Canada Votes 2015

Why even Harper’s defeat rings hollow

Trudeau’s Liberals are more likely to continue politics as usual than bring 'real change'
Photo: Renegade98

Plenty of people are happy about last night's election result. Stephen Harper's autocratic and malicious rule has finally come to an end, and this is worth celebrating.

But I hope those who are thrilled by the words "Prime Minister Trudeau" will try to understand why some of us don't feel like celebrating today, and why even the defeat of the Harper Conservatives rings hollow.

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The Liberal campaign embraced a lexicon of positivity, unity, and tolerance. But the Liberal parliamentary caucus voted for Stephen Harper's absurd Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act only a few short months ago. They also voted for Bill C-51, which risks the criminalization of people who protest oil pipelines and threatens artistic expression, and they don’t plan to repeal it.

It’s quite possible the minister of justice in Prime Minister Trudeau's cabinet will be a former police chief who defends the racist practice of carding and presided over the largest set of peacetime arrests in Canada history during the G20 meeting in Toronto. The co-chair of Trudeau's campaign was recently outed as a lobbyist who, before the election was even finished, was already trying to help his friends at TransCanada get a pipeline built.

In many parts of the country last night, environmentalists, trade unionists, and social justice crusaders were unseated in favour of corporate lawyers and insurance brokers.

Behind the selfies and the theatrics, behind the vague but flourishing invocations of "hope" and "change," behind the crowds of grinning patricians, behind the formless nostalgia for ’60s Trudeaumania, many of us see a politics as calculating and ultimately uninterested in social justice as that which today's liberalism sets itself against.

In many parts of the country last night, environmentalists, trade unionists, and social justice crusaders were unseated in favour of corporate lawyers and insurance brokers.

The business of hyper-professionalized politics — temporarily disrupted by a new political dynamic — will now reassert itself with a vengeance.

The new government is going to temporarily invest billions in new (though largely unspecified) infrastructure, after which it will make billions in (also unspecified) cuts. It will not create any significant new social programs, and has instead promised to adopt a means-tested approach to social policy that simply helps some low-income earners navigate unjust market structures with slightly bigger cheques than they were getting before.

The Liberals will not set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions despite one of the most important UN climate summits in history being barely more than a month away. The government will no doubt accept a massive new trade deal that Harper negotiated, the Trans Pacific Partnership, which threatens to decimate what remains of manufacturing in Ontario, undermine Canadians' privacy online, make life-saving drugs unaffordable by creating a global cartel for pharmaceutical giants, and erode the democratic sovereignty of the country by enabling multinationals to sue our elected governments when they dislike our laws and regulations.

Democracy isn't a spectator sport.

Throughout its democratic history, Canadian politics have basically oscillated between two parties that do not seriously threaten the status quo or the injustices it perpetuates. Occasionally goaded by organized populist movements, they have both been compelled, particularly during minority parliaments, to make concessions while preserving the basic contours of the political order.

Against this, a third current has always insisted that fundamental change is necessary to build a truly just society. This ethos gave us medicare — an institution built from the ashes of war and depression on principles of universalism and social solidarity.

Neither sweeping platitudes nor bureaucratic conservatism will ever deliver social progress of this kind, eradicate poverty, or save the planet from the economic structures that degrade it every day.

From where many of us stand, what happened last night cannot be read as anything other than a setback, and a major one, for these efforts. It's time we stopped marginalizing social justice or patronizingly relegating it to the fringes.

Democracy isn't a spectator sport. Elections aren't meant to be experienced as affirmative infotainment.

Achieving social progress requires more than just a perpetual return to the traditional, professionalized politics that leaves one in seven of us in poverty, tolerates people having to sleep on the streets, and allows thousands of children to wake up hungry and badly housed every single day in one of the richest societies in the world.

We have to demand better. And plenty of us believe and hope that, one day, we will.

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