Pierre Poilievre recently alerted the nation to what he thinks Justin Trudeau is up to.
Last week, the presumptive finance minister in Erin O'Toole's "government-in-waiting" warned that "global financial elites" are attempting to "re-engineer economies and societies" in order to "empower the elites at the expense of the people." Canadians, he said, "must fight back against global elites" and "their power grab." He invited those who share his concerns to sign a petition calling on the government to "protect our freedom" and "end plans to impose the 'Great Reset'."
That certainly does sound like a frightening scenario. But there are some holes in the plot.
The item that so alarmed the Conservative frontbencher was a clip that circulated online last week of the prime minister speaking at a United Nations conference in September. "This pandemic has provided an opportunity for a reset," Justin Trudeau told the conference. "This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts, to re-imagine economic systems that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality and climate change."
Poilievre linked Trudeau's comments to a call for a "great reset" made in June by Klaus Schwab, the executive director of the World Economic Forum, an independent organization best known for hosting a high-minded gabfest in Davos, Switzerland each year. (Trudeau has been to that summit twice — the same number of times Stephen Harper attended when he was prime minister.)
Poilievre emphasized the words "reset," "opportunity," "chance" and "re-imagine" in Trudeau's comments. But his petition cuts off Trudeau's second sentence before the prime minister's reference to the "global challenges of extreme poverty, inequality and climate change."
Set aside the spooky stories about "global elites" and "freedom," and Trudeau's words simply point to a reality-based debate about the post-pandemic world — about which issues governments should focus on and how they should address them.
Beyond questions about Poilievre's beliefs and behaviour, there are others that could usefully shape the Canadian political debate. Do Conservatives believe the Liberal government's stated priorities are not the sorts of things the federal government should worry about? Or do they simply believe the Liberals are bound to take the wrong approach to those problems? If so, what would they do instead?
Crisis and opportunity
Justin Trudeau is hardly the first prime minister to see a moment that calls for sweeping change. Stephen Harper, for instance, went to the World Economic Forum in 2012 and vowed that, in the wake of the Great Recession, his government would implement "major transformations to position Canada for growth over the next generation."
But Poilievre wasn't the only one expressing alarm last week.
Though he refrained from saying anything about "global elites," Conservative leader Erin O'Toole followed Poilievre's campaign with a video of his own. In it, he cited that same clip of Trudeau, but instead cast the prime minister's comments as insensitive and his plans as risky.
"It's hard to believe that anyone would look at the carnage caused by COVID-19 and see an opportunity," O'Toole lamented.
A reporter asked O'Toole on Wednesday whether he believed in the "great reset" theory. "I don't follow social media," he replied — a response that's hard to square with the fact that O'Toole's own Twitter account recently promoted the creation of a separate Twitter account for his dog.
Trudeau's government did leave itself open to the charge that it was, at the very least, getting ahead of itself. Back in the summer, Liberals began to talk aloud about the post-pandemic economic recovery and the "generational opportunity" that would be created by the need to rebuild. They were not alone in thinking such things, but as the second wave began to emerge, they shifted their messaging to signal that they remain focused on the immediate threat.
In the midst of a global emergency, talk of "opportunity" can seem jarring. Harper was widely lampooned for saying that the stock market crash in 2008 offered some "great buying opportunities" — even though he turned out to be basically correct. But there has been widespread discussion, beyond the halls of power in Ottawa, about how countries and governments should plan to emerge from this once-in-century crisis.
The pandemic will leave behind significant economic damage everywhere — damage that governments might help to repair through policy and public spending. At the same time, the pandemic has both exposed and highlighted an array of pre-existing problems, from economic, gender and racial inequalities to shortcomings in care for the elderly.
And even as public and government attention is consumed by the immediate threat of COVID-19, the equally profound threat of climate change continues to bear down on the planet.
In theory, when the pandemic begins to recede, all of those concerns might be addressed together — to stimulate economic growth while building a more equitable and sustainable economy. This is why the idea of "building back better" has caught on — among progressive leaders, like Trudeau and American president-elect Joe Biden, and with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a populist conservative whose example O'Toole has acknowledged studying.
Trudeau's broad agenda on this front was laid out in September's throne speech — new spending on child care, further efforts to expand pharmacare, investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a cleaner economy, enhanced training for workers, measures to combat systemic racism and new standards for long-term care.
In response, O'Toole warned obliquely that the Liberal government was preparing to conduct "social experiments."
'Everything is not OK'
At the most basic level, O'Toole and Poilievre might be trying to set up a simple conflict between risk and certainty, as opposed to a contest of different approaches to the same basic problems. But, as noted, Trudeau isn't the only leader saying that society might be improved somewhat; O'Toole himself said much the same thing in a speech three weeks ago.
"Everything is not OK," the Conservative leader said at an event hosted by the Canadian Club of Toronto. Instead of building back "better," O'Toole said, Conservatives would aim to build back "stronger."
So perhaps the next election will be about your choice of adjectives.
O'Toole also worried aloud about stagnant wages and workers who lack benefits and pensions. He said Conservatives need to take inequality "seriously." He praised capitalism while arguing that "free markets alone won't solve our problems" and "we need policies that build solidarity, not just wealth."
It's not hard to imagine Poilievre expressing alarm if Trudeau had said similar things about the existing economic system.
"We must change," O'Toole said, even though "powerful forces continue to defend the status quo." (O'Toole and Poilievre might also want to compare notes about what exactly the "global elite" is up to these days.)
O'Toole didn't say much about how he would address any of these concerns. He didn't mention child care or systemic racism. He criticized what he called the Trudeau government's drive to implement "green energy" policies, but he didn't explain how he would reduce Canada's emissions.
To be fair, the Liberals haven't said much yet about how exactly they plan to tackle those problems either. They have yet to explain how many of the throne speech's promises would be implemented.
For now, this is a phoney war between one party that says the federal government should try to do a bunch of things (but hasn't said how) and another party that says that trying to do a bunch of things sounds scary (even as it concedes that some things do need to change).
At some point, it might be nice to talk about real things.