Most Canadians don’t want Stephen Harper to be prime minister; at best, 40 per cent of them support his Conservative party. During this election campaign, those who don’t support Harper have only been able to watch with frustration as his competitors – who Canadians want even less – have presented what can be likened to a damp fireworks display: NDP Leader Jack Layton has had a burst of rhetorical flourishes, which may have loosened a few seats; Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has tried some new riffs that have briefly animated his campaign; and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe’s limited ambition has sputtered. It doesn’t seem that the non-conservative majority has had any place to turn.
This has revived the notion that the left must unite, especially since support for the Bloc seems to be declining in Quebec, a traditionally social-democratic province. Some say the Liberals and New Democrats should emulate Reformers and Progressive Conservatives by uniting – hopefully without having to wander in the desert for a decade watching majority Conservative governments.
But maybe the public is less concerned about form than substance; maybe the centre-left parties should worry less about joining forces, and more about their purpose for becoming government. Polls addressing personal values tell us that Canadians are progressive in nature, and that they believe government has a role to play in providing equity and effective public services like health care and education.
However, these same Canadians have trouble finding a party able and willing to focus usefully on such public goods. Our parties are more preoccupied with tactical politics and electioneering, as they have been for 15 years.
Canada is alone among the western democracies in its lack of national housing or transit policies and programs. We lack the ability to provide at-scale supportive housing for people living with disabilities so they can connect with the labour market and live with dignity. We fail to provide low-income housing for those whose incomes preclude them from the developer-driven housing market. We lack a consistent provision of capital and operating funds that would enable cities to provide public transit, which allows people of all income levels to get to work, school, the market, or the playground readily and affordably.
We have other policy gaps, too. We lack powerful, government-driven programs to integrate immigrants more effectively. We need programs that recognize immigrants’ professional competence rather than relying on their credentials, and that accelerate their ability to exercise citizenship rather than testing their loyalty and endurance. We lag in education innovation, when we could lead. And we let our community organization sector scrape by on pennies when we could recognize it for the vital engine of national success it is, and fund it to thrive.
It may be better to free our political parties from the stuffy old cliques that control them, and embrace an agenda of government that will build a more equitable and prosperous Canada, than to rely on those cliques to design a compromised architecture that will rely more on form than substance. If it continues, that form, like the cobbled-together Conservative party, will likely rely more on the blackest arts of electioneering than on a compelling path to our future.
Alan, Maytree Chair, is the author of Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong.
This article originally appeared in The Mark News.