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The budget is a roadmap for the next election campaign

News

Within minutes of the federal budget being tabled on Monday, the opposition Conservatives were referring to it as an election platform, rather than a dry accounting of the nation’s finances.

With more than $100 billion in new spending and a number of crowd-pleasing proposals contained in the 700-plus page document, it’s not exactly a wild accusation.

And by autumn, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s second term will be two years old, which is about the usual retirement age for a minority Parliament. If Trudeau decides to take a chance with the electorate this year, this budget gives us a glimpse of how the campaign might play out.

Here are three issues that could dominate a hypothetical election campaign this year.

Childcare

Any future election campaign will now see childcare front and centre thanks to a massive new proposal in Monday’s budget to spend $30 billion over five years.

The proposal aims to create $10-per-day childcare spaces by 2026, except in Quebec where the province already runs its own childcare program. The proposed spending will see the federal government enter into a series of 50-50 cost-sharing agreements with the provinces, which have jurisdiction over childcare.

It’s no surprise the Liberals took this moment to take the plunge on childcare, because the economic effects of the pandemic have put a spotlight on the issue. In the year since stay-at-home orders were declared across the country, nearly 100,000 women have left the workforce, according to a report last month from RBC economics. That number is a stark contrast to the fewer than 10,000 men who exited the workforce in that time.

This budget doesn’t provide much in the way of immediate relief on childcare, though, despite its ambitious long-term goals.

“Do not expect to see $10/day spaces in your neighbourhood next year. Or the one after. Unless they are already in place and didn’t close during COVID,” said Jennifer Robson, a Carleton University professor and expert on social policy, on Twitter Monday after the budget was tabled.

If childcare dominates the next election campaign, it will be a throwback to the 2006 election, when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives wrestled a minority government away from Paul Martin’s Liberals. Harper’s party wooed voters with an innovative idea called the Universal Child Care Benefit, while the Liberals campaigned on a universal childcare system.

With their massive new Canada Child Benefit, the current Liberal Party seemed to be moving away from government-run childcare in favour of cash for parents. Today’s budget represents a shift back in the other direction.

Deficits

It’s not much of a surprise given the way money has been flying out the door since last March, but Canada’s deficits will be massive over the next few years.

The country is facing a $354 billion deficit in 2020-21, with the following year projected at a deficit of $155 billion and $60 billion in red ink the year after that.

Canadians are certainly anxious about all that spending. A full three-quarters of people are concerned about the amount of debt racked up during the pandemic, according to polling conducted by Public Square and Maru/Blue and provided exclusively to The Hub.

How will Canadians react to this at the ballot box? Not only is the situation unprecedented but it’s genuinely difficult to gauge public opinion on the issue.

It took almost everyone by surprise in 2015 when Justin Trudeau pledged to run deficits if he formed government. The political orthodoxy was so settled on the importance of balanced budgets that even Thomas Mulcair’s NDP solemnly pledged at the beginning of the campaign that they would eradicate the deficit.

It turned out voters were less fiscally conservative than political parties realized, or that other issues had taken precedent.

And once in government, Trudeau’s promise to run deficits was enthusiastically kept. His plan to eventually get back to balance was soon discarded in favour of a more relaxed debt-to-GDP guideline. Then, the pandemic hit and any semblance of fiscal restraint was sidelined in the fight to keep Canadians and businesses financially intact as the virus shut down the economy.

With that in mind, how will Canadians react to a $354 billion deficit? Will it be a rerun of 2015, where the political class overestimates the political cost of borrowing? Or will the Conservatives see opportunity with a message to get spending back under control?

Pandemic

As politicians at all levels look ahead to a possible election campaign in the wake of the pandemic, there is a high stakes blame-game playing out across the country.

For example, when Ontario Premier Doug Ford unveiled a raft of unpopular new restrictions last week in the face of rising COVID-19 cases in the province, he made sure to blame the federal government for the slow-trickle of vaccine doses.

Ministers in the Liberal government, and even Trudeau himself, have made pointed comments about the rollout of vaccines, suggesting that the provinces aren’t getting them out as quickly as they could.

Expect this kind of blame-evasion and jockeying for credit to continue as the pandemic ebbs away and various elections get closer.

At the Liberal policy convention earlier in the month, Trudeau gave a preview of his likely campaign rhetoric when he bragged that four-fifths of the pandemic relief money came from his government.

Monday’s budget kept much of that COVID relief in place, including the Canada Recovery Benefit, which provides an income stopgap for people put out of work by the pandemic. That benefit will taper off by 40 percent in the summer. The rent and wage subsidies for businesses will continue until September.

How Canadians judge the government’s response to the pandemic could be the number one ballot question in any upcoming federal election. Polling suggests that financial relief is the issue where Liberals can be the most confident and the federal budget suggests the party feels that way too.

Only 16 percent of Canadians said the financial response was poor or unacceptable, according to polling conducted by Public Square and Maru/Blue.

Trudeau’s government is on far shakier ground when it comes to vaccine procurement and travel restrictions, though. The same survey showed that 36 percent of Canadians said the government’s response on travel restrictions was poor or unacceptable and 39 percent said the response on vaccine procurement was poor or unacceptable.

Canadians are angry. So what can we do about it?

News

“I am very angry about what’s happening in society right now.”

Does that sentence resonate with you? If so, you join a three-quarter majority of your fellow citizens.

According to polling conducted by Public Square and Maru/Blue and exclusively provided to The Hub, 77 percent of Canadians polled either somewhat or strongly agree that they are angry.

Seventy-three percent of respondents strongly agree that “society is coming apart.”

Respect in key societal pillars is likewise teetering. Only 17 percent of respondents polled expressed a great deal of respect for religious institutions, 15 percent for the government, and a mere 12 percent for the media. The percentage of respondents who said they had little or no respect for these same institutions is reported at 45 for religious institutions, 36 for the media, and 30 for the government.

Donald Savoie, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton, sees this declining trust in institutions as a troubling trend.

“Is it a cause for concern? Absolutely,” said Savoie.

And while the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is shaking all kinds of preconceived notions of stability, he does not believe these trends are driven by any one current event. Rather, these negative sentiments have been percolating for decades and are being accelerated in the information age.

“I think this is more worrisome than other periods in Canadian history for several reasons,” he said, “First, because information is shared so easily and so widely. Second, we are facing challenges that we’ve never faced before.”

“We’re living in a period now where it’s not so clear what the role of government is. And it’s becoming obvious to many that the government is not working nearly as well as it used to, or as well as it should be. And so this period is showing flaws in our institutions that we had never seen before, because we didn’t have the circumstances to expose them before.”

Exposed they have been. According to this data, 44 percent of Canadians say they hate politics. Nearly a quarter of Canadians believe that democracy is not functional for them, with 12 percent believing that “Democracy isn’t really working for people like me”, and 10 percent believing that “Democracy is broken and isn’t working at all for people like me”.

Among peple who say that “democracy is not working at all for people like me”, there is a stark breakdown by party: a mere one per cent of Liberals agree with this statement, while 12 percent of Conservative and NDP voters agree. Another 28 percent of respondents who agree claim not to vote at all.

A solution to this distrust is difficult to find in the Canadian context, given the current incentives built into the structures of our system, said Savoie. Only the prime minister can modernize the country and give voice to Western and Atlantic Canada, he said.

“Now, the question is, is the prime minister willing to do that? When you sit in the prime minister’s office you understand that you have a lot of power, but you don’t think that you have too much power. And so why would you give away some of the powers that you have? No prime minister in history has said, geez, I have got too much power, I have got to get rid of some. So that’s where we are.”

Heather Bastedo, President of Public Square Research and the head of the team that conducted these surveys and compiled this data, offers a similar diagnosis. “I think the breakdown in trust in institutions has been coming for a long time,” she said.

If you’re a CEO of a public company, and you don’t change, then you’re in trouble. But if you’re a party leader in Canada, and you change radically, you run the risk of losing your job.

Heather Bastedo

Bastedo said people look to institutions for competency and responsiveness, but it’s getting hard and harder to find. “On the whole, one of the things that’s driving these numbers would be the fact that people have been displeased for so long, and yet the institutional structures remain constant,” said Bastedo.

That’s because there simply is too much risk to any particular political office holders to introduce the reforms necessary to rebuild that trust in our democratic institutions.

“The difficulty we run into is that if you’re a CEO of a public company, and you don’t change, then you’re in trouble,” she said. “But if you’re a party leader in Canada, and you change radically, you run the risk of losing your job. So the institutions don’t change.”

Yuval Levin, American commentator and author of A Time To Build, writes that a key problem is we have elevated ourselves and our own causes above our given roles within the institutions we are a part of. Institutions are used as a “stage from which to be seen and heard” rather than letting the “distinct integrities and purposes of these institutions shape us”. Restoring these roles within institutions is a prerequisite to restoring the institutions themselves, he writes.

And if we don’t? Looking at the whole of Public Square Research’s survey data, Bastedo sees much at stake: “I’m concerned, I have to say, that in this time of crisis we’ll be willing to let go of central tenets of democracy.”