Chairman's Desk

Populism is alive and well in Canada

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on February 16, 2020.
As a surge of populism sweeps the world, many Canadian commentators climb onto their high horses, pat themselves on the back and declare Canada immune to this short-sighted selfishness.

Problem is, if you look below the surface, that notion simply doesn’t hold water.

Canada is not unaffected by the factors that are driving this shift: the forces of globalization, increasing inequality, a shrinking middle class, automation and disruptive technology.

For many, these forces are not theoretical ones. They impact their everyday lives. One needs to think no further than the almost 400,000 Canadian households who depend on a cashier for part of their family income. Self check out will soon see them checked out of work.

The business pages of the past month alone tell a bleak story: Papyrus will shut all its Canadian stores; athleticwear retailer Bench will do the same. After 50 years, Mega Bloks is closing its 580-person factory in Montreal. Bombardier is being dismantled in front of our eyes. And analysts anticipate worse losses to come.

As the economic landscape has changed, so too has the political. In every provincial election since 2018, the winner has been a conservative or centre-right government. This trend has led many to conclude that the electorate has shifted to the right.

That thinking is mistaken. Instead, what we have seen is a shift toward populism.

Conventional wisdom has taken hold that says these impressive provincial majority victories represent an endorsement of a right-wing agenda.

But the proof is in the polling and it suggests otherwise. A December 2019 poll found 69 per cent of Ontarians disapproved of Premier Doug Ford, while 50 per cent had a negative view of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Trouble came for both when they began to pursue right-wing, fiscally conservative policies.

In contrast, Quebec Premier François Legault did not suffer the same fate. He has tied his political fortunes to Bill 21, a brazenly populist piece of legislation that also happens to be supported by nine out of ten Quebecers.

Circumstances have driven Canadians to become increasingly focused on themselves and their pocketbooks. Who can blame them? It is difficult to be generous to those who come after you, if you are faring worse than those who came before you.

It’s not that Canadians have given up on grand projects of social cohesion or nation-building. It’s simply that they feel they cannot afford them. So rather than elect Kenney to get spending under control at Alberta Health Services, he was elected to build a pipeline and deliver the jobs that would come with it.

In Ontario, voters turned to Doug Ford because of an affordability crisis, expecting him to deal with unsustainable increases to the cost of living, from hydro prices to gas prices to taxes.

This populist turn is constraining the ability of politicians to dream big and undertake nation-building projects. No sane prime minister today would undertake the GST; none would pursue a pioneering free-trade agreement. Just as short-termism has taken hold on Bay Street, it has taken hold in corridors of power.

As politicians come to embrace populist sentiment, corporate Canada should expect provincial or federal governments to act against them. So, as it has gone elsewhere in the world, where populist governments are in power in some of the world’s largest democracies, it will go here.

In India, Narendra Modi was first embraced by business, but he has since brought policies effectively skimming 60 per cent off corporate profits. In Indonesia, President Widodo has nationalized large swaths of the economy. President Trump has both waged a trade war and subsidized the farmers who are its primary victim.

The trend is not constrained to right-wing politicians: New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is young, liberal, and populist. Mexico’s new president is raffling off the presidential plane in an act of working-class solidarity.

Already, our federal government has come for the pharmaceutical industry with mandated reductions in the price of patented medicines; they have come for the telecommunications industry with a pledge to cut the price of phone bills by 25 per cent despite lacking any policy mechanism to effect such a change.

Canada is not immune to populism. In fact, we may already find ourselves firmly in its grip.