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The Vanishing Point of Political PrinciplesThe Vanishing Point of Political Principles

The Vanishing Point of Political Principles

Cardus Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings says it’s the swing votes of left-wing pragmatists, not the virtues of the leaders or their parties, that will likely determine whether Justin Trudeau or Andrew Scheer wins Election 2019.

Ray Pennings
4 minute read

If there were any idealism left regarding the virtues of Canadian politics, the current federal election campaign is almost certain to have smashed it.

The punditry is virtually unanimous. Six party leaders and five moderators sharing a two-hour television debate stage makes for bad TV and even worse civic education. A few one-liners notwithstanding, good governance and the common good were not the winners in this week’s English language debate. Thursday's French language debate was a slight improvement but a one-off exception provided via translation to the majority of Canadians hardly undoes the damage.

But debates rarely, save for a few exceptions, define election campaigns. Horse-race media coverage usually misses the point that election campaigns in Canada are won or lost by three factors:  Winning the ballot question contest, identifying the vote and getting out the vote.

The ballot question contest has overwhelmed media coverage so far. The Opposition parties are desperately trying to turn the contest into an evaluation of Mr. Trudeau’s ethics and competence to be prime minister. He’s given them a fair bit of material to work with.

To itemize at least partially: The SNC-Lavalin ethics debate; the blackface embarrassment; the somewhat brazen abandoning of his 2015 election promise to have balanced budgets by 2019, electoral reform, and progress towards environmental targets, and uneasy (or entirely ruptured) relationships with members of his caucus and cabinet. The #sunnyways promise does seem more than a tad cloudy.

The Liberals hope to divert voters’ attention to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. His socially conservative views, his inconsistencies and his off-message candidates who make statements and display affinities offensive to a self-identified progressive Canadian public are all fodder for the Liberals. If they can succeed in framing the election around doubts about Scheer’s prime ministerial suitability, there is significant polling evidence to show they will win.

But I am not sure that either the question “Is Justin Trudeau ethically compromised?” or “Is Andrew Scheer representative of Canadian values?” will actually win the day. There are a host of competing questions, none of which have clearly emerged as defining. As a result, we seem to be going through an election in which no single defining ballot question will clinch the result. Canadians, in all their diversity, seem set to cast ballots for very different reasons, answering very different questions central to their own concerns.

So, does that mean that this campaign will be defined by identifying the vote and mobilizing it, i.e., by the backroom machinations of political parties for the most part invisible to the general public? It is worthwhile to remind ourselves that when it comes to raw numbers, it is not so much how we vote, but whether we vote, that determines election outcomes.  

In 2011, 14,823,408 Canadians cast votes and 5,832,560 voted Conservative, enough to elect a majority government led by Stephen Harper. Four years later, 5,600,496 voters cast ballots for the Conservatives, a reduction of only 231,000 votes. But the promises of #sunnyways, electoral reform, action on climate change, and an “inclusive” way of doing government attracted 2,769,370 more voters than cast ballots in the previous election. Voter turnout increased from 61.4 per cent to 68.5 per cent, drawn disproportionately from Millennial, Indigenous, and progressive voters. It was enough to raise the Liberal seat total to 184 from the 34 they held in Opposition, and to give them a majority government.

The oft-rehearsed litany of broken promises and dubious ethical and personal choices made by the Liberal prime minister and government have sullied their brand, especially among these voters who cast ballots in 2015 but did not in 2011. How will they respond in 2019?  

The Liberals hope their progressivism is of the pragmatic sort, and that stopping Andrew Scheer from becoming prime minister is enough to motivate voters. The Conservatives are hoping the political left in Canada is more principled than that, meaning they either don’t show up on voting day or choose to support the Greens or New Democrats. Such a combination might skew the electoral math in the Conservatives’ favour.

If this appeal to principle seems a bit, err, un-principled, it is. None of the parties has very high ground to claim. Even overlooking the personal smears, record fudging, or repressing the truth (all of which is ordinary in politics, but not to the degree experienced in 2019), the parties are filled with contradictions of the things they stand for. Environmental issues are Exhibit A.   

All parties say they are committed to the carbon emission targets Canada that has agreed to under international treaties. The Liberals say they are achieving this through a carbon tax, which would require a level of $300 per tonne.  “Don’t worry,” they say. “We won’t raise the carbon tax above the $50 target.” In other words, we say we are committed, but we aren’t.   

On the Conservative side, the argument is that regulation and support for exportable technology is the secret to reaching our climate change targets. A carbon tax is verboten because, they insist, it constitutes an attack on the middle class. In other words, corporate welfare and regulation is the Conservative solution; pricing carbon through taxation, albeit with controls, is the Liberal solution.   Neither is realistic in achieving the stated goals and both are counter-intuitive to principled policy making. But all would have you convinced it’s the other guy who is being deceptive and unprincipled.

The pundit in me parses the numbers and can game the outcome for a variety possibilities. The citizen in me bemoans this election as reflecting a low point in Canadian political life where ethical standards and civil discourse are worse than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. The principled idealist in me recognizes that neither party contending for government seems very principled in either their policy or their retail approaches.  

And the irony of it all is that the outcome of the election may very well hinge on of whether those on the left side of Canada’s political spectrum are principled or pragmatic.

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