Federal leaders reading populist tea leaves to figure out what’s brewing in 2018


OTTAWA — A year after Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, it’s not just the pollsters and pundits continuing to mull over whether a similar populist upheaval could ever take root in Canada.

Federal political leaders are also reading the tea leaves to see what could be brewing for them.

Populism hasn’t always been a dirty word in Canada, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer points out.

“To talk about a prairie populist from Saskatchewan 40 years ago, that wasn’t a negative connotation, that was someone who was fighting for the people and against some of the big icons of central Canada whether it was banks or railways or the other parties,” Scheer says.

“In this political cycle, populism in some circles has a negative connotation.”

For Scheer, that connotation is one he finds himself fighting against, as opponents routinely seek to paint Conservatives as one step away from the hard right base of the populist movement that put Trump in office.

In 2018, he’ll seek to counter that narrative by presenting a new approach.

The left will argue the government is always best placed to respond to any given issue, and if people don’t agree, they don’t care about the subject, he says.

“The Conservatives come along and say there are other ways … let’s look at those options before we go to government. It takes a little bit longer to explain that sometimes and if people don’t see you leading with that emotional response they think you don’t share the same level of passion.”

A distinctively northern style of populism does exist in Canada, polls by Ekos Research and The Canadian Press have suggested, one rooted not in the anti-immigrant or anti-trade sentiment that characterized Trump’s voter base. Instead, it’s a question of a shrinking middle class fearful of their future, and that of their children, and a sense things are just getting worse.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he feels today there are two Canadas playing out — people who live in a wealthy well-connected world and the rest.

For the former, they find a home in the Conservatives or the Liberals, he said.

It’s the rest he’s seeking to captivate in part by taking cues from U.S. Democrat Bernie Sanders, who mounted a formidable challenge to Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential primaries, capitalizing on a desire for stronger progressive policies.

“I’m trying to build the politics of unity and love and bring people together at a time where we have Trump dividing folks,” Singh said.

“I’m trying to do similar to what Bernie did. He did it as an old white man, I’m doing it as a young brown dude.”

Just as young voters were crucial to Sanders, so are they for the NDP.

In the 2015 election, voter turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds jumped 18 percentage points to 57.1 per cent, the highest since Elections Canada began reporting turnout by age in 2004. A subsequent study by polling firm Abacus suggested among them, 43 per cent who backed the NDP in 2011 had switched their vote to the Liberals.

Cynicism appears to have taken root since.

At a town hall earlier this month at the University of Ottawa, Singh got several questions about why politicians don’t listen, never show up except at election time and seem to ignore those who refuse to clearly align with a particular partisan side — and how he was going to be different.

Keeping young people engaged in politics will be among his priorities, Singh said.

“We need to acknowledge that we were all really hopeful about a bunch of stuff and it didn’t work out and that hurts,” he said.

“But it’s not reason to give up. We can’t give up. We can do better.”

“Better is always possible” was the Liberals’ campaign slogan in 2015, and will continue to inform the government’s direction in 2018 as it seeks to implement policies it insists will see economic growth for all.

That includes taking a new approach to free trade.

“People don’t feel that trade is working for them. It’s working for the big businesses. It’s maybe working for political bottom lines, but it’s not helping ordinary people,” Trudeau told the Global News political show The West Block in a year-end interview.

“And that’s why, you know, you get the populism and the nationalism.”

Efforts to include chapters on gender and Indigenous issues in the revamped North American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and Mexico and include similar elements in a potential deal with China is part of the counter-populist effort.

So too is work by the government to open up the doors on the G7 during Canada’s turn as host later this year. The hope is that by engaging Canadians in the process of the summit, they can in turn engage them in the policy and explain why it is in their best interests.

Trudeau will also spent the first weeks of 2018 on a town hall style tour of the country.

“If you’re not paying attention to people who are worried about feeding their kids, about paying their rent, about building a better future for them, you get to walk down the polarized, negative political world view that unfortunately we’re seeing in Europe, we saw a little bit of in the election of the south,” Trudeau told Montreal’s CHOM 97.7 FM earlier this month.

“We see a lot of frustration and anger against a system that is not including everyone in the path to success.”


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