The country’s 44th general election is unnecessary right now. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been doing his best to make the case that Parliament is dysfunctional and toxic, laying the groundwork to justify sending Canadians to the polls during a pandemic. In fact, during this minority government, Parliament has been inclined to keep the governing side accountable and to participate in shaping the policy agenda. Moreover, Trudeau maintains the confidence of the House of Commons and thus the right to govern. But the Liberals know this moment may be their best chance to secure a majority government before the vicissitudes of the fall and winter — and another coronavirus variant — change the political landscape.
During each election, we ask what it is “about.” Rarely is an election “about” any particular issue, with some notable exceptions, such as the 1988 federal election dominated by free trade. This election is likely to be focused, in part, on the government’s pandemic response and competing visions for a pandemic recovery. How much should we spend? Where should we spend it? For how long? The design of Canada’s pandemic recovery plan will decide, as Harold Lasswell would put it, who gets what, when and how. The plan will determine not just the distribution of resources but also the distribution of capacities and opportunities — of power; if we get it wrong, we risk unnecessary suffering and the further entrenchment of the powerful.
Ahead of the election, Trudeau has been striking child-care deals province by province, territory by territory, with deals reached in British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, Quebec, and Yukon. A national child-care program that guarantees affordable spaces for parents would be transformational and, as economist Armine Yalnizyan argues, necessary to support women in the workforce, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. The Liberals are using it as an incentive to secure votes, but it remains a welcome program either way. The opposition parties are welcome to design their own plans and campaign on them.
Indigenous rights, reconciliation and justice is a front-burner issue that ought to take up considerable space during the election. Accountability and justice in the face of crimes committed at residential schools must also be addressed, including structural reforms — including land back — that rebalance power relations between settlers in Canada and Indigenous peoples.
Anti-Black racism ought to be on the election agenda as well. The issue is widespread. As CBC reporter David Thurton reports, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder Trudeau promised to consider the calls to action presented to him by the Parliamentary Black Caucus. Over a year later, Thurton finds that the federal government “has made progress on 24 out of 44 calls to action.” A small number of measures have been implemented; but as Hill Times columnist Erica Ifill argues, reforms must go deeper to include police reform federally and provincially.
Wireless and broadband affordability will also be an issue once again. Canada’s wireless rates are absurd, and broadband is no better. Affordable access to cellular and high-speed Internet service across the country is critical. In 2019, the Liberals promised to lower prices. They failed. The regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, is captured by industry. Reforming telecom policy and competition is essential.
Once you’re online, the regulation of the Internet is also an important issue, but the government has botched its attempt to manage it with Bill C-10, which is likely to die when the election is called, as it should. A related proposal would create a digital safety commissioner and penalties to address illegal content online. The country needs to have a deep conversation about how Internet content ought to be regulated. Now’s the time.
Just before the House of Commons rose, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough introduced legislation for a new disability benefit. As Accessibility for All founder Meenu Sikand writes, “Many of us in the disability community are equal parts optimistic and skeptical about the proposed benefit: we know there’s little possibility such legislation will pass before a likely fall election.” She’s right, and that makes it an election issue that deserves attention.
Climate change is not merely an election issue; it’s the election issue, as it ought to be during each election across each jurisdiction. It’s a pressing existential issue as we stare down a tipping point and a near-majority of Canadians are ready for “urgent” action to manage the threat in the face of extreme weather events. Our pandemic focus has taken some attention from climate action. Canada continues to underperform on climate relative to what must be done. It’s beyond time to talk about big, aggressive ideas to address climate change, both mitigation and adaptation.
As we reach the acceptance stage of the election, we should leverage the moment to revisit issues and reprioritize as we reflect on the past two years. We face some new problems, some old problems and some new iterations of old problems. If we must have an election, then we ought to make it count. The good and bad news is that there are plenty of ways to do just that.