Toby Fyfe is president of The Institute on Governance
We are told that both the Liberals and Conservatives are preparing for an election campaign that will be the “nastiest ever” while being reassured by both leaders that negative campaigns are a bad thing. The governing Liberals, as the incumbents, will defend their success in accomplishing their goals while the Opposition will belittle it.
It is perhaps worth noting that since taking office four years ago, the Liberals have been the most activist government since Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives were in power (1984-1993). Mr. Mulroney negotiated the first Canada U.S. free-trade agreement – winning the 1988 election on the issue – brought in the GST, and was in power during the divisive Meech Lake and Charlottetown accord debates.
Since taking power, the current Trudeau government also negotiated a free-trade deal with the United States, and from an activist perspective has stuck its neck out as far as Mr. Mulroney did in his day to take bold steps on a number of game-changing issues: reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, gender equality, climate change and the legalization of cannabis, to name four. These are all complex problems.
Governments in general don’t voluntarily take on these types of complexities for a number of reasons, the main one being that they do not control either the issue or, in fact, the outcome. That is because by definition, the exact nature and scope of the problem is unclear. It usually has multiple dimensions, many shades of grey and no clear route to success.
Thus, a complex problem involves many players, each of whom will have a legitimate view on, and stake in, defining it and what is needed to solve it. For example, what exactly does “reconciliation” mean to you, to the Inuit, to First Nations leaders, to First Nations community members, to the Métis, to the Newfoundland fisher, to the Regina housewife, to other governments?
It is safe to say that every one of those mentioned (and the list is by no means exhaustive) has their own take on reconciliation, what it means for the country, and how to get there. Their views need to be considered and included in the discussion. In a world where opinions can be amplified by social media and confirmation bias, the process of finding a middle ground – the traditional goal of governments, by the way – can be time-consuming, expensive and frustrating for all.
Quite simply, a government alone cannot resolve complex problems such as climate change, reconciliation or gender equality – not to mention immigration, poverty and many other issues they did not invent – even with the best intentions, and certainly not in a four-year mandate. As Mr. Mulroney learned and Justin Trudeau is learning now, you do not even get much respect for trying.
Add to this the fact that in today’s world impatient citizens and a headline-seeking media are constantly demanding immediate results rather than nuanced progress toward agreed-upon outcomes, then one can see how the incumbent government is at an electoral disadvantage.
The Opposition will attack the government for not solving all the complex problems. The Liberals will be forced to conflate interim accomplishments and processes into achievements because it is difficult to say, “Look, we couldn’t solve them, but we made a start.”
Our society faces a myriad of complex issues today that do not have quick and easy solutions, and the political process does a disservice by pretending that simple answers will do the trick. Unfortunately, they resonate: U.S. President Donald Trump’s simple solution of building a wall to solve the challenges of immigration and a changing economy not only galvanized votes, but has led to a partial government shutdown and political stalemate in Washington. The lesson? While simple solutions to complex problems may appeal to the popular imagination, their capacity to drive political division and cause significant damage – as opposed to actually solving things – is real.
Both the Liberals and the Conservatives need to move beyond simple political point-scoring to help Canadians realize the country faces complex issues that will only be solved by working with interested parties to confirm the scope of the problems and then determine a way forward. That is their non-partisan responsibility.
Then, from a partisan perspective, they can talk about the kind of country they stand for, and how they will work with all Canadians to get us there.
Editor’s note: This version has been updated to reflect that Brian Mulroney negotiated the first Canada U.S. free-trade agreement not NAFTA.