Toward a Healthy Society

Fights We'll Wish We Had: a Four Sectors Analysis of the 2011 Canadian Federal Election

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

Sometimes relationships are conspicuous not for the fights they have, but for the ones they don't. This federal election left Canadians feeling uneasy for the same grand silence at the heart of some of the country's most pressing issues: health care, public debt, pension entitlements, and the economy. The governing logic of each of Canada's major party platforms is a variation on a theme. This election was characterized by American Idol-style attacks because it was hard to articulate a sharp practical difference between the parties.

Sometimes relationships are conspicuous not for the fights they have, but for the ones they don't. This federal election left Canadians feeling uneasy for the same grand silence at the heart of some of the country's most pressing issues: health care, public debt, pension entitlements, and the economy. The governing logic of each of Canada's major party platforms is a variation on a theme. This election was characterized by American Idol-style attacks because it was hard to articulate a sharp practical difference between the parties.

The two big stories: the Liberals, the historic winner of the centrist undecided, were utterly defeated because their policies and people just didn't feel different enough. And the bigger winners, the NDP, made huge gains by fashioning a platform that looked suspiciously mainstream, with calls for deficit elimination and debt reduction at the same target level as the Conservatives.

Those parallels are drawn not to make light of the Conservatives' record on democratic ethos, or the Liberals' strange Champion Sector plan to transform the Canadian economy. But they do show that underlying assumptions about the ways and means of the government are getting more consistent. When even the NDP can be heard committing passionately to balancing budgets and reducing the deficit, we can be sure some assumptions have crossed party lines and defined a new mainstream. There are significant divisions in the party platforms, different pictures for Canada's social architecture, but the ultimate result of this election has been parties that are closer in logic and feel than voters might hope.

The Conservative Platform

The Conservatives ran on an economic record this election which is enviable in the developed world. Their platform was targeted at the private, for-profit sector as the primary building block of Canadian social architecture. It had very little that was creative or innovative, most of its policies either having already been floated in the prior budget or extensions of those already in place. Indeed, what it lacked in creativity, it celebrated in stability. Conservative fiscal policy has tracked extremely well with the Canadian electorate which, in a cultural coup, has developed an allergy to deficit budgets in a very short period of time.

The structural reduction of government capacity has also changed the tone of the public conversation, in which only the NDP remain ambitious enough to unapologetically float large scale federal programs. Tax cuts and incentives are traditional Conservative policy fare, but these have been picked up as tools of choice by the Liberals as well as the NDP. This increased emphasis on devolution and the individual is a powerful cultural change, driven by demographic and fiscal pragmatism as well as other cultural forces.

As a consequence, this platform has gestures but very little of substance on the other sectors of Canadian social architecture. The vision of a strong private sector driving an economically vibrant and therefore choice-rich Canadian society is consistent with Conservative trickle-down policy. Families and natural communities are clearly singled out in this platform as significant, but government's ability to influence those communities beyond creative tax policy is limited. Other disparities, affordable housing, poverty, and climate change are not necessarily absent, but clearly secondary or tertiary concerns for the Conservatives. Certainly all of these issues are understood as afterthoughts to economic stability, in the narrow sense.

The blueprint of this social architecture is clear: government will help coordinate and cultivate the capacity of individuals and their communities to make the choices they value. What is absent here is a moral centre, an articulated concept of Canadian values that insists that Canada's social architecture has sectors which are not necessarily qualified as economic but nonetheless consistent with the task of government. Social conservatives waiting for a hard, value-driven articulation of Canadian public life will wait a long time under this vision; it is a utilitarian approach predicated on institutions other than the government—families, religious communities, education institutions, and more—filling those moral gaps. Notably, family income splitting is introduced as a socially friendly measure, but only after economic recovery can justify the expense, and then only as a means by which to enlarge individual choice through tax policy, not as a public program.

But the Conservatives offer no apologies for this bean-counting sustenance of freedom of choice and expression. There are one or two ideas—the Office of Religious Freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade among them—that fill the dual purpose of protecting individual liberty while satisfying social conservatives, but these are convenient gestures, not political teasers waiting for fuller policy agendas.

Safety and prosperity were the hallmarks of this Conservative campaign, and this historic majority speaks to a desire for stability in a culture of uncertainty and individualism—increasingly part of the Canadian ethos.

The New Democratic Platform

The New Democrat surge, especially in Quebec, went beyond anything that even the most ambitious polls predicted. Even New Democrats seemed caught off guard, scrambling to organize candidates which, in some ridings, were less than credible. Those candidates will join the newest session of Canadian parliament.

The jubilant cheers by the NDP were hard earned on Monday night, but its victory may owe as much to its new centrist positioning as the magnetism of its leader Jack Layton. Undoubtedly, the primary sector for the New Democratic party is the public, which it takes to be the driver of both private sector equality and natural and civil communities. Its platform is thinner, but highly innovative—if expensive. But this expense is couched in a new NDP shift into the mainstream, committing to balancing the federal budget within four years.

Private sector recovery in the NDP platform is more or less understood. If Conservative policies are trickle down, NDP policies are predicated on a trickle-up social architecture: more centralized equality will result in stronger sectors. A balanced budget in combination with large-scale public sector programs, however, means a much higher revenue base. Certainly corporate taxes, but likely also consumption taxes, would need to be increased to make part of this agenda possible.

One thing the NDP is talking about that neither of the other parties have seemed bothered by is the massive fiscal hole that health care is and will increasingly become in Canadian politics. While a 10 year accord which includes a 6 percent escalator may not be a highly creative intervention, it is—at least—an intervention on a seriously troubled industry. It is a commitment, furthermore, that government will continue to have a role in all levels of Canadian life, not the subtle shift to prevention and downloading which seems to lie beneath the Conservative and Liberal platforms.

On infrastructure, child, health, and senior care, the New Democratic platform is far more specific and targeted than the others, which talk more about partnerships and devolution than large-scale public programs.

Of course, with the New Democrats, the issue for Canadian voters often comes down to cost. The commitment to balance the budget is fairly radical, in light of the proposals in this platform. Still, that promise is one sentence at the end of a robust platform which privileges public, distributive powers as the driving force behind Canadian social architecture. The private sector is a distant fourth in our analysis, long after the public has provided the infrastructure for natural and civil communities.

It is, perhaps, ironic to argue that the NDP actually has the most morally robust vision of Canadian social architecture—and this may be a key for its attraction. It is not content to devolve or download fundamental questions of our common life, but insists on continuing to articulate a strong, centralizing task of government's positive mandate for public justice. It is one of the lone voices left in Canada carrying that tune. But with its mainstream adjustments on tax policy and balanced budgets, one wonders how much longer it will occupy that role.

The Liberal Platform

The Liberal choice didn't seem like much of a choice to Canadian voters on Monday, as Ignatieff failed to distinguish his party in a significant way. This may be because the Liberal platform driven by the mantra equal opportunity was not, in a fundamental way, altogether dissimilar from the Conservative platform. The choices were not insignificant; they were simply not fundamental. The Liberals and the Conservatives basically disagreed on which sector should take the lead: private-for-profit, or the public-government. And it was a disagreement by degrees, beyond which the articulation of individual choice and minimalist government was essentially the same.

The cancellation of the Conservative corporate tax cuts and limitation of tax breaks on stock options are the signals of this private/public inversion. While there was doubt in the campaign that these measures would be enough to increase the capacity of the federal government to enact the Liberals' more ambitious plans, it does signal an important distinction between private sector-driven renewal and a more centralizing approach.

It is a distinction, but not a radical one. The Liberals remain committed to reducing the deficit to one percent of GDP within two years, driven by rolling, near term targets. This is predicated, importantly, on a continued successful economic recovery—about which, unfortunately, this platform had very little to say. Aside from vague promises of cutting wasteful spending and the cancellation of $30 billion in fighter aircraft (over enough years that the effect is hardly front loaded), it is unclear what spending discipline means or how the Liberals would steward private sector recovery.

One thing was clear: the Liberal economic plan was predicated on an urban, service driven economics and it was not enough. Canada's Champion Sectors include clean resources, health and biosciences, and digital technologies. What is less clear is where the primary sector, logging and oil especially, or manufacturing would have fit. Targeting Champion Sectors may be innovative, even important, but doing so at the expense of an articulated recovery plan for industry as it is clearly marks this as a lower Liberal priority. Recovery driven around centralized key sectors is a very different economic architecture.

The Liberals share investments in infrastructure and youth employment with the Conservatives, though with the exception that here Liberal policies also seemed to be weighted urban, focusing on major highways, commuter rail, municipal infrastructure, and high-speed rail. The main rural promises in the Liberal platform were comprehensive broadband and targeted incentives for rural nurses and doctors, programs that exist or overlap at various levels.

None of which should detract from the Liberals' clear priority on public sector innovation. These innovations were among the more creative in this election. The Family Care plan was designed specifically to tackle both the impending health and demographic crises. It's a creative policy that deserves consideration by the new government, working to give families — often the primary unit of care — the capacity to provide for elderly or infirm dependents. Other initiatives included a six-month Family Care Employment Insurance Benefit so family members can take more time off work to care for those gravely ill. These are important ideas for addressing the shortfall in Canada's natural communities.

The Learning Passport was also a key piece of the Liberal plan for the renewal of Canadian social architecture. It's more innovative than the $800 million cash transfer the NDP proposed into the post-secondary system, and more ambitious than the Conservative status quo, which did include some previous measures, including tax-free scholarships.

Emphases on a Canada Service Corps, including forgiving up to $1,500 of student debt for young Canadians donating at least 150 service hours a year, are equally unique. From affordable housing, to fighting poverty, to freshwater strategy, to green renovation tax credits, the Liberal platform was far thicker than even the NDP's more expensive proposals. It would not be out of place to say that what the Conservatives lacked in fresh governance policy, the Liberals made up. But the reverse could be said on prudent fiscal management, and that was not a story on which Canadians could be galvanized.

The Liberal platform put the government of Canada, the public sector, back at the heart of the engine of Canadian social architecture, and after that, families, education, the environment, civil and voluntary associations, and more. But at the very end of that platform was an ironically similar goal to the Conservatives: equal opportunity and choice. It works through different demographics and different industries, notably service industry, educated urbanites, but this platform had at its same end an identical social architecture to the Conservative party—a choice-driven society with opportunity for self-discovery and betterment, driven but not articulated by the government.

Most Canadians, clearly, could not see the difference.

The Bloc Québecois Platform

The Bloc has effectively ceased to be a force of political power in the country. This election saw the steady erosion of the Bloc's home ice advantage, as the electorate begins to shift further and further from the language of moral and cultural distinctiveness as defined by a national government or political party.

The Bloc's prior success was predicated on the logic that a political party carries and executes and moral and cultural vision of a particular constituency. But in a context where morality and culture are devolving to increasingly minor psychographic clusters, parties no longer capture loyalty with the kind of grand vision of Quebec identity that the Bloc won its success on. Voters are more interested in parties that will provide the space and conditions within which they can self-define and self-associate. That could mean a robust Quebecker identity, or it could mean something very different.

If there is one thing that should strike the casual observer about the Bloc's platform, it's that all this talk of national identity lacks any kind of moral or normative basis. It has become identity politics for the sake of identity but the standard is blank and the rallies are empty. The party which has depended most on political parties meaning some specific cultural or moral vision has eroded in the face of other, more utilitarian-minded agendas, which can easily absorb and embrace a devolution and autonomous articulation of whatever identities voters care to have.

A strong fighting Québec identity needs a better cultural opponent than a vacuum of cultural indifference bolstered by economic utility. This election, Québeckers voted not to beat them but join them. And while the result may be better for Canadian federalism, the collapse of one of Canada's key dissenting demographics is less a result of federalism gone right than apathy and identity politics gone wild.


Given these overlaps, it is unsurprising that the election essentially devolved to celebrity caricatures and procedural fights. The biggest card the opposition parties had to play was Stephen Harper's contempt of Parliament—an important issue, undoubtedly, but also one which deflects rather than targets other serious issues facing Canada. The democratic deficit, such as it is, may have given the Conservatives the space to play fast and loose with Parliamentary procedure, but the Canadian public's indifference is surely driven by the fact that regardless of which party sits in power in the House, the outcomes seem conspicuously pre-determined.

A historic majority speaks to that consensus.

In a country where nationalist separatism flags from moral vacuum and socialist redistribution defaults to balancing the budgets, you can't help but feel the fight has gone out of Canadian politics. True enough: these platforms are different blueprints for Canadian social architecture, but our end result looks more like suburban cookie cut-outs than distinctive moral and cultural options. We're defaulting to fewer and fewer institutions, exactly when we need to be expanding our options—enlisting and engaging a four sectors approach to Canadian social architecture. One wonders if, generations from now, Canadians will look back and wistfully pine for the fights we never had.