Like father like son—and Canadians will pay the price
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the parallels between Pierre Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister and Justin Trudeau’s current tenure. Unfortunately, many of the parallels relate to policies and decisions that cost Canadians dearly.
First, there’s the fiscal record. The two Trudeaus share a proclivity for deficit-financed spending. Federal per-person spending (excluding interest costs and adjusted for inflation) was $4,276 in 1968, Pierre Trudeau’s first year as prime minister, and $7,474 when he left office in 1984—an increase of 74.8 per cent. Except for a small surplus in fiscal year 1969-70, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals ran deficits every year, resulting in debt accumulation (gross debt) of $388.8 billion (inflation-adjusted dollars). That’s a 166.9 per cent increase in federal debt during the elder Trudeau’s tenure.
Equally as important, Pierre Trudeau’s expansion of existing programs and introduction of new programs, financed largely by debt, set the stage for the massive deficits and debt accumulation of the 1980s and early 1990s, which led to a near debt and currency crisis.
When Justin Trudeau took office in 2015, federal per-person spending stood at $8,208 (inflation adjusted), reached $9,670 in 2019 prior to COVID (an increase of 17.8 per cent in just four years) and is projected to reach between $10,846 and $11,445 in 2022, assuming most of COVID-related temporary spending is phased out. That’s an increase of between 32.1 per cent and 39.4 per cent in seven years—and again, crucially, excludes most COVID-related spending.
Again, like his father, Justin Trudeau prefers to borrow to finance higher spending. When Trudeau took office in 2015, Ottawa’s total (gross) debt was $1.03 trillion, and is expected to reach $1.8 trillion this year (2022-23), and exceed $2.0 trillion by 2025-26 if not sooner (these projections include COVID-related borrowing).
The two Trudeaus also introduced policies that hurt the oil and gas sector and Western Canada more broadly. Trudeau the Elder created Petro-Canada as a Crown Corporation and introduced the National Energy Program, which created animosity and distrust of Ottawa, particularly in Alberta. Trudeau the Younger introduced a national carbon tax, a cap on greenhouse gas emissions that only applies to the oil and gas sector, a subjective review process for large infrastructure projects that observers agree basically prohibits energy-related projects (including pipelines), and banned bitumen exports from the west coast.
Tensions with the West resulted in stark electoral setbacks for both Trudeaus. The Elder won 27 seats in the four western provinces in 1968 while achieving a majority government. In 1972, he was reduced to a minority government with only seven seats in Western Canada, and none in Alberta. Even in 1974 when Trudeau again captured a majority, he only won 13 seats in Western Canada and none in Alberta. His last election in 1980 achieved a majority but with only two seats in the West and none in B.C., Alberta or Saskatchewan.
Trudeau the Younger had a similar experience. In 2015, he won 29 seats in Western Canada including four in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan. In 2019, when like his father he was reduced to a minority, he only won 15 seats in Western Canada and none in Alberta or Saskatchewan.
Interestingly for both Trudeaus, given their roots and connection with Quebec, both experienced a surge in Quebec nationalism. For Trudeau the Elder, it was the separatist provincial party, the Parti Québécois, which first elected members in 1970 and formed the provincial government in 1976 and 1981. And the rise of Quebec nationalism led to two referendums seeking independence, which both nearly ended the country as we know it. During Trudeau the Younger’s tenure, the nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec won a majority at the provincial level and the Bloc Québécois more than tripled its seats in Ottawa between the 2015 and 2019 elections.
Finally, Pierre Trudeau was the only prime minister to invoke the War Measures Act during peacetime—specifically, in 1970 during what became known as the October Crisis, which involved political kidnappings and bombings by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). And Justin Trudeau is the only prime minister to use the Emergencies Act (which replaced the War Measures Act in 1988) in response to the protests last month. This move sparked widespread opposition, including from multiple premiers and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, with many experts concerned about the precedent this sets for future use of the Act.
Unfortunately for Canadians, Prime Minister Trudeau’s current tenure greatly mirrors his father’s time in office. Ottawa has expanded existing programs and created new ones, financed largely by borrowing, which will saddle Canadians with more government debt and higher interest payments well into the future. And Quebec nationalism and western alienation have been resurrected and are again defining features of the Canadian body politic.