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More than a Pretty Face: Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Vision for Canada

For Justin Trudeau, head of Canada’s Liberal Party and newly elected Prime Minister, it’s been a good first five months in office. After his party’s resounding victory against its opponents, Trudeau quickly won international media attention for his athleticism, style, and good looks. In addition to his image as the youthful and charming new face of leftist international politics, the Prime Minister has gained significant support for his progressive policy stances, such as his dedication to accepting Syrian refugees into Canada, which appear to be guiding Canada away from the nine years of Conservative rule under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The 2015 vote served as a referendum on Harper’s government, and Canadians took the opportunity to voice their concerns with many aspects of it, such as Harper’s inability to deal with Canada’s current economic challenges and his push to ban Muslim women from wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. Trudeau’s success in the federal election showed that his promise to make Canada a more politically, economically, and socially progressive nation was well received. Upon election, Trudeau quickly set about implementing this promise, announcing a cabinet comprised of 15 women and 15 men, making it the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canada’s history and personally welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada.

However, in their excitement over Trudeau’s attractive physique and easily mediatized symbolic moves, such as his willingness to call himself a feminist, many media outlets appear to have forgotten that running a country also demands difficult policy choices and cooperation with political opponents (and political discord remains, even though Trudeau is impressively popular, with a 60 percent approval rating as of February). However, five months later, there are some signs that this focus is beginning to change as Trudeau’s administration moves away from a period of governmental transition and minor domestic policy initiatives toward more substantive challenges.

The Liberal government’s budget for the coming year, which was announced in late of March, is a case in point. By and large, the media reports on the Liberal economic plan reflect a shift away from personality-driven commentary toward a more analytical take on the government’s major policies, decisions, and priorities. As the Prime Minister now aims to carry out his campaign promises, the people in turn are beginning to ask if — in the words of Bill Curry of the Canadian Globe and Mail — there is substance behind his style. Even though Trudeau’s public image is still a mixture of politician and celebrity, reactions to his unconventional and youthful behavior are beginning to be placed within the greater context of his government while also showing a more critical edge: After a 2011 photograph of Trudeau doing a difficult yoga pose known as the peacock resurfaced to take the internet by storm, many reacted by challenging the Prime Minister to balance the budget as well as he could balance his body. This witty response points to the essential question that now surrounds Trudeau’s government: Will popularity translate into product?

The budget, which offers better insight into Trudeau’s vision for the coming years than the fanfare that has captured the attention of media around the world, begins to answer this question. It reveals a distinctly Liberal plan for Canada and a massive departure from the austerity measures of the Conservative Harper government.  It also aims for a drastic increase in spending with only a potential minor tax raise for the middle class. While this move breaks the key Liberal campaign promise to keep the deficit below $10 billion while working toward a balanced budget, Trudeau and finance minister Bill Morneau’s departure from their original plan underlines their economic ideology: The idea is that government investment will be better at strengthening the economy and balancing the budget in the long run than short term measures to cut the deficit. In addition to overseeing the content of the budget, Morneau has also assumed an active role in lobbying for its support, arguing that the plan will not only stimulate the economy — which has recently stalled due to the fall in oil prices — but also lead to long-term investments that will balance the budget naturally.

Besides deficit spending, Trudeau’s budget combines his economic policies with some of the political and social talking points of his campaign. For example, the budget specifically increases funding for public transit, green infrastructure, and social infrastructure such as community housing and schools. In general, Trudeau’s budget aims to balance economic strength and environmental protection, one of the central promises of the campaign. The $1 billion investment in clean technology as well as the $11.9 billion investment in infrastructure systems, such as public transit and water treatment plants, hope to fulfill this promise

The budget also reveals some other distinct political concerns. In addition to sponsoring Syrian refugees, Trudeau is hoping to address the failures of the Harper government in advancing the education and welfare of aboriginals by allocating a whopping $8.4 billion over five years for Canada’s indigenous groups.

While the budget highlights that Trudeau’s commitment to progressive policies is more than skin deep and has brought a substantive debate about the Prime Minister’s policies to the forefront of national debate, it also reveals that the new government, while popular, is far from enjoying unanimous support. Canada is no liberal utopia, and Trudeau will have to face many dissenting opinions in trying to implement his party’s platform. For instance, the budget has faced a strong backlash from Conservative MPs and members of the public. In some of her most recent remarks regarding the plan, Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose criticized the extent of the Liberals’ intended spending and the lack of a jobs plan, especially with regard to jobs in the oil industry.

Criticism of Trudeau, as well as the deep-rooted Conservative influence in Canada that seems to have been forgotten about by the media, extends far beyond the opposition leadership and into local and state level government. Conservatives in Alberta, the suburbs of Ontario, rural Quebec, and even urban Toronto paint a very different picture of Canada than the Trudeau-inspired portraits of liberal harmony. One need only think of recently deceased Rob Ford, who was mayor Toronto from 2010 to 2014 and whose rhetoric and public demeanor has been compared to that of Donald Trump. As the media continues to marvel at Trudeau’s looks and charm, national and international political rhetoric surrounding Canada runs the risk of forgetting both the substantial policy initiatives of the current government as well as the political discord present within the nation that continues to reflect the beliefs of a significant amount of the population. As Rob Ford’s repeated election shows, these disputes are often not simply minor differences of opinion. While dissent is not necessarily negative — Canadian discord has not yet translated into deadlock — the political climate in Canada needs to be looked at more soberly. Trudeau’s popularity is enduring, but it should not be considered synonymous with practically unanimous political support. The budget reveals this difference while also showing the ambitious plans that Trudeau and his party have in store for the country — plans that will undoubtedly be molded into the media’s own message about Canada.

About the Author

Anna Murphy '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.