Wells: Hamburg speech hints at Ottawa shift

The St. Matthew’s Day Banquet in Hamburg has been a big date on the German city’s social calendar for more than six centuries. Everyone who’s anyone in Hamburg attends. Under the gilded roof of the historic town hall’s palatial banquet room, keynote speakers discuss the great matters of the day before hundreds of revelers.

Perhaps Justin Trudeau’s staff didn’t notice before he spoke at this year’s banquet that the keynote slot has lately become quite thoroughly jinxed.

The non-German speaker in 2016 was David Cameron, then the prime minister of Britain. Four months later he lost the Brexit referendum and resigned.

In 2015 the guest keynote was delivered by Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski. Three months later he lost his country’s presidential election.

In 2014 Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt addressed the Hamburg dinner. She lost her next election and retired from politics.

In 2013 the cursed Hamburg keynote slot was occupied by Jean-Marc Ayrault, who lasted for 13 more months as France’s prime minister before losing that job.

Apparently Trudeau is hoping to buck the trend.

It’s a very specific trend, if we look more closely. Cameron was trying to stem a rising tide of populism at home by urging the European Union to reform itself. He failed, essentially, and saw his career washed away by a tide of populist nationalism in the Brexit referendum.

Komorowski was the standard-bearer for a moderate pro-European business conservative party.

Thorning-Schmidt’s social democrats lost to a centre-right party.

Ayrault’s departure was less dramatic. French prime ministers are appointed by presidents, and Ayrault took the fall when it became clear that François Hollande’s presidency was going nowhere fast.

But Ayrault is another symbol of the incapacity of traditional managerial brokerage parties to deliver the change voters crave. So the last four consecutive Hamburg keynoters came a cropper, not from random bad luck, but because the fury of the disaffected made political business-as-usual impossible.

A cautionary tale. Four for the price of one, in fact.

Now along comes Trudeau. Appropriately enough, the tone of his remarks to the Hamburg swells was uncharacteristically dark.

“Citizens across the political spectrum are looking for guidance. They’re looking for leadership. They’re looking for a voice,” he said. “And so far, they’re feeling a little let down.”

When “companies post record profits on the backs of workers consistently refused full-time work,” he said, “people get defeated.” When “governments serve special interests instead of the citizens’ interests who elected them, people lose faith.”

Inequality has made citizens distrust governments and employers, “and we’re watching that anxiety transform into anger on an almost daily basis.”

That’s got to change, Trudeau said, perhaps noticing the Hamburg Rathaus floor is littered with trap doors. “It’s time to get real about the challenges facing the middle class,” he said, and “Old approaches don’t work anymore,” and “We can’t go about things the same way and expect to succeed in this new world.”

Much of the rest of his speech was corporate-responsibility stuff governing Canada – he offered no hint about what might be next, only applause for his enhanced child benefit and his recent at-least-I’m-not-in-Davos speaking tour.

But I don’t take the PM to have been basking in complacency. He didn’t come before his German hosts as the guy who’s found the solution. He cast themselves, with them, as one who needs to find it. “We can no longer brush aside the concerns of our workers and our citizens. We have to address the root cause of their worries, and get real about how the changing economy is impacting peoples’ lives.”

I take Trudeau’s Hamburg speech as a preview of a strongly populist shift in economic policy, beginning with next month’s federal budget. I’ll have more on that later this week.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer.

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