Canada’s last lines of defence against populism: Geddes and Gilmore contrasting views
2017/03/09 Leave a comment
Two contrasting views on the risks of populism in Canada, starting with the stronger one IMO by John Geddes:
If the Canadian election map makes taking an anti-immigrant line a losing proposition, and the Canadian way of choosing party leaders makes it hard for a populist outsider to win, there’s still the possibility that the Conservatives might try to activate the economic side of populism.
Even there, though, the formula behind Trump and Brexit doesn’t look like a natural ﬁt in Canada. Trump blended his anti-immigrant rhetoric with promises to scrap or overhaul free-trade agreements. The Brexit forces linked discomfort with foreigners to resentment of the EU free-trading order. But in Canada, liberalized trade enjoys broad buy-in—particularly on the political right, and notably in the Conservatives’ resource-exporting western strongholds.
So echoing Trump and the Brexiters in railing against unfair foreign competition is a non-starter for Canadian Conservatives. That leaves, perhaps, ﬁnding a way to give voice to the anxieties of that broad swath of Canadians who, as Graves portrays them, fear that the middle class is shrinking and that opportunities for their children and grandchildren are dwindling.
But the Tories would ﬁnd themselves playing catch-up with the Liberals when it comes to tailoring a populist message for those worried voters. Trudeau has been arguing since 2014 that failure to push income growth down from high-earners to middle-class families would eventually prompt a dangerous backlash. His answer, or at least part of it, came in last year’s budget, in the forms of a modest middle-income tax cut, an upper-income tax hike and a signiﬁcant boost in federal payments to parents.
Is more policy in the same vein coming in next month’s 2017 budget? In a signiﬁcant recent speech in Germany, at Hamburg’s annual St. Matthew’s Day Banquet, Trudeau strongly suggested he isn’t done trying salve that middle-class sense of grievance. “With the pace of globalization and technological change,” he said, “there is a very real fear out there that our kids will be worse off than we are.”
Adopting his own version of the populist line, Trudeau took direct aim at corporations that post record proﬁts but somehow can’t afford to offer job security to their workers. “Increasing inequality has made citizens distrust their governments, distrust their employers,” he added. “It turns into ‘us vs. them.’ ”
From the sounds of his Hamburg speech, Trudeau doesn’t intend to leave the next Conservative leader any easy opening to outdo him when it comes to giving voice to the disquiet of Canadians who believe the economic order is stacked against their families. It remains to be seen what additional policies the Liberals unveil in the upcoming budget to back up that rhetoric.
If Trudeau fails to deliver, a right-leaning populist might seize the chance to try to ﬁll the vacuum. Overall, though, the prospects for a right-of-centre populist movement in Canada look dim, even though opinion in Canada, according to pollsters like Graves and academics like Donnelly, contains plenty of the same mix of fear and pessimism that fuelled Trump and Brexit.
There’s no shortage of Canadians who, if they’d heard Ted Falk wishing God’s blessing for Donald Trump, might well have said, “Amen.” But if they’re hoping that Trump-style populism will slip across the border and succeed in Canadian politics, they’re likely to discover that Canada’s welcoming reputation has its limits.
Which brings us to Canada. Will we see a similar rise in populism here? When I sat down to write this column, my instinctive answer was “no.” I agreed with many of the arguments made by my colleague John Geddes, who sees systemic and political barriers to Canadian populism. My thinking was that the apparent growth in global populism is because we are focused on Trump and starting to pay attention. But where I could ﬁnd data, it didn’t support my conclusion. One study from Harvard, for example, found that support for populist parties on both the left and the right has grown undeniably and steadily since the 1960s, doubling its support since then.
But it was another study completed late last year by a group of academics from the U.S., Europe and Japan that left me especially troubled. They looked at a dozen European countries to see if there was a correlation between the relative size of the immigrant population and the support for right-wing populist movements. The researchers found that there was a direct connection, and that support grew at an increasing rate as the size of the immigrant population grew. And what is more, their data suggested there was a “tipping point” in western societies: when immigrants comprised 22 per cent of the population, support for anti-immigrant parties approached a political majority. If a country takes in too many immigrants, a populist backlash may be unavoidable.
In Canada, our foreign-born population is already at 20 per cent and growing. This is far higher than in the United States and (except for Luxembourg and Switzerland, where there are large numbers of itinerant professional residents like bankers) it is far higher than in any other European nation. And it’s getting bigger. Statistics Canada just released a report that projected Canada’s immigrant population will increase to between 26 per cent and 30 per cent within two decades. This puts Canada well beyond the theoretical 22 per cent threshold in the European study.
It makes sense that countries become unstable with too many foreigners. I have ﬁrst-hand experience in places like Pakistan and Timor Leste, where sudden massive inﬂuxes of refugees can pull a country apart at the seams. But is it possible that even when immigrants arrive gradually and they are integrated successfully, it can still destabilize a country? Perhaps a populist backlash is inevitable in Western democracies when the immigrant population grows to a certain size.
This is not because the newcomers bring crime or undermine our democratic institutions (they do neither), but because the native citizens, whether they are Canadians or Austrians or Americans, instinctively feel threatened by newcomers. Perhaps the experiences add up—new faces on TV, new clothes in the street, new music on the radio—until the average person reaches a tipping point and pushes back. After all, a fear of strangers is wired into our brains, an instinct that kept us alive in our tribal past.
If this is true, it upends a lot of assumptions that this country is built on regarding multiculturalism, pluralism and immigration. Canada may be facing larger global forces, tectonic shifts which are are not felt until it’s too late and a populist earthquake shatters our carefully built house of peace, order and good government.