We face two critical challenges in Canadian national politics today. First, how do we restore genuine democracy and persuade the 40 per cent of Canadians who sat out the vote in 2011 to vote again? The second challenge relates to the first: How do we convince those same Canadians to vote for the strong, active federal government we need to build a productive, innovative economy that fairly benefits all Canadians?
With eight years of Conservative government under our belt, it is more apparent than ever that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is interested neither in motivating more Canadians to vote, nor convincing us of the need for constructive national government. On the contrary, the Conservatives have expressly encouraged and sheltered those who would actively suppress voting, the election robocalls scandal being simply the most obvious example. And Mr. Harper very assiduously seeks to “dumb us down” to accept a carefully limited role for his steadily shrinking federal government. Now, like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, we are being “etherized upon a table” and prepared for yet another general election under the direction of Mr. Harper’s playbook.
This Harper playbook has three components: First, define “the economy” as a disembodied concept, measured only by sterile metrics such as interest rates, taxes, deficits and debt. Next, avoid the facts by repeatedly crediting the Harper government with Canada’s success in avoiding the worst effects of the 2008 economic crisis and returning the country to modest economic growth. Finally, convince just enough Canadians (the 10 per cent swing vote described by Jeffrey Simpson) that nation-building is limited to grand executive-led initiatives like wide-ranging trade deals or building pipelines, to be rubberstamped by Parliament and haphazardly executed by other levels of government and the private sector.
In Harper’s playbook, the action is all short-term, aimed at winning the next election. There is no room for an active, long-term federal role in strengthening and expanding the fundamentals of a competitive economy. For example, the Harper government sees little federal role in investing in the public services and programs that provide security to Canadians so we have reasonably equal access to employment and career opportunities. The Conservatives have also presided over a growing infrastructure deficit that overwhelms every town and city in this country, and an unprecedented weakening of national standards in healthcare, education and the environment.
In 2015, as in 2011, Mr. Harper will be all too happy for his opponents to compete with each other in offering complex policy platforms for more active government. He will simply repeat ad nauseam his mantra condemning tax-and-spend policies that will kill economic growth, and hope to create wedges through which he drives straight back to 24 Sussex Drive.
Those seeking to replace the Harper government should consider how best to counter this Conservative divide-and-minimize strategy. We need to pick our battles carefully to keep the focus on the common target – the Harper government’s mediocre record that increasingly fragments and divides Canada.
We need the votes of the hitherto disengaged and highly cynical Canadians who will make the difference in 2015. We must convince these Canadians there is a real alternative to the nasty hyper-partisan politics of the centralized Harper regime. An alternative in which MPs are not afraid to act independently and are prepared to make reasonable principled compromises in the national interest.
We need to regularly remind Canadians that, despite specific policy differences among us, and whatever the ultimate seat distribution in a new Parliament, there is a shared commitment to work together constructively to bring about critical reforms in a timely manner.
We are all committed to implementing a variety of democratic reforms which have broad support among a majority of Canadian voters: a new electoral process (reconsidering first-past-the-post), reform or abolition of the Senate, legal limits on executive power and the PMO, restoring power to Parliament and the people, and a modernized federation that depends on and cultivates collaboration among all levels of government – federal, provincial, municipal and Aboriginal.
We also have a shared interest in making the coherent case for strong national government and preventing the Conservatives from dumbing down the political debate about the role of the federal government to merely “taxing and spending.” The debate should be consistently critical of the mindless Conservative homage to lower taxes and spending, while consistently promoting the national interest in having an active federal government that “invests” prudently in a productive innovative economy. This means the careful long-term direction of public funds by a fiscally responsible government towards investment in the many areas neglected by the Harper government. These are areas requiring bold national leadership by the one government that is elected by and accountable to all Canadians, and include:
• Cleaning up our exemption-riddled tax system and our convoluted unaccountable system of federal-provincial fiscal transfers including equalization, so that Canadians are fully confident that our tax dollars are fairly and efficiently raised and invested in the social and economic fundamentals of our nation to benefit us all.
• Ending the mess of barriers to productive economic activity across provincial borders and guaranteeing complete portability of educational and training certifications and credentials across Canada.
• Establishing clear, workable national standards for everything from healthcare to business regulations, including the most advanced national environmental standards to guide natural resource development, so that competition for investment and jobs is won by a race to the top, not the bottom.
• Ensuring robust infrastructure funding coordinated across governments for everything from transit to bridges to social housing to broadband access, and providing stable long-term support for basic and applied science.
• Overhauling Employment Insurance to implement a system of extensive apprenticeship and training opportunities so that all Canadians get the transitional support and training needed to find work.
• Transforming our existing mechanisms for establishing minimum income levels – the floor below which no Canadian should fall – through synchronizing/harmonizing the jumble of federal and provincial tax, transfer and other measures like the minimum wage.
An end-of-year Nanos poll indicates clearly that Canadians are extremely concerned with Conservative governance in all significant areas – the performance of the government, the direction of the country, federal-provincial relations, and Canada’s reputation abroad. In the next election, we must prove that we can break out of the petty partisan politics perfected by the Harper government, identify our shared goals and aspirations, restore Canadians’ faith in democracy, and get back to building One Canada for all Canadians.