Human beings have a funny habit of overly venerating the past, a phenomenon psychologists call “rosy retrospection.” You hear it most in people’s wistful recollections of growing up in a simpler, safer time: folks didn’t lock their doors, kids played outside unsupervised until the dinner bell rang, people were friendlier and more trustworthy. Patio lanterns. Middle-class bliss. Not a care in the world. When my generation does that we’re talking about a time of mortgages at 20 per cent, the Cold War and record-high violent crime.
Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre wasn’t looking nearly that far back in his speech at his party’s convention in Quebec City on Friday evening. He was waxing nostalgic for eight years ago, in the Time Before Justin. I found it equal parts artful and almost comically overblown.
“Inflation and interest rates were rock bottom. Taxes were falling faster than at any time in our history. The New York Times had just calculated that Canada’s middle class had become richer than America’s,” Poilievre recalled. The budget was balanced. Inflation and interest rates were low. “Our borders were secure,” he said. (They certainly were not.) “Crime had fallen … so low that small-town folks often left their doors unlocked,” Poilievre continued, going really wide. I was half-waiting to hear about how a chocolate bar cost a nickel and you could buy it with a cheque.
All that and more, Poilievre puts squarely on Justin Trudeau’s shoulders.
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I’m not here to mount a defence of Trudeau’s record. I blame his government most for coasting in good times when it should have been preparing for bad — a Canadian political disease that far transcends jurisdiction and party. But to blame Trudeau entirely for the global viral upheaval that sent inflation through the roof around the world is as silly as entirely crediting Harper for all the global events that strongly influenced positive outcomes for Canada and Canadians during his tenure — and as silly as blaming Harper, as Trudeau did, for all the country’s troubles circa 2015.
We are an export economy comprising 0.5 per cent of the global population. There is only so much any politician can do through sheer force of will.
Perhaps because they traffic in the same “blame the PM for everything” narrative, the Liberals are spectacularly terrible at countering Poilievre’s “Canada is broken” narrative. An alarmingly large part of their strategy seems to be to tell Canadians not to believe their lying eyes and empty wallets: “Things aren’t as bad as you think,” in other words.
It’s atrocious retail politics. And the ultimate expression of that atrociousness is when Liberals point to various rankings of global countries and cities — all of which tend to be very kind to Canada — to back up their “not broken” narrative.
The latest iteration of U.S. News and World Report’s worthless “Best Countries” report dropped last week. Canada placed second behind Switzerland. And Liberals didn’t miss a chance to tell us. Former MP Navdeep Bains responded with an approving emoji: two hands clasped in prayer. “So great!” chirped Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett. “(It) doesn’t mean Canada is perfect or that (Canadians) have never had it so good,” Liberal MP Omar Alghabra tweeted. “It means that we’re doing many things right.”
Does it though?
The thing about these particular rankings is they don’t even measure anything empirical. The Toronto Star’s report on the ranking — headlined “Canada comes out near the top in new ranking of best countries in the world” — self-destructed in the second paragraph: “The rankings … are drawn from a survey of more than 17,000 people from around the world, who scored nations based on a set of 73 attributes.”
It’s not a measure of how good a country is at things, in other words. It’s a measure of how good foreigners think a country is at things. And foreigners have some very strange ideas about Canada. “Survey respondents ranked Canada highly for its agility — to be efficient in its actions, adopt and accept modern solutions, and progress to meet changing circumstances,” the Star reporter noted.
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the incandescent wrongness of that sentence. We might as well boast that foreigners think our passenger-rail service is excellent, or our weather unrelentingly pleasant.
There is good news for Canada in those rankings: The brand is strong, even if it shouldn’t be. But that’s the irony of Trudeau-era Liberals spreading the news. Their government has been almost entirely about branding, messaging and (supposedly) clever communications for their whole tenure. They’ve accomplished some useful things. Notably, the poverty rate has plummeted. But once they took office it rapidly became clear that beating Stephen Harper — and then Andrew Scheer, and then Erin O’Toole — was in too many Liberal minds pretty much the whole job. The Demon had been slain. They basked in the glowing media coverage, both domestically and abroad.
The Liberal curse is to conflate their partisan interest with the national interest … but listening to Poilievre’s speech, it seems the Conservatives aren’t far behind. Simply vanquishing Justin Trudeau won’t solve our real problems — the ones foreigners don’t care about, like housing, military procurement, stubbornly low productivity, a stagnating economy, and meaningful, life-alteringreconciliation with Indigenous peoples (not just teddy bears).
Poilievre can boast about as smart a housing policy as any potential prime minister could, since most of that file is ultimately up to provinces and municipalities: He says he would withhold federal funding for any projects that privileged NIMBYs or that didn’t include housing with public-transit stations. Without suggesting he should drop a platform tomorrow, it sure would be great to hear one or two more smart, simple and achievable ideas from the Conservative leader.
After all, as great as Poilievre says Harper’s record was in 2015, Canadians did show him and his government the door. It will likely happen to Poilievre some day too, should he become prime minister. He will want a much more transformational record to boast about after his years in office than Trudeau has now.