What is this? Why is Justin Trudeau marching to demand climate action from the government, when he’s literally in charge?
It might seem cringey, but it’s actually part of a calculated and dangerous strategy—and the secret to Trudeau’s success.
The Liberals have mastered the art of changeless change. They seduce progressive voters by appearing to disrupt business-as-usual, while serving the elite by simultaneously defending wealth and power.
I call this playbook the Trudeau Formula, and it has five steps.
#1 Strike a quiet bargain with corporate elite.
Trudeau: “If we don’t deliver fairness, Canadians will eventually begin to entertain more radical options.”
That was Trudeau on Bay Street, a few months before his election in 2015, offering a classic Liberal warning to the corporate elite: it’s either us, or the pitchforks.
Whenever discontent builds up, the Liberals have always been there to safely channel it, like a political shock-absorber.
They’ll wink to the elite, and then pose as anti-establishment to the broader population.
#2 Simulate transformative change.
What comes next is a tactic summed up by former Liberal advisor Warren Kinsella: “Find a parade, and get out in front of it.”
This is the Liberal trick to simulate “real change”: adopt the language and the symbolism of social movements, without doing anything to actually challenge the status quo.
And when things get especially sensitive, there’s one sure way to tell: Trudeau breaks out the denim jacket.
#3 Co-opt civil society
Social movements are most effective when they maintain independence and make noise outside parliament. The Trudeau Liberals, however, are experts at disarming their power by inviting them inside.
They disconnect leaders from civil society by recruiting them to the party.
They invite progressive groups into consultations and advisory councils to make them believe access equals influence.
They dangle funding in front of some groups to ensure they don’t rock the boat.
And they shower others with attention and even personal rewards, if they’re willing to take their organizations in Liberal-friendly directions.
#4 Cherry-pick progressive agenda
To take the wind out of the sails of radical change, the Liberals cherry-pick elements of the progressive agenda, then usually water down the demands or endlessly delay their implementation.
The Liberal party first promised pharmacare in 1997, guaranteed basic income in 1970, and electoral reform…in 1923.
In moments of economic crisis or political weakness, the Liberals are capable of making significant concessions, even ones that are unpopular with the corporate elite. But only as long as those reforms defang their sharpest critics and don’t fundamentally threaten the system.
This year, they’re finally getting around to childcare — with a few of the usual Liberal-style caveats.
#5 Act as a trojan horse for corporate interests
While Liberals drag their heels on truly liberatory measures, they disguise their pro-corporate agenda as progressive and then smuggle it past unsuspecting voters.
Beware of Liberals bearing gifts.
Trudeau’s carbon price, lauded as a solution to the climate crisis, has actually long been advocated for by major oil companies as a fig-leaf for more pipelines and tar sands production.
Liberal reconciliation has involved spectacular apologies for the past that mask colonial crimes in the present—including a renewed push to eliminate Indigenous land rights.
So-called “progressive and inclusive” trade deals still allow Canadian companies to sue other countries in unaccountable private courts whenever environmental or labour policies impact their profits.
Trudeau’s talk of championing peace and human rights abroad has distracted Canada’s transformation into the world’s second biggest arms dealer to the Middle East.
#6 Invoke Conservative Bogeyman (bonus step)
And what happens once the formula breaks down? There’s always a failsafe final option.
When the shine wears off, Liberals deploy their electoral escape hatch: they demand voters back them “strategically” as the last defence against Conservatives.
Making people think the country is stuck between two parties has one objective: muzzling the country’s progressive majority and scaring them into settling for the Liberals.
But we can do better. To unleash our collective political imagination, we need first to understand their formula, and then to stop buying into it.