Recent polls indicate that Canadians are not satisfied with any political party. But are we simply getting the leadership we’ve asked for?
Recent polls confirm that no federal political party is close to winning majority support. Canadians, it seems, are not buying what is on offer.
But could it be that we are getting the politics we deserve? We don’t seem to be looking to government for grand projects or ambitious plans, whether because we care less than we used to about issues such as poverty at home and in the world, or because we are more skeptical of government’s ability to deliver. Our focus seems, in these uncertain times, to be close to home and short term.
For years we have welcomed successive and significant federal tax cuts without any real consideration of their costs – a trend no politician is proposing to reverse. We pretend together that we can balance the books and preserve valued services through some combination of efficiencies, economic growth and painless cuts, ignoring that the numbers don’t add up. People generally don’t want to pay more taxes and our politicians oblige.
At the federal level, for example, a strange conspiracy of silence surrounds health care reform, no doubt because the issue is difficult and divisive, but also because the challenge of an aging population makes a discussion of taxes and the role of the federal government inevitable. It seems that this is a debate that many of us would prefer to defer.
And, for the same reasons, many seem relieved that climate change is losing political steam and that the tough choices will be put off to another day and perhaps another generation, even as the consequences are visible and profound.
Politicians and their professional advisors learn quickly that we don’t much like our leaders to bring us bad news. Bad news is bad politics. They learn too that it can be political suicide to propose more taxes or to stand up for public servants or to defend the human rights of those we don’t much like. They learn that playing to our growing distrust of government is easier than rebuilding that trust. And federal leaders learn very quickly the risks of taking on issues that create jurisdictional friction or regional conflicts. Politicians need to win if they are to govern and they either learn what it takes to win or they disappear.
And so we get the politics we deserve, or is this, more accurately, the politics we have learned to want? Leadership matters, preferences and priorities are learned; if our leaders are not saying much about poverty or climate change surely that will have an impact on how much we think about those issues. The trivialization of politics – the avoidance of tough issues, the preoccupation with polls and often brutal tactics, the pandering – is self-perpetuating.
Take crime, for instance, one area where we do see active government. As we Canadians grow older, more fearful and less tolerant of crime, we want our fears addressed, we want tough measures – even though the rate of crime and violence has been coming down for decades. Our politicians give us what we want and the more they talk tough the more we want it.
With the exception of some from Quebec (and the Senate), federal politicians of every stripe are now supporting mandatory minimum sentences, though the evidence shows that they do not contribute to safety but do fill up our prisons. Talk about rehabilitation and structured release before sentence expiry is now rare, politically dangerous. Punitive policies are pursued against all the evidence and with little discussion about the costs.
Of course, serious crime must be treated seriously. Punishment must be just, proportional to the offence. Our fears too should be treated seriously and respectfully. But the evidence about what actually works to make us safer should matter and so too should the evidence about what makes things worse. Policies should not simply pander to our fears or anger nor should they promise a degree of safety impossible in a free and democratic society.
Perhaps, in the end, the recent political polls are showing us the limits of pandering and pretending. Not only can no federal party gain any traction, but more and more Canadians are turning off and tuning out. Positively, many find their own ways to make a difference through domestic and international voluntarism and local initiative. To interest those people, and particularly our youth, in national politics – to restore confidence in the political process – will require politicians willing to take some political risks, to tell us the truth, to lead not just listen, to come up with new ways to deal with new challenges.
Perhaps this is the moment for a politician to talk about the things we may not want to hear, to remind us that persistent poverty diminishes us all, that those who benefit most from the opportunities Canada affords have the greatest responsibility to share those opportunities, that with Canada’s natural bounty comes responsibility for its conservation.
Of course it is not enough to set out the problems nor will we readily accept old solutions. Now is the time for leaders who will tell us how we might harness local ingenuity and new technologies to achieve national ends, how poverty and the environment are our business, how changes to our income supports can make work pay and mitigate the consequences of poverty, how fiscal solutions can change the incentives for carbon production. And notwithstanding the jurisdictional issues, now is the time for leaders who put education at the centre of the agenda because it is vital to our economy, to equality of opportunity, and to our common citizenship.
As little as we want another health care debate, we must be ready to hear leaders tell us how we can bring the Canada Health Act into the 21st century and how the right mix of taxes can help us pay for this fairly and responsibly.
And even as we are preoccupied by domestic issues, we should be ready for leaders who understand that the world matters to Canada and that Canada must raise its game to matter to the world. Now is the time for leaders who are prepared to refashion the role of the federal government so that it is relevant once again to Canadians.
The political risks of an agenda that challenges and provokes us, and that does not shy away from tough and potentially divisive debates are no doubt considerable. But the risks of any other kind of agenda are far greater. Sometimes good medicine tastes bad. Now is the time for a narrative that we may not like but that we can believe and a plan that we can believe in.
We need not settle for less.