The permanent campaign

On the 100-day anniversary of Canada’s new government, both Chantal Hebert and Andrew Coyne seem to agree: symbolism and marketing have quite overwhelmingly trumped substance.

Coyne, who is less sympathetic than Hebert, goes further:

Three months in, the governing style of Justin Trudeau’s government is coming into focus. It is one part not being Stephen Harper, one part symbolic gesture, one part wriggling out of campaign promises, and one part saying yes to everybody. You thought the Harper government was all about the permanent campaign? Get used to it.

If we ignore Coyne’s obviously conservative bent on some issues (the new government was right to get rid of income splitting and CPC laws targeting unions and First Nations, for God’s sake) the general thrust of his argument is correct: the Liberals are waging a kind of permanent campaign built around a series of carefully choreographed gestures – the real contours of their vision remain obscure, and it’s probably going to stay that way.

And that makes perfect sense, given how they fought the election.

The Liberal campaign was, after all, one which left concern-trolled the NDP by promising modest deficits while also attacking its $15/hour federal minimum wage proposal and saying proposed hikes to corporate taxes were anti-business; that trotted out arch-austerian Paul Martin to give lachrymose sermons about the dangers of austerity; that appropriated the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street to bait the right and neutralize the left, while simultaneously proposing to cut taxes for most of the top 10% of income earners; that criticized the CPC for attacking Canada’s social programs while opposing the NDP’s proposals to create any new ones; it was (*is) both for and against the building of oil pipelines, the mission in Iraq and Syria, substantively changing the electoral system, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, reform of the Senate, Bill C-51, universal social programs…the list goes on.

It was a sunny new approach to politics that involved repeatedly steamrolling local Liberal riding associations and their activists to protect the leadership’s preferred candidates; that happily recruited people like Conservative MP Eve Adams, Bill Blair, and a former Chair of one of the country’s leading right wing think tanks to the cause – not to mention longtime Harper apparatchik Dimitris Soudas.

The overriding theme here is branding: the Liberals propose to “do politics differently”, but their efforts to substantiate this [stated] goal are primarily aesthetic. Reform, where is has happened or will happen, has largely been restorative rather than transformative – Canada is modernizing its way back to circa 2007.

Watching Question Period the past two weeks it’s striking how little the tone of the debate between the government and the official opposition actually reflects any meaningful disagreement. The Tories may bleat about the Liberal plan (yet to be fulfilled) to withdraw Canada’s CF-18s from Syria or Justin Trudeau’s neutralist language around the Energy East pipeline, but the disagreements have more to do with rhetoric than they do with significant disagreement about major issues. Canada’s jets continue to be involved in air strikes (despite an unequivocal campaign promise there is as of yet no timetable for their withdrawal…it’s quite possible they will remain past the CPC’s original timetable or that the mission will simply continue in other forms), and the government proudly trumpets its desire to “get Canadian resources to market”. The disagreement, if you can even call it that, has to do with how openly partisan the government should be about particular issues (the CPC approach is more ideologically honest, though the Liberal one is probably more politically effective).

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Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson. Used under Creative Commons license.

Again, branding is the key here.

As a part of its Sunny Ways™, the government has displayed a visible fondness for the affirmation of process. It is “pro-trade” and appears to be pro-TPP, but it will “broadly consult”; it is pro-electoral reform but non-specific about what that reform will be (consultation first); it was elected around a very specific and widely trumpeted set of economic proposals, but it has yet to put these into a budget or even schedule one because it has to consult first.

This will become more difficult to sustain when major decisions actually have to be made, but the Liberals have already proven miraculously adept at political management. With so much energy invested beforehand in legitimizing the process of consultation itself, even unpopular moves can be deemed the product of sincere public outreach.

The political dexterity this approach affords the Liberals is staggering, as these past 100 days have already demonstrated. Justin Trudeau and his party espouse no ideology, and contend to embody the political preferences of all. It is an approach to politics which, to quote Peter C. Newman, promises “as little as possible but as much as necessary”.

The campaign never ends.

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