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3rd December 2015

Who is Justin Trudeau and why should we care?

Newly elected Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau could be the international test case for the revival of social democratic policies worldwide, and in Britain

2015 was a bad year for the left. In Poland the right-wing Law and Justice party secured a victory this October, partly by capitalising on anti-immigrant sentiment. In Israel the Likud party retained power, and once again aligned themselves with the various right wingers who populate the Knesset. In May, the UK electorate broke the Conservative Party’s reliance on coalition by voting for a majority government. The Turkish AKP recouped its losses from June in November, and then some, but are thankfully short of the seats needed to fully enable President Erdoğan’s odious constitutional reforms.

These parties do not constitute a homogenous right wing bloc, however it is demonstrably true that, for last year or so, the tide of history has been moving against social democratic politics. Jeremy Corbyn secured a clear mandate from the Labour Party this September, and United States Senator Bernie Sanders is inspiring a left-wing Democratic revival in the USA. However, these two have yet to gain national power, and both face huge electoral hurdles. In terms of actual winners there has been a definite trend towards the right.

In Canada we find an exception. The Liberal Party decisively defeated Harper’s Conservative government this October, winning 184 seats, giving them a majority in the Canadian House of Commons. Their leader, Justin Trudeau, is the eldest child of the late former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The 43-year-old ex-teacher should be a person of interest for any British voter interested in left wing politics, as he is, in some areas of policy, very similar to Corbyn.

Neither, for example, are afraid to run a deficit. The Liberals expect to run deficit of $10 billion a year for their first two years, while also investing $120 billion in infrastructure. Going into deficit to invest is only effective when a government spends its money in the right places, and mistakes have been made in the recent past by Labour. However, Trudeau’s plan is preferable to the regressive and damaging spending policies of the Conservatives (both Harper’s and Cameron’s). A recent study conducted by City University argues that the government’s current spending and tax policies will only drive Britain further into debt over the long term, predicting a £40 billion deficit, worse than anything Trudeau or Corbyn have advocated.

In Canada, investment is to be paid for via a 4 per cent tax rise on anyone who earns more than $200,000 a year, and a tax cut of 1.5 per cent for those earning $44,701 – $89,401. This is a ‘revenue neutral’ (i.e. the loss equals the gain) tax, designed fairly by putting the burden on the highest earners, and encouraging growth by giving the middle classes some extra spending money. This system will face long term tests. Wealth taxes are thought to encourage avoidance among the top 1 per cent, meaning returns could be lower than predicted.

Labour has bemoaned such tactics for years, but there hasn’t yet been a decent strategy to curtail it. However, it is undoubtedly preferential to the Conservative policy of cutting the taxes of high earners, and then doing the same to vital services in order to make up the loss. British voters who are considering voting for Labour should use Canada to gauge the drawbacks and benefits of such a switch of focus.

Regarding foreign policy, the Liberals aim to end air strikes against the so-called Islamic State. The reception in Washington has been indifferent, and even in Ottawa it has been admitted that Canada’s withdrawal will not make a substantial impact. But far from going into isolation, Trudeau plans to mitigate the damages caused by IS by spending $250 million on refugees displaced by the fighting, and plans to take in 25,000 by the end of 2015. Training for the ground forces fighting IS will continue. This an intriguing alternative strategy, and a possible model for ourselves.

A LSE report by leading diplomats this month concluded that British foreign policy lacks focus. We’re not using our position as the world’s preeminent soft power (an economic and cultural power) to tackle the issues. Rather than running headfirst into Syria and Iraq, as the government seems set on doing, we could be using our position to degrade IS via economic and coalition building means. This is not far away from Corbyn’s position, and in Trudeau he finds a natural ally.

Interestingly, Trudeau also aims to legalise marijuana. Corbyn has backed decriminalisation for medical use, rather than complete legalisation. Legalisation involves not prosecuting the transport, sale, possession, or cultivation of cannabis. Tim Farron added some legitimacy to this cause by backing legalisation, however he’s a relatively marginal voice. Canada will be a crucial test case. Admittedly, the policy has yet to be elaborated on, but if Canada does fully legalise cannabis it will be the first demographically and economically significant country to do so. Uruguay and North Korea have already fully legalized, the former violating an international treaty in order to do so, but they’re not of quite the same international calibre. ‘Reefer madness’ and ‘gateway drug’ hysteria will naturally see its first major test in Canada, and I suspect will largely be discredited. Possible tax revenues (the rate is still be decided), and a huge land area and population block leaving ‘The International Drug Control Conventions’ will add to the slow process of legalization we have already seen developing in the US.

Now, much of this is speculative. We do not know what policies the Liberal Government may actually implement over the next four years, or how successful they’re declared policies will be. The similarities between Corbyn and Trudeau can be overstated, especially when you get into the detail. But, if there is a revival in the left, the Liberal Party of Canada are today’s political spearhead. For the British electorate they have a dual purpose. Firstly, to gauge how successful a prospective Corbyn government may actually be, and secondly, as a potential stick with which to beat Conservative policies in our own country, between now and 2020.

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