Trudeau's criticism of 'corporate elites' rings hollow

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paints himself as the champion of the working class. But he pursues policies that will inevitably hurt the working class and further resentment against the 'political and corporate elites,' Louis-Philippe Rochon says.

PM paints himself as a champion of working class Canadians, but has done little to help them

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a banquet in Hamburg, Germany in February, where he said corporate profits and income inequality have angered workers. But Louis-Philippe Rochon argues his policies don't back up those statements. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent admonishment of capitalism left many observers puzzled.

In a rare moment of honesty, the prime minister blamed corporate elites for the rise of voter anger around the world, the same anger that fuelled the popular revolts that led to Brexit and Donald Trump's U.S. electoral victory.

In his remarks to a black-tie business dinner in Germany on Feb. 17, the prime minister stated that large corporate profits (and income inequality) angered workers, whose wages have been stagnant in the last few decades.

"Increasing inequality has made citizens distrust their governments. Distrust their employers," the prime minister said. 

He even proposed a solution: "It's time to pay a living wage, to pay your taxes, and to give your workers the benefits — and peace of mind — that come with stable, full-time contracts."  

It was also reported that he claimed high corporate profits contributed to the voter anger.

Fundamental contradiction

While I certainly agree with his analysis and even with his solution, I found the prime minister's statement hollow and, I dare say, hypocritical to a certain degree.

In the end, I doubted the prime minister's sincerity because there is a fundamental contradiction between Trudeau's rhetoric and his policies.

Since coming to power, the prime minister has openly pursued policies that have only exacerbated the economic situation by raising corporate profits, and by contributing to the existing precarious job market.

For instance, his unflinching support of the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement is not all good news for Canadians. In a recent study using the United Nation's Global Policy Model, economists Pierre Kohler and Servaas Storm estimate that in the long run, CETA will actually cost Canadians jobs.

"CETA would lead to net losses in terms of employment, personal incomes, and GDP in Canada," the authors say.

An anti-CETA banner appears as Justin Trudeau delivers his speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on Feb. 16. Trudeau has supported the Canada-European Union trade agreement, but Louis-Philippe Rochon argues it may not be good for all Canadians. (Patrick Seeger/EPA)

Moreover, Trudeau has also mused publicly about privatization and deregulation, core ideas of the neoliberal model that exacerbated income inequalities and contributed to the great financial crisis in 2007.

In fact, just recently, U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R) boasted about the fact he had met with the prime minster, and told MSNBC "he's supposed to be a liberal. You know what he was talking about? Deregulation. I said the liberals in Canada must be different from liberals in America."

I find it odd that in Europe, Trudeau paints himself as the champion of the working class, yet in Canada pursues policies that will inevitably hurt the working class, and further resentment against the "political and corporate elites." There is a deep contradiction there.

Moreover, let's not forget, it was Trudeau's own minister of finance who, just a few months ago, famously told young Canadians that part-time, low-paying jobs were here to stay, and that they should get used to "job churn," leading many now to wonder who's setting the government's agenda.

Bold policies needed

But the oddest of contradictions is that after more than a year in office, Trudeau has done nothing, or very little, to alleviate the burden of the working class and reduce inequality.  

After all, he is prime minister and there is much he can do. He has the ability to put an end to many of the ills he mentioned.

Don't like high corporate profits? Well, tax them, and raise corporate tax rates. Don't like low-paying jobs and precarious part-time jobs? Well, stop complaining and do something about it: actively pursue job creation or better yet, full employment.

You want cities to adopt a living wage? Then call a meeting of mayors in Canada and spearhead the policy. Show them the benefits of such a policy and how it would help working families, single mothers and young Canadians.

Don't like corporations not paying their share of taxes? Then close those loopholes that allow them to have offshore accounts that rob the government of billions of dollars in revenue.

Give the Canada Revenue Agency additional funds to hire more auditors and go after the corporations and Canadians who have these offshore accounts. Make sure corporations pay taxes in the jurisdictions where revenues were earned.

Perhaps Trudeau's criticism was all a set up for the forthcoming budget. If that is the case, one piece of advice: be brave, stop tinkering on the edge of income inequality and adopt bold policies.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Louis-Philippe Rochon is a professor of economics at Laurentian University and co-editor of the Review of Keynesian Economics. He is currently on sabbatical at the Universite de Grenoble-Alpes.