Soon, perhaps as soon as this weekend, the Prime Minister will pitch the country into another election, less than two years after the last – in the teeth of a worsening pandemic, in the absence of any plausible justification and in defiance of the fixed-date election law. He will do so for one reason: because he thinks he can win.
Probably he will, if the polls are any guide, though the pre-election polls may prove even more misleading than usual. Pollsters are having a difficult enough time of it lately, without a deadly pandemic to deter what few voters might otherwise have roused themselves to go to the polls in a largely pointless election.
Certainly they can have no clue about one thing: what the issues of the election will be. Every election pollsters ask people this question, and every time people dutifully give the answers they think are expected of them – jobs, health care, that sort of thing. And then they decide who to vote for based on a hundred other factors that have nothing to do with any of them.
There is a difference, that is, between big issues and decisive issues. The “big issues” tend to have two qualities in common: they are intractable, and they are obvious. Because they are so intractable, people are skeptical any of the parties has solutions for them. And because they are obvious, parties have lots of time to prepare for them – by minimizing their differences, hugging the middle and otherwise taking the risk out of them.
But just because people don’t vote on these issues doesn’t mean they shouldn’t; and just because the parties tend to avoid them doesn’t mean they should. Jobs and health care may be old standbys, but there are plenty of other issues that are current, vital, contentious and sometimes even solvable. It would be good to hear the parties debate them in a serious way, even if they almost certainly won’t.
I mentioned one of these in a recent column: the pending renewal of the Bank of Canada’s five-year mandate. But there are a number of others, nearly as significant. Some examples:
The temptation will be to rehash the past 18 months, to blame the government, if you are in the opposition, for everything that went wrong or to credit it, if you are in the government, for everything that went right. The more useful perspective would be forward-looking. What would the parties do to end the pandemic? What steps would they take to prevent the next one?
Deficits, debt and economic growth
Oh, they’ll all mention the deficit. But none of them will offer to do much about it. The most that any of the major parties will promise will be a (gently) declining debt-to-GDP ratio years from now, which itself would require corrective measures none of them will propose.
None of them will promise to cut spending in any significant way: Indeed, most of the campaign will be taken up with proposals to increase spending. Neither will any of them suggest raising taxes, or not in a way that would actually raise much revenue. The tax “debate” in Canada is strictly about raising taxes on other people – the rich, or in Jagmeet Singh’s preferred formulation, the “ultrarich” – or even better on corporations, but never on the people who pay most of the taxes, a.k.a. the voters.
There’s always economic growth, of course – you really can grow your way out of debt, if you grow fast enough for long enough – but none of the parties will put forward anything that would do much to improve Canada’s growth rate in the long run.
In the past we relied heavily on rapid growth in the labour force to generate higher output and incomes. But with the baby boomers hitting retirement age, labour force growth has slowed to a crawl. Instead, we will have to wring more output from each worker, mostly by giving them more and better machines to work with.
Alas, that would require much higher rates of private investment than we currently enjoy, which means taxing the returns to that investment less punitively. The other ingredient of higher productivity: more competition – for example, by more fully opening industries such as airlines, financial services, and telecommunications to foreign players.
Will any of the parties talk about either of these? Or will they instead propose yet more variants on the status quo: a mishmash of R&D subsidies and government procurement programs through which, it is eternally hoped, the government can “drive innovation” and nurture “breakthrough technologies.” That none of these have made a dime’s worth of difference to the economy will not make a dime’s worth of difference to the debate.
Of course, the deficit/demographic crisis is mostly a provincial problem, since most of the extra costs of population aging are for health care, and the provinces foot most of the bill for health care. That should mean an urgent discussion of reform of fiscal federalism, replacing the current system of annual cash transfers with a permanent shift in taxing powers, from the feds to the provinces. It will not.
The federation, and the constitutional order that underpins it, is under strain, on two fronts. On the one hand, Quebec’s Bill 21, effectively banning the hiring of observant religious minorities across much of the public sector, and Bill 96, which purports to unilaterally entrench Quebec’s status as a unilingual nation in the Constitution, are plain violations of the Charter of Rights and, arguably, the division of powers.
On the other hand, Alberta is to hold a referendum shortly after the election on whether to remove equalization from the Constitution – which it has no power to decide, but which holds all sorts of trouble-making potential. The move is in part a protest at Alberta’s oil being blocked from export markets by, among others, Quebec, equalization’s largest recipient, which, again, it has no legitimate power to do.
Needless to say, none of the parties will utter a peep about any of this.
Parliament and accountability
In contrast, we’ll probably hear lots about this, at least from the opposition: about the Prime Minister’s disregard for the Commons, his stonewalling of committees, frequent recourse to time allocation and omnibus bills, and abuse of the powers of prorogation and dissolution. All are indeed sins – but they were sins of the previous prime minister as well.
The Liberals came to power vowing to clean up the mess left by the Conservatives, as the Conservatives came to power vowing to clean up the mess left by the Liberals. So while the opposition parties will squawk about ethics and accountability, unless they offer some evidence that their commitment to change is any more sincere than their predecessors’, it is all a waste of breath.
These flare up into public consciousness from time to time, such as the pipeline blockades that monopolized the news prepandemic, or the unearthing of the graves at the residential schools this spring. They do not seem to move a lot of votes, however (see “big issues,” above), which is why the parties do not tend to talk a great deal about them at election time. Will this election be any different?
The Liberal plan would impose a one-size-fits-all model on parents and provinces, using federal money as both carrot and stick. It’s a hugely costly, hugely risky experiment in state-run care. Will this be the subject of serious debate, or will the Conservatives shrink from denying the provinces the cash the Liberals have promised them?
The Liberals have proposed a multipronged assault on the internet and freedom of speech: regulating social-media posts, expanding the hate speech laws, even ordering platforms to remove offensive material, pre-emptively. The Conservatives, at least, are opposed to these – but how would they remedy the social ills these were meant to address?
There’s more. The endless mess that is military procurement. The escalating confrontation with China. Oh, and climate change, where we have taken on commitments we still are nowhere near to achieving. There are choices to be made in all of these, the kinds of choices that elections decide, and that would ideally be debated somewhere in the course of a five-week campaign.
Fat chance of that. Good luck, everyone.
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