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Bloomberg News, reporting Friday on Ottawa’s efforts to resolve its dispute with Saudi Arabia, noted in passing: “The spat is the latest sign of global weariness with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has a habit of virtue-signalling abroad.”
It was a notable remark, mentioned without supporting evidence, as if everyone already knew that Canada’s prime minister was a bit of a scold. Could it be true? The same prime minister who burst onto the international stage just three years ago with his rock-star good looks, gaggles of giggling selfie-seekers and fawning, cover-of-the-Rolling Stone magazine treatment?
Just 36 months later, it appears, he’s become something of an annoyance. “Why can’t he be our President?” has become “Will you please stop nagging?” According to Bloomberg, the effort to smooth relations with the Saudis could take place at the United Nations this week, with Canada suggesting talks between respective foreign ministers. For Canada, that would be Chrystia Freeland, as if she doesn’t have enough on her hands with the prolonged, ever-contentious negotiations on NAFTA, which, we’re told, may now extend into October to avoid Ottawa doing a deal affecting the dairy industry until after the Quebec election.
Freeland helped precipitate the Riyadh problem with one of Canada’s patented finger-waving statements, chastising it for a substandard human rights record. This is such a commonplace practice with Ottawa that Freeland was caught off guard when the Saudis, now under the direction of Mohammad bin Salman — at 33 their own ambitious young princeling — took serious offence. The blowback, including a freeze on investments and a lecture for the Liberals on their impudence, was enough to rattle diplomats and inspire the effort to quietly settle the affair.
Canadians love it when the rest of the world takes notice of us, especially if it’s with a tinge of envy. But it doesn’t go over so well when the attention is less positive, and Trudeau has racked up an unimpressive record of fumbles that has evidently begun to outweigh the admiration of the selfie crowd. Embarrassments in China, Vietnam, India; grandstanding in New York and Paris; the ill-received treatment of Donald Trump at a Group of Seven summit, after which the thin-skinned president tweeted about Canada’s “meek and mild” PM being “very dishonest & weak.” Not that Trump doesn’t richly deserve any opposition he gets, but Trudeau has noticeably let Freeland bear most of the U.S. flak of late.
With an election just a year away, Trudeau’s image is a major concern for the government. The Liberals won in 2015 mainly on the strength of his popularity, which in turn drew greatly on his looks and likability. His personal standing with voters thus becomes even more crucial as Liberals head into the 2019 campaign with a domestic agenda tattered by serious holes — no reconciliation headway, no electoral revamp, no pipeline, no balanced budget — and a record on the international front with little to brag about.
The question is whether a government that sees itself as a beacon for proper behaviour can contain itself when it comes to the urge to display its elevated values. While arrangements were being discussed with the Saudis, one of Trudeau’s most enthusiastic proselytizers was in Halifax presiding over the launch of yet another project with major feel-good potential.
“We’re going to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics throughout government operations,” announced Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, adding that the purge would include “straws, cutlery, packaging, cups, bottles.” So visiting diplomats, making the rounds of departmental offices in the capital, can be safe in knowing there will be no plastic forks or knives on the table, and water will presumably be straight from the tap.
When Trudeau informed worthies at an earlier UN gathering, “We’re Canadian, and we’re here to help,” perhaps this is what he had in mind, a government under which only proper tableware will be tolerated. While U.S. airports advise travellers to keep their handguns out of the security zone, Canada’s may soon feature signs depicting a paper straw inside a red circle, with a line through it. Please remove your shoes and belts before passing through the scanner, and hand any coffee cups to the fierce-looking guard with the taser. One wonders whether the plastic-free directive will apply to refugee claimants as they hurry illegally across the border into Quebec, or whether possession of plastic will be another issue for officials to consider when deciding whether to grant asylum.
There is no question that the proliferation of plastic waste is a scourge that the world would do well to get rid of. Canada has been pushing an “oceans plastics charter,” which five of the G7 countries politely signed on to in June (Japan and the U.S. being the significant others), and which McKenna continued to promote in Halifax. In truth, the Liberals may be on to something here, given the eagerness with which globe-cleansing initiatives are seized on by Twitteraties and large crowds of social media environmental evangelicals. The Liberals may hope a sudden boost in followers on the official Twitter feed will help to revive Trudeau’s reputation.
But on a more serious level, the Trudeau people seem oddly disconnected. While major issues go unresolved, the government beats on, boats against the current, with an agenda of Metis self-government and National Reconciliation Day, an anti-straw crusade and a lengthening list of apologies. They seem even to have muddled the selection of their can’t-miss astronaut governor general.
Trudeau has the winter and spring to show he can wear big-boy pants with his colourful socks. No doubt his caucus hopes he hops to it.