“There is no place in a democracy for gangster government,” Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker the morning after Canadians went to the polls. “That reminder made Monday night a truly worthwhile Canadian initiative.”
Gopnik, raised in Montreal and a McGill University graduate, knows his Canada. He speaks the lingo of what the political fashion police call progressive politics. At heart, however, he remains an old-school-tie liberal, genuinely committed to the venerable institutions of democratic governance.
Looking north across the border, he sees in Justin Trudeau’s victory a validation of the primacy of those institutions. This is not a Barack Obama-style endorsement of Prime Minister Trudeau. It’s recognition that the system that chose the winner functioned properly and as its long tradition demands. In a world furiously spurning those traditions, and the institutions they uphold, this is something.
“These days, every national election tests the strength of election; every liberal democracy tests the strength of liberal democracy itself,” Gopnik writes. “Watching the results, there was much congeniality, a surprising amount of crabbiness … but absolutely no crazy.”
Gopnik still frets at signs from the Canadian campaign that southern bats in the belfry might be migrating north, though he acknowledges their instances remain too derivative and piddling to cause serious alarm.
Far more worrisome, he says, are the fissures in our federation.
In the generation since the constitutional wars of the 1990s and the near-death experience of the 1995 Quebec referendum, Canadians have come to believe that such fault lines – between the West and the Eastern Laurentian elite; between Quebec and remainder of Canada; between Toronto and the remainder of the universe – were but mythical spaces where unicorns are born.
The (seemingly) rapid reappearance in the 2019 election of a deeply divided Confederation serves as a mud-ugly reality check. Yet here, too, Gopnik turns to the institutionally-rooted strength of Canadian liberal democracy as a safeguard against worst-case scenarios.
He’s got that pretty much right. Watching the current energy-draining complexity of Britain’s Brexit bid to withdraw from a 28-country economic union of sovereign European states offers fair, and surely prohibitive, warning of the utter mess that would accompany an attempt to break Confederation into modular parts. It’s a point Canadians who scorn the Oct. 21 election of 32 Bloc Quebecois MPs tend to miss.
Gopnik concludes the 2019 vote was “what an election ought to be – a spectrum of parties running from the socialist left to the free-market right, fighting for specific ideas and regional interests and arriving at a result that, more or less aptly, and however imperfectly, reflects the mood and interests of the country.”
He’s got this largely right too, though with one serious caveat: the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Gopnik recognizes the potential it held to dethrone the Liberals. But the other parties failed to use used it effectively during the campaign, he says, so we can consign it to things that coulda, maybe shoulda, gone wrong but didn’t. So Trudeau escapes again, cape and Liberal red tights intact and unsullied.
Not quite so fast.
What happened with SNC-Lavalin – a prime minister making his own attorney general an offer she couldn’t refuse to protect an engineering firm that paid bribes to the terrorist Gadhafi family in Libya – came as close to gangster government as Canada should ever risk.
Did it, in fact, cross the line?
We simply don’t know. The prime minister was calling the shots, so to speak, and wouldn’t allow a full and proper investigation.
But the ethics commissioner’s inquiry declared unequivocally that Trudeau’s actions broke the law. Equally unequivocally, the prime minister was apparently prepared to protect his own political turf by breaking faith with the very concept of rule of law. In doing so he tested, to use Gopnik’s words, liberal democracy itself.
If we forget, or worse, refuse to acknowledge, what was a stake in SNC-Lavalin, the next test might will risk full-scale institutional failure.
Not to overstate it, but that would almost certainly bring crazy north on a wild wind from the south.