Some thoughts on Progressive Strategy in the Trudeau Era

So far, it’s hard to imagine this happening under Trudeau.

A quarter of a year ago, the Canadian electorate managed to dump the Conservatives, delivering a dramatic victory to the Liberal party. While the choruses of “give him a chance” haven’t quite faded away and significant opposition has yet to mount, it’s a good moment to take stock of the Trudeau-led government’s mode of operation and objectives, and what that means for hopes for progressive policies to address climate change and wealth inequality in the 3.75 years remaining in the current term.

Trudeau’s intentions are unknowable. Depending on our perspective, what’s going on in Trudeau’s mind can be anything from a blank slate onto which we project our desires to a jesus complex; his values could be anything between a somewhat progressive down-to-earth man of the people trying his best and a nefarious elitist agent of bankers, arms dealers and mining companies—evidence abounds for every take.

Let’s look at what we do know about the Liberal party’s priorities and their strategies so far.

The one overarching priority we can be certain about is that the Liberals want to get re-elected in four years. To do that, they’ll have to do two things:

1. Keep voter turnout high, and expand on backing from young voters 
2. Keep the economic elite on side

The Youth Vote

Young voters, it has been argued, delivered the margin of victory for the Liberals. Opposition to Harper, combined with Trudeau’s charisma and progressive rhetoric, pushed an additional 2.7 million people to vote. The total Conservative vote only went down by 4% compared to 2011. Without these new voters, Canada could well have a Conservative minority, and the last three months would have been an extended bickering session about constitutional law and coalition governments.

This government has put on a show for its new supporters. Trudeau kicked things off by rolling out a young, photogenic and diverse cabinet. The government has since stepped in front of every parade that was rejected in the Harper years: justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women, charter rights for public servants, living conditions in First Nations, climate commitments, cuts to Canada Post, opposition to anti-union legislation, and electoral reform, among others.

On the backdrop of the Harper years, many of these are substantial victories that will make a significant difference. But many of these movements’ were built around demands formulated during the Conservative reign, when it was crucial to pick goals that at least seemed to be achievable in a hostile political environment.

What demands are being formulated and advanced right now, and how do they address absolute requirements, starting with the most basic: ensuring human survival on planet earth? (See Balancing the Carbon Budget in Trudeau’s Canada for more)

To ensure their re-election, the Liberals will strive to keep new demands manageable. They strongly prefer polite asks behind closed doors to public rallies of support. Whereas the Conservative strategy was to play to the resentments of its base by shutting out Indigenous people, scientists, unions and environmentalists, the Liberal strategy will be to keep these groups talking… softly.

If Trudeau and company can set the agenda, from their perspective, they’re more likely to be able to successfully position themselves for a victory in 2019 and secure their legacy. The key for them will be to get the leadership of movements and organizations to invest their hopes and energies in processes where the outcome is ultimately controlled by the Liberal Party. Those who operate outside of these sanctioned processes, it will be implied, will miss out on Liberal largesse.

The Economic Elite

Trudeau undeniably benefitted from support from Canada’s corporate establishment. Newspaper endorsements suggest that many of the country’s uber-rich wanted another Conservative term, but the Liberals received the lion’s share of endorsements. Fiscally responsible rhetoric or not, Canada’s elites had no appetite for an NDP government, giving it exactly zero endorsements.

At the same time as Trudeau’s triumphant fanfare sounded the new cabinet, the new Prime Minister was quietly making sure that the denizens of Bay Street and box seats at Maple Leaf Gardens were reassured. In short, the white guys got control of the purse-strings. The Finance Minister is a monolingual rookie MP with Bay Street cred and an active lack of concern for youth unemployment. The president of the Treasury Board is a former Tory leadership candidate and fiscal Conservative.

With no fanfare at all, Trudeau has since appointed the racist and civil-liberties-denying former Toronto Police Chief as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, in charge of an unspecified chunk of the justice portfolio. A university bureaucrat who compared student protesters demanding lower tuition to The paramiliary wing of the Nazi Party and then doubled down when asked about the statement, is now Clerk of the Privy Council, charged with renewing Canada’s public service.

The purpose of these unsung moves has been to send clear messages to Bay Street: Liberals can be trusted to keep spending down, and if and when the time comes, to deliver austerity.

The Liberal Tightrope

The balance of forces and the public mood is more polarized than it was during the Chretien-Martin years. Conservatives are united and well-organized, and the Liberals’ youth bloc is likely to at least stay home if cuts affect them directly.

If Trudeau can’t deliver ever-growing corporate profit margins, Canada’s corporate elite will back a fresh-faced Conservative Party in 2019. The Liberals are walking a tightrope between these two constituencies.

For the Liberals, the path of least resistance is to continue to deliver progressive measures that don’t upset the establishment, while heading off expensive new services like childcare and quietly maintaining profitable antisocial trends like the gradual privatization of health care and other public services.

Bay Street will sit at the table and happily eat Harper-era leftovers (e.g. record-breaking profits for banks) and gobble up economic stimulus measures for itself… for a little while. But before long, the beast will demand new, more elaborate dishes. At that point, the scenario looks like Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne, who spouted progressive rhetoric but then, out of nowhere, sold off Hydro One.

In years two and three if not sooner, the Liberals will come under increasing pressure to deliver major privatizations, deep cuts, and further-reduced corporate taxes. Will they fall off the right side of the tightrope, or will another force pull them toward the left?

Setting the Agenda

Let your freak, er, red flag fly!

To stop the Liberals from finding their way to a reprise of the Hydro One selloff, or the deep austerity of the Chretien-Martin years, we have to keep them from setting the agenda. Like a game of chess, progressives have to find ways to maintain the initiative, and make sure the Liberals are reacting to us and not the other way around.

Progressive forces will find themselves in the usual prisoner’s dilemma: step out of the Liberal-defined consultative framework of and risk the chill of Trudeau’s cold shoulder, or wait patiently for crumbs to tumble down from Bay Street’s kingly spread.

History says that most will choose option two: play nice and wait your turn. For those whose asking price is sufficiently low (a few million in funding here or there), this choice is almost unquestionably the “right” one.

For those whose eyes are on the prize of the generational shift in environmental and economic orientation that appears to be the minimum precondition for heading off ecological collapse, option one is the only real choice. What, then, is to be done?

The Conservative regime actually created ideal conditions for stoking a popular uprising, as a majority of the population could conceivably have backed an effort to stop their agenda. Progressives spent 10 years waiting around for a serious, concerted mobilization against Harper’s Conservatives. Various initiatives surfaced, only to fizzle for lack of support, vision or resources.

Building opposition to the Liberal government as such will be a difficult task under current conditions. It’s not just the sense of relief of facing Trudeau’s carrot in place of Harper’s stick; the Liberals’ centrism and active cooptation of progressive causes means that the most potent opposition will come from the right while left-leaning forces wait for crumbs. Progressives who want to step out of line in an oppositional mode face the possibility of dividing the forces that were united on October 18th.

Defensive battles based on rapidly responding to issues that arise in a way that the Liberals weren’t able to predict and control could be effective. Opposition to Bill C-51, for example, was a defensive campaign that changed minds when parties shied away from criticism. But even defensive campaigns that are wildly successful generally maintain the status quo, while building some potential for positive gains in the future.

The remaining option is to strategically accept the Liberals at their word, and push for real solutions that can capture the imagination of the public. By creating a positive proposal that goes beyond the Liberals’ plans

At its founding, the NDP destabilized the federal political scene when by promising public health care, forcing Pearson’s Liberals to implement it. The NDP was a thorn in the side of several of Pierre Trudeau’s mandates as well, forcing the government to adopt progressive measures like the creation of the since-privatized Petro Canada.

Shortcomings aside, this government is presenting major opportunities by opening up yawning gaps between promises and policy. Climate is the most dramatic example. Aiming for a maximum 1.5˚ C increase in global mean temperature means rapidly transforming Canada’s economy toward renewable energy immediately. Trudeau is showing no signs of doing that, because it would anger the all-important second constituency.

Winning Conditions

There are good reasons why the NDP has historically been the mechanism for deciding what policies to rally progressive forces around. The party has a nominally democratic decisionmaking process that can broker the interests of many stakeholders and create the conditions for leaders to put it all together into a compelling vision. Child care actually came close to becoming such a policy during the leadup to the 2015 election. Even if the NDP’s platform was the most progressive, the campaign’s tone — and crucially, Mulcair’s announcement that the NDP wouldn’t even start to implement child care until 2018 — seemed calculated to deflate party activists rather than inspire them to advance a visionary idea that could capture imaginations and improve quality of life.

With the NDP down for the count, an alternative model that has proven effective is that of Quebec’s Red Hand Coalition. In the year leading up to the historic 2012 student strike, community organizations gathered and debated which campaigns to focus on. The coalition decided that students were headed for a rematch of the 2005 student strike, and that could be an opportunity to strike a blow against what they would later dub the austerity agenda. Groups didn’t drop their own campaigns, but agreed to build support for the student struggle among their constituencies, giving the struggle that would escalate far beyond anyone’s expectations a solid foothold.

During the campaign, student organizers did an excellent job of foregrounding short-term, achievable goals (stop the tuition increase) while speaking about visionary long-term goals which were not part of their immediate demands (free education for all). A frequent and fatal mistake is to choose between pragmatic demands and vision; Quebec students showed that it’s better to have both.

Here are some conditions that could make a hypothetical progressive campaign between now and 2019 effective:

• Emergence of a visionary proposal that is irresistible to two or more of the following constituencies: public sector unions, Quebec social movements, Indigenous communities, climate justice activists

• A mobilized constituency with some skin in the game — one which stands to lose from the status quo as well as gain from the proposal in question; e.g. Quebec students in 2011

• A willingness on the part of groups with large bases of support to step outside of their silos to support a common initiative, and, crucially, give up some control of the process

• Resources devoted to organizing, ideally recruiting organizers from within the aforementioned constituency

• A movement assembly space that can find the right balance between openness and efficiency, perhaps by requiring attendees to be acting representatives of a community, organization or collective

• A commitment on the part of constituent groups to legitimize and promote this space and its decisions to their constituents

At the very least, contemplating such a scenario reveals the difficulties we face. If groups were willing to step into an oppositional relationship to the Liberal government (which should be a requirement for entry into any assembly space), the conflicting incentives of each group’s fundraising and granting agenda would show themselves quickly. If things got to the point of choosing a campaign to focus on, political power could override merit when it came to the final vote, with powerful groups jockeying for support from the assembly, possibly resulting in reduced morale or a fizzling of the process.

Success would require nothing short of a significant cultural shift among progressive organizations. And we haven’t discussed personality conflicts and sectarianism yet.

The existing models for coordination of progressive groups consist of exclusive NGO meetings where funders select who to invite and guide the coordination on the one hand, and People’s Social Forum assemblies open to all on the other extreme. The former are effective but elitist and ultimately unimaginative. The latter are democratic in spirit but do not appear to have created significant new collaborations between movements. A synthesis that combines openness, effectiveness and imagination while trimming out chaos, elitism and focus-grouped dullness would be salutory.

The difficulties should not be underplayed, but they can be overcome.

If the conditions listed above prove too daunting, there are a few ways that an inspiring campaign the seizes the agenda and puts the Liberals on their heels could be created on a budget, as it were.

• Conditional strike votes: during the 2012 strike, some student assemblies would pass resolutions declaring that they would stay on “unlimited” strike as long as a certain number of other students from other faculties or schools were also striking. Progressive organizations could commit to a certain level of support (mobilizing members or devoting resources) if a stated number of other organizations also commit.

• One big focus group: a relatively inexpensive, but less relationally compelling mode of organizing might be to fund a well-respected actor to hire a small team to canvas progressive organizations or key organizers about ways they’d be willing to collaborate and avenues they find promising, and then publish the results.

• Who wants to be opposition leader?: A well-guided contest with prizes and compensation for quality entries could generate ideas and discussion. It might be one of the only times that the “vote for my entry” style of social media contest could be justified.

• Just go for it: After thinking about winning conditions, a group might just decide to go for it, and try to make something happen while gathering support on the fly. Movements like Idle No More and Occupy Wall Street, after all, came from tiny, imaginative efforts that gathered momentum.

All of these lack the advantage of up-front investments: an investment in a process creates an investment (and political pressure to follow through on) the outcome. Ultimately, large-scale collaborations come down to game theory. We all know that we’re stronger together, but we also want to protect our hard-won turf and credibility. Ultimately, there is no substitute for democratic decisionmaking based on thorough discussion, but it may be necessary to make bold attempts to create coordinated democratic movements while simultaneously building toward a culture that supports them.