#elxn42 -- Change, civility and counsel for big-P POLICY over little-p politics
The historic victory by the Liberals on October 19th was well planned, executed and earned.
For three years, the Liberal braintrust crafted, nurtured and drove a generational change message. During the election they framed this message with an ambitious policy vision: the Real Change platform. Finally, their positive ads and high-energy Leader’s tour ensured that their candidates, volunteers and a winning swath of Canadians bought, owned, shared and ultimately voted for this message. It was a textbook campaign: change equals hope, growth, and prosperity.
As for the Conservatives, they effectively ran the No Change campaign which didn’t resonate. They were shut-out in Atlantic Canada, vanquished in most cities and relegated to suburban/exurban fringes and rural ridings.
While Conservative hunger to turn the page and renew the party could be quickly satiated in a leadership contest, this should only occur after an election post-mortem is completed. This sequencing allows the party faithful and leadership aspirants to digest and debate its conclusions. And given the honeymoon that the new Liberal government will enjoy, there is no justifiable rush to race into a race.
The campaign narrative, fundraising approach, media buys, tour strategy, candidate vetting and volunteer relations are all post-mortem no brainers. Conservative-leaning provincial parties would also be wise to heed the troika of seismic messages that Canadians delivered on October 19th … as follows.
First, while divergence and disagreement are the DNA of democratic debate, habitually exploiting wedges of division is seen as un-Canadian. Second, balanced budgets, pocketbook issues and smaller government are important, but they are not an end unto themselves. Third, while all governments since Confederation have experienced ethical lapses and scandals, Canadians still believe that policy matters and that government(s) can effect positive change.
Accepting this thesis, it follows that Conservatives (indeed, all politicians) must keep future communications narratives within the bounds of civility. To be fair, Justin Trudeau embodies this approach and it will be fascinating to watch him grow as Prime Minister and how the culture of his government evolves.
The other messages from voters should inform the lens through which Conservatives evaluate their election and their decade in government.
On fiscal issues, big-C and small-c conservatives need to ask why the prospect of Liberal deficits did not spook voters. The answer may reside in generational experiences with debt and a general fatigue with fiscal austerity.
With at least two generations of new and more recent voters – according to the Bank of Canada – mired in student loans, credit card debt, mortgage uncertainty, college payments for the kids, and/or helping parents in their later years, could it be that federal budget deficits were trivial if not irrelevant by comparison?
Conservatives should also review the economic impact and political merit of their myriad tax credits from transit passes to children’s fitness to home renovations that further complicated our byzantine tax system. When contrasted against the Liberals’ plan to tax Canada’s 1% and transfer this wealth to the middle-class like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, could more boutique tax credits even compete?
Then there is the issue of fiscal flexibility. The Conservatives with their income splitting promise and the NDP pledge of $15/day childcare crowded out room the parties to do much else in their respective platforms.
Another policy area to be addressed is the language around public servants and more fundamentally, the role of policy and government. Consistently referring to officials as bureaucrats is pejorative and in politics words can be weapons. As well, 40% of Canadians work in the public service (federal, provincial, local), para-public sectors (hospitals, schools, post-secondary) or earn their incomes or business revenues from interactions with government procurement and services.
On the role of government, new thinking is overdue. On healthcare, Conservatives must cast off the Section 91/92 paradigm which has guided party thinking. Healthcare is a shared jurisdiction; it is not nor has it ever been the exclusive domain of the provinces. The feds are responsible for the health of indigenous peoples, Canadian forces/veterans, the RCMP and federal inmates.
Moreover, the Constitution is silent on post-1867 issues such as vaccinations, pandemics, and research funding for transformative areas like genomics and medical nanotech. The opportunity and risk that each issue poses to the national interest and our economic union cries out for federal involvement and leadership.
By broadly looking at the 11% of the GDP spent on healthcare as opposed to the limiting silos of federal transfers or provincial budget management, the conservative movement could capture the imagination of Canadians to drive a mature dialogue health system transformation. The debate about making our health system better presently sits in a public policy vacuum; it is too important to accept this inertia and simply settle for sustainability.
New thinking around the role of government in infrastructure is another opportunity. The Conservatives invested more money (nominally and per capita) than any other government in Canadian history into infrastructure. However, the Liberals effectively marginalized this fact with their pledge to invest even more. And why not since effective government borrowing rates are at their lowest level in modern history. Yet, in 2019, provincial and local governments will say thank you then dutifully paraphrase Oliver Twist with, “please Justin, I want some more.”
A more innovative and inter-generationally fairer approach posits the inclusion of private and third sector or NGO risk capital alongside taxpayer dollars within a public governance framework that sets accountable parameters of service, ownership and return on investment – as has occurred in other parts of the world.
While I believe Conservatives should consider these ideas as they chart a future course, they could also easily find a home in a future Liberal or even NDP campaign platform as no party has a monopoly on compassion or good ideas. On this note the words of our Primer Minister designate are an instructive conclusion: “in Canada, better is always possible.”
Walter Robinson’s passion for public policy stems from his 30 years in campaigns at all orders of government and past roles as Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (1997 to 2003), federal Conservative candidate (2004), municipal Chief of Staff (2006-2007) and most recently, as a government relations professional in association and corporate settings.