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Sean Speer: Intergenerational conflict is now the defining dynamic of Canadian politics

Commentary

As 2022 came to a close, a late-year poll portended the potential for an intergenerational fault line to emerge in Canadian politics. It’s something that our political class should actively seek to avert over the coming year. 

The polling, produced by the polling firm Mainstreet Research, has thus far been mostly analysed according to narrow partisan interests. Conservatives can point to their party’s surprising 15-percentage point lead among voters aged 18 to 34. The Liberals can find solace in their nearly 9-point advantage with those aged 65 years and older. 

Yet there’s been little discussion about the broader consequences of our politics polarizing along generational lines. The risk of a growing generational fissure however shouldn’t be underestimated. It threatens the rise of a zero-sum political dynamic that essentially pits Millennials and Zoomers against their Baby Boom parents and grandparents. 

A common explanation for this age-based trend is the inexorable arithmetic of demographics. The Baby Boomers, who comprise those born between 1946 and 1965, have sustained significant cultural, economic, and political power for decades based in large part on their demographic numbers. Yet their relative share of the Canadian population is actually declining. It fell for the first time to less than one quarter in 2021. 

Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996), by contrast, belong to the fast-growing generation. Their numbers rose by almost 9 percent in 2021 due to immigration inflows. They are now 21.5 percent of the population and are projected to be the largest generational cohort by the end of this decade. 

But demographics are a necessary yet insufficient part of this story. A combination of age-based voting patterns and the inherent design of the Canadian welfare state tilt strongly in favour of older Canadians. Herein lies the real threat of a so-called “age-based politics.” 

Survey data from Statistics Canada for the 2021 federal election tells us that older Canadians (aged 65 and older) have a much higher propensity to vote. The self-reported voter turnout rate was more than 80 percent compared to just 68.5 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 34. 

This has doubtless contributed to a welfare-state model that increasingly serves to redistribute income from working-age Canadians to retirees. Consider, for instance, a 2015 study that estimated Canadian governments spent between $33,321 and $40,152 per person aged 65 and over and just $10,406 and $11,614 per person under age 45. These figures are consistent with OECD analysis that has characterized Canada as among the “least intergenerationally just” countries in the advanced world. 

The Trudeau government’s reversal of its predecessor’s gradual raising of the eligibility age for Old Age Security is a good (or bad) example of the intergenerational inequities inherent in Canadian public spending. The fiscal consequence of this decision is more than $10 billion in scarce public resources to the wealthiest generation in Canadian history by 2030 alone. A one-time boost of up to $500 during the pandemic was just insult to injury. At a time when we should be investing in the future—including energy, human capital, infrastructure, and science and technology—a growing share of public dollars is being dedicated to the current consumption of older (and often wealthy) Canadians. 

But the generational bias of public spending doesn’t even tell the full story. These generational trade-offs manifest themselves in other policy choices that similarly pose risks to our political economy. 

Housing is the highest-profile example. Canada’s housing supply gap (which Scotiabank estimates would require 1.8 million new homes to merely reach the G-7 average in terms of supply per population) is in large part a function of intergenerational politics. Provincial and local politicians have essentially come to preference the wealth accumulation of older homeowners over the homeowning ambitions of younger generations. The result is a set of land-use policies that have blocked new housing supply, driven up prices, and given Canada the dubious distinction as home to the largest gap between incomes and housing prices in the G-7. 

The pandemic response itself was basically a series of intergenerational trade-offs in favour of older Canadians. Policymakers didn’t necessarily communicate in these terms but they essentially chose to restrain normal economic activity as well as in-person education in order to protect at-risk older populations. Even if these trade-offs may have been justified—particularly before the availability of vaccines—we still cannot deny them. 

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There’s now plenty of evidence that the consequences in terms of “learning loss” for schoolchildren are significant. One authoritative American study for instance estimates that nine-year-olds lost the equivalent of two decades of progress in math and reading. These effects are bound to be most pronounced among poor and vulnerable populations. 

It’s not a tremendous surprise therefore that we’re seeing growing polarization in our politics according to age. What’s notable though is how these generational developments are finding partisan expression. If younger voters helped to deliver Justin Trudeau’s majority win back in 2015, the same cohort is now drifting to Pierre Poilievre and the Conservative Party. 

A big part of the explanation is a growing sense of disaffection about the economy and the younger generation’s future prospects. A set of separate yet linked issues including job precarity, student debt, high housing prices, and delayed family formation have contributed to feelings of generational angst. There’s also some evidence that Generation Z is more inclined to push back against the excesses of the left-wing identity politics that they’ve encountered on campuses. Poilievre and the Conservatives have thus far managed to position themselves as a political home for those struggling with a “failure to launch.” 

Yet at the same time, the Liberals have overtaken the Conservatives as the first choice among older voters. The explanation here is a bit more complicated. It may be that early Boomers are less conservative than past seniors. It may also be that the Trudeau government is being rewarded for its extraordinary infusion of public dollars into old-age programs. Or perhaps it’s a gasp of Boomer nostalgia for the prime minister’s father and their own youthful idealism. 

This nexus between age and partisanship stands in the way of either party achieving a significant electoral victory. A cross-generational coalition is ultimately necessary to win a majority government in modern Canadian politics. The coming year should therefore be marked by efforts by Liberals and Conservatives to make inroads with both sides of the generational divide. 

These electoral pressures ought to work in favour of the broader goal of cohesion and stability. Neither party has an interest in stoking intergenerational conflict. Yet the challenge will be finding positive-sum outcomes in public spending and housing policy which are themselves prone to zero-sum dynamics. It will require political leadership to navigate these issues and avoid a fault line emerging. Readers can decide whether that’s a cause for optimism or pessimism for the coming year. 

Postscript: One cause for optimism is that my wife, Katelin, and I welcomed a future voter over the holidays. William Ernest Speer was born on Thursday, December 29 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. William and his mom are home and doing well. His dad and older brother, Ewart James, love them both. 

Christopher Grier: The what-ifs of the Budget 1979 vote

Commentary

Usually we think of history as the story of what actually happened. Yet, as historian Niall Ferguson recently argued in a podcast, another way of thinking about history can be found in “trying to remind yourself again and again that what happened, that what we know happened, might have gone the other way.” 

This process of counterfactual analysis, as Ferguson noted, allows us to think about the contingencies of history: that is events that could have plausibly gone a different direction than they did and, in that one change, a whole series of events would have been unfolded differently.

To illustrate his point, he offered the dramatic example of the decision of the U.K. cabinet to enter World War I, which was the key factor in turning that conflict from another continental war into a world war. Ferguson noted that at the time it was not taken for granted that the British cabinet would in fact choose to join the war, and if it had not, the history of the 20th century would have been significantly altered. 

Canadian history may, at first glance, appear to not be fertile ground for counterfactuals given it lacks some of the drama that popular counterfactuals are often built around. Yet there are undoubtedly key moments where Canadian history turned even though people at the time may not have realized it.

One such moment occurred on an evening in Ottawa 43 years ago last month. On December 13, 1979, MPs gathered in the House of Commons to vote on the first budget of Joe Clark’s young government.

John Crosbie, Clark’s finance minister, had tabled a budget which sought to demonstrate a new note of fiscal responsibility with limited new spending and a hike to the gas tax but was not well received by the public. Sensing an opportunity, the Liberals pulled out all the stops to get their MPs to the Chamber that evening leading to an unusual level of suspense about the outcome. The final tally was 139 Nays to 133 Yeas with five MPs abstaining. Joe Clark’s government had fallen a little more than six months after it was sworn in. 

In the campaign that followed, Pierre Trudeau emerged victorious and moved back into 24 Sussex. Rather than rest on his laurels, the next four years cemented much of what is remembered of the Trudeau legacy. It’s fair to say that, in many ways, we’re still living in the world that was set in motion during the Trudeau government’s subsequent term.

That legacy first and foremost being the 1982 repatriation of the Canadian Constitution, which most notably included the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This term also saw the creation of the National Energy Program, to much unhappiness in Alberta, and the federalist victory in the first referendum on independence in Quebec. While this was a productive term, it also left the Liberals deeply unpopular, as John Turner discovered upon succeeding Trudeau. So in some sense, the Mulroney government that followed was also part of the legacy of the final Trudeau term.  

However, all of this could have been very different. A few weeks before the 1979 vote, Pierre Trudeau had announced he would leave the Liberal leadership once a leadership contest could be held, and the party had started planning for his succession. Had the PC government survived that vote and lasted even a few more months, Pierre Trudeau would not have led the Liberals into the campaign and thus never returned as PM. 

As this never happened we can never fully know what this alternative history would have looked like, so some caution is required when engaging in the not entirely scientific practice of counterfactual history. But it seems undeniable that had the Clark government won that vote, the last 43 years of Canadian history would have some distinct differences.  

This is most clearly seen in the patriation of the Constitution. This was a particular passion project of Trudeau which he had tried and failed to achieve in his first round in office as he could not get a consensus among the premiers. Rather than be discouraged by the challenges of finding agreement, Trudeau returned to office prepared to spend enormous political capital and hardball tactics to make it happen. It is far from certain that another PM from either the PCs or Liberals would have been so committed to constitutional reform. There was no grand popular demand for constitutional reform. The deal happened because Trudeau was willing to go to great effort in outmaneuvering his foes in the provinces. 

No constitutional deal means no Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the accompanying judicial revolution that followed. As The Hub has recently reflected on, the Charter has so massively reshaped Canadian law and policy that it is hard to imagine Canada without it. But it can too easy to miss the degree to which the Charter and the entire patriation project required Trudeau’s will to make it happen. 

While the impact of the deal is most felt in the impact the Charter has had on our laws, it had implications in many other ways. For instance, the final deal was famously done without the participation of Rene Levesque who was surprised to learn that Trudeau was willing to cut a deal without Quebec. What Trudeau may not have realized (or cared about) is that doing so would help shatter the Liberal’s dominance of Quebec. From 1891 up to the 1980 election the Liberals won a majority of the seats in Quebec in all but two elections, frequently dominating the seat count in the province (in 1980 they took 74 of 75). In the 12 elections that followed the Liberals have won a majority of Quebec seats only once, by a narrow margin in 2015.

The National Energy Program is another big what-if. It is unlikely that the Clark government, with so many of its MPs from Western Canada, would have enacted such a program. The NEP in the West and the repatriation in Quebec both contributed to disillusionment with Ottawa in the East and West. This first benefited Mulroney as it swept him to power, and then it helped to tear his party apart, resulting in the rise of both the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois. 

On the other hand, some major developments may well have happened even if Trudeau had not returned to power, such as the free trade deal with the U.S. While John Turner offered voracious opposition to the deal, Mulroney adopted free trade at the recommendation of the Macdonald Commission which was established by the subsequent Trudeau government. The namesake of the Macdonald Commission was Donald Stovel Macdonald, a long-time Liberal cabinet minister who was the favorite to succeed Trudeau as Liberal leader in the leadership contest that was cancelled in 1979. Had he succeeded Trudeau as Liberal leader and won the next election, perhaps it would have been his government rather than Mulroney who made a deal with the U.S.

Or alternatively, a longer-lasting Clark government may have launched free trade talks given another early champion of the idea was Finance Minister John Crosbie (who was ironically attacked by Mulroney for proposing the idea in the 1983 PC leadership race.) 

The impact of a Trudeauless 1980s on other events is harder to know. For instance, the 1980 Quebec referendum saw the Yes side lose by nearly 20 percent. It’s possible the result would have been similar under a Clark government. But, on the other hand, having Trudeau and his top lieutenant, Jean Chretien, at the top of the government was a major challenge to the Yes argument that Quebec needed independence to have power. In contrast, despite Clark’s best efforts, the PC government was thin on Quebec representation with only two Quebec MPs and 13.5 percent of the popular vote in Quebec. If the PQ had had Clark as a foil during the referendum campaign, it is possible that the dynamic of the campaign would have been different and the result could have been different as well. 

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Of course, this all leads to the question: is it plausible to think PCs could have won the 1979 vote? That night there were 136 PC MPs to 114 Liberals, 27 NDP, and 5 Social Credit serving in the House. With Liberal James Jerome serving as Speaker, that meant the Liberal/NDP MPs had a maximum of 140 votes. If the PCs and Social Credit voted together, they would have 142 votes. 

The Social Credit MPs had been trying to convince the PCs to give them some concessions in order to get their support for the budget. The Clark government may have assumed that the Social Credit MPs had no choice but to support the PCs given an election would not be in their best interests. And given that the 1980 election saw the entire Social Credit caucus defeated and the party disappeared from the political scene, this was not entirely wrong analysis. But in the moment, it was not so great as a tactical assumption.

However, given that the final count was 139 Nays to 133 Yeas, even if the five Social Credits MPs had been enticed to vote in favour, the government still would have fallen thanks to three missing PC MPs who were absent due to illness or ministerial travel. Unlike the Liberals who went to extreme lengths to get all their members to the vote, the PCs had two ministers away travelling on the day of the vote. Clark and his cabinet appeared to have been operating on an assumption that a defeat would see Canadians rally to the newly elected government and turn the minority into a majority as John Diefenbaker did in 1958. 

This assumption was clearly faulty in retrospect but it was also pretty dubious at the time given there was little evidence in public polling that the voters were excited by what they were seeing in the Clark government. This also gets to one of the challenges of this counterfactual: if the PCs were capable of recognizing the risks of a loss and avoiding it, they may also simply have been better at politics overall and thus more likely to win the election when it did happen.

Since we cannot go back and redo that vote we’ll never be able to be certain of what may have happened. Yet it is still a useful thought experiment because it helps to illustrates the ways in which history is highly contingent. While it is undoubtedly clear that the world in which Clark and Crosbie won the parliamentary vote would have in large part produced a similar to the one we live in, it is a reminder that the tides of history are less certain than we sometimes imagine, which is a reason to take the choices before us a little more seriously.