Kelly McParland: Why reactionary populism will fizzle in Canada

Tend to agree:

Populism is getting a bad rap in Canada, unjustifiably so.

According to my unaffiliated and wholly non-partisan online dictionary, populism is defined as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” That’s pretty much the whole world, outside a few billionaires, right?

Appealing to ordinary people is what most major political parties claim to do. The least populist parties are the ones on the extreme left or right that seek to spread blinkered minority views that are too often rooted in bitterness, envy, anger, ignorance or ideology run wild. The only people who think this is ordinary are the extremists themselves.

Donald Trump is not a populist, he’s an appallingly shallow, ignorant and narcissistic loudmouth who has struck a chord with Americans who are, for the most part, decent people, but feel they’ve been forgotten by Washington’s craven and self-serving establishment. They have good reason for feeling that way, though supporting Trump is not the solution.

There is little chance of Canada’s federal government being seized by the same sort of ugliness. There are several reasons for this, chief among them that Canadians are vastly different from Americans, less fixated on the outer reaches of individualism, less prone to absolutism and more inclined to compromise and a culture of reformative fudging.

Nonetheless, someone in Ottawa evidently felt the need to invite a perceived expert on the issue to address a task force of senior bureaucrats on “diversity and inclusivity,” which under the Trudeau government has become an obsession all its own. The expert, Tim Dixon, is a “a social movement builder” who co-founded More in Common, a non-profit with operations in a number of European countries that seeks to “build communities and societies that are stronger, more united and more resilient to the increasing threats of polarization and social division.” He is also co-founder of Purpose Europe, “a home for building movements that harness technology to engage large numbers of people and help make progress on major global problems.” Before setting out to remake the world he was a speechwriter for Australian politicians.

If you survey the faces of the various Purpose teams on their websites, you’d have a hard time finding a better-scrubbed, diverse group of young, motivated, good-intentioners anywhere. More in Common has only existed since 2017 but has already printed numerous publications, mostly focused on the U.S. and Europe, dealing with the strains linked to immigration and refugees.

There is no question such strains exist. The Brexit mess in the U.K. is tied directly to hostility towards immigration rules. Over the weekend The New York Times published a lengthy examination of how Sweden’s legacy of tolerance has been undermined by a cross-border digital web of dark impulses exploited by a local party founded on Nazi principles. Italy’s latest government crisis could see the prime ministership go to Matteo Salvini, a party leader with very Trumpian views who has been linked in a series of recent reports to illicit funding from Russia. In the U.S., the political divide has grown so wide and deep there is serious doubt the Democratic party can find a nominee free enough from plans for radical social and economic upheaval to stand a chance against Trump.

Such developments offer good reason for Canadians to look beyond their borders and wonder what perverse political virus has seized the world. But there still is not much cause for serious concern that it might take hold here. For all the Trudeau Liberals’ attempts to portray Conservative leader Andrew Scheer as a bigot-in-training, the man’s biggest flaw may be that he’s just too much an everyday Canadian to inspire excitement among a population that takes its politics in small doses, and only when necessary. The closest Canada comes to a party of intolerance is the People’s Party of Maxime Bernier, who broke away from Scheer’s Tories out of pique at having been rejected as leader and precisely because necks among the Scheer Conservatives aren’t nearly red enough for his liking. Bernier is pledging to significantly reduce immigration to Canada, but fears he might steal votes on the right have proved unfounded: the party barely registers in polls and Bernier has been reduced to recruiting from among disaffected candidates who were either rejected by the Tories or couldn’t drum up much interest anywhere else.

In contrast to Bernier’s pledge to cap immigration at minimal levels, the other parties all remain gangbusters for increased numbers, mainly because Canada needs bright, educated and hard-working people to feed the workforce and the gaps that remain in important industries. The biggest difference between Tory thinking and Liberal thinking relates to the qualifications of would-be migrants, how much time they spend in Canada and how many family members should be allowed in without much prospect they’ll be able to contribute to the benefits they’ll consume.

The “immigration crisis” most often referred to in headlines refers to the sudden flood of arrivals across an illegal crossing in Quebec, which upset Canadians because they thought it was unfair, and because many felt Trudeau brought it on himself via a typically vainglorious tweet offering open arms at a time the world was beset by crises involving millions of people displaced by war and poverty. Conservatives saw arrivals as largely opportunistic and illegal, Liberals wanted to deny there was a crisis. Since the numbers have eased, the “crisis” talk has faded.

The bottom line is that there’s not much evidence Canada is in danger of producing the sort of deep-seated antipathy that feeds the forces of rancour on the left and right. If anything, it seems more likely the abhorrence with which Trump is widely viewed will act as a barrier to any serious spread of the virus that has troubled Europe and the U.S. It’s nice that bureaucrats would feel the need to familiarize themselves with the challenges confronting their colleagues in other countries, but it’s unlikely More in Common will need to mobilize its forces to establish a branch plant in Canada just yet.

Source: Kelly McParland: Why reactionary populism will fizzle in Canada

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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