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Rahim Mohamed: Longevity has not translated into global respect for Justin Trudeau

Commentary

In an iconic line from the 1974 neo-noir classic Chinatown, corrupt Los Angeles water commissioner Noah Cross quips to hardboiled private investigator Jake Gittes, “Of course I’m respectable, I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and w—-s all get ‘respectable’ if they last long enough.”

After what is his eighth appearance as prime minister of Canada at the UN General Assembly, Justin Trudeau may well be asking what makes him the exception to this rule. 

Trudeau’s visit to the United Nations in New York came just a week removed from a disastrous showing at the G20 summit in Delhi. Trudeau’s rough weekend in the Indian capital saw him get a cold shoulder from his fellow world leaders; ending, humiliatingly, with a sharply worded (and very public) rebuke from the host nation’s leader. The chilly relations are especially explicable now, given we’ve learned that Trudeau confronted Prime Minister Narendra Modi with serious allegations of an extra-judicial, extra-territorial killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil by Indian security services. Canada and India have each now expelled top diplomats.

And to add insult to injury, the prime minister and his entourage were forced to stick around India for an extra day last week when mechanical issues left the Canadian delegation’s plane stuck on the tarmac at a Delhi airport.  

The India fiasco comes on the heels of weeks of bad international press for Trudeau, much of which has excoriated him for allowing Canada to become a liability to the NATO defence alliance under his watch. (According to a recent U.S. intelligence leak, Trudeau has privately told NATO officials that Canada will “never” meet the alliance’s defence spending target of two percent of national GDP.)

Trudeau has also ruffled feathers, of late, with his penchant for moralizing on the world stage; for instance, calling out Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni for her government’s record on LGBT issues at this May’s G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Trudeau once again reached into his intersectional bag of tricks last weekend when asked what the Canadian delegation contributed to G20 summit-concluding communiqué; replying (with a straight face), “gender language (and) Indigenous reflection.” One could almost feel the groan this response elicited halfway across the world in Canada. 

Now the longest-tenured G7 head, and one of the world’s most seasoned leaders, Trudeau should, in theory, be a force to be reckoned with in the international arena—a domain that, historically, has been dominated by elder statesmen in the vein of Churchill, de Gaulle, Mandela, and King. However, far from settling into the role of éminence grise, Trudeau remains something akin to the Rodney Dangerfield of global politics: no matter what he does, he just can’t seem to “get no respect”. Case in point: Canada’s closest allies have so far fallen short of offering full-throated support on the India imbroglio.

So why hasn’t longevity translated into influence for the long-tenured Trudeau? 

One glaring issue with the Canadian premier’s foreign policy, throughout his eight years at the helm, has been a consistent gulf between words and actions. While rarely missing a chance to stand on a soapbox at this global summit or the other, Trudeau has noticeably lacked in follow-through. Setting aside Canada’s paltry defense spending, the Trudeau government has similarly underwhelmed in the humanitarian sphere, tacking a $1.3-billion (or 16 percent) cut to foreign aid to its latest federal budget.

“There is certainly a gap between rhetoric and reality,” said non-profit executive Kate Higgins in response to the budget cuts. 

The Trudeau government has also been accused of falling short of its commitments to help arm a besieged Ukraine, despite Canada being home to the world’s second-largest Ukrainian diaspora behind Russia. Even more shameful was our abandonment of interpreters and other vulnerable helpers after our chaotic exit from Afghanistan two years ago. (The war-torn Afghanistan was the focal point of Canadian foreign policy for two decades, with Canada leaving its cultural imprint in the form of Tim Hortons and Hockey Night in Kandahar.) 

Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet are understandably focused on domestic matters right now as they look to reverse a cost-of-living crisis that has wreaked havoc on their poll numbers. They cannot, however, afford to neglect Canada’s increasing irrelevance in international affairs—especially at a time of global flux driven by an uptick in Russian and Chinese aggression. 

Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper was similarly focused on domestic matters but nevertheless carved out a successful niche in foreign policy by knowing where to pick his battles. Harper stayed laser-focused on economic relations during his time at the helm, inking a record number of trade deals with both developed and emerging economies. He also prudently banked his global political capital, channelling it into a successful (if unheralded) push to improve maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH) outcomes in the Global South.

By contrast, Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy evinces no such focus and boasts no comparable marquee accomplishment. With his days in the big chair likely numbered, it may already be too late for him to salvage his global legacy. 

Justin Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister shows that experience doesn’t always equate to gravitas. He may continue to spit out all the right diplomatic buzzwords at global summits, but his fellow world leaders have long since tuned him out. Why, after all, should they care about what he has to say, given his long track record of overpromising and underdelivering in the international sphere? 

If Trudeau won’t learn from the example of his predecessor on global affairs, perhaps he’ll heed the foreign policy advice of one Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: “Know your role and shut your mouth.”

Trevor Tombe: The federal food price plan makes no sense. Politically, that may not matter

Commentary

Families across Canada are struggling with high food prices.

On average, food costs 18 percent more in July this year compared to two years earlier. This is much faster than the usual 2 percent annual price growth. Indeed, it’s the most rapid acceleration in food price growth since the late 1970s. And for an average family, this adds roughly $150 per month in additional costs.

No wonder the government is under so much pressure to act.

Last week, the government finally announced a plan. If you can call it that.

As part of a broader package that primarily aimed to boost housing construction, the government also announced what it described as “concrete actions to stabilize food prices.” 

First, it will browbeat corporations by calling leaders of large grocery chains to “an immediate meeting in Ottawa.” Second, they will consider taxing grocery stores.

At first glance, this makes no sense. 

With a little more thought, it makes even less.

Taxing grocers will not ”restore the grocery price stability that Canadians expect,” as they claim. Neither will stern words.

But conveniently for the government, that may not matter. There are strong indications that food prices may stabilize soon regardless, allowing the government to claim victory.

Let us first examine the government’s main, if only implicit, claim: corporate greed and a lack of competition cause high food prices. 

Many agree. Corporations are an easy political target, after all. And the government’s NDP partners, for example, focus almost exclusively on this as the primary cause of inflation. 

I wrote at length on this for The Hub last year. The data is crystal clear: rising profit margins are not a particularly important cause of rising prices. Those conclusions remain as true today as they were then, and they are as true for food as they are for inflation overall.

Food and beverage retailers in Canada earned roughly 4.2 cents in profit per dollar sold in the second quarter of this year. Although up from 3.7 cents a year earlier, this is not a major factor in rising food prices. For perspective, this contributed 0.5 percentage points to the 9.1 percent food price increase between the second quarters of 2022 and 2023. That’s not zero. But it’s close.

Even over a longer period, changing markups account for little. Since early 2020, grocery prices have risen by 21 percent. Had markups not increased, they’d be up by 20 percent.

A key driver of grocery price changes is not corporate greed but farm product prices and input costs, including for producers elsewhere in the world.

There’s good news for consumers here: the cost of many important farm inputs has fallen recently. Machinery fuel is down nearly 27 percent since its peak last year, and fertilizer is down nearly 17 percent. This is already showing up in the price of many important farm products. The price of grains is down 8 percent so far this year, for example. 

Not everything is down, to be clear. Cattle and livestock prices are way up. But overall, farm products are nearly 11 percent cheaper compared to a year earlier. This may soon benefit consumers.

Historically, grocery price movements lag farm products by roughly six months. If this pattern continues—as it should—then we’ll soon see a sharp drop in grocery price growth. By December, average grocery prices could possibly even be lower than they were a year ago. 

The government will naturally claim credit. It was their harsh words and threat of a tax, they’ll almost surely say, that caused prices to stabilize. 

It’s hard to see this as anything but a cynical move to mislead Canadians, cast blame on a politically unpopular group, and claim credit for improvements that were beyond their control. 

That is bad enough. What was worse about the government’s plan was what it did not contain.

If politicians wanted to lower food prices, they would repeal policies that deliberately raise them.

Canada has several artificial and restrictive agricultural policies. We force farmers to hold costly licenses to produce milk, for example, and impose prohibitive tariffs of almost 300 percent on imports. Want a dairy cow in Alberta? The permit alone will run you roughly $50,000. The effect on prices of this policy—known as “supply management”—should be obvious.

Actual estimates are stark. Eliminating supply management for milk would cut prices nearly in half, according to the OECD. This adds up. One in every seven dollars spent on groceries by the typical Canadian family is spent on dairy products. If the policy of artificially raising these prices were repealed, we’d each save roughly $40 per month. Milk alone cost consumers $3.9 billion more in 2021, according to the OECD. Add $600 million for poultry and $300 million for eggs, and consumers pay nearly $5 billion more in total for groceries.

Support for policies that raise food prices is, to be clear, an all-party problem. Conservatives, Liberals, and the NDP dare not touch it. Dairy farmers have a powerful lobby. 

Scrapping this system would also come with costs, as we’d compensate farmers for the losses they suffer. But it would be better for those short-term transition costs to be borne by government than permanently by families simply buying milk. 

Until then, we’re stuck with a federal plan that falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. But politically—it pains me to say—that may not matter.