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Robert Asselin: Our short-term politics has left us unable to solve big problems

Commentary

We may soon have a federal election campaign before us. It comes at a time when Canada is facing a number of significant challenges — including an aging population, slow economic growth, climate change and an increasingly complex geopolitical context.

It’s crucial that the different political parties grapple with these big, fundamental questions.

It’s my belief that the professionalization of partisan politics — by which I refer to the increasingly sophisticated means used by political parties and apparatchiks to gain or keep power in the modern era — has led to an erosion of substantive debate about policy choices. Even more damaging, it’s exacerbated a tendency towards short-termism in our politics.

In an era of permanent campaigns, it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish election campaigns from governing mandates. We used to have election campaigns to guide governing mandates. Too often, we now witness a large share of governing mandates only serving as a set-up for the next election campaign. We used to campaign to govern and now we govern to campaign.

According to this worldview, going bold on a set of long-term policy prescriptions is seen as too risky and unnecessary. Instead, the preference is for smaller, micro-policies that are lower risk, easily communicated on social media, and designed to reach key subgroups within the population.

The danger of course is that these “policy” platforms just become collections of focus group-driven policies rather than actual blueprints for governing.

There may be nothing easier and more efficient politically than to promise a new tax credit or a tax deduction for targeted constituencies, but the downside is that our politics have become increasingly inept at confronting structural issues facing our economy and society. The correlation between these two trends ought to be a cause of concern for Canadians.

Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell once famously lamented that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.” She was highly criticized at the time for her perceived gaffe but who could argue with her now? Her then-impolitic insight has since essentially become the modus operandi of the different political parties.

At their best, election platforms are well-developed visions for the future.

The centrality of data analytics, constant polling, ads, micro-targeting and social media have contributed to a daily war of political attrition rather than a contest of ideas. The 2019 federal election campaign was the most recent example of a so-called “Seinfeld” election — an election mostly about nothing.

It doesn’t have to be that way. At their best, election platforms are well-developed yet competing visions for the future. We’ve witnessed it, for example, in 1988 when the Conservatives made the federal election about continental free trade, or in 1993 when the Liberals proposed a clear and well-designed plan for economic growth and deficit reduction.

More recently, President Joe Biden ran on a modern version of Roosevelt-inspired ideals — namely a renewed commitment to a more activist industrial policy to address rising inequality and reinvigorate American science and industry to compete against China.

In each of these cases, economic policy was central as a ballot box issue and the party with the biggest and boldest ideas won.

Our current populist age encourages politicians and political parties to be responsive to voters. That is, of course, important. There’s a strong argument that one of the reasons why various countries have ended up with populist leaders is that their political classes on both the left and the right became too divorced from the interests, needs, and aspirations of ordinary citizens.

But leadership also matters. There must be a role for politicians to help citizens understand the nature of the opportunities and challenges facing us and to put forward concrete plans for the future.

One can certainly argue that we need such leadership now more than ever. We’re coming out of a once in a lifetime economic crisis and there are two immediate traps that we could fall in. The first is to think the sugar-high, consumption-led recovery of 6 percent growth for this year will somehow last.

The second is to leave unaddressed the long-term structural challenges that we must face to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth.

An international commission chaired by leading economists Olivier Blanchard and Jean Tirole just released a comprehensive report on what they identified as three major future economic challenges: climate change, inequality, and demographics. These challenges won’t be solved with short-term wedge politics. They require big, bold ideas.

Intuitively, Canadians understand this. In a recent Nanos survey, just over one in two Canadians believed the next generation of Canadians will have a lower standard of living (52 percent), while the proportion of Canadians who say that the next generation will have a higher standard of living (13 percent) has decreased by 10 percentage points since February 2021. It’s a powerful sign that the public may be ahead of the politicians. Canadians want leadership.

This upcoming election campaign is a crucial opportunity for such leadership. It should be a chance to discuss and debate competing economic plans and for Canadians to decide which one is best for them and their kids.

Such plans will need to address stagnation business investment as a share of our economy, and a gradual erosion of our position in global markets, including in the United States. A good start would be a new and comprehensive economic policy framework to help us better compete in the highly valuable and highly competitive areas of modern growth.

What a different kind of election campaign that would be.

Harry Rakowski: Is there intelligent life on Earth?

Commentary

The Hub launched with a core mission of getting Canadians thinking about the future. We’ve been stuck in the doldrums, pessimistic and polarized, for too long. To lay out a roadmap for the next 30 years of Canadian life, we asked our contributors to pinpoint the most consequential issue, idea or technology for the country in 2050. This series of essays by leading thinkers will illuminate Canada’s next frontier.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The further exploration of Mars has stimulated our interest in whether there ever was life on other planets that we can reach. Given that our solar system is but a grain of sand in the cosmic universe it stands to reason that intelligent life is out there somewhere.

The recent declassification of videos of credible UFO sightings further promotes the belief that earth is being watched by alien life in an attempt to better understand who we are and how developed we have become. Are we advanced enough for them to make formal contact yet or will they continue to simply observe us?

Let’s suppose that we were beamed up to an intergalactic probe examining how we earthlings live and behave. We can temporarily see the earth from their perspective but the memory will be erased when we are beamed back. How would we see our world through their eyes?

Is it yet time to reveal who they are and how advanced they have become. Tuning in to the evening news makes it seem that the world is only full of disaster. Severe drought and raging fires continue likely due to our inability to accept and deal with legitimate concerns about climate change.

Widespread pollution of the Earth’s air, water supply and oceans continues at an alarming rate. They see a world with abundant food production yet there is widespread famine, poverty and malnutrition. Greed fuels an epidemic of addiction to drugs and painkillers without remorse or adequate retribution. Widespread polarization of thought, increasing tribalism, political repression and limitation of free speech continues to threaten democracy.

Over the past few centuries man’s inhumanity to man has slowly lessened but remains ingrained in how we act towards one another. Wars continue to rage. Fratricidal rage fuelled by illusions of religious superiority continue. An impending nuclear Holocaust is only a madman’s finger away. How can an enlightened galactic civilization connect with such dysfunctional earthlings? Is there hope for Earth or is it on a path to extinction? 

Every year extraterrestrials circle the planet looking for rays of hope that civilization is becoming more civilized and will survive. They expose themselves briefly so that we can understand that we are being observed and that we need to rein in our basest actions to survive.

Technology helps guide our understanding of the universe but alone is not nearly enough to overcome our challenges.

The prime directive of the alien lifeform remains to not fully show themselves and actively affect our future. They did come subtly to Gene Roddenberry through his dreams with the idea of creating Star Trek and predicting our technological future and the path we need to take. Space exploration, personal wearable telecommunication devices, tasers set on stun, 3D replicators, tractor beams, virtual reality holodecks, cloaking devices, voice activated computers. Siri and Alexa please help me.

Star Trek also taught us about external villains such as the evil Klingons who attack us and the Borg collective that subjugates all that it encounters. They are the imaginary external enemies that mimic our known ones. We need the resolve and determination to overcome them. If only we were lead by someone like Captain Kirk.

Technology helps guide our understanding of the universe but alone is not nearly enough to overcome our challenges. We won’t understand the cosmos until we look inward to better understand ourselves.

Every year we make some progress. There is less famine, a little less racism, greater productivity and empowerment through education. We still have much to learn from those that teach us by example how to lead our lives. They are those who show us the way by their kindness, generosity, caring and compassion. Through them the world becomes a better place.

We are being observed to see if with subtle guidance we can find our way. In order to seek out and understand other intelligent life in the universe, our civilization needs to up its game to define a better future.

Intelligent life in the universe will reach out to us when they are confident that we can steer our ship by a higher moral compass. When can our starship plot that course to go where we have not gone before? We all need to try and make it so.