Election 2015: Four weeks in the life of a country

Life, death and politics in the first four weeks of the federal election campaign

The learned man seemed to hold little hope for the weeks and months ahead.

“This issue’s highly politicized. It’s sound bites. It’s wedge issues. It’s complex. It’s confusing . . . and, hopefully, we don’t have too much damage in the system that sort of impedes action, once the dust settles and a new government forms and we need to start preparing for the future.”

This was Dave Sawyer, an economist who has worked with Environment Canada and the federal environment commissioner and vice-president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. This was Aug. 11, four days after Linda McQuaig, the NDP candidate in Toronto Centre, had publicly suggested that possibly not all of the oil buried in Alberta could be developed if this country was to do its part in staving off the worst of global climate change. The Prime Minister had subsequently cited McQuaig’s comments as evidence of why the NDP should never be allowed to hold power, and the NDP had declared that McQuaig’s comments did not reflect official party policy, never minding that McQuaig’s statement is basically the commitment Stephen Harper has made to the world.

Related: Paul Wells on the strange truth about energy policy

So Sawyer had been invited to explain to a radio audience how this should be understood. And, in the final moments of that discussion, he had been asked whether the federal government might present a comprehensive plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions during the election campaign. His best hope was that the 70 days remaining would not so poison the public discourse as to further prevent serious and necessary action from being taken once the campaign was concluded.

On the available evidence, this seems reasonable. For the sake of protecting the future survival of our species, we might be better off leaving climate-change policy to a panel of economists. The question thus raised would seem to be this: Is democracy bad for our health?

An election campaign is a silly exercise—giant flags, slogans, clapping, actors fretting about politicians in television ads. The nation has officially been at this for four weeks now. We have experienced a third of the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history. Aside from disappointing anyone interested in a nuanced debate about the particulars of dealing with climate change, how is it going so far?

    The blessing and curse of the 21st-century election campaign is that everything matters—or, at least, everything can seem to matter.

    The first question put to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau after he officially launched his official campaign on Aug. 2 concerned whether he had erred in not appearing before television cameras until 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, approximately three hours later than both Harper and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair had appeared publicly. In fairness to the reporter asking that question, this was considered by engaged observers to be a thing that was worth discussing at that moment.

    The next day, it was noted that the Prime Minister had taken to referring to the Liberal leader only by his given name. Two days after that, the Prime Minister announced his opposition to a tax on Netflix that no one had proposed. The day after that, a “stir” was created by a photo of Trudeau posing with a woman who was not wearing a shirt.

    Items of note from the ensuing three weeks have included the appearance of three boy scouts in uniform at a Conservative announcement, a misidentified salmon, a Conservative supporter who yelled at reporters, a Liberal candidate who posted some unfortunate messages to social media when she was 17a federal scientist who wrote an unflattering song about the Prime Minister, and a gentleman in a bathrobe. There have also been at least two unjustified references to the Nazis so far.

    In the midst of all that, we were provided with an unprecedented look inside the Prime Minister’s Office and at how it operates. What was revealed therein should surely matter, but it’s not clear how much it will affect the result on Oct. 19. Just 15 per cent of Canadians are said to have followed this month’s testimony very closely, another 35 per cent somewhat closely. Beyond the matter of who knew what, there was no great discussion about how Parliament operates or how a new government would conduct itself.

    In his new book, What’s Happened to Politics?, Bob Rae posits that Kim Campbell’s infamous declaration that “an election is a very bad time to be discussing serious issues of public policy” is true. Even if important matters of policy have been raised, the last four weeks would probably bear this out. The party leaders give speeches full of oversimplified declarations and deliver oversimplified, sometimes evasive, responses to the scattershot questions of reporters. The press is not quite able to control and focus the debate. Outside groups seem of little influence. And the public is variously said only vaguely to care about, or understand anything that is going on.

    Almost anything can seem to matter, or be imagined to matter—the Prime Minister surely wouldn’t be referring to the Liberal leader as “Justin” if it weren’t believed to be of some potential strategic value—even as things that seem as though they should matter are dispensed with in haste (or ignored). Peter Loewen recently argued that ideas matter less as policies than as totems and, at least as far as any single policy might be deeply considered by a statistically significant portion of the public, that’s probably true.

    In the interests of discussion, it’s possible this campaign will actually end up seeming as though it wasn’t long enough. On the campaign’s third day, the Conservatives committed to spending $1.5 billion per year in public funds on a home-renovation tax credit. This is actually quite profound. That our cumulative effort at collective self-government—that $1.5 billion of that effort—should involve helping people redo their kitchens is the sort of thing we might have spent a full week considering. (At the very least, we might agree to set down some clear rules about the the styles of floor tile we’re willing, as a society, to accept.) Instead, the policy was chewed on for a day or so before being swallowed and forgotten.

    On the same day Dave Sawyer was hoping the candidates for office would stop talking about climate change, a fundraising appeal in the name of Rona Ambrose, the federal health minister, was sent to the Conservative party’s mailing list.

    “You know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and our Conservative government can be counted on to protect families and children from the threat posed by illegal drugs,” Ambrose wrote.

    “But what you may not know is that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP oppose the vital measures we’ve taken to keep dangerous drugs away from our children, and to keep heroin-injection houses away from our neighbourhoods and schools.”

    What the minister refers to as “heroin-injection houses”—a phrase she would use twice more in that email—are more commonly known as supervised injection sites, facilities that provide heroin addicts a safe and secure place to inject themselves, thus, one hopes, reducing the risks of death and disease. (The lone such facility in Canada also provides detox services and access to nurses and counsellors.) That the health minister would be using the spectre of heroin addiction to fundraise for her party would seem to support a thesis that professional politicians should not be allowed to deal with truly important matters.

    But, some 16 hours before Ambrose’s plea for money, a reporter for the CBC in British Columbia posted a story about a recent number of overdoses from fentanyl and the continued existence of Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection facility. Within that story was a quote from Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.

    “I would be happy,” Daly said, “if this was an election issue.”

    Daly is a supporter of Insite and, as she told me later that day, she’d “rather we talk about these things and tell people what we’ve been doing, show them the evidence.”

    By then, the Prime Minister had told a news conference that, in his view, “the data” on InSite were “very mixed,” but a fight about the evidence might be to the doctor’s advantage. No less than the justices of the Supreme Court have ruled, “Insite has been proven to save lives.” The government’s own expert review of the evidence in 2008 noted it’s possible one life per year was saved as a result of InSite.

    If that one life is our baseline—even if we ignore all else Insite might be accomplishing—then here is a debate about life and death. On the one hand is new legislation from the Conservatives that might make it very difficult to establish a safe injection facility, and a health minister who seems to deplore such sites. On the other, the New Democrats and Liberals who opposed that legislation and seem open to the establishment of such facilities.

    “I think the real appeal of sites like that is the idea they will be in somebody else’s neighbourhood, somebody else’s community,” the Prime Minister said on Aug. 11.

    He might have just as easily been talking about climate change (or, at least, the cost of dealing with which).

    “I don’t underestimate the sophistication of the public to understand this issue,” says Daly.

    That sounds like a test, which is, ultimately, what an election is: a complicated and barely readable test of politicians, policy, public interest, the abilities of the actors hired to fret about politicians in television ads, and of what matters.

    This election will, implicitly or explicitly, render a decision on those and other issues. Which is to say that, however smartly or dimly conducted, whatever shouldn’t matter that is made to matter, elections still matter.

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