The unbearable lightness of governing - The Orca

The unbearable lightness of governing

Rex Murphy

As Trudeau looks increasingly vulnerable on feminism, transparency, and Indigenous concerns, Rex Murphy expects him to double down on environmentalism

There’s obviously an unheralded contest within the upper altitudes of the Trudeau government to see who can most unleash tempests of scorn and ridicule against their own party.

At the very top there is Mr. Trudeau himself, suing the Leader of the Opposition, suing Andrew Scheer, at the very moment the succinctly-named Lavscam affair was – finally – winding down.

A lawsuit by a Prime Minister is a very big deal. It is rare, for one thing. A lawsuit by this Prime Minister on the topic of who is “prevaricating” (I use the polite term – lawsuits are contagious) on the expulsion of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, who is bending the truth on Lavscam – after the cascade of miseries Lavscam itself has poured down on Mr. Trudeau – is a sublime act of political self-mutilation.

But Mr. Trudeau is not a clear winner in this dubious and masochistic contest. There is Catherine McKenna, Minister (among other things) of Climate Change – now there’s a brand – are we to think of her as of the fabled Prospero, who at command “bedimmed the noon-time sun, called forth the mutinous winds…and rifted Jove’s stout oak, with his own bolt.”

Prospero at least could claim supernatural aid. Ms McKenna has only a mandate letter – hardly the ring of power she obviously imagines it to be. Last time I checked it was putting 4 cents on a gallon of gas in Ontario – will not stay the sun or call forth thunders from the firmament.

In the first week of April, with the last snows deliquescing in the uncertain daylight sun, Ms. McKenna went shopping at Loblaws. Well, not shopping. She went to the great national grocery chain to give them a gift of $12 million, so that Loblaws – a multibillion-dollar enterprise – could “overhaul” their refrigerators and thereby “contribute” to the fight against global warming.

Neither all the coal plants in China nor all the oil in Saudi Arabia could challenge Loblaws’ out-of-date refrigerators when it comes to imperiling the planet and bringing us closer to global warming doom. Government is in a strange and alien zone when making sure the frozen chickens in a national grocery superstore stay frozen.

A sequence of follies tumbling out is a signal of a government seriously adrift. After the expulsions of two, formerly senior and highly regarded female Ministers, the resignation of the highest civil servant, and perhaps most telling, the flight of the Prime Minister’s long-term friend, adviser, manager-of-everything, Gerald Butts, perhaps we should have expected a cascade of error.

The events of the last weeks have shook the Trudeau government to its foundation, and exploded the precious Liberal brand: that of a caring, open, feminist, scrupulously progressive administration. It has lost its footing on all the fronts it has so incessantly made its signature. Where now is election reform, the pledge to put Indigenous concerns at the highest priority level, to be an unprecedently open government, all subsumed under the slogan that it was going to do politics differently? Gone, and gone again.

This combination has immense significance for its one remaining beachhead. Other than the above catalogue there is one other issue, one other cardinal element of the Liberal brand that remains: their intense commitment to the fight against global warming.

Not even the Greens can match the piety and emphasis the Trudeau government has placed on “leading the fight” against climate change. Mr. Trudeau and his Minister of Climate Change have sought to personify themselves as global champions of this most fashionable of causes. Not a world conference but Ms. McKenna takes the equivalent of the full population of PEI to tag along as she zealously proclaims Canada’s leadership.

Mr. Trudeau, while studiously refusing to engage with the virtual collapse of the Canadian energy economy, banning tanker traffic, multiplying regulatory schemes, and brandishing the imposition of a carbon tax over the whole nation, surpasses even the Suzukian heights of environmental evangelism.

Early in his mandate, and even before on the campaign trail beheld such progressive pieties on the greatest challenge in the world today, the existential challenge to the very future of the planet had the soft appeal of all “caring” rhetoric, wherein politicians cloak their professed love for the planet and all of God’s creatures.

Hearty genuflections to environmental me-too-ism are every progressive’s signature gymnastics. To stand in front of a mob of young teenagers at some We to Me séance and rattle on about our debt to Mother Earth and bewail the injuries to our Blue Planet brought on by capitalism and always hungry energy companies, is feel-goodism politics in its most pure guise. People see the performance, hear the words, but it passes by.

Deep into the mandate, and with an election now clearly on the horizon what’s the status of the grand commitment to environmentalism, and the crusade against climate change?

This is, remember, the one remaining element of the Trudeau government’s appeal and standing.  Well, for one thing the problem with virtue-signaling as a mode of politics is that there has to be a pedestal of actual virtue on which to stand and wave.

When one by one, promises and policies are seen to be abandoned or forgotten, when the central “values” themes of your administration are exploded in scandal, contradicted by behaviour, and questioned by recently expelled frontline Ministers, the aura or virtue dissipates.

The grand “difference” pledged from previous administrations is seen as hollow, as a pose. As I’ve written before, live by the brand, die by the brand.

The great crusade rhetoric of saving the planet, the urgency of action now on the environment falls into the same shadow as previous unctuous bleatings on feminism, the centrality of Indigenous concerns, openness and transparency. Likewise, voters will now take a more careful look at the anti-industry dimension of hyper-environmentalist government. That the great commitment to supranational Greenism has lethal impact on local (that is to say national) responsibilities.

It has scarified Canada’s reputation as a place for offshore investment, chased billions to other jurisdictions, left Alberta shivering in the downturn for half a decade, and denied thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of potential jobs from being realized. Further, it has opened or reopened fractures within the Confederation, set province against province, some provinces against Ottawa, and proved a formidable torment to the very idea of undertakings for the national good.

Lavscam has peeled away many of the pretensions of the present government, in fact revealed it as a government which has always been more about pretensions than achievement. It has also stimulated very substantial concerns about its fundamental competence. The early crop of photo-ops, fashion features in Vogue and Vanity Fair, the flash of vivid hosiery and yoga poses, were a fair wind for those “sunny days.” As the mandate nears its termination flash and celebrity-flare are thin coin, and the stumblings and misjudgments of the last few months have underscored the fundamental lightness and amateurishness of the present administration.

Government can be serious without being grave, but it cannot be an extended romp executed by dilettantes and amateurs remote from those they govern.

So, continue the “carbon indulgences” to Loblaws, hail the carbon tax (which is the purest token gesture of no possible measurable impact on the planet’s health), continue to downgrade the exploitation of our natural resources on which this country was built and now flourishes.

Run the election to come on “Canada’s commitment to the fight against climate change” and see how that works out.

Rex Murphy has been one of Canada’s most familiar, trusted, and insightful political commentators since the 1970s. 

A former Rhodes Scholar, Murphy built a reputation as a quick-witted broadcaster and reporter in his native Newfoundland, and later throughout Canada on CBC’s The National and host of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup