Policies Are More than Just Their Cost: A Case for Better Debate
October 19, 2015
When Justin Trudeau pledged three consecutive deficits, Canadians were told it was “political suicide.” At first thought, many of us probably believed it.
But surprisingly, nobody frothed at the mouth at this announcement. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business didn’t hold tridents outside of Trudeau’s Papineau campaign office chanting, “Tax and spend! Tax and spend!” I’m not convinced that anyone really cared.
But Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair, they care – and they won’t let us forget it. Mulcair, biting back against a stereotype that paints the NDP as wild spenders, promises balance budgets. Harper unsurprisingly promises the same. For only a moment during the Globe debate on the economy in September – one beautiful moment – Harper and Mulcair had an understanding that Trudeau’s deficit pledge is reckless.
On the other hand, Harper’s deficit was a flashpoint for the Liberals and NDP. The two could finally relish in the end of the “Stephen Harper: Master and Commander of the Economy” brand.
Economy, deficits, surpluses, debt. It’s nothing new for Canadian political discourse – as early as governments could budget, the goals of social policy were never divorced from their consequences on government coffers. Costs have become even more important in a time of shrinking tax revenues and unpredictability in the global economy.
But in the 2015 election cycle - whether it be Harper’s performance, Trudeau’s deficit pledges or Mulcair’s proposed “austerity” – the economy has been the main focus of the campaign to the dismay of other pressing issues. It even got its own personalized debate. Fortunately, foreign policy did too.
But what about child care? Housing? The environment? “Women’s” issues? The Syrian refugee crisis? Healthcare and education? In an Angus Reid poll, 64% of the surveyed believed health care has not received the attention it deserves. Back in June, Forum Research concluded that affordable housing, national pharma strategy and pensions were the hot-button election issues – issues important enough to warrant their own debates. As we approach the end of the campaign, we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Instead, policies are squeezed into the framework of an economic debate, predictably, to be debated on strictly economic grounds. Not if they’ll achieve the purported goal or if they’ve worked in the past. Not even on the goal the policies would try to achieve. They’re debated on the cost.
Defending the Conservatives’ record, Harper charged at Trudeau during the Globe debate, “We’re the first government in Canadian history to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also growing our economy.” His “sector-by-sector” regulatory approach, he said, does so in a way that will not kill jobs or burden taxpayers.
“But I do, David, want to address the other half of the debate, which is the energy sector,” he continued.
“You know, it’s an important – it’s been a very important driver of the Canadian economy.”
The debate’s “environment” segment focused on pipelines, energy exports, taxes, and costing. And the narrowness let a whole swath of questions go unanswered:
What’s in the details of the NDP cap-and-trade scheme? Has it worked elsewhere? How will the Liberals coordinate environmental action with premiers of different partisan stripes? What will green investment look like for the Liberals? What even are the goals of the parties for addressing climate change?
The answers are for Canadians to figure out themselves - and it’s the same story with child care, healthcare and education.
Sure, we can wait for expert analysis from advocacy groups and think tanks. But those reports will only be relevant to those most engaged in the election – not the vast majority who could care less.
That’s why a public debate where politicians hold no punches, where platforms are meticulously picked apart, and where Canadians can hear arguments about effectiveness, not just arguments about cost, is so important. Then we can decide what policy is political suicide and what’s not.
In the three way race this glacial-paced campaign has spawned, the guts may be what puts one party ahead of the others.