Long Hair and a Sikh Defense Minister Don’t Make You a Progressive

Canada’s new prime minister has a knack for optics. But will he deliver the kind of progressive change the country needs?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a photo with his newly sworn in cabinet after a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ontario, November 4, 2015.    AFP PHOTO/ GEOFF ROBINS        (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a photo with his newly sworn in cabinet after a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ontario, November 4, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ GEOFF ROBINS (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

VANCOUVER — Swooning over Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? You’re not alone. Forty-seven years after his iconic father Pierre charged into office, a new incarnation of Trudeau-mania is sweeping Canada. Our handsome young prime minister and his diverse cabinet were sworn in last week in a ceremony that seemed more like a carnival than the dour event this typically is.

Even people I know who campaigned for the competing left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) are confessing to their Facebook feeds of weeping at the sight of a gender-balanced cabinet, a Sikh minister of defense, and an aboriginal justice minister. While it is hard not to suspend critical thought in the face of such overpowering optics, Canada’s progressives should always ensure there is real change behind the rhetoric.

Let’s also remember this sense of national celebration owes perhaps as much to seeing the last of Stephen Harper — an occasion many of us relish with the relief one might feel on release from a Turkish prison. His governing Conservatives ruled for almost 10 years with an open disdain for those outside their political base, driving wedge issues far into the Canadian psyche naively unaccustomed to such divisive tactics.

Justin Trudeau benefits from stepping into this smoldering void. And he has made few missteps so far. Now that the nation can see his cabinet choices, though, we have a better idea of where this government is going and if they are now veering back to the political center after skillfully outflanking the NDP on the left during the election. Here’s what we know so far:

As promised, half the members of Trudeau’s cabinet of 30 ministers are women. However, seven of the 10 powerful parliamentary committees tasked with developing government policy are chaired by men. The devil, as always, is in the details.

It was also initially reported that five of the 15 female ministerial appointments were junior ministers of state given fewer responsibilities and paid $20,000 less than their colleagues. However, Trudeau’s staff has since assured the media they are eliminating this historic two-tier cabinet designation, rectifying this disparity. Perhaps public scrutiny is already working it’s magic.

The important portfolio of finance was given to Bill Morneau, whose background evinces a right-of-center worldview. Morneau is the former chair of the C.D. Howe Institute, a pro-business think tank with a board comprising an A-list of Canadian corporate elite. Elections records also show he was a past donor to the Conservative party. That said, he is well regarded as a principled leader among his business colleagues and is somewhat of a surprise as a political newcomer to this most important cabinet post.

How the Trudeau government deals with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) agreement will be a huge test of whether this government is really serious about change. The Harper government signed the sweeping, controversial deal on the eve of the election and Trudeau was decidedly vague on what action, if any, his government would take to try and renegotiate it.

The text of TPP has just been made public and early indications are alarming. Billionaire Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie of Blackberry fame told the media this week that it could cost the Canadian economy hundreds of billions in lost intellectual property rights. “I think in 10 years from now, we’ll call [Canada’s signature on TTP the] worst thing in policy that Canada’s ever done…It’s a treaty that structures everything forever — and we can’t get out of it.” Other critics warn it will increase the cost of medications, cost the Canadian auto sector jobs, lower barriers for foreign takeovers, and reduce the ability of Ottawa to protect the privacy of domestic electronic data.

Such international trade deals arguably have larger implications for national sovereignty and governance than the minutiae of domestic politics that Canadians have been so fixated on. Does Trudeau or his new International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland have the guts to stand up to our biggest trading partners and re-open a deal signed in the dying days of the Harper regime? The whole country will be watching.

Perhaps nothing shocked the world about the Harper years more than Canada’s intransigence on climate policy. Canada was the only country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol and in advance of the Paris climate talks, put forward the lowest emission reduction targets in the industrialized world. Even the painfully diplomatic leadership at the United Nations called out Harper’s Canada for pervasive inaction on tackling climate issues.

Trudeau has signaled a shift by appointing another political star Catherine McKenna to the newly renamed Department of Environment and Climate Change. She must hit the ground running to repair Canada’s wretched record, starting with the international conference in Paris later this month. Trudeau will also be there and in a welcome departure from previous climate conferences has invited all provincial leaders as well — an important sign that Canada is finally serious about developing a national climate strategy.

We should watch Trudeau closely on climate, though. The Liberals were the only party that did not commit to specific carbon targets on the campaign trail. There was also an embarrassing scandal on the eve of the election where Trudeau’s campaign co-chair resigned when it was revealed he was advising TransCanada Pipelines on how best to lobby the Liberals should they get elected. Canada’s new prime minister was on the record as supporting TransCanada’s controversial (and now-cancelled) Keystone XL pipeline, to the chagrin of Canadian and U.S. environmental groups.

Many progressive Canadians are also growing increasingly frustrated with the country’s antiquated electoral system, especially as the executive branch wields ever more power over a marginalized parliament. Both main opposition parties pledged to reform how votes translate into seats to better reflect a diversity of views and avoid the kind of command by decree enjoyed by Harper for the last four years. However many of us worry that little will now change given that the Liberals, like the Conservatives before them, won over 50 percent of the seats with only 40 percent of the popular vote. It seems unlikely now they would want to bring in proportional representation given they just won the electoral jackpot for the 16th time in their party’s history.

Trudeau has said only that this will be the last election under Canada’s current first-past-the-post voting system, now used only by three advanced democracies in the world including the United States and Britain. The ranking expert in his caucus on electoral reform is Stéphane Dion, who significantly was not appointed to the parliamentary committee dealing with this issue, or made the minister of Democratic Institutions.

That position went instead to 30-year old newcomer Maryam Monsef, the youngest member of Trudeau’s cabinet and a former refugee from Afghanistan. Her backstory is compelling but this critical file now lacks a seasoned champion to battle those Liberal loyalists who enjoy the unfair system we have now, or want to replace it with another non-proportional system like ranked ballots that some experts fear would be even worse.

Ensuring that democracy is fair should, of course, be a non-partisan issue. But it rarely is. Trudeau’s Liberals are now superbly positioned to alter the voting system to something that will give them a perpetual advantage, particularly over their rivals on the left, the NDP. And since they enjoy a false majority, the Liberals like their Conservative predecessors can now effectively pass whatever legislation they want while the opposition can merely heckle from across the aisle. A nervous nation now waits to see if Trudeau and his team will live up to the progressive (if vague) ideals they campaigned on.

There are reasons to be hopeful about Trudeau’s tenure, of course. The new attitude of openness on display at last week’s cabinet ceremony says perhaps as much as the people appointed. So cloistered was the Harper regime towards the end that not even campaign events were open to the public. In contrast, Trudeau made a point of greeting surprised commuters at a Montreal subway station the morning after the election.

As he waded into adoring crowds last week, Trudeau displayed the calculated charisma that served his father so well. Will the love-in last? Like many Canadians I will be cheering on our young prince for the time being. However, the incoming government should be under no illusions that Trudeau’s winning smile will carry the day with a country weary from years of tactical politics and partisan self-interest.

Photo credit: GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

Mitchell Anderson is a Vancouver-based political writer.

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