There is a school of thought, as Canada heads into an election year, that real change — the kind that reshapes a nation — is impossible. In an era of slow growth, constrained finances and constant polling, the most voters can expect is tinkering, marketing and low-cost policy adjustments.
Superficially, this theory makes sense. All three federal parties are bunched in the middle of the spectrum. The majority of voters want balanced budgets and stable taxes. There are no blockbuster issues — free trade, a radical lurch to the left or right, a makeover of medicare or a national unity crisis — on the horizon.
But dig deeper and the hypothesis collapses. There are major challenges facing the nation: an aging population, an unsustainable economic strategy, a widening gulf between the privileged few and the rest of the population, a reputation for truculence on the world stage, a dearth of jobs for talented young people, a toxically outdated Indian Act, an impenetrable shell of government secrecy and a mean-spiritedness toward the poor, the unemployed, asylum-seekers and young offenders.
Look beyond their apparent convergence on fiscal matters and there are differences — important differences — among the leaders.
At the moment, the defining question for election-watchers is whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet his goal of eliminating the federal deficit this year. Plunging oil prices have blown a $5-billion hole in his budget projections.
That can be answered in a word: Yes. The Conservatives will cut expenditures as aggressively as it takes to achieve their target.
But a nation’s balance sheet is not the measure of what it stands for or aspires to be. Over the course of the year, it will be eclipsed by choices that tap into people’s values and priorities. Here are 10 that could set Canada on a different course. Eight require a new prime minister. Two do not.
• Even if Harper wins a fourth mandate, Ottawa is likely to bend to pressure at home and abroad on climate change. Canada cannot continue to be an outlier, spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere humanity shares.
• No matter who governs after the election, Ottawa will have to prepare for the grey tsunami that is going to transform the workforce, strain the health-care system and require a faster inflow of immigrants.
• Should either the New Democrats or Liberals take power Canadians can expect a restoration of their democratic institutions. Both Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau have promised to return Parliament to its rightful place as a forum for national debate and turn back the secrecy and high-handedness that have shut Canadians out of decision-making.
• Likewise both opposition leaders recognize that Canada is an urban nation requiring new policies and revenue-generating tools. Neither has announced a specific urban strategy, but it is safe to say the current approach — brushing off cities as a provincial responsibility — will be replaced if the Tories are defeated.
• A more balanced international stance is foreseeable under a New Democratic or Liberal prime minister. Mulcair supports a peaceful coexistence of independent states in the Middle East, an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and an end to violence targeting civilians. Trudeau seeks to rebuild Canada’s reputation as a trusted intervenor on the world stage.
• A new prime minister would almost certainly put Confederation on a more collegial footing. Under Harper, there has not been a First Ministers meeting since 2009.
• A rational cost-benefit analysis would persuade a Liberal or New Democratic government to re-think Harper’s harsh crime crackdown. Filling Canada’s jails with young offenders — especially those awaiting trial — is an enormously expensive and ineffective way to fight law-breaking.
• Both opposition leaders have indicated their willingness to launch an inquiry into the disproportionate rate of violence against aboriginal women. This would be a sign of openness to First Nations and a precursor to a more inclusive Canada.
• Canada’s employment insurance system is badly out of sync with today’s labour market. It provides no support to the millions of workers with temporary, part-time or casual jobs. Neither the New Democrats nor Liberals have promised an overhaul, but both have complained that the existing rules are unfair.
• Finally it is possible, though by no means assured, that a new government would embark on a modernization of Canada’s 40-year-old tax code, which encourages the top 0.1 per cent of earners to skim off an ever-larger share of the national income.
Don’t expect sudden or speedy change. As Harper discovered, it takes time, patience and pragmatism to turn the ship of state around.
But don’t be discouraged by cynics. The “political monoculture” they see is largely the result of the blinkers they wear.