By Dennis Soron
In 1996, the Bank of Montreal began running a TV commercial that featured a children’s choir singing a quasi-inspirational version of Bob Dylan’s great 1964 countercultural anthem, “The Times They Are a Changin’.” As innocuous as it may seem by today’s shameless marketing standards, this ad became a focal point for the anger felt by many progressive activists in Canada at the time. Reeling from the cuts inflicted by deficit-slashing governments, from mass industrial and public sector lay-offs, and from the remorseless advance of the international free trade agenda, many regarded it as a sign that corporate control was extending so fully over public life as to even absorb the traditional lore and symbolism of political protest. When, later that same year, Billy Bragg took to the stage to sing Dylan’s song in front of almost 200,000 people at the Toronto Day of Action against the Mike Harris government, he encouraged the crowd to reclaim the song from cynical bankers and advertisers, and to continue to mobilize for a very different brand of bottom-up change.
Unfortunately, such hopes have not been borne out over the past couple of decades, as our sense of what is politically possible has continued to shrink even as an ever-more vapid and disingenuous rhetoric of “change” has extended itself throughout our culture. Thanks largely to the self-help industry, popular management literature and ubiquitous advertising, our conception of what constitutes historically significant change has been largely depoliticized. It has become associated less with the struggle for a more just and equal society than with the arrival of new consumer products and services, technological progress, market-led economic growth and the quest for personal improvement and advancement. When invoked by politicians today, appeals for “change” are often intentionally vacant, aiming to stir up vague feelings of positivity and receptivity to the future among the populace, without bogging it down in the messy details of specific plans or policies.
This cultural trend bears onto our attempts to make sense of the recent Canadian federal election, which has been widely referred to in the popular media as a “change election.” For some commentators, the “Red Wave” that gave a decisive majority to Trudeau’s Liberals dramatically swept away the reactionary legacy of the Harper regime and announced a bold new era of progressive politics in Canada. The Liberal campaign strategy fed this narrative, remaining rather light on concrete proposals but drawing heavily on canned uplift about hope and change that sounded part Tony Robbins, part Barack Obama and part Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. The magnitude of our country’s electoral shift seemed to be reflected in the extreme makeover given to the very figure of our Prime Minister, with the reticent, nerdy, Lego-haired policy-wonk Harper ceding place to the handsome, personable, dreamily-coiffed patrician Trudeau.
Questions remain, however, about the degree to which the Liberal victory represents a fundamental shift in federal politics or signifies a mass embrace of the “real change” the party promised during the campaign. A post-election poll conducted by Forum Research revealed that “change” itself was the primary reason given by voters for supporting the Liberals, well ahead of any specific positive attribute associated with Trudeau, his party, or his party’s platform. Clearly, a sizable number of people didn’t so much vote for Trudeau as against Harper – including many disaffected conservatives and (by some estimates) the roughly 30% of NDP supporters who voted “strategically” for the Liberals. Trudeau’s victory certainly represents a dramatic change in his party’s own short-term electoral fortunes, but it conforms with a longer-term pattern in Canadian politics in which Liberals and Conservatives periodically swap positions as waves of public disaffection advance and recede. This time around, thanks to the peculiarities of our first-past-the-post voting system, the Liberals – with the active support of roughly 27 percent of eligible voters, much of that padded out by strategic voting – were able to win an even more distorted majority than the Conservatives won in 2011 with a higher share of the popular vote.
For progressives who remain committed to “a-changin’” our times for the better, what promise does this new political landscape hold? While it is a truism that Liberals tend to campaign from the left and govern from the right, we need not deny that some of Trudeau’s promised initiatives – from restoring the long-form census, to reforming our voting system and ramping up public investment in infrastructure, the arts, and so on – will potentially have a positive impact and mitigate some of the worst damage done during the Harper years. That said, we should remember that many of his positions – on trade, security and environmental policy, for instance – are distressingly similar to those of the Conservatives, whose legislative program the Liberals generally backed for years. While minority Liberal governments have often been pushed by the left to adopt more egalitarian social and economic policies, Liberal majorities have often gone in the opposite direction, quickly abandoning their progressive promises and tacking sharply to the right once in office.
While Trudeau is not fated to simply repeat this pattern, he is beholden to a party establishment and to a powerful set of vested economic interests that place real limits upon what types of “change” we can expect to see in coming years. While it would be churlish to deny people the sense of relief and hope they feel now that the long winter of Harper’s rule has come to a close, we should not be lulled into complacency by the carefully crafted progressive brand-identity of our new governing party. Nor should we assume that significant social, political and economic reforms will simply be gifted to us from above by charismatic or enlightened leaders, without our ongoing collective effort to hold leaders accountable, get politically organized, and place the “real change” we do hope for back onto the political agenda.