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The Lessons of  ’21

Before we make election

Jeff Costen

Most election commentary focuses on the personalities involved in the horse race. Some contests, however, say much more about what the country thinks of itself — and where its citizens want to go. In a pivotal time for Canada, still seized with the trauma of an all-consuming crisis, faced with historic deficits, and dealing with a divided electorate and whispers of misinformation, fundamental questions about the role of government have moved to the forefront.

Ottawa has been tasked with protecting millions against a once-in-a-generation threat and has, by most accounts, succeeded. Yet in many ways the political situation has deteriorated. The prime minister, who called this election before he needed to, has been subjected to persistent accusations of abusing legislative procedure to avoid accountability. Critics have argued that his party has turned its back on the principles of parliamentary supremacy and responsible government by withholding critical information from fellow legislators.

Even more damaging is the inference that friends of the first minister have been the main beneficiaries of his government’s extraordinary largesse. The official opposition leader has combined hyperbolic criticisms of extravagant spending and increased costs of living with a diligent effort to frame this campaign around the concerns of everyday Canadians, not the rarefied interests of an imperious few.

The message has gained traction because this is the mood of the country — in late 1921.

A century ago, Canadians sent a clear message that the need for a strong wartime government had passed. While the policies of Arthur Meighen and William Lyon Mackenzie King bear little resemblance to those put forward by today’s leading candidates, there are critical lessons to be gleaned from those contestants past. Most notably, Arthur Meighen’s 1921 ballot-box flop reminds us that the short attention spans of Canadian voters may actually have less to do with social media and cable news than we sometimes think.

In 1920, Meighen became the leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister (for the first time), after building a reputation as a competent member of cabinet, charismatic legislator, and staunch advocate for a protectionist tariff policy. But his first general election at the helm yielded disastrous results: the party won just forty-nine of 235 seats in the House of Commons. His own riding of Portage la Prairie was not one of them.

Montreal’s La patrie attributed these electoral shortcomings to, among other things, the party’s inability to adapt after Armistice Day: “Being a war Government, it remained autocratic after peace was restored; because, having no mandate, it made no progress toward reconstruction.” The rally-round-the-flag sentiments of the First World War came with an expiry date.

If Arthur Meighen was yesterday’s man, the official opposition leader, William Lyon Mackenzie King, offered a different vision of Liberalism when the country was divided by language, region, and class. And voters installed a minority government that was guided by alternative economic principles: freer trade, tax relief, and renewed attention to the costs of living. Out with the old and in with the new.

A hundred years later, a very different political leader faces challenges that are similar to Meighen’s. As he reminds the electorate of his enviable track record of protecting the public, he also needs to pitch an aspirational, future-focused message to secure another mandate.

After a slow start, Canada boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. The government’s swift and far-reaching income supports have mitigated the economic scarring of COVID‑19 and provided lifelines to workers hit hardest by the pandemic. As prime minister, Justin Trudeau has shown decisive leadership by committing to incentive payments for provinces that implement proof-of-vaccine requirements for non-essential businesses and public spaces.

Yet the smart money is not on this track record forming the ballot-box question. As Arthur Meighen’s experience suggests, yesterday’s issues are for yesterday. It’s a lesson that’s being reinforced by today’s opinion research. One recent survey indicates that Canadians are more than three times as likely to vote based on a party’s plans for the future than on the Liberal Party’s pandemic performance. And those plans will be equally consequential as voters look toward the worsening climate crisis.

The planet is on the brink of disaster, with yet another United Nations report forecasting a new norm of regular heat waves, catastrophic floods, and wildfires that collectively threaten human existence. In many places, they have already begun to do so. Reaching net zero can save us from the worst of these outcomes, but getting there requires bold solutions and an activist approach to governing. Predicting whether Canadian voters entrust Trudeau with this challenge — along with other issues relating to affordability, economic security, and fiscal management — is a foolhardy game.

What’s clear is that they will make their decisions with short memories. It’s more than “What have you done for me lately?” Rather, it’s “What will you do for me next?” Soon enough, voters will have their answer, and one party or another will lead us into the future.

Jeff Costen worked for three cabinet ministers in Ontario’s most recent Liberal government. He is now a principal at Navigator Limited.

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