Put aside political spin for a moment. What is the significance of this election for Canadian citizens, beyond each voter’s personal interests? More than other times, this election is one step toward renewing our social covenant. How can we best live together on this piece of God’s creation? What do we owe each other at this point in Canada’s history?
The pandemic exposed deep cracks in the services that allow us to live together well. It also highlights how our well-being depends on what others do. Crises often lead to shifts in direction because societies are willing to give up something that was fiercely defended in order to gain something else. This time it might be a shift from a more individualist ethic to more solidarity with others and a greater focus on what we hold in common with others.
All the major political parties are addressing pieces of our social covenant, and their positions are closer together than the last election, converging toward the middle of the political spectrum, as they appeal for votes. The outcome could mean that even a minority government could make progress on several challenges, if all members showed the will to make a new parliament work better than the last one.
Unfortunately, public trust that any of the political parties will do what they say is at an all-time low, which means that continuing pressure by citizens beyond the vote will be key to making progress. If the outcome is another minority government, that may also add momentum to the push for electoral reform, which is much needed in Canada.
A parliament that seriously acts on the common elements in each platform and debates the best ideas in each one could result in significant changes in how we live together. The agenda would include the following:
Care for the earth we share
This is the first election we are not debating whether climate change is real and whether putting a price on pollution is a good idea: all major parties have accepted this. We can move on to question the adequacy and effectiveness of the plans for reducing emissions and mitigating impacts that are already here, such as wildfires, drought and sudden storms.
We all need to reduce ways we add to the problem. For that reason I question a new proposal by the Conservatives to channel a low carbon tax into a points-type program that would reward people for using more fossil fuels. All the other major parties support higher rates and rebate programs that reward people for reducing their use of carbon. No GST for the month of December, another new election proposal, encourages the kind of consumerism that is one of the biggest threats to all aspects of our creation. Many of us know in our hearts we can’t go back to the old, consumption-driven economic growth and now is an opportunity to make that shift. There are lots of other proposals on the table that go in the right direction, and a new sense of urgency could galvanize enough political will to break the deadlocks that have stalled progress.
A different kind of economy that cares for creation is possible and all parties have some pieces that fit. Citizens lack confidence in any party, given years of not meeting basic climate change goals. After the election, an all-party climate crisis team, working like a war cabinet, as suggested by the Green party, could move Canada forward. It will take vigilance by Canada’s many excellent environmental organizations and citizens to keep all MPs focused on this critical agenda for the future of our children and what we all value about Canada.
Justice for Indigenous Canadians
This election comes on the heels of finding unmarked graves near residential school sites. That makes it our best chance to change the glacial pace of reconciliation so far. If settlers ask every candidate about this and persist after the election, working with Indigenous neighbors on frequent accountability, this election might be a turning point toward repair of a broken covenant.
All parties are competing to show they will build affordable housing. The specific plans cannot be addressed here due to space constraints. What they have in common is a stronger recognition that housing is more than a big consumer purchase and that the marketplace alone will not provide for everyone. The current National Housing Strategy snuck into the budget before the 2019 election after strong pressure from housing advocates, who have had to push hard for every step forward. While the policy proposals need rigorous evaluation, all-party interest may mean more action.
Raising Young Children
Every party is talking about child care to get women back to work. Putting children at the center of our debates would highlight a covenantal responsibility of every society, especially an aging one like Canada. If the well-being of children is at the center, global evidence converges on a combination of generous leave for fathers and mothers in infancy and access to quality, developmental programs in the early years. Parents play an essential role in all approaches; the outcomes for children are better where there is a systems approach to what is often called “kinder-care.” Flexibility and meeting the needs of rural and remote communities are important, but it would not serve children well to dismantle again what has been started.
A new parliament could develop and pass child-centered legislation that would ensure all children have access to the support they need to develop their full potential. Children are citizens and deserve better from all parties. It is also a good investment for an aging society.
Children and the elderly are Biblical touchstones for measuring our social covenant.
The election debate about national standards of care for the aging has important implications for other elements of our social covenant. Canada used to have national standards in several areas of social policy. How we lost them is a longer story. Whether it is a majority or minority parliament, citizen advocacy may be able to push through effective national standards. That could be transformative for how we covenant together to meet other social needs as well.
Fairness for Workers
Images of a personal care worker sleeping on a bench because her income is too low to afford housing, migrant workers who grow our food in crowded shacks, and sick workers in precarious jobs unable to take time off are still top-of-mind. Beyond COVID, new technologies and the gig economy are changing the fundamental nature of work. Existing public policies, like Employment Insurance and labour legislation, are now badly outdated. Every party is proposing changes to Employment Insurance and, contrary to expectations, the Conservatives are talking about giving unions a larger voice in economic decision-making; that opens a window to make real gains after the election on another piece of our social covenant – one where Canada lags far behind comparable European countries.
Sharing Costs and other Burdens
The pandemic destroyed old myths about public finance that prevented investments in social infrastructure as a drain on the economy; we now have a more integrated understanding of what makes an economy work well. Concerns about affordability, sustainability and everyone paying a fair share find both New Democrats and Conservatives calling for tax reform, although in different ways. Provinces have valid questions about equalization and revenue stabilization funds, and poverty reduction advocates are raising questions about tax-avoidance and accountability for the use of federal/provincial transfers.
A major overhaul of the tax system is long overdue; perhaps a convergence of interest across the political spectrum will lead to more than narrow tweaks that benefit supporters of the party in power, adjustments that often create even more unfairness.
Health care funding is the attention-getting aspect of Canada’s system of fiscal transfers, but other aspects, such as income security, have equal impacts on health. Could this election lead to a more integrated approach to society-building across Canada?
I could add many other significant issues to this list. Then there are the missing pieces, such as reform of the electoral system, dealing with Quebec’s Bill 21 on religious symbols and human rights in Canada, and a serious plan for food security. Thinking about them as citizens who live better because of our social covenants may help us get beyond the superficial slogans and name-calling that turn us off at election time.
Candidates expect us to ask questions about what they will do for us and they predict which questions will be asked in each neighborhood. If you pick any issue and ask unexpected questions about fair treatment of others or the common good, it registers. If more people vote for the common good on September 20, and persist in some way to push for action, the next parliament will act differently, whether it is majority or minority.