Justin Trudeau’s meaningless virtue signalling

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Is Trudeau Right on Duterte?

During a private meeting with Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, on his recent trip to Manila for the ASEAN-Canada 40th Commemorative session, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of the human rights issues pertaining to the bloody drug wars in the southeast Asian country. Duterte’s notoriously harsh strategies for dealing with addicts and dealers – including randomly killing young addicts at his behest – have horrified democratic observers, even though Duterte is widely admired amongst his own citizens for taking vigorous action against a corrosive social problem.

While Trudeau described his talk with Duterte as “a very cordial and positive exchange,” Duterte had quite a different, expletive-laden view. “[Trudeau’s criticism] is a personal and official insult,” he said. “I will only answer to the Filipino. I will not answer to any other bullshit, especially foreigners. Lay off.”

Was Trudeau right or wrong to criticize Duterte?

This was the question I found myself debating on a radio panel this week. A liberal member of the panel expressed satisfaction with Trudeau’s gambit, saying she felt proud, as a Canadian, that her prime minister was expressing disgust over Duterte’s flagrant disregard for human rights.

“I said Trudeau was wrong.”

I agree that Duterte is a cruel leader with no respect for the primacy of law. But there are literally hundreds of leaders around the world who are equally cruel and equally lacking in respect for law and order. Our PM shouldn’t choose which leader to dress down in front of other nations, almost literally in the man’s own home, based simply on proximity, unless he has some follow-up plan in mind. Did he really think a man with Duterte’s qualities and temperament would meekly listen to his little lecture and suddenly see the light, perhaps taking up Trudeau’s offer of “help” by asking for a made-in-Canada course in anger management?

Another panelist said I was only annoyed at Trudeau because I didn’t support him politically. He brought up the example of Brian Mulroney, who led a moral crusade against South African apartheid and played a significant role in ending it. Surely I approved of that Canadian intervention in another nation’s affairs!

That stumped me for a moment, because of course I did approve of it, but I quickly saw the distinction to be made. Duterte is a hard man attacking a (hopefully transient) problem of extensive criminality with unjust methods. It is true that, because of Duterte’s amoral and take-no-prisoners approach, innocent or near-innocent people are being killed as collateral damage. But from an international perspective, Duterte’s actions are a series of internal crimes against individuals that require an internal solution by the people he governs, one of which is at hand: he could be voted out and a more law-abiding leader voted in. Therefore, when Trudeau criticized what is happening in the Philippines, it was clear to Duterte that the criticism was entirely personal. How else would such a proven thug have reacted?

It is usually at the level of crimes against humanity that arise as a matter of official policy – ethnic cleansing, human shields in war, cultural genocide, real genocide – that foreign leaders consider it necessary to intervene. Apartheid met that standard because it was an unjust and permanently entrenched system of degradation of an entire class of human beings. Thus, Mulroney’s attack on the system of apartheid was impersonal and warranted, precisely because a crime against humanity was in progress and would continue to go on as an official policy under any future leader. Mulroney’s intervention was a call for an upheaval in philosophy and governance, not a personal suggestion for behaviour modification.

In fact, the way Mulroney went about his intervention is instructive in highlighting the difference between a prime minister bent on effecting real change and a prime minister who is content to “virtue signal.”

Mulroney was already a confirmed warrior in his heart and mind against apartheid when he assumed his party’s leadership. Three months after he became prime minister, in Dec. 1984, Mulroney met in Ottawa with Bishop Desmond Tutu, seeking advice on what role Canada might play in the stalled efforts to free Nelson Mandela, who, by then, had been imprisoned for two decades. Then, he informed his cabinet that pressing for Mandela’s liberation would be a government priority. Then, he instructed Canada’s UN ambassador, Stephen Lewis, to lobby reluctant but influential world leaders to join the campaign.

It was a long and difficult, step-by-step crusade. Mulroney not only stayed the course, he kept his eye on the ball all the way through, enduring a period of frosty relations with “realpolitik” leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, while seeking and finding common cause with countries like Australia, Zambia and India. He made the case for ending apartheid through international cooperation in every forum that would have him, however hostile (as some Commonwealth meetings became), and eventually was able to ensure Mandela’s case was added to G7 agendas and, ultimately, to the UN General Assembly agenda.

When Mandela was finally freed from prison on Feb. 11, 1990, Mulroney was one of the first people he called. In appreciation for what Mulroney’s government had done for him, Mandela elected to make his first formal speech in a legislature to our Parliament. Now that was a fine moment for Canada. And we owe that moment, when we were on the right side of history in a spectacular way, to Brian Mulroney.

Mulroney knew the difference between bad actors and an inherently bad system. He had a vision of what needed to be done to effect real change. He did not act impulsively or alone. He laid the groundwork for a strong and effective campaign by putting together a politically viable plan. He provided leadership for the plan and oversaw it every step of the way. He faced opposition, spent moral capital, gambled on an outcome that seems inevitable now, but certainly wasn’t then. Is it possible to imagine Trudeau, burning with that kind of sustained fervour for justice, pulling off a feat of that magnitude? No need to answer; it was a rhetorical question.

I am glad my panel opponent reminded me of that story. It illustrates the absolute chasm in terms of real leadership between the two prime ministers. Trudeau has no serious vision or plan for putting his shoulder to the wheel in ameliorating grave, systemic injustices in other parts of the world.

He is a champion of gender equality at home, for one good example, but displays no inclination to lend his moral authority to a campaign that might alleviate the plight of women living under oppression – under gender apartheid to be precise – throughout great swaths of the Islamic world. When it comes to systemic abuses of human rights, Trudeau confuses high-minded statements with action. He thinks words are enough.