Pop­ulist shift in Ot­tawa

Justin Trudeau’s Ham­burg speech hints at changes

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - PAUL WELLS Paul Wells is a na­tional af­fairs writer. His col­umn ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers.

The St. Matthew’s Day Ban­quet in Ham­burg has been a big date on the Ger­man city’s so­cial cal­en­dar for more than six cen­turies. Ev­ery­one who’s any­one in Ham­burg at­tends. Un­der the gilded roof of the his­toric town hall’s pala­tial ban­quet room, key­note speak­ers — each year, a Ger­man dig­ni­tary and a for­eign guest — dis­cuss the great mat­ters of the day be­fore hun­dreds of rev­el­ers.

Per­haps Justin Trudeau’s staff didn’t no­tice be­fore he spoke at this year’s ban­quet that the key­note slot has lately be­come quite thor­oughly jinxed. The non-Ger­man speaker in 2016 was David Cameron, then the prime min­is­ter of Bri­tain. Four months later he lost the Brexit ref­er­en­dum and re­signed. In 2015 the guest key­note was de­liv­ered by Pol­ish pres­i­dent Bro­nis­law Ko­morowski. Three months later he lost his coun­try’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

In 2014 Dan­ish PM Helle Thorn­ing-Sch­midt — fa­mous to space-chal­lenged head­line writ­ers the world over as “Obama selfie friend” af­ter she posed for a photo with the for­mer U.S. pres­i­dent at Nel­son Man­dela’s fu­neral — ad­dressed the Ham­burg dinner. She lost her next elec­tion and re­tired from pol­i­tics. In 2013 the cursed Ham­burg key­note slot was oc­cu­pied by Jean-Marc Ayrault, who lasted for 13 more months as France’s prime min­is­ter be­fore los­ing that job.

Ap­par­ently Trudeau is hop­ing to buck the trend.

It’s a very spe­cific trend, if we look more closely. Cameron was try­ing to stem a ris­ing tide of pop­ulism at home by urg­ing the Euro­pean Union to re­form it­self. He failed, es­sen­tially, and saw his ca­reer washed away by a tide of pop­ulist na­tion­al­ism in the Brexit ref­er­en­dum.

Ko­morowski was the stan­dard-bearer for a mod­er­ate pro-Euro­pean busi­ness con­ser­va­tive party that found it­self los­ing, first in Poland’s pres­i­den­tial vote and then in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, to Law and Jus­tice, a so­cial-con­ser­va­tive move­ment that plays on fear of Poland’s neigh­bours, left­over re­sent­ment against Com­mu­nism, and sus­pi­cion of new­com­ers.

Thorn­ing-Sch­midt’s so­cial democrats lost to a cen­tre-right party, mostly thanks to a surge in sup­port for the fur­ther-right Dan­ish Peo­ple’s Party, whose leader has since said he finds Don­ald Trump re­fresh­ing.

Ayrault’s de­par­ture was less dra­matic. French prime min­is­ters are ap­pointed by pres­i­dents, and Ayrault took the fall when it be­came clear that François Hol­lande’s pres­i­dency was go­ing nowhere fast.

So the last four con­sec­u­tive Ham­burg keynot­ers came a crop­per, not from ran­dom bad luck, but be­cause the fury of the dis­af­fected made po­lit­i­cal busi­ness-as-usual im­pos­si­ble.

Now along comes Trudeau. Ap­pro­pri­ately enough, the tone of his re­marks to the Ham­burg swells was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally dark. “Ci­ti­zens across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum are look­ing for guid­ance. They’re look­ing for lead­er­ship. They’re look­ing for a voice,” he said.

“And so far, they’re feel­ing a lit­tle let down.”

When “com­pa­nies post record prof­its on the backs of work­ers con­sis­tently re­fused full-time work,” he said, “peo­ple get de­feated.” When “gov­ern­ments serve spe­cial in­ter­ests in­stead of the ci­ti­zens’ in­ter­ests who elected them, peo­ple lose faith.”

In­equal­ity has made ci­ti­zens dis­trust gov­ern­ments and em­ploy­ers, “and we’re watch­ing that anx­i­ety trans­form into anger on an al­most daily ba­sis.”

“We can’t go about things the same way and ex­pect to suc­ceed in this new world.”

As for his own busi­ness — gov­ern­ing Canada — he of­fered no hint about what might be next, only ap­plause for his en­hanced child ben­e­fit and his re­cent at-least-I’m-notin-Davos speak­ing tour.

But I don’t take the PM to have been bask­ing in com­pla­cency. He didn’t come be­fore his Ger­man hosts as the guy who’s found the so­lu­tion. He cast them­selves, with them, as one who needs to find it. “We can no longer brush aside the con­cerns of our work­ers and our ci­ti­zens. We have to address the root cause of their wor­ries, and get real about how the chang­ing econ­omy is im­pact­ing peo­ples’ lives.”

I take Trudeau’s Ham­burg speech as a pre­view of a strongly pop­ulist shift in eco­nomic pol­icy, be­gin­ning with next month’s fed­eral bud­get. I’ll have more on that later this week.

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