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.