In politics, timing matters. The landmark 1984 federal election catapulted Brian Mulroney into office at a time of accumulating policy failure. Interventionist programs like the National Energy Policy introduced by Mulroney’s predecessor, Pierre E. Trudeau, were increasingly perceived as outdated and no longer viable to address contemporary challenges. Mulroney seized the moment, recasting Canada’s postwar state architecture by propelling a more market-based political order.
Mulroney represents the most recent incarnation of reconstructive leadership at the federal level. If Pierre E. Trudeau’s failed effort to breathe life into a political order in decay was Mulroney’s moment to emerge as a reconstructive leader, the COVID-19 pandemic is Justin Trudeau’s historical chance to reset the political trajectory of our country by making real change happen.
Major policy challenges, ranging from climate change to rising social inequality to the ongoing marginalization of vulnerable groups, have revealed that Canada’s market-based regime is no longer resilient. Like the tip of an iceberg, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our current order.
Reconstructive leaders sense these moments of change. According to Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek, who originally coined the term, their actions create a legacy because they introduce a new approach to governing that breaks, in many respects, with principles of the past. And the choices our government makes in the current critical juncture will shape our future for decades to come, for better or worse.
Until we feel the burden of looming budgetary constraints, executives are in an unprecedented position of strength. It is therefore imperative that the federal government reasserts the primacy of politics and fundamentally rethinks its role in a post-pandemic economy.
What is needed is an encompassing and coherent reform agenda, similar in scope to earlier “national policies” in Canadian history. This requires a redefinition of policy goals across a broad range of policy sectors, realigning policy instruments and organizing the politics of reform by engaging key stakeholders.
The main rationale underlying such an endeavour is to reshape markets in way that they generate sustainable and inclusive growth, rather than maximizing shareholder value. For example, is the federal government really determined to continue subsidizing a collapsing fossil fuel economy amid a global energy transition and ongoing divestment activism? Or is it committed to facilitate a fair but large-scale industrial transformation that prioritizes human life and the environment over profits at any cost?
The Trudeau government can draw inspiration from increasingly popular initiatives in Europe. The Economy of the Common Good (ECG) movement, for example, envisions a capitalist order that rewards economic activities promoting human rights, sustainable development, accountability and transparency. Rather than simply measuring financial profits, a company’s success is determined by its contribution to the common good.
Although it may sound utopic, a growing number of businesses and municipalities have subscribed to this concept. It also resonates with provisions entailed in several recovery plans in Europe, or the Green New Deal resolution in the United States.
If compared with recovery responses to the financial crisis in 2007-08, current governments are more inclined to make state aid for businesses conditional, often with strong green strings attached. The European Union’s Recovery Plan for Europe is indicative: It entails the “do no harm principle,” a policy instrument that excludes financial support for economic activities not considered sustainable, such as the fossil fuel industry.
Any political decision creates winners and losers, but transformative change brings these costs into sharper relief. It exacerbates conflicts, which is why meaningful co-operation with the key governmental stakeholders of our federation will be crucial: provinces and territories, Indigenous peoples, and municipalities. The federal government should also establish a new commission of inquiry, similar to the Rowell — Sirois Commission in the 1930s or the Macdonald Commission in the 1980s. This step is necessary to mobilize expertise, promote dialogue and foster legitimacy.
Like Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau aspires to be a reconstructive leader. Obama failed because he missed the opportunity presented by the financial crisis in 2007-08. Justin Trudeau has another shot and history on his side. The time is ripe for reconstructive leadership.