Opinion-Policy Nexus

Six more days to go. Six days in a federal election campaign that, to borrow a thought from the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, has been “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Well, not short. It seems as though the campaign has been going on forever. Certainly, nasty and brutish, especially the outright fabrications and character assassinations peddled indiscriminately on social media.

There have been unpleasant campaigns before – the Diefenbaker-Pearson elections of the 1960s being notable examples, not to mention the vilification of Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff in the elections of 2008 and 2011, respectively.

But this one has been especially ugly, because it is so desperately close. At Thanksgiving weekend, the Liberals and Conservatives were deadlocked in popular support in the national polls and in a virtual tie in seat projections.

As the election entered its final week, attention shifted from southern Ontario to Quebec, where the rise of the Bloc Québécois from the dustbin of irrelevancy changed the dynamic. It is anyone’s guess which of the other parties the Bloc will hurt the most.

The 2019 campaign has been very different from the one in 2015 when the third-place Liberals under Justin Trudeau unseated Stephen Harper’s majority-government Conservatives.

There was a sense of excitement and of change in the air four years ago. The electorate was offered a menu of bold ideas. Legalization of marijuana was one, and it came to pass. Electoral reform was promised, but not delivered (for good reasons in my view). Also on the menu: gender equality, a new relationship between the Indigenous people and the central government, open and transparent government, and a merit-based process to replace patronage in the appointment of senators.

The tragedy of 2019 has been the descent into low-value scrapping. The parties are more concerned about shoring up their bases and protecting their existing seats than reaching out to new supporters with new ideas.

The absence of big (or fresh) ideas has been a depressing feature of the election. Apart from vague undertakings to reduce Canada’s carbon footprint over time, perhaps the closest thing to a genuine big idea is a promise to make housing a fundamental human right, protected by law, for all citizens and permanent residents.

Unfortunately, the ambitious promise is being made by the Green party, which won’t get a chance to honour it. Among the others, the closest is the NDP, which proposes to defuse the housing crisis by creating 500,000 affordable units.

Speaking of big ideas, why hasn’t any party undertaken to eliminate homelessness by a fixed date? Say, by 2030 or 2035? With national will, provincial support and multi-party cooperation in Parliament, it could be done. Similarly, a national war on street drugs could be waged and won with the buy-in of provinces, communities and the police.

And how about a commitment to legislate – before the next federal election – an end to the disparity between the workplace pay of men and women (87 cents per hour, according to one recent report)? Of course, it could be done.

Progress has been made in the past four years in reducing boiled water advisories in Indigenous communities. But that’s a baby step. Do their residents not have an absolute right to safe drinking water, good schools, medical clinics and physician services on a par with those in southern Canada? Is this not a right that needs to be recognized and implemented – now, not whenever the government of the day gets around to it?

It is a cause that awaits a political champion. It would be expensive, yes, but it would be public money better spent than on pipelines, subsidies to business, or tax fiddles for rich folk who don’t need them.

National elections should be a time to debate national priorities. Elections should not be treated as an opportunity for name-calling, dirt-slinging, slander, and the deliberate dissemination of information intended to mislead voters. But that’s some of what we will have to deal with next Monday.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 08:59