Here’s an agenda for Campaign 2021

During the 1993 federal election, then-Prime Minister Kim Campbell was famously quoted as saying, “An election is no time to discuss serious issues.” As a relatively fresh face, her campaign emphasized personality over policy. Early polling suggested she was more popular than the other party leaders. In contrast, Jean Chrétien campaigned on the “Red Book,” a high-level document chock full of policy issues and ideas, and reaped a blowout victory.

This election campaign, let’s hope all party leaders remember the lesson of 1993 that Canadians value a wide-ranging debate on policy issues and options when they are deeply uncertain about the future.

This is surely one of those times. Given today’s circumstances, the pandemic, the economic recovery, and climate change will be high on all political agendas, and appropriately so. But we are worried by what may not be front and centre during the campaign, particularly issues that play out over the longer term, and offer six other policy areas that deserve to be on the electoral policy agenda.

A fiscal strategy to rebuild resiliency: Ultra-low interest rates will not last forever, growth will not continue uninterrupted for decades, and debt and deficits do matter.

The “this time is different” argument by politicians and policymakers should instill fear not confidence, as Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff detail in their book on the origins of financial crises over the last century. We need a clear and credible fiscal anchor to earn the trust of rating agencies and the confidence of investors as well as to impose fiscal discipline on government decision making.

Canada’s low levels of government debt served us very well in responding to the pandemic and recession, but how are we going to rebuild our fiscal resiliency to handle inevitable future shocks?

A long-term growth strategy to expand opportunities and prosperity: We need to pivot from short-term stimulus, which was necessary and badly needed, to policy measures that will help rebuild our longer-term growth and productivity. Chrétien cut like a surgeon to get our fiscal house in order and he governed with a balanced approach to wealth creation and redistribution. This gave his government the fiscal flexibility to make pivotal economic, social, and educational investments while maintaining fiscal resiliency. How are we going to improve competitiveness to get out of a prolonged sub-two per cent growth trap?

A China strategy to respond to the Xi regime: There has been a fundamental and troubling pivot in Chinese government policy and actions under President Xi Jinping, from suppression of the Uyghurs, to eviscerating guaranteed Hong Kong rights and freedoms, to inserting the Communist party into private-sector as well as public-sector decision making, to building bases and challenging the right of passage in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, to stoking an aggressive foreign policy backed by targeted actions against those deemed acting contrary to China’s interests.

At the same time, China is now the world’s second largest economy, the hub for global supply chains, and an increasingly sophisticated technology powerhouse. In this future, how are we going to plot a strategic course that balances our national interests, values, sovereignty, and participation in the global economy in which China and the United States are the duelling superpowers? How do we manage the reality of a world with diverse systems of governance and the necessity for clear rules of engagement?

An Arctic strategy to meet our Arctic responsibilities: Canada is arguably the world’s most important arctic nation. But, do we have the military capacity to express our sovereignty in the Arctic? Do we have the scientific capacity to understand and respond to the impacts of climate change on the Arctic including melting sea ice? Do we have a plan for sustainable economic development in the Arctic? Do we have effective engagement with the indigenous peoples of the Arctic as we sort through these issues?

A defence strategy for a multi-polar world: Canada has not updated its defence posture or spending to reflect a more challenging global security reality. Russia is probing for western weakness around the world; China is rapidly building up its military; regional actors like Iran and North Korea are acting up; terrorist groups abound; and cyberwarfare poses asymmetric risks. Where do the political parties stand when it comes to Canada’s NATO commitments, its military capacity, the revitalization of NOR, and UN peacekeeping?

A competition strategy for the digital age: The Biden administration is stacked with trustbusters keen to take on Big Tech, the EU was an early mover to rein in certain data practices of tech titans like Google, Facebook and others, and the Australians have forced Google and Facebook to pay publishers for news.

How does Canada plan to respond to the digital revolution and its emergence of dominant global firms exploiting the massive economies of scale created by digital technologies, cloud computing and artificial intelligence? Does our Competition Bureau have the policy tools for an intangibles-driven economy, the enforcement teeth, and the technical talent to ensure a level playing field between global Big Tech and our domestic firms?

During this election campaign let’s respond to parties that emphasize policy over personality. Like 1993, we are at one of those pivotal moments where we need to debate clear policy choices that Canadians can understand.

This election should be about “Canada 2030.” A vibrant debate about policy ensures we don’t have one of those “The Candidate” moments where Robert Redford, in the classic 1972 political satire, turns dazedly to his campaign manager in the last scene of the movie and asks, “What do we do now?”