Comment: Why Justin Trudeau may not be Mr Perfect after all
If you had two seconds to think of a high-profile male feminist, chances are you'd land on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In the age of Donald Trump, internet abuse and neo-Nazis in the White House, Trudeau has become a byword for young, energetic progressive politics and mainstream feminism.
It's a reputation that has paid off for Trudeau in spades. He enjoyed unusually high approval ratings during his first year in power, and Canada's international reputation has skyrocketed since he took office.
Scarcely a month goes by without some gushing new story about Trudeau sweeping social media, spurred along by the fact that he is a seriously attractive guy. Photos of him as a young man; mildly misleading stories about Ivanka Trump and Kate Middleton gazing at him longingly; snaps of his frighteningly well-toned butt.
Trudeau-mania is so pervasive, it's easy to forget that his public image as a woke feminist babe is carefully crafted and stage-managed. Every now and then the cracks in the edifice show, like they did on International Women's Day this week. Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, sparked controversy when they posted a staged photo to social media urging women to "celebrate the boys and men in our lives who encourage us to be who we truly are".
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It was a reminder that while it's tempting to idolise from afar, Trudeau's easy-to-digest brand of Facebook-friendly feminism has some pretty big holes in it when you start to look closer.
Both at home and abroad, Trudeau's government has a troubling tendency to sideline the rights of women – especially First Nations women and women of colour – when it's politically inconvenient.
Much was made of Trudeau's young, gender-balanced and ethnically diverse Cabinet back in 2015, but the reality doesn't quite live up to the hype. Just two days ago, Oxfam Canada released a "feminist scorecard" pillorying the gulf between Trudeau's soaring rhetoric and the lack of concrete actions his Liberal government has taken to advance gender equality.
According to Oxfam, the Trudeau administration has "taken no tangible steps to close the gender wage gap or to ensure living wages for the working poor, the majority of whom are women."
Canadian First Nations women have been especially vocal about how shallow Trudeau's feminism can be. Organisations like the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples have been routinely shut out of Trudeau-led summits on climate change and Indigenous reconciliation. His government has also approved a number of controversial dams, gas and oil sands pipelines that will seriously impact Canada's carbon emissions and the land rights of many First Nations.
One of Trudeau's central promises before being elected in 2015 was that his government would establish a national inquiry into the fates of Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women. That inquiry was announced in August, but First Nations groups like the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, as well as international human rights groups like Amnesty International, have criticised the inquiry as being largely toothless and unlikely to challenge "the programs, practices and policies of governments which have contributed to, maintained, or exacerbated the violence". It's hardly a ringing endorsement for a Prime Minister who devotes so much energy to cultivating his feminist cred.
Canada's foreign policy also leaves plenty to be desired. One of Trudeau's first actions as Prime Minister was to reaffirm the sale of CAD $15 billion worth of Canadian arms to Saudi Arabia, a country with an appalling record on women's rights. Helping the Saudi regime commit war crimes in Yemen doesn't rank very high on the feminist to-do list, last I checked.
Trudeau's unapologetic pro-refugee stance sets a moral standard few of his counterparts can equal.
More superficially, Trudeau's nice-guy image lets him get away with failings other politicians get pilloried for. Unlike fellow world leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Françoise Hollande – and contrary to widely held misconceptions – Trudeau has studiously avoided criticising US President Donald Trump's history of sexual assault. After meeting with his American counterpart in February, in fact, Trudeau pulled a Malcolm Turnbull and said it was not his place to "lecture another country on how they choose they govern themselves". But where Turnbull was roundly mocked for going easy on Trump, the politics-meme complex let Trudeau off scot-free.
That's not all. In May last year, Trudeau elbowed a female MP in the chest during a confrontation on the floor of Canada's House of Commons, telling her and others to "get the f--- out of the way". It's difficult to imagine a conservative politician (or a less charismatic one) doing something remotely similar and coming out with their reputation intact, let alone the subject of fawning praise about their commitment to feminism.
Making Justin Trudeau the poster-boy for modern political feminism is easy, and understandable. In a time where the President of the United States is a self-admitted sexual predator, it's tempting to lift up any display of decency from a world leader, let alone one who openly identifies as a feminist.
And Trudeau isn't all talk and no action. He deserves credit for the work he does and the policies he enacts that advance the rights of women in Canada and abroad. Trudeau also marked IWD this week by pledging CAD $650 million toward international programs that provide sex education, contraceptive services and family violence support in developing countries. That's a laudable step, and one which deserves far more attention than a misguided social media post.
And his high-profile efforts to welcome refugees to Canada place him almost alone among world leaders increasingly tempted to tap into anti-immigrant sentiments in North America, Europe and Australia. With even figures like Merkel caving to sectarian fervour and supporting discriminatory measures like burqa bans, Trudeau's unapologetic pro-refugee stance sets a moral standard few of his counterparts can equal.
But expressing warm and fuzzy sentiments about female empowerment shouldn't gift a politician as much uncritical adulation as Trudeau gets, especially when his brand of feminism only serves the cause of gender equality when it happens to align with his political agenda, and often steamrolls vulnerable women when it doesn't.
Assuming a charismatic, self-identified progressive leader is going to magically step in and make everything alright does a disservice to feminism. It's a way of absolving ourselves of the collective responsibility we have to advance and defend the rights our forebears fought for.
Trudeau's certainly no Trump, and he's doing better than a lot of world leaders right now. But he's no Mr Perfect, either, and pretending otherwise does no one any favours. We should demand more of our leaders, and of ourselves.
- Brisbane Times