Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

The Canadian federal election: What it means for policy and politics

Borins SBy Sandford Borins.  The results of the Oct. 19 Canadian election were both definitive and surprising: a majority government for the Liberal Party of Canada, which in the previous election had run third and was in danger of disappearing, and the defeat of a decade-old Conservative regime that had won the three previous elections by increasing margins and governed with ruthless political efficiency. Though public sentiment that it was time for a change had grown, the two major left-of-centre parties, the Liberals and the New Democrats, were competing with one another to capitalize on that sentiment. The Liberal Party won the election with a platform that moved noticeably to the left, a leader who conveyed optimism and passion, and an advertising campaign that overcame the Conservatives’ expertise in negativism.

Readers of this post are well aware of the globalization of public policy issues, but politics has also gone global, in the sense that there are strong international networks of both liberal and conservative politicians, who are aware of and learn from each other’s strategy and tactics. This is especially the case in the economically-advanced English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, US, and UK). It is therefore worth reflecting on the international implications of the Canadian election for both policy and politics.

A key plank in the Liberal platform involved redistribution of income, promising to cut income taxes for the middle-class (incomes between $45,000 and $90,000 Canadian, at an exchange rate of $1 Cdn = $.76 US) and raise them for the top 1 percent (incomes of over $200,000). This was presented rhetorically as asking the well-off to pay their fair share. This proposal did not elicit strong opposition, which suggests that liberal politicians in other countries might follow Canada’s example. This move, however, will increase the highest marginal tax rate in several provinces above the 50 percent threshold. It will be instructive to see whether this tax increase achieves its revenue target, or is undercut by the disincentive effect on work effort and by income-shifting to jurisdictions with lower marginal tax rates.

The Conservative Party made a balanced budget and reducing taxes its fiscal policy mantra. Indeed, in his concession speech Prime Minister Harper declared that reducing taxes had been his prime motivation for entering politics. The Conservatives had made numerous tax cuts over their decade in office and had reduced the annual deficits incurred in response to the global financial crisis of 2008-09 to the point that the 2014-15 budget was running a small surplus. The Conservatives’ emphasis on tax cuts carried the implicit assumption that government spending was rife with waste, fraud, and abuse, and that money was always better spent by taxpayers on private goods than by the public sector on public goods.

While the New Democratic Party’s platform accepted the Conservatives’ fiscal orthodoxy by agreeing to maintain a balanced budget, the Liberals pledged to run modest $10 billion deficits in the next three fiscal years to modernize Canadian infrastructure. This promise has opened up a much-needed and long-delayed national dialogue about government spending. The Liberals’ victory establishes the precedent of an electorate being willing to accept a deficit to fund the public goods it values.

The Conservatives’ political base included climate change deniers and energy interests, so Prime Minister Harper was extremely reluctant to make any commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially by implementing a carbon tax. Justin Trudeau will be a much more enthusiastic participant at the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change, and Canada will position itself as an ally of the Obama Administration, rather than an adversary. Though Canada is a middle power, it is a major energy producer and a shift in its environmental and energy policies will have impact internationally.

Moving to politics, the international impact of the Canadian election may be felt in terms of both the structure of the political system and the practice of campaigning. Canada now has a first-past-the-post multi-party system consisting of one major party on the right, the Conservatives; two major center-left parties, the Liberals and New Democrats; a small and geographically dispersed party on the left, the Greens; and a regional party, the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois. In 2011, there was negligible strategic voting by those on the left, and the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority with 40 % of the popular vote; in 2015, there was significant strategy voting (the anyone-but-Harper movement) and the Liberals won a parliamentary majority, also with 40 % of the popular vote. Justin Trudeau has vowed that the 2015 election will be the last first-past-the-post election in Canada. If Canada moves in the direction of proportional representation, other countries will notice.

The Conservatives had the biggest war chest and spent freely on attack ads, particularly focusing on Justin Trudeau, not just during the election campaign itself, but from the time he became Liberal Party leader in 2013. In addition, the Conservatives used the advantage of incumbency to run frequent ads promoting their policies (for example during the hockey playoffs), in this case freely spending government money – a true example of waste, fraud, and abuse. During the election campaign itself, the Conservatives played wedge politics, scapegoating orthodox Muslims by proposing to restrict the wearing of niqabs and to establish a “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line. The Australian political consultant and “master of political dark arts” Lynton Crosby apparently advised the Conservatives on these tactics – “apparently” because after the votes were counted both Crosby and the Conservatives denied that he had ever been in Canada during the campaign.

In contrast, the Liberals, and particularly party leader Justin Trudeau, ran a campaign that pitted the politics of hope and optimism against the politics of fear and divisiveness. The Liberals did not ignore the Conservatives’ attacks, but rather refuted them, sometimes through rhetorical jiu-jitsu and sometimes through humor.  Anyone-but-Harper sentiment became so strong because Prime Minister Harper himself was seen as the strategist behind the Conservatives’ hyper-partisan mode of governing and negative style of campaigning. The Canadian election may well provide politicians in other countries with a cautionary tale about the limits of employing the political dark arts.

Canada has now had a moment in the international political spotlight, but it will soon be drowned out by the din of the US presidential election. Thoughtful policy analysts and politicians in other countries, however, have much to learn both from the Canadian election itself and from the sea-change in public policies that will follow.

Sandford Borins is Professor of Public Management in the Department of Management, University of Toronto-Scarborough. He is the author of numerous articles as well as ten books.  His website is

Written by Governance

October 22, 2015 at 10:23 am


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