An intellectually hollow campaign sets the stage for a transitional, but not an aspirational new leader
Only a few weeks ago I was sitting in the bus driving into Vancouver talking to two ladies who – by my estimate - were well into their sixties but still active in the workforce, commuting to work on a daily basis. As we crossed the Lions Gate Bridge passing two crowds waving Blue and Green signs, one of them focused on our political early morning chat. "You know what?" she said, “None of the parties are presenting a vision of the future … what do they really want for Canada?” It was exactly what I had been thinking throughout the campaign. No future aspirations, like addressing the question as to what will Canada look like 30 years from now. Or what given the enormous changes taking place internationally can we do and shape our place and role in the world? When I ran for school trustee about a year ago I discovered that talking about the future and about how to embrace change to create better opportunities does resonate with voters. It enables voters to see their role in creating change and to be part of that ‘better future’. It was what Ronald Reagan did so well, and why he was able to pull so many Democrats into his column: visionary politics transcend party politics.
Yet, most elections in Western democracies these days have resorted to a low level debate about taxes, deficits and growth. And beyond that the only alternative offered is one of mobilizing the ‘fear vote’ or engaging with the ‘change vote’. Neither has substance and so we are treated to the usual smorgasbord of tax credits and incentives and broad references to ‘change’ and ‘security’. The problem with this is that the lives of most voters are not materially affected by a budget tweak here or a tax credit there. TFSA limits are largely irrelevant and working families are no better off by Conservative cash hand outs, Liberal tax credits or an NDP-driven childcare program that will never see the light of day because provinces will never pony up their part of the bill. The fact that some parties were arguing the country was in recession while it most likely was not, only proves this point.
Odd as it may sound, the Conservatives were by and large the key offenders here. While Stephen Harper was right in defending his record and Canada’s economic progress he failed to offer anything beyond that. No vision, no real plans other than a ‘steady as we go’ approach that sought to only solidify his core support and bring in just enough middle income voters to secure a win. It was a strategy that would have failed under the best of circumstances and one that would not generate any strong interest during a campaign where the central theme was to unseat Harper himself. The Liberal Party under the telegenic Justin Trudeau did sense the need for change and borrowed heavily from the Obama playbook by proposing exactly that, all outlined in an endless array of proposals intended to bring that real change to Canada. And yes, there was some audacity involved in proposing to abandon first-past-the-post elections, legalize marihuana, ramp up infrastructure spending, address climate change and rewrite a few conservative bills like C-51.
There are two caveats to this of course, one being that Trudeau promised so much that it will be nearly impossible to deliver on all of it during his four-year mandate. Just imagine how his freshly minted caucus feels about abandoning first-past-the post. The other aspect is that Trudeau did not present a clearly defined vision; the change for change sake does not constitute a plan for the future as the Obama supporters have found out. It does deliver on a few specific items but fails to take on larger, generational issues like demographics and the challenges it poses for the family, healthcare and retirement or a redefined global map which in turn drives economic challenges and brings about new strategic relations. As one younger voter told me, “none of the candidates talked about technology” and that is a pretty serious indictment.
The more ideological driven parties fared no better, although to be fair to the Greens and the NDP they are operating under both an electoral system and regional differences that make it quite hard for them to be really competitive across Canada. The NDP rather than by embracing the increasing skepticism on the left (and the right) of the sustainability of capitalism and austerity as we now know it, doubled-down on a tack to the center approach which made its leader Thomas Mulcair somewhat indistinguishable from Harper and Trudeau. Europe has an array of social-democrats that have fallen into the same trap and taken a brutal clobbering at the ballot box which is exactly what happened to Mulcair.
The Green Party saw an opening in this electoral mess while capitalizing on the renewed interest in environmental issues and believed it had its best chance yet to capture more than one seat and start making a real difference. Not so. All three of the larger parties had started to embed green ideas into their platforms with the Liberals and NDP proposing a lot of what the Greens were offering in terms of support for families, small businesses and health. Trudeau’s initiative to invite Elizabeth May to join both him and some of his ministers to a climate summit in Paris will only strengthen his hand. No one can imagine them letting May take credit for any progress at the summit and if they do, it will be seen as a Liberal success, not a Green one.
But let’s return to the election. Most staggeringly was the inability of all parties to address foreign policy in a time where a more isolationist America, a more assertive China and Russia, not to mention a devastating religious and generational conflict in the Middle East is creating a sea of instability last seen in the 1930s. So by way of example, the Conservative Party’s instinct to defend our partnerships in bombing ISIS was right, it totally failed to really address the fundamental issue in Syria which is that the root of the crisis (and mass murder resulting in endless streams of refugees) is its current leader, Assad, and not just ISIS. The fact that a supposedly smart and well-organized campaign kept droning on and on about ISIS while one simple look at Twitter could have told them that drowning refugees could more readily be attributed to Assad was one more piece of evidence of how superficial this campaign was.
Not that the left had anything intelligent to say about this. Trudeau, May and Mulcair all trumped a resort to the past – how is that for visionary policies – where Canada would pull out of fighting missions and revert to peacekeeping, whatever that means in today’s world. Re-imagining a peaceful world with Maple Leaf carrying soldiers handing out blankets is reminiscent of the same nostalgia that sometimes envelops European elections where the stable and culturally uniform 1950s are presented as the ideal age of western civilization. The only problem is that the world has changed, a bit. Presenting a vision of the past in the end is not the most sound way to prepare for the future.
And the future looks decidedly different. And again preparing a vision or a reasonable argument for a challenge by that very future helps a politician. The Conservatives sensed that the 'niqab’ was one such issue that would deliver them votes, by harking back to the past where the 'niqab' was not something that was part of daily Canadian life. And it would probably play to the Conservative fortunes in a province - Quebec - where there had been a deep debate about religious and cultural symbols (and let’s just park the discussion as to whether the ‘niqab’ is a religious or cultural expression). But team Harper completely misread the nature and context of the ‘niqab debate’ and one has to wonder what sort of campaign smarts were involved in unleashing this without any solid thinking onto Canadians. Don’t get me wrong, it is an issue worth debating and finding a solution to as the former Liberal leader Ignatieff alluded to or by assessing how the French have dealt with it with a number of years ago. The problem was that the Conservatives dropped it in the middle of a national campaign where it was (a) not an issue and (b) if it were one it was a regional, ie. Quebecois issue. And then it totally bungled the topic itself while harping (excuse the pun) on about citizenship ceremonies while not addressing that the issue – as the socially liberal French and Dutch have found out – is one of dealing with fundamentalist forms of religion present in increasingly secular societies that take personal liberties pretty seriously. None of that, alas, and what followed was a shameful and intellectually unhinged debate where no one got it right.
Of course the Liberals, NDP and Greens jumped on Harper about being divisive, which may have helped them during the campaign but failed to address the opportunity it really created, namely talking about what a multi-cultural future for Canada could really look like. To be clear, this is not an easy undertaking and something which very few democracies have been able to articulate well, but it would be not too much to ask our politicians to not use the ‘niqab’ as a wedge issue but as a starting point to create a forward looking vision for Canada. By remaining stuck in past and ideological boxes all parties failed and it underlines the fear that an inward looking and rosy view of Canada in no way prepares the nation for the challenges that lay ahead in the 21st century.
Now that the smoke has cleared and we are getting ready for Trudeau’s inauguration it is a good time to assess what happened during Canada’s longest election ever. A successful incumbent failed to make a credible bid for re-election while having all the tools at his disposal to do so. That is something for the Conservatives to ponder in the coming years. The ideologically driven opposition of social-democrats and greens failed to present a credible future vision and got entangled in a lethal mismatch of a ‘Canada past’ and electoral maneuvering. The NDP has a real shot at rethinking what the ‘left’ really represents in the 21st century by trying to cleverly address the dark side of capitalism. The Green Party should do the same, but only real electoral reform can save them from eventual obliteration as the ‘green message’ has now been co-opted by all the other parties.
And that leaves us with the election’s winner who if you really think about it, did not win by articulating a vision for Canada, but who won by default. I did not vote for Trudeau, but I do admire some of his bolder proposals that will hopefully bring about things that can help unify Canadians in their purpose. The scope of his agenda is however most likely too ambitious to deliver in four years at which point in time we can only hope the parties can give Canadians a real peak into aspirations for the future. In that sense Trudeau is not an aspirational, but a transitional leader.
Photo: rather than the ubiquitous party leader photo I grabbed one I took of the ferry departing Bowen Island last year. With the Canadian flag it sort of says that we are leaving something behind and going into uncharted waters.