French politics don’t often have an impact here in Canada, but the country’s most recent election might offer a sneak preview of what our next federal contest could look like. While far-right populist Marine Le Pen didn’t take the presidency from Emmanuel Macron, her National Front — now called the “National Rally” — party soared from just eight seats in 2017 to 89.
That historic result was largely a product of growing dissatisfaction with economic conditions in France, and it offers a warning to Canada’s Liberals that they would be wise to heed.
To put it bluntly: it’s still the economy, stupid. Perhaps more than at any other point since U.S. Democratic strategist James Carville made those words famous back in 1992, the economy is driving and defining our politics. That’s bad news for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals since it’s the area where they’re most obviously vulnerable.
While the Liberals are fluent (and often eloquent) in the dialects of social justice, equity and the environment, they’re much less comfortable when it comes to speaking the language of Bay Street. If they don’t find a way to improve on that front, they could hand the country over to someone nearly as dangerous as Le Pen.
For all of his bluster and bravado, Conservative leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre’s economic message is resonating with a lot of people. His ongoing attempt to pin Canada’s inflation on the Trudeau government, one that’s been defined by his relentless use of the term “Justinflation,” is starting to get traction.
Never mind that most of the inflationary pressure is well beyond the government’s control, whether it’s from the war in Ukraine or ongoing supply chain issues in China. Right now, people want someone to blame, and Poilievre is doing a good job of serving up a clear target.
In a recent speech to the Empire Club in Toronto, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tried to speak to these concerns and what the government is doing about them. She reannounced $8.9 billion worth of pro-affordability measures from the budget that included a 10 per cent bump to Old Age Security, a one-time Housing Affordability Payment of $500 to low-income Canadians, and the money being sent to provinces to fund the new child-care agreements.
She also reiterated her government’s support for the Bank of Canada and described Poilievre’s ongoing campaign to undermine its credibility as “highly irresponsible, not to mention economically illiterate.”
She’s right, of course. But so were the American economists who described Donald Trump’s empty promises to revitalize the manufacturing Rust Belt or “make coal great again.” And just as thousands of former Democratic supporters chose Trump’s bogus optimism over Hillary Clinton’s sobering truth, so, too, could Canadians decide they prefer Poilievre’s simple medicine to the complicated economic diagnosis being offered up by the Trudeau Liberals.
In the absence of some way to end the conflict in Ukraine or magically clear up global supply chain issues, the government is left to manage a crisis it can’t really control. Sending more money to Canadians, whether that’s in the form of targeted tax cuts or direct subsidies and spending, would only make inflation worse. Raising taxes, meanwhile, would probably be political suicide in this environment. That leaves them with only one realistic option: empathy.
Opinion: In the absence of some way to end the conflict in Ukraine or magically clear up global supply chain issues, the government is left to manage a crisis it can’t really control, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #Inflation #Economy
The problem is that for all of their strengths as politicians, Trudeau and Freeland might be the two worst possible people to sell that message. Trudeau, by virtue of both his status as prime minister and his legacy as the son (and heir) of another, isn’t going to be able to relate to the financial pressure millions of Canadians are now under. And while Freeland’s academic background and professional credentials are both hugely impressive (and help explain why she’s on everyone’s short list for the next Liberal leader), they don’t make her the most relatable person in the world.
Barring yet another external shock, it seems likely that inflation is close to peaking, if it hasn’t already. If the Liberal-NDP deal holds firm and Canadians go to the polls in 2025, voters may have forgotten some of the economic pain they’re experiencing right now.
But it’s the job of a politician like Poilievre to keep those memories fresh, and it’s one he’ll relish doing.
If the Trudeau Liberals want to keep him at bay, they’ll need to show far more interest in things like economic growth and productivity than they have to date. If they don’t, they’ll be replaced by someone who has.