Oct 22, 2015

We have a new federal government. What now?


By Seth Klein and Shannon Daub

Monday’s election results brought a palpable sense of relief to Canadians who had tired of the divisive and nasty politics of the Harper Conservatives, and they point to important lessons for progressives (which we outlined in this previous post).

But a majority government is certainly a lost opportunity. A minority outcome would have been far preferable, with the potential for combining the best elements of both the Liberal and NDP platforms (and the chance to jettison the ill-conceived ones).

Most importantly, a minority government would have given progressive movements more leverage to demand timely and effective action on electoral reform, inequality, climate, immigration reform, Aboriginal justice, and more.

Nevertheless, the Liberal platform includes many positive policies and commitments, and progressives will need to hold the new government’s feet to the fire to see these realized. Key positive fiscal promises include:

  • A new upper-income tax bracket on incomes over $200,000;
  • Replacing the (mis-named) Universal Child Care Benefit with a new targeted Child Tax Benefit;
  • Scrapping income-splitting for families, and reverting the ceiling on tax-free savings accounts (TFSAs) from $10K to $5.5K;
  • Raising benefits under the Canada Pension Plan;
  • Closing loopholes in the small business tax that allow upper-income people to lower their tax bill, as well as other tax loopholes that mainly benefit the wealthy;
  • Important infrastructure investments, particularly in transit and housing; and
  • Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

But of course the Liberal plan could and should have gone further with respect to tackling inequality and advancing social justice, and documents such as the CCPA’s Alternative Federal Budget will continue to serve as a goal post for pressing the new government for action.

The Liberal platform was particularly disappointing with respect to child care (on this front, the NDP’s failure to secure enough seats to hold the balance of power is a real loss, as their child care plan is much needed). This should be an area where civil society groups keep up the pressure. A genuine child care plan has been part of past Liberal platforms, there remain many Liberals who support it, and a real plan could find important support in some provincial quarters (potentially among key Trudeau allies such as Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne).

Protest icon by Gilad Fried

Here are two vital areas where we’re especially keen to see immediate action:

First, we need a federal Action Plan for Democratic Renewal with clear timelines for implementation. While it is heartening that voter turnout rose to 68%, that’s still too low, and much remains to be done to engage younger people. We also need to ensure we don’t lose these new voters, a real risk if the new government fails to deliver in this area.

Three key electoral reforms worth advancing:

  • Replacing our first-past-the-post system with proportional representation, so that the make-up of the House of Commons reflects the popular vote, and people are liberated to “vote their values” without feeling that their vote is wasted. During the campaign, Trudeau promised this would be the last first-past-the-post election. Having won 54% of the seats with less than 40% of the popular vote, he may be tempted to let this one go. But it is one of the most important campaign commitments the Liberals made, and we need to make sure it happens.
  • Bringing back door-to-door enumeration. This was last done in 1997 before the policy was scrapped. Voter turnout has been on the decline ever  since, until Monday. One possible reason for low voter turnout among younger people is that the millennial generation has now gone through six federal elections without ever being enumerated (they have had to pro-actively get themselves registered to vote). Enumeration is vital for ensuring other groups, such as low-income people and immigrant Canadians, are pro-actively empowered to vote.
  • Lower the voting age to 16. If we want to embed the idea of voting, why not let people vote when they are still in school, yet clearly of an age when many care passionately about various social, economic and environmental issues. It would allow our public education system to make citizenship part of the curriculum in an exciting and meaningful way. There is simply no reasonable argument to justify denial of the franchise to people once they are 16.

Second, we need to press the government to develop and implement a convincing climate action plan.

On this front, the Liberal’s election platform was particularly vague:

  • They remain open to most new bitumen pipeline proposals (with the exception of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway proposal), and have merely promised to strengthen the National Energy Board review process.
  • They have committed to about $5 billion a year for new infrastructure, much of it green infrastructure, but that is far from adequate, and is slated to drop to about $3.5 billion after two years.
  • Unlike the NDP and the Green Party, the Liberals have not proposed a specific carbon pricing plan nor did they commit to specific GHG reduction targets. Rather, they said they will work with the provinces to establish national emission-reduction targets and “ensure that the provinces and territories have adequate tools to design their own policies to meet these commitments, including their own carbon pricing policies.” That’s simply not good enough – the climate crisis is too urgent.

We recommend that the new government demonstrate its climate commitment by quickly establishing a Canadian Climate Action Secretariat. The secretariat would be a cross-government coordinating body, operating within the Privy Council Office (similar in model to BC’s Climate Action Secretariat between 2007-2010, when it operated out of the Premier’s office). It should guide and coordinate the efforts of multiple ministries – Environment, Finance, Natural Resources, Public Works, Employment, Industry, Trade, Foreign Affairs, etc. The secretariat should report to a cabinet committee, ideally co-chaired by the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Environment.

The secretariat should publicly report annually on Canada’s progress towards legislated GHG reduction targets (as well as other policy actions), so as to ensure accountability. A “climate justice” lens should also be incorporated into the work of the secretariat, to ensure climate actions are fair and enhance equality, to ensure the needs of particularly vulnerable populations are met, and to maintain public support for bold action.

There are of course many other areas where bold action is needed, just as urgently. In particular, charting a new relationship with Aboriginal and First Nations people, beginning with the inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, to which Trudeau has re-affirmed his commitment. This is a vital step, but one of many that is needed. The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offer a roadmap, and it is time for a federal government that listens to and respects the priorities Aboriginal and First Nations people themselves establish.

Inequality is another major area where the Liberals need to go beyond what was outlined in their election platform. For a great overview of 10 promises the new government could deliver in its first 100 days, see this post by CCPA senior economist David MacDonald.

But what are the actual prospects that Liberal promises will be implemented, never mind the others we want them to champion? It’s hard to know.

We shouldn’t be naïve. This is still a party with, at minimum, deep ties and obligations to Canada’s corporate elite. That Trudeau’s campaign co-chair, Dan Gagnier, had to step down just a few short days ago when his pipeline lobbying activities came to light should remind us of this reality. As should the Globe and Mail’s recent analysis of the country’s top 10 political contributors — a who’s who of corporate Canada that bestowed more than $1.2 billion mainly on the Conservative and Liberal Parties over the last decade, with the Liberal Party reaping the largest share.

At the same time, today’s Liberal government has a very different makeup than the Liberal government of the 1990s, which brought in the most regressive austerity agenda in recent history. What exactly the character of today’s Liberals will be remains unclear, though Trudeau’s cabinet choices will provide an important signal.

What is certain is that progressives must not sigh with relief at Harper’s loss and then wait politely for change. What happens next is up to us – the progressive citizens, activists, and social movements whose hopes for national leadership on the defining challenges of our time now rest on a Liberal government – as much as it is to Justin Trudeau.

Image credit: Protest by Gilad Fried on the Noun Project.

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