The missing ingredient in this federal election

Paul Wells: Elections sometimes give us a chance to improve government. But it requires someone to step up with a compelling project or reason to be optimistic.

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Trudeau campaigning in Niagara Falls, Ont. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Surely they’re having us on. At some point, don’t the leaders of the major federal parties have to show up together in one place, announce they’ve been playing an elaborate practical joke on us and cancel the election?

“We’ll have the real election after New Year’s,” Justin Trudeau will tell the Canadian people.

“We sure had you scared!” Andrew Scheer will say.

“You should have seen the expressions on your faces,” Elizabeth May will add.

And then we’ll all have a laugh and go to the pub for chicken wings.

Because surely this can’t be an actual national election campaign in a serious country in dangerous times.

On Sept. 24, to pick one random campaign day, the following happened.

At Cracker Jack’s Bar and Grill in Thorold, Ont., Andrew Scheer said he would cut red tape on Canadian business by one-quarter. That’s a lot. That’s every fourth annoying form. So which needless regulations would he cut? When he becomes prime minister, as was certainly possible, in less than a month?

Well, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, the Conservative leader mumbled. There were those two Ottawa schoolgirls whose lemonade stand next to the Rideau Canal was shut down by the National Capital Commission in 2016 because they didn’t have a permit, he said.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau’s face

That’s his example? Sure, if you simplified permit processing for the canal-adjacent refreshment industry, you could pump countless nickels into the economy.

A few days earlier, Scheer said he would “look for” $1.5 billion in cuts to corporate welfare. That sounds like a lot of money, until you compare it to a quarter-trillion dollars in annual federal program spending, at which point it sounds like unfinished homework. You’re going to “look for” $1.5 billion to cut? Tell you what, sweetie: how about you go find $1.5 billion you know you want to cut, tell us where you want to cut it, and we’ll vote for you if we like it.

On the same day Scheer was promising to unleash the nation’s shackled beverage moppets, the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh was in Winnipeg trying to understand federalism.

Singh had told the CBC that if any province doesn’t want an energy project on its territory to happen, it won’t happen. That sounds like a veto. Now, a day later, he was being asked about his veto plan. He said he doesn’t want to give provinces a veto over pipelines—he just doesn’t want to build pipelines where provinces don’t want them. This is how you would describe a veto if, for whatever reason, you were required to avoid using the letter v.

Still, the uncontested winner in the day’s the-dog-ate-my-policy sweepstakes was the Liberals, because this was the day they announced their climate-change policy for a second term in power. Catherine McKenna, the environment minister, made the first announcement in Ottawa; Justin Trudeau followed in Vancouver.

The plan is to legislate national targets for carbon emissions for the next 31 years, in five-year increments, all the way down to “net-zero” emissions in 2050. How would they do it? They don’t have a shred of a clue, is how. “The point is right now, we need to get elected,” McKenna said. “If we are re-elected we will look at how best to do this.”

They will “figure this out,” she added, by appointing a panel of scientists and other experts who will tell them how to accomplish the greatest energy-source transformation since the Industrial Revolution.

When Trudeau’s turn came, he said the Liberals are “on track” to meet their 2030 emissions targets. They are not on track. Nobody whose job it is to watch these things believes the Trudeau government is on track to meet its 2030 targets. They have all said the government is not on track.

The Prime Minister repeated that his government is “on track.”

No Canadian government, Liberal or Conservative, has ever met carbon emission reduction targets set by itself or a preceding government. This one is certain to miss its 2020 target, by a country mile, and a safe bet to miss 2030. Trudeau is in denial about the 2030 target and promising to legislate four more after that. Massive reductions, far beyond anything we’ve seen. How? “Scientists.” The government’s online directory lists 386 scientists at Environment and Climate Change Canada. No panel in the future can decide how to meet those targets better than these federal scientists could have done if they had been asked. The only benefit of the future panel is that you have to vote before you can decide what you think of its work.

Trudeau’s zero-net 2050 promise is this year’s version of his 2015 electoral-reform promise. It’s a sucker trap: “Vote for me and something wonderful will happen. Somehow.” This is the choice facing Canadians in October: a Conservative government that won’t care about missing emissions targets or a Liberal government that will feel bad about missing those targets before demanding you vote for them again anyway.

Let’s generalize from this specific case. If this year’s election has you down, if you’ve had quite enough of politicians saying inane things and then calling you cynical, perhaps it’s because this year’s election offers very little hope that we can use it as an opportunity to trade up.

Elections sometimes give us a chance at a better government, or at least a realistic hope for one. A lot of Canadians felt they were trading up when Trudeau became prime minister in 2015. Others felt it when Brian Mulroney became PM in 1984.

Sometimes even when governments don’t change, there’s room for optimism. The third victory of Jean Chrétien’s Liberals in 2000 sent both the era’s conservative parties and the NDP back to the drawing board. They returned with Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, each of whom won growing shares of the popular vote for four consecutive elections starting in 2004. Chrétien’s re-election led by a short road to Lucien Bouchard’s resignation as Quebec premier and, not long after, to a nearly unbroken 15 years of federalist government in Quebec.

This year the election offers no such hope for short-term improvement.

After watching him for four years, I think it’s fair to say Justin Trudeau has not provided very good government. After watching for half the campaign, I also think it’s not realistic to assume Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives would be more thoughtful or imaginative. Or that Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May are detail people. Or that Trudeau has learned, and would apply if he were re-elected, any useful lessons from his increasingly laborious slog through his time in office.

Which means this election won’t settle much. It will be interesting to see who wins, in the sense that it’s distracting to watch a long series of coin tosses. But no matter who wins, a better-governed Canada seems unlikely. “You walk into the voting booth and each time you pull the little lever there is implicit in the gesture a tiny leap of faith,” the New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen wrote in her column for the day Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. “And this time some hope as well.” We don’t have levers in Canadian elections, and this year not much hope either.

Let me unpack some of my assertions. To say Trudeau hasn’t provided very good government is not to claim he’s been a catastrophe. His government made a few important choices early. By capping deficits, so total federal debt declines ever-so-slowly as a fraction of the total economy, he’s guarded against fiscal calamity. His Canada Child Benefit is popular and helpful to families of small children. He saved NAFTA. Cannabis legalization has gone reasonably smoothly. This government has posted solid victories.

Overall, though, its default mode is centralized control by people who care more about how things look than whether they work—basically, by everyone who tried to get Jody Wilson-Raybould to cancel the SNC-Lavalin trial. This has led to witless busybodying by a government that spends before thinking and which shields itself from evidence of mistakes behind a wall of preening self-regard.

Elected to export more energy and salvage more environmental virtue, it’s made enemies on both sides of that equation. Elected to bring back peacekeeping, it was late to send soldiers into Mali—in helicopters, usually far from the action or high above it—and quick to extract them. The Mali mission was what privilege would look like if you assigned helicopters to act it out.

On infrastructure, the government’s online database of projects isn’t searchable by completion date: there’s no way to learn how much of the work is done. On foreign affairs, try to name an international leader who depends on Trudeau for counsel or support. On justice, Stephen Harper’s mandatory minimum sentences remain in place.

On innovation and science policy, the Harper government convened a blue-chip panel of experts—university presidents, deputy ministers, business leaders—to report on Canada’s progress every two years. This Science, Technology and Innovation Council’s reports were discouraging, because governments in Canada have had no luck encouraging innovation in the private sector. The Trudeau government’s response wasn’t to improve the policy; it was to shut down the advisory council. Experts in the field know the trend lines haven’t budged.

The Liberals’ campaign promises have accelerated a retreat away from universal programs, potentially available to everyone who needs them, and reinforced a trend of aiming impressive benefits to narrow client groups. They’d give as much as $50,000 a year to 2,000 entrepreneurs—in a country with 1.1 million small businesses. They’d give up to $2,000 a year to each of 75,000 low-income families for camping trips. Never mind the odd priority: Statistics Canada says 3.4 million Canadians live below the poverty line. Even if camping’s the best possible idea, most people won’t get to camp.

The Liberals, once a party of ownership, are becoming a party of owe-ership, which is the state of owing Liberals for favours. Thousands of people have sent in CVs and cover essays for hundreds of appointed posts, from the Supreme Court to the Senate on down. That national owe-ership cohort can be relied on to refrain from criticizing the government while it waits to hear about this or that post. The Liberals’ stupid big-media bailout offers no help at all to plucky startups or to companies that don’t publish newspapers, but the publishers of the largest papers now know precisely whom to thank for their windfalls. Summer jobs programs became ideological obstacle courses. Five regional “superclusters” receive hundreds of millions of dollars in start-up funding; long-standing local clusters where business and academic experts have worked together on shared goals for years see none of the money.

I think this has to do with changes in the way today’s Liberal party develops talent. Its heavyweights, John Turner, Paul Martin, used to come from law or big business. In those lines of work, it never pays to be too picky about whom you do business with. Recently, it’s much more common to see Liberal-leaning talent rise through a succession of clubs and temporary “leadership” programs—parliamentary page programs, Young Global Leaders, the Banff Forum. They’re intensely selective by nature, they encourage resumé-polishing, they measure success in terms of enthusiasm and ability to network instead of any measurable real-world effect or result. They breed hothouse flowers, and this first generation of leadership-program government is replicating the model across the continent. What’s lost in broad-based social benefit is gained in durable in-group loyalty. So why would the Trudeau Liberals ever change their ways? They work for the kind of people who become Trudeau Liberals.

The way to break that sort of ineffectual clique factory is with a compelling project. Andrew Scheer hasn’t offered one. He’s bringing back Harper-era transit subsidies that were shown not to work for their stated goal, carbon emission reductions, the first time around. He’s found himself matched on “affordability” by the Liberals and reluctant to engage them on a values debate. Timid on economic policy and stage-shy on values is the way you run when you believe the old cliché that governments defeat themselves. And sometimes they do, when they’ve had many, many years to rot from inside. Until that time, incumbents usually need a hard push before they fall.

If he does manage to get elected, Scheer will find his minimalist platform is of little use to him as he confronts the maximalist challenges of real life. He differs from Doug Ford in real ways, but some of Ford’s problems come down to the fact that Ontario’s premier thought it was clever to get into office without a plan. A rookie prime minister Scheer, missing many Harper-era cabinet veterans, would find himself proceeding without a mandate to do much of anything.

“They’re all bums” is the worst kind of pundit cliché. It’s never entirely true. It glosses over the real challenges of governing. It’s a cheap way to seem hardbitten and world-weary. It’s a stance I resist. But some election campaigns are just no good. After a few elections in which the stakes felt real—Jack Layton’s Orange Wave and the solitary Harper majority of 2011, the Hope and Hard Work rise of Trudeau in 2015—this one seems deflated. We vote because we have to. We’re pretty sure that we’ll vote again soon and that much of the business that got ignored or caricatured this time around will impose itself, with altogether more urgency, next time. You walk into the voting booth with a feeling of resignation.

This article appears in print in the November 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Is better always possible?” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.