Where is the big idea in this election?

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 6, 2019. 

Watching the first French-language leaders’ debate this past Wednesday, I was struck by the increasing banality of our current election campaign. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen — and been involved in — many elections. I have seen promising candidates brought down by the pressures of the campaign, I’ve seen parties unexpectedly soar, only to fall again and, through it all, I have learned that no two elections are ever the same.

True, there are always similarities. Some unexpected development will always shift the spotlight away from policy discussions, one candidate will always have something dredged up from their past and the media will almost always decide that a performance in the leaders’ debate has “changed the game.”

That being said, as the leaders unveiled their platforms in recent weeks, I have been struck less by what is new and more by what is missing. Frankly, I find myself asking: where is the “moon shot” designed to capture the imagination of Canadians? Whatever happened to sweeping, bold ideas that would serve to unite our country?

Whether it’s the result of too many focus groups or an overreliance on polling, this election has seen the major parties put forward suggestions that are small, incremental, narrow-minded and focused on the short-term. It has resulted in a series of platforms that are concentrated on the lowest-common denominator.

Gone, it seems, are the days when voters were challenged to think about “What’s in it for Canadians?” Instead, our parties have settled on “What’s in it for you?”

In elections past, parties sought to capture Canadians’ imaginations with a vision of what the future could be.

Lester Pearson rallied Canadians in 1963 with his “60 Days of Decision,” a pledge that his government would do more on key issues in mere months than the Diefenbaker government had. His vision ran from universal health care to the Canada Pension Plan and he pressed a serious debate about our national identity and its symbols.

In 1988, Brian Mulroney championed the possibilities that would come from free trade. Whatever you might think of the issue, it served as a mission, something for Canadians to fight for, together.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau offered a different kind of vision. In contrast to the balanced budget orthodoxy of the Chretien-Martin-Harper years, Trudeau suggested Canadians should embrace deficit spending. For a country that had fared comparatively well in the 2008 recession but was nonetheless still feeling its aftershocks, the Liberals’ vision was a welcome — and in the minds of many Canadians, well-deserved — reprieve from a long period of austerity.

All of which asks the question: what would happen if our parties were focused not just on giving things to the middle class, but instead giving something for the middle class to believe in?

Some say national pharmacare is just that: a vision for a changed society in which no Canadian goes without the medication she or he needs. It’s clear that Canadians are hurting and simplified access to medication could provide help to families and individuals who desperately need it.

But, in my view, pharmacare is an incremental change, not a revolutionary one. And, as any economist or policy wonk will tell you, the problem is that it’s near impossible to capture the imagination with incremental change.

And it is certainly not a big enough idea to serve as a rallying cry for our country as a whole.

So, what would a sweeping policy vision look like in this election? Well, given that we know stable housing is a key determinant of social and health outcomes, how about a pledge to provide stable housing for every single Canadian?

Imagine if the parties committed to such a pledge and that the discussion on the campaign trail was about how to achieve that goal. Imagine if the leaders actually debated their ideas on how to accomplish such a task?

The idea is a moon shot and it may never work. But, at the very least, it would provide the framework for a more worthy debate than the nonsense we have been subjected to this campaign.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt