Despite all of the rhetoric about how this is an election of historic proportions with very high stakes and a polarized climate, the situation really could be a lot worse and a lot more polarized than it is. When compared to our neighbours to the south, all three of the major parties are running on pretty centrist platforms and proposing only incremental changes – they agree on a fair amount more than they disagree. In an alternative US-style polarized universe (consider for example that a Sanders vs. Trump or Sanders vs. Carson ballot is still fairly plausible), the NDP would be endorsing the Leap Manifesto in its entirety and the Conservatives would be campaigning to repeal our single-payer healthcare and reopen the abortion or gay marriage debates.
Thankfully the Conservatives have largely not taken the opportunity – even with their majority government – to radically reshape Canadian life, the Canadian economy (more than outside factors have influenced it) or our interaction with the government to reflect the wishes of the most extreme members of their base. When given the opportunity to govern, Stephen Harper has done more to silence the extremists in his party – and move to the centre on major issues – than he has to appease them (see for example their support of the 2008 stimulus, ‘comply or explain’, abortion, gay marriage, etc.). However, that does not mean that he never has to throw his base a bone to keep them engaged. In choosing to take the country in a markedly rightward direction, Harper has carefully picked his battles. While I think a few of these picks, including his commitment to trade liberalization (see for example, the TPP), have been positive for Canada, many more have been significant negatives, such as his ‘war on data’ (including scrapping the long form census, muzzling government scientists, etc.). Moreover, Harper has shown a propensity for divisiveness (e.g. C-51, the ‘barbaric cultural practices’ legislation) and a contempt for our democracy (e.g. the ‘Fair Elections Act’) and its institutions (e.g. proroguing parliament more than once). That alone is enough for me and many Canadians to say it is time for him to go (see Matt’s posts on Harper, here and here, for detailed examples). The most recent example of this has been making the niqab, worn by barely a handful of Canadians, a central campaign issue to fan the flames of ethnic tensions in Quebec.
So I’m left to choose between the two alternatives: the Liberals and the NDP. The NDP under Thomas Mulcair – a party some (e.g. ‘Red Tories’) have feared might be too beholden to a different extremist base (e.g. consisting of radical unionists/socialists/feminists/eco activists, Leap Manifesto signatories etc.) – actually looks to me a whole lot like the Conservatives under Harper: a party that mostly reins in its extremists and governs on a largely centrist platform, but one that will throw a few bones to their base when they deem it necessary. Like the Conservatives’ nod to their base on trade, some NDP nods to their base may lead to positive change (e.g. their pharmacare plan and possibly their childcare plan), but more often than not this pandering will lead to bad policy. For the NDP, their hardline protectionist stance on trade (outright ‘No’ on the TPP) and their soft-line stance on federalism and Quebec are the most notable examples of bad policy, both of which could have significant negative consequences to Canada.
A second weakness that both the Conservatives and the NDP share – arguably as a consequence of the continuing influence of their more extreme elements – is a lack of depth of talent in their parties and candidate pools. For the Conservatives, this has been on display with the departure of many of their most seasoned cabinet ministers (particularly those from the old PC wing of the party). For the NDP this lack of depth was on full display when Rachel Notley won her surprise majority in Alberta, and had to make some highly questionable appointments (e.g. an anti-oil lobbyist from out of province as chief of staff to the Energy Minister) to fill out her government. In the current federal election, the NDP are running a number of current undergraduate students for federal seats (including a pre-law student from York running in my Toronto-area riding).
The Liberals, as Matt has also pointed out have, far more than the other parties, gone after the best and brightest of all stripes to round out their list of candidates and policy advisors, offering a caucus that has the most depth and diversity of expertise. Like the other two parties, they have run a by-and-large incremental and centrist campaign with few bold policy proposals, but I am encouraged to see that where they have decided to pick their battles, they show a commitment to evidence-based policy. For example, while electing to run a (miniscule) deficit, they are choosing to make investments with high potential return (e.g. infrastructure improvement). As Matt points out, the Liberals have also made some questionable decisions that appear politically motivated (e.g. conditional support for C-51, proposing electoral reform without a clear promise of holding a referendum first, the Eve Adams affair, etc.), but the magnitude of impact these blunders would have on Canada does not, in my opinion, come close to those made or proposed by the other parties (e.g. killing the TPP or enacting the Fair Elections Act).
There are some places where I would have liked to see bolder proposals from any of the parties, including a national innovation strategy (or at least an inquiry as Matt proposes ), modernizing and removing perverse incentives in our education system (both K-12 and universities), and a carbon tax (although many of these require leadership and/or co-operation from the provinces). But in the end, the incremental nature of all the parties’ platforms may be a worthwhile price to pay for the largely consensus-based and fairly unpolarized political climate that Canada still enjoys when compared to allies like Britain and the US.
In the end, no matter who wins this election, I expect Canada will largely still be on the same track (for better or worse), but that doesn’t mean I don’t hope that Trudeau will be our next prime minister.
This post is part of The Tête-à-Tête’s ongoing discussion on who to vote for in the 2015 Canadian federal election.
4 thoughts on “Ian’s endorsement: Why I am voting Liberal this election”
I agree on the broad strokes (obviously), but one quick comment: you are right that Harper hasn’t veered us as far to the right during his tenure as some thought he might, and that the system is overall still working well; but I also think that a lot of people have used the fact that Harper hasn’t completely dismantled the system yet to play down the importance of this election – in a way that takes the health of our system for granted.
Take Britain and the US for example – the countries you compare us favorably to. The cartoonish political polarization that has plagued the US in recent years arguably started with the George W. Bush administration (whose policies, political tactics (the Rove school), and assaults on information were actually quite similar to Harper; see http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/12/stephen-harper-last-remnant-george-w-bush-north-america), and Citizens United certainly took things to a whole new level too, which we thankfully don’t have in Canada (though again, Harper sued the government with the NCC to do this). In Britain, I wouldn’t have said they had more polarized politics than we do until the last couple years. What happened? David Cameron’s conservatives ran a Crosby-inspired Islamaphobia campaign, skipped debates, etc. (as did Harper), after putting in place economy-punishing austerity (which Harper would have done with a majority in 2008), which in turn made room for the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.
So while I think Canada’s system is still largely intact, I would say that we are not immune to the political diseases in the US and Britain and Harper is the disease vector; ergo, this is indeed the most important election in a generation, as I argue in my endorsement.
And Blair’s participation in the war in Iraq (another policy position shared with Harper and George W. Bush) didn’t hurt the rise of the Corbyn Labour party either.
First of all, excellent article Ian! I enjoyed reading it!
I agree with your statement that “all three of the major parties are running on pretty centrist platforms and proposing only incremental changes”. So no need to argue there.
I also like that you mention that Stephen Harper did a good job in making sure his policies were more ‘centrist’. His pulling back from the war on Iraq, abandonment of third-party spending limits and support of the Liberal Party stimulus following the 2008 recession were good motives (link: https://theteteatete.org/2015/05/04/how-and-why-stephen-harper-is-a-bad-economic-manager/). And yes, the Fair Elections Act, ‘war on data’, Bill C-51 and proroguing of Parliament were bad motives.
Besides ‘bad’ policies, I believe the main reason many Canadians want Harper out is because of his ‘perceived arrogance’. What I refer to as ‘perceived arrogance’ is how media negatively and inaccurately portrays him as a poker-faced cipher just because he has an introverted personality (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-politics/the-nerd-who-came-from-nowhere-stephen-harper-knows-you-dont-need-to-like-a-politician-to-elect-him). This misunderstanding could explain why there is a lot of Harper-bashing in the first place. Getting to know the ‘true’ Stephen Harper would allow Canadians to respect him more for how he decides to govern Canada on a daily basis.
In regards to the NDP, I disagree with you that they are a ‘carbon-copy’ of the Conservatives under Harper. I also disagree with you on the Sherbrooke Declaration (50+1 threshold); I believe it is much fairer method than the Clarity Act in regards to recognizing a province’s independence from Canada. However, I do agree with you that their refusal to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership could have damaging consequences for Canada. As well, the NDP’s inability to have a position on the niqab debate and varying views within the party caucus has made me lose trust in this party (http://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/elections-federales/201509/29/01-4905034-malaise-au-npd-sur-le-niqab.php), and is one main reason I decided to change my vote to the Liberals.
In regards to lack of depth of talent in the Conservatives and NDP, I would disagree with you. When it comes to judging politicians, I never underestimate the potential of each candidate running for a political party. Like they say: “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
I perceive you are a proponent of a Liberal majority government. However, recent polls suggest the next government will be a Liberal minority (http://www.cbc.ca/polltracker) or Conservative minority (http://www.journaldemontreal.com/elections2015/calcul-electoral). Thus, do you trust the Liberals or Conservative running Canada with a minority? Or do you believe the Liberals and NDP should join forces and form a coalition government?
p.s. Matt, I do agree with you that Stephen Harper’s policies are similar to George W. Bush’s policies, especially in regards to voter-ID laws, multiculturalism, oil promotion, destroying the gun registry, muzzling of government scientists and believing climate change is a myth. Nonetheless, I disagree that Harper’s position on Iraq was the same as Bush and Tony Blair. From what I gather best, he pulled back from sending soldiers to that war.
And in regards to the most important election in a generation, I disagree. I think it’s a normal reaction to want to change government after having the same government in power for 9 years. And I believe every election is important as it is a chance for Canadians, young and old, to choose who they believe should represent the Canadian government.
Here is a piece by Margaret Wente that echoes my sentiment pretty closely (also an implicit endorsement of the Liberals) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/despite-the-rap-sheet-harper-isnt-the-worst-pm/article26845638/. Tristin Hopper at The National Post had a similarly themed piece http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/tristan-hopper-were-all-idiots-how-does-democracy-work-as-well-as-it-does. The Globe and Mail had what is at face value a nonsensical endorsement (‘we suggest that you vote Harper on the condition that he resigns’) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/the-tories-deserve-another-mandate-stephen-harper-doesnt/article26842506/, but their general longing for the return of the old Red Tories does resonate with me (not clear if they will coalesce their influence within the Liberals or the Tories in the long run though).
Thanks, Matt and Mark, for your comments. Matt, I think you are mistaken in pointing to the most recent right-of-centre government as the ultimate origin of highly polarized and divisive politics in the US and Britain. In the US, the move to hyper partisanship certainly started earlier. Orstein and Mann point to the tactics of Gingrich in the 80s as the origin https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/lets-just-say-it-the-republicans-are-the-problem/2012/04/27/gIQAxCVUlT_story.html, although others could even make the case to put the origins near the beginning of the cold war with the McCarthyism witch hunts and the corresponding backlash and growth of leftism’s popularity in academia. In general, I think the uniquely partisan political climate in the US owes its primary origins to the Cold War, an era that defined the upbringing of most of the current political class. The US’s central role in the Cold War adds a uniquely us-vs-them tribal nature to debates of libertarian vs. leftist policies that does not have good analogs in other countries (except maybe Russia post Gorbachev). The secondary cause for this hyper partisanship, and I think the reason that it has spiked now even more than in the height of the cold war, has been our changing attitudes toward corruption. We have become much more intolerant of petty corruption (horse-trading, earmarking, small-scale personal enrichment such as the Duffy affair) while we have become much more welcoming of overreacting and over moralizing crusades against petty corruption. This social change has disrupted the dirty oil that used to keep the gears of partisan and adversarial government working, and has left behind a political climate that, while appearing more ‘moral’ on the surface, gives players (like Gingrich) strong incentive to obstruct, moralize and generally crusade ‘against’ things, while placing very little incentive and very real risks on people actually doing anything, particularly anything bold. Ironically, I think we are learning that the opposite of corruption is obstruction, and not utopia. Another way to say that is that we are just starting to appreciate that extremes of ’empathy-based’ political actions (whistle-blowing, anti-corruption, ‘social justice’, those that draw on sentiments of egalitarianism and empathy for ‘the little guy’) can be just as destructive as the extremes of their ‘dominance-based’ counterparts (intimidation, corruption, etc.). A somewhat analogous transformation has also taken place in academia, where well-meaning efforts to inject sensitivity and egalitarianness have gone overboard and have started to erode the institution http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/
Mark: great comments. The only places where I disagree substantially are: 1) the Sherbrooke Declaration (we can agree to disagree), and 2) the importance of looking at talent and resumes of the candidates when deciding whom to vote for. I agree with the statement ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, which generally refers to the suggestion that we shouldn’t judge someone’s character or leadership by their physical appearance. The reason why this advice makes sense is that physical appearance (or skin colour, gender, etc.) should have correlation with the competence of the candidate. On the other hand, experience and training are legitimate bases on which to discriminate because they do have impact on how well they they could do the job. As an analogy, I would not choose who to draft for the Canadiens based on whether they were white or black, but I would look at how good they were at hockey. Likewise if I were choosing a finance minister, I would choose a candidate with a degree in finance and some experience in the financial sector over someone with a degree in Gender Studies and a career as an analyst at the Broadbent Institute, regardless of their political leanings. Similarly, I would prefer a scientist as a Science Minister over a chiropractor that doesn’t believe in evolution. I would prefer an energy minister with experience in and knowledge of the energy sector over an anti-pipeline activist. I would prefer an environmental scientist as an Environment minister over an oil executive.