Justin Trudeau’s false Davos dichotomy

After a fracas over his vacation, Justin Trudeau says he will not be going to Davos. But that’s doing Canada a disservice.
Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks after meeting with indigenous leaders on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on December 15, 2016. Conservation groups have filed a new court challenge to the federal government’s approval of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline. The request for judicial review filed with the Federal Court of Appeal late Monday in Calgary is at least the eighth legal test of the controversial project, which will almost triple the capacity of an existing, 1,150-kilometre pipeline from near Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Rather than rub elbows and clink cognac glasses with celebrities and the global elite next week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will spend days touring the coffee shops and winter fairs across his country.

Sounds a bit clichéd, doesn’t it? Let’s try that a different way.

Rather than an extraordinary once-a-year opportunity to help nurture major Canadian investment deals and link arms with fellow world leaders troubled with the rise of anti-trade and anti-immigrant populism, Justin Trudeau will extend by a few days his previously planned tour to plaster his smile and winter scarf collection across as many small-town newspaper front pages as he can.

Sorry, I’m wordy at times. It’s just that while that first version possesses a bit more familiar zing, it also fits too neatly and cutely into a Liberal branding narrative about a pivot back toward the coveted middle-class voter. It also tends to be a trickier task to explain the virtues of putting in time at international politician-executive conclaves like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; it’s much easier to sneer about posh hotels in the Alps, corporate jet traffic jams and the high-altitude oxygen inhaled there by Bono and the prime minister of Liechtenstein.

But the sneering was already fully under way by last Friday afternoon when the Prime Minister’s Office announced the cancellation of Trudeau’s trip to Davos. Hours earlier, the National Post’s David Akin reported that Trudeau had already used up all his elite hobnobbing credits for the month—possibly for the entire first quarter of 2017—when his family spent its New Year’s vacation on a private island in the Bahamas belonging to the Aga Khan. Now, the global forum will have to make do with Trudeau’s cabinet ministers; the Prime Minister will spend less time with Davos Man then he will in Brandon, Man.

In 2015, Canadians voted for the handsome youngish man who could look debonair in a Vogue photo shoot and handle a bout of summer-fair mainstreeting without looking too effete or out-of-place. For a long time, they’ve concluded that Justin Trudeau could walk marble floors and chew gum at hockey arenas in the same week. So it’s a surprise that, after making a splash as the international community’s big newcomer at last year’s Davos forum, he’ll be eschewing the conference now.

His trips have been fruitful. As former colleague Paul Wells has pointed out, Canada netted major investments from General Motors, Microsoft and Thomson Reuters in the months after each CEO met with Trudeau in Davos; those meetings at least couldn’t have hurt the chances that those would happen. There were doubtless more investment opportunities to help stoke this year, as well as potential export deals to nurture with the contingent of Canadian corporate executives who attend annually.

Trudeau had already begun honing his own sales pitch for international investment in Canada in a world shirking away from internationalist outlooks. In a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce last month, the Prime Minister spoke about Canada as the un-Trump-like destination for global capital: “Canada has extraordinary opportunities along with social, economic, political stability that—especially with the uncertainty about nativism, populism and anti-globalization—people on the world stage are very, very interested in,” he said, to a domestic crowd that was far more interested in hearing about pipeline policy that day. It’s a message that many at Davos, along with many other traditional liberal and conservative politicians, thinkers and investors, will crave more of in 2017.

After all, next week will be a showcase of two competing visions of how big international deals get made: either between sips of Brunello di Montalcino in a noisy, chandeliered room, or through a burst of 5:30 a.m. tweets generously sprinkled with exclamation points and all-caps. The foremost practitioner of the latter style—a man whose electoral triumph has been cast as a victory over the Davos ethic—gets inaugurated as U.S. president on the final day of the Jan. 17-20 conference. Donald Trump rattles against populism, global collaboration and the benefits of immigration in a globalized society, the kinds of themes that are the keys to both the Swiss gathering and Trudeau’s agenda. By rejecting Davos, the Prime Minister has passed up a chance to fortify his position as a leading voice for preserving those values, when those values seem most at risk.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande have also backed out of Davos this year, with both countries facing elections this year, as well as their own rising anti-immigrant movements. (Meanwhile, the Trudeau Liberals’ post-honeymoon hurt, two years from the next election, is a roughly 14 per cent lead in the polls, way down from the eight-point margin that gave them a parliamentary majority.) Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has also cancelled a week in Davos, reportedly because others pulled out too and he’s more interested in getting close to Trump. Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend, the latest sign that the world’s most populous country is growing more and more ready to converse on the global stage.

The billionaires, government heads and young ladder-climbers of Davos 2017 are not the lone saviours of global capitalism; they are not the last bulwark against an international descent into vulgar tribalism. But they shouldn’t be dismissed as floofy do-nothing jet-setters, either. Trudeau may be afraid of provoking a domestic wave of anti-elite populism himself by being seen too often in hoity-toity places, but Davos is the wrong sacrificial lamb. By playing the coffee-shop circuit instead of seizing the international opportunities that he knows—ones that just so happen to benefit Canadians and Canadian global interests—the Prime Minister may be doing a disservice to Canadians, while making it harder to return to those productive gatherings of those nefarious elites next time around.

If Trudeau was really looking to trim an event that would lead to accusations of aloof snobbery, perhaps his private-island vacation visit to a major foreign-aid recipient would have been the more elite delete.