Quick: If the Harper Government™ loses this election, what will it be remembered for? I don’t mean this in a partisan way. Here’s another question: what is the singular most important achievement that we remember the Chretien government for? Any answers?
The current election isn’t the first time in Canadian politics that we have been mostly bereft of big ideas, where not just the daily grind of Parliament Hill but the collective sum of Canadian political culture seems preoccupied with minor and uninteresting questions like tweaks to corporate tax rates and the propriety of inter-party Parliamentary cooperation. But we are in a period where our nation is simultaneously far wealthier, more resourceful, and therefore more capable of reaching forward than ever before, yet is stunningly bereft of any vision of where we might reach to. For the moment, I like to think of some of the more important areas where vision is sadly lacking as the missing planks of the election campaign.
Consider. Whether you liked them or not, most of the long-lasting prime ministers prior to Chretien can be remembered for substantial contributions. Mulroney paved the way for NAFTA. Trudeau introduced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Pearson implemented universal healthcare. Diefenbaker introduced healthcare and a genuine independent foreign policy to the national debate (the first is credited to his successor, and the second failed, but at least he swung for the fences). St. Laurent laid the basic postwar foundations of the Canadian welfare state. Bennett created EI. Borden extended the voting franchise to women. Laurier created the navy. Macdonald negotiated Confederation in the first place. What major new program has been created or even proposed by Harper?
At various times in history the government has had the political courage to nationalize (or simply create) power companies, airlines, gas companies, railways, drinking water systems, healthcare, radio and television broadcasters, and so on. Canada gave birth to the Red Tory, a political hybrid unknown elsewhere in the world. Today the top rung of political culture doesn’t just lack big ideas, they aren’t even interested in searching for big ideas. Danny Williams’s seizure of a mill from a dishonest multinational in 2008 was the only spark of genuine defiance we’ve seen from any ruling politician in years.
In time, historians and political scientists will identify some sort of legacy for Chretien and Harper. Maybe even Martin. But I think I am not mistaken in saying that there will be comparatively little for them to pick over. What fundamental contributions to Canadian society have our recent governments made? Let’s set aside what they did, and just focus on what they proposed. The biggest debates today are just over incremental adjustments at the margins of the legacy programs of past governments: temporary EI extensions, public funding for a new MS trial, a tax cut here, a bridge repair there.
The beginning of this election campaign is a perfect example. There are a number of crises which this country is going to have to confront in the next 10-20 years. These include dangerous decline in democratic institutions, the future of healthcare, energy production, water supplies, agriculture, climate change, and national unity. So far none of the parties are talking about any of these issues at anything like a serious level. I predict, though, that none of them will try seriously to make these an element of their campaigns going forward, either. Despite that, several of these issues are not only important, but important enough that they could capsize the nation if not dealt with properly.
And I’m still only talking purely reactively, about problems we will have to confront eventually whether we want to or not. I’m not talking about big ideas, just big problems. What else could Canada achieve, with an inspired leadership? Guaranteed minimum income? Free postsecondary education? A space program? A nationalized pharmaceutical research program? A green economy? Any one of these could be genuinely described (with only minor exaggeration) as “revolutionary,” a term currently applied to such minor and unimportant tweaks as a few hundred bucks a year for university students.
But who will champion these ideas on the national stage?Tweet