The Trudeau choice: Then and now

Andrew Pickford
March 16, 2014
Generational politics is an easy crutch for political analysis, but the external and internal change that Canada has faced since the early 1970’s dwarfs any perceived generational differences. Andrew Pickford poses an intriguing thought experiment wherein he compares the political landscape in the time of Pierre Trudeau and what might be the time of Justin Trudeau.

The Trudeau choice: Then and now

Andrew Pickford
March 16, 2014
Generational politics is an easy crutch for political analysis, but the external and internal change that Canada has faced since the early 1970’s dwarfs any perceived generational differences. Andrew Pickford poses an intriguing thought experiment wherein he compares the political landscape in the time of Pierre Trudeau and what might be the time of Justin Trudeau.
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Every generation thinks that it is unique and living in a special period of history. Even more dubious is the belief that generational solidarity trumps values, family and philosophical considerations. The press who are salivating at the prospect of a federal election with a “change” theme and that pits charismatic youth against conservative stuffiness is championing this fallacy. This may be due to Canadians being so close to the Obama phenomenon of 2008 but not being able to experience the euphoria directly. In fact, so keen are some commentators for a rerun of 2008, that if Justin Trudeau did not exist, the Canadian press corps would have to invent him. However, while Justin Trudeau is responsible for some of this hype, there was always going to be a transition of political leadership positions from the baby boomers to the next generation, as well as debates about generational equity. Generations exist, but is this the main game?

At some point, election cycles turn, be it 2015, 2019 or 2023. The Conservatives will return to the opposition benches, and there will be a centre-left government comprised of the Liberal Party and potentially the New Democratic Party. Assuming the Liberal Party wins in its own right, will it resemble the statist, centralist government of Trudeau senior or that of the more moderate Chrétien-Martin era? The answer is important, as it goes beyond generational conflict and to more fundamental policy questions. After all, without a strong economy to fund existing (and future) pension commitments, there will be conflict between many different demographic groups as well as various sectors and regions over a small and shrinking pie, especially as the baby boomers start to retire and the tax base changes.

To shed light on the generational differences, an interesting thought experiment is to consider the average Canadian voter of 1972 and 2019. The years 1972 and 2019 are nearly half a century apart, which makes them suitably separate to use to compare voters from a generational perspective. In 1972, the average baby boomer entered the workforce, and 2019 will be the time he or she is likely to retire. Both could be years in which a Trudeau-led government is returned for a second time. While there really is no such thing as an average voter, a few general observations can be made.   

Rewind to 1972

For Canadian hockey fans of a certain age, 1972 is remembered for a hockey competition known as the Summit Series, which pitted Team Canada against the USSR. If one watched one of these games in a family home, the family structure would be more traditional and probably much larger than its contemporary counterparts. Culturally, it was also quite different. According to the 1971 Census, more than 96 per cent of Canadians were recorded as having European origins. With a population just below 21 million, approximately 34 per cent were living in rural settings. A similar percentage of the population (roughly 35 per cent) resided in the province of Québec. While the Quiet Revolution had seen a decline in churchgoing in Québec, most Canadians identified with some form of Christianity. Canada was white, had a Christian heritage and was predominantly located in the St. Lawrence River basin and Great Lakes region. The cultural elite, who set the intellectual tone for debates across all levels of society, existed within a tight triangle of Montréal, Toronto and Ottawa. In terms of major international events, the experience of World War II was beginning to fade away. Ex-servicemen were entering middle age, and their children, the baby boomers, were transitioning into adulthood, responsibility and were entering the workforce.

Supporting an expanding industrial base, the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station and the Churchill Falls Generating Station both opened that year. Blue collar and manual jobs in the manufacturing sector were common in the large provinces of Québec and Ontario. Leaving high school before completion did not hinder a path to a secure job and a middle-class lifestyle. The main concern was the political future of Québec, which prompted the shift of a number of corporate head offices from Montréal to Toronto and hastened the general trend of the economic centre of gravity to shift west. Late in 1972, Pierre Trudeau was narrowly returned as prime minister, winning a minority government.

Ironically, as the baby boomers were coming of age and making their anti-authoritarian and free spirit stamp on the world, the nanny state was appearing. Bans on the sale of firecrackers and on cigarette advertisements were introduced in 1972. That year represented the beginning of a period of significant expansion of the state and the entrenchment of social welfare programs such as the Canadian Pension Plan. Other well-meaning initiatives were increasing the effective tax rate and government debt. After all, they made sense given the structure, orientation and outlook of the economy and the expectations that solid growth would continue unabated and quickly return to trend after short dips. The OPEC oil crisis was just around the corner and, six years later, China would open itself up, shaking the economic foundations and patterns of the world. Political leaders still met in European capitals to solve global problems.

Fast Forward to 2019

Moving from 1972 to 2019 covers a long period of history. From a population of 21 million in 1972, the total is edging up closer to 40 million in 2019. The proportion of Canadians aged five to 19 continues to decline, comprising only 15 per cent of the overall population by the end of the decade. The working-age population, those 15 to 64, while relatively constant due to the baby boomer bulge, starts to drop from a high above 70 per cent to closer to 65 per cent. The country is greyer and browner, reflecting the general aging of the population and immigration from the Pacific. Alberta continues its progression toward becoming a larger (demographically and financially) province, shifting from 1.6 million in 1972 to more than four million by 2019.

Approaching 2020, Europe is no longer the centre of the geo-political world. Most dynamism has shifted to the Indo-Pacific region and the East Asian sub-region. The external world has changed. So, too, has Canadian society. For adolescents and young adults, the line between study and work is significantly blurred, so now there is no neat beginning. Full-time jobs, when they exist, are unlikely to involve manual labour or factory-type work. Deindustrialization and offshoring slowed during the late 2010s, and new customised manufacturing, 3D printing and cheaper power gave rise to a cottage industry that replaced mass manufacturing of the previous century. The maturing of Web and Internet technologies, as well as the commoditization of support tools, has meant that increasing numbers of professionals do not work in a large organization or even physically in a downtown office building. Many are working from home as remote employees telecommuting, or independent business owners and serving clients across the country.

Not surprisingly in 2019, an average thirty-something is focused on starting a family, settling in a home and educating the children. When communicating with parents, he or she may use social media instead of writing a letter, but most of the sentiments remain the same as previous generations’. To get a sense of life in 2019, the following vignette outlines a hypothetical event that illustrates the transformation of Canada since 1972.

In a small Alberta town, a crowd begins to gather. At this ceremonial function full of dignitaries, CEOs and the press, the Canadian prime minister formally turns on a major piece of energy infrastructure. Instead of a power station for industrial users in the St. Lawrence or Ottawa valleys, this is a pipeline shifting a petroleum product from Alberta to world markets. Some journalists translate the comments into French, but more are writing for a Chinese audience. The travelling entourage from Beijing is dutifully reporting this second major Chinese government investment in Canada within the past five months. A domestic contingent of Chinese-speaking Canadian journalists filing articles are looking for an angle to interest the readers in Toronto suburbs.

The dynamic triangle of Vancouver-Calgary-Toronto continues to transform Canada into a Pacific-focused nation. This differs from the eastern part of Canada. The further one travels toward Halifax, the greater the proportion of people who are white, from Christian backgrounds and who look over the Atlantic for their heritage. This demographic phenomenon is true for the Atlantic Provinces and most of Québec. Montréal is still a cultural mix, although the divisive debates over the Québec charter of values and the poor economic indicators slowed the rate of immigration from non-European countries to this once dynamic commercial centre.

In the above scenario, the average Canadian in 2019 is much more western in orientation. This relates to both an ongoing population move to western provinces and a shift toward the more-conservative attitudes commonly associated with Alberta. These trends are well documented in a book by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson titled The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and what it means for Our Future. While making a number of bold predictions based on 2011 federal election data, it paints a picture of Canada transforming into a centre-right nation. The electoral implications in The Big Shift are significant: “[Political] power is shared by two groups: Westerners and Ontario’s suburban middle class, especially the immigrant suburban middle class.” By 2019, it is likely that separatism, when it occurs, is driven by a common focus on jobs, economic opportunities and concerns about the future. This would be more along the lines of the Alberta firewall variety of disengagement by those no longer willing to subsidize government workers or the bankrupt provinces in the East rather than the Québec (culturally driven) separatist sentiment of a previous generation (à la 1972).

For a generation coming of age and entering the workforce (those born after 2000), the concepts of pooled pension programs and supporting those on antiquated defined benefit schemes are met with reactions between indifference and anger. A young voter in 2019 may be faced with a choice between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his younger Conservative counterpart. The 2019 election is about attracting Chinese investment, the best type of economic migrants and tax relief for Generation X, now ever closer to considering retirement. A loud group of baby boomers, realizing that their meagre savings with a CPP top up are inadequate for the lifestyle that they deserve, are a part of the election campaign.  

Trudeau: Father and Son

In the 2019 scenario, commentary about Pierre Trudeau is increasingly written by those in university history departments and not in political science or journalism. The Trudeau name has a certain aura, but aside from baby boomers and the politically astute, it mainly relates to Justin. Amongst the greyer contingent, there is a vague fondness for Pierre and his association with a period of change in Canada that was perceived as beneficial and perhaps inevitable. His time as prime minister reshaped Canada and embedded many of the social welfare and centralist policies that to this day prove difficult to dismantle, with most finance ministers only able to address the symptoms of the Trudeau welfare complex rather than fix the systemic problems.

Returning to 2014, to the public, Justin Trudeau remains a largely superficial media creation. The Liberal strategists have focused on showing his personality rather than any policy depth. This often involves women, who form a large part of his support base, and included a competition for a date with the Liberal leader. His public persona is being crafted as more of a reality TV identity than that of an alternative prime minister. While this charismatic politician has supported a range of causes, his fundamental worldview and underlying philosophies remain mostly unknown or, at best, unclear. There is virtually no political cost to supporting good causes and giving uplifting speeches. Governing, on the other hand, involves difficult decisions and, inevitably, winners and losers. Thus, while there is a fascination about the Justin Trudeau phenomenon, one question is not being asked: What comes next when a new government is formed?

The Trudeau Choice

As 2014 progresses, some questions about a new Trudeau government will be posed, but not likely in any real depth, mostly thanks to the positioning strategy of the Liberal party. Much of the media, still enthralled by the Justin phenomenon, will write in gushing tones that echo the Obama frenzy south of the border in 2008. Some of those in the press, especially junior reporters, will frame the election as being about change, both in terms of generation and values. The journalists will project their beliefs on to the many twentysomethings voting for the first time, as well as on to voters with young families, and suburbanites. The extent this resonates will probably be overstated. It is quite normal to identify as a coherent generation during the senior year of high school or in the first year of college, but this dissipates quickly when a person enters the workforce and starts paying taxes.

In 1972, voters were interested in jobs and opportunity as well as the well-being of their family. This continues to be the case for voters today, and it will remain so in 2019. Aside from a Che Guevara T-shirt in college, most younger voters follow the political philosophies and general worldview of their parents. The reason for comparing 1972 with 2019 is to show how Canada has transformed, over and above the expected influence of generations. From Confederation to 1972, the ethnic, social and settlement patterns remained largely consistent, with major changes being more evolutionary than revolutionary. From the 1970s onward, the changing ethnic mix, the economic and political shift westward and the general social changes have significantly reshaped Canada.

Instead of posing questions about the motivations of different generations, the more accurate question would be what do generations have in common? There is a multitude of groupings: gender, ethnicity, language, education, geography, profession and so on. Age is but one. Assuming Justin remains as leader of the Liberal Party for the immediate future, it is quite likely that the next leader of the Conservative Party will be of a similar age to him, if not younger. Does this mean both leaders will share the same values and, therefore, political platform? This is the logic of putting too much weight on generational solidarity.

Much of the media and press attention is focused on the emergence of Justin Trudeau as a viable candidate for prime minister. However, the direction a Justin Trudeau Liberal Party takes us is more important. Will it pile up debt like Trudeau senior, or can the Liberals pursue a more responsible fiscal path? Removing the theatre of the 2015 election, 2019 has been used as a reference point to compare generations. This is helpful because so much attention is on the personality of Justin Trudeau and not on how a Liberal Party would govern. The press corps is not alone in falling into this trap. So keen have some conservatives been to erase the Trudeau legacy from Canadian history, they have lost sight of the main game. Using sports parlance, they are playing the man and not the ball. As satisfying as it would be for conservative strategists to prevent another Trudeau from entering 24 Sussex Drive, it behooves them to plan for a post-Harper era and start shifting public opinion to favour the rollback of Trudeau senior’s welfare and statist policies. Centre-right parties do not have the monopoly on economic and fiscal reform. The Chrétien-Martin experience was certainly more moderate and fiscally responsible than the previous iterations of Liberal government were.

In focusing on shifting cultural expectations from the state as the provider to individual responsibility, Canada can avoid a false intergenerational debate. Much can be done by a centre-right government or opposition, but it needs support and should not be driving cultural change from Ottawa. Policy institutes, think-tanks and promoters of the free market should take some time to influence the direction of the fiscally conservative Liberals and their allies. The media in their echo chamber will concentrate on the Trudeau choice, but it is time to consider the broader game.  


Andrew Pickford is an Australian based in Québec who has worked in a range of think-tanks, policy institutes and financial services firms.

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