simple. This is something they have studied repeatedly. In the first majority mandate, the Liberals looked at Canada's firearms regulations, spending years doing actual proper legislative study and consultation. They eventually concluded, to their obvious frustration, that the legal status quo was actually ... pretty good. They enacted some fairly marginal changes with Bill C-71, largely so that they could be seen to be doing something, and then went on a victory lap to crow about how they had fixed the damage the evil Stephen Harper had done to Canada's firearms laws (his tweaks had also generally been minor, with the exception of scrapping the long-gun registry, which was such a dysfunctional mess the Liberals haven't dared bring it back). The point is, they didn’t really touch handgun regulation. Why not?
We don’t have to speculate. Bill Blair told us in 2019:
"I believe that would be potentially a very expensive proposition ... but just as importantly, it would not in my opinion be perhaps the most effective measure in restricting the access that criminals would have to such weapons, because we’d still have a problem with them being smuggled across the border.”
There you have it folks. They looked at it, really hard, and concluded it wasn’t worth doing.
This is a problem for Justin Trudeau and Trudeau-style Liberals, because it sets up a struggle between their knowledge and their desires. Like the big-tent moderate centrists they really are, even the PM, they studied the issue, looked at the evidence, and drew the unavoidable conclusion: banning handguns is not a reasonable public-policy solution to gun violence in Canada, which is driven by organized crime, and supplied by smugglers bringing in guns in from America. Everyone who has studied it in any detail knows this, and that includes the Liberals.
They know it in their brains, though. In their hearts, their insecure-about-being-criticized-from-the-left bleeding hearts, they know that banning handguns would make amazing politics. They would have a press conference where they could announce it with all the dramatic flourishes our prime minister loves. It would feature in every election campaign they run for the next 30 years. It’s an instant legacy piece for the prime minister. They really, really want to do this, even though they really, really know it won’t work.
Gun control is just one example among many. Trudeau’s the guy who raises the carbon tax and ensures a pipeline gets built. He talks about the rights of women and religious minorities, and avoids saying anything on Bill 21. He calls himself a feminist and ignored the women in the military being sexually harassed as long as possible, and then sent someone else to make the apology. He promised a transparent government, and then stuck with all the usual secretiveness Canadians expect from their politicians. He promised no more elections under first-past-the-post and has since won two elections under FPTP with barely a third of the vote
He took a beach holiday on the day of national mourning and remembrance that his very government created! And his government sued to avoid paying compensation to Indigenous kids.
You can debate the merits of some of these choices — not all, but some. That’s not the problem. The problem the prime minister has is that he wants to be seen as something that he is not. Or maybe it’s even more basic than that: perhaps he wishes he was something he’s not willing to actually be.
He gets criticism from the right, too, of course, but no good progressive, which Justin Trudeau really wants you to believe that he is, would ever get fussed about what those evil right-wing neocon troglodytes have to say. Being criticized by the right is a badge of honour for Justin Trudeau. But being criticized by the left? When you’re trying so hard to convince yourself and others that you are one of them? That cuts deep.
That’s why the PM is angry and frustrated, and fair enough. But he hasn’t quite been able to admit the real problem to himself. The left isn’t cynical. They’re just willing to call bullshit on a man whose actions never quite manage to live up to his words. And just like many before him, when called out on his bullshit, rather than being angry at himself for not living up to his professed ideals, the prime minister is doing the more emotionally soothing thing: he’s getting mad at the people who dared point out the gap between the promises and the performance.
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