Calgary·Opinion

We need our politics to be much, much better than this

“None of these parties are convincing me that they have a grasp of the depth of the problems we're facing, both as a nation and a broader international bloc.” Journalist and columnist Jen Gerson on the state of things.

It's hard to avoid the sense that we're all managing decline

The House of Commons in Ottawa on Tuesday March 24, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from journalist and political commentator Jen Gerson.

Over the course of the federal election campaign, CBC Calgary will be offering a variety of opinion pieces from different individuals with a wide spectrum of views. Links to these various opinion pieces will be put in each article.


It's rare that I snap so early into an election. 

But on the night before the writ was written up, I saw the tweet: a one-time payment of $500 to be delivered to seniors over the age of 75 this week.

We've spent the last 18 months shutting down our entire society to prevent the spread of a virus that is overwhelmingly a danger to the elderly population — that is, we imposed an extraordinary financial and psychological burden on young adults and children, those least at risk of harm from that virus. But sure, yeah. Let's give the wealthiest demographic in the country, and the one most likely to vote, a one-time cheque in the first week of an election. 

Look, no party is above greasing a desirable voting demographic — and here, I can mention the Conservatives' love of boutique tax credits for balance — but actual cheques in the mail on week one of the writ period? 

I realize that back in the halcyon days of 2015, Canada's Twilight fans were within their rights to vote for the "hot one" for prime minister, but it's time to start waking the hell up. We are in a pivotal moment. 

Look around. 

The pandemic has traumatized a sizeable chunk of the population, and left us with an uncertain fiscal situation. Half the west is literally on fire, or choking on smoke, or facing a historic drought. No one can be confident that the cost of basic goods will remain sustainably low. An entire generation is priced out of the "good house and good job in return for hard work" social contract. 

Meanwhile, our much self-proclaimed moral authority on the world stage is collapsing. 

And yet this utterly cynical election is already feeling like the ones before it; with petty, micro-targeted incentives to high value, persuadable voters, focus-grouped one-liners. It's politics deployed as Twitter and TikTok meme warfare. 

A game of whose leader can look "hotter" on the policy brochure?

Points are awarded to the NDP and the CPC especially for putting forward a real and detailed set of policy prescriptions in their platforms, and doing it right off the mark. 

The CPC's platform, in particular, is real and substantive — although God help you if you think the billions we are incurring in deficit might, eventually, become a problem. No party seems to agree. 

None of these parties are convincing me that they have a grasp of the depth of the problems we're facing, both as a nation and a broader international bloc. 

Let's start abroad. 

Global reputation in tatters

No one can pull their eyes away from Afghanistan, nor ignore the scenes of desperate Afghans clinging to U.S. military aircraft as the hegemon pulls out, leaving the people to their fate. 

Afghans chase U.S. air force plane in desperate attempt to escape country

1 month ago
0:38
Thousands of people are trying to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban strengthens its grip on the country. Some people chased a U.S. air force plane down the tarmac, while others tried to force their way onto planes at the Kabul airport. 0:38

In Canada, it was recently announced that we had airlifted 34 embassy staff and CAF officers and 800 Afghans. Meanwhile, thousands of locals who worked with us during the 20-year war on terror may be massacred by the invading Taliban because we couldn't be bothered to move faster with a more rational paperwork process in a country collapsing in real time. 

Then there is the residential school tragedy, which played to horror headlines around the world and has pummeled our self-advertised international reputation as a bastion of respect, diversity and compassion.

And that's before we delve into our domestic problems — which, if we're honest, is all the electorate cares about.

Domestic distress

It's not like we have a long-term plan that I'm aware of for COVID, for either the economic or social consequences. 

It's like we are making it up as we go along, and hoping it all works out. What happens when all that government money stops flowing to businesses and individuals who have been pummeled by economic gut punches?

Our federal government failed to secure the border in the midst of a global pandemic, its useless quarantine hotels failed to prevent variants into the country and the auditor general has already condemned this government's performance on early detection. 

I will grant Trudeau all due credit for acquiring vaccines in time to salvage summer, but in parts of the country, our kids are facing the possibility of a second year without school. And no one seems to be coming up with a plausible plan to mitigate the damage we're doing to an entire generation of children to placate our terror of COVID-19, justified or otherwise. 

And then there are the fires, when I wake up to orange skies and falling ash, again. 

Fires burn in B.C.'s interior on Aug. 13, 2021. (B.C. Wildfire Service/Twitter)

For much of the west, what's not on fire is blowing over the rest of us. And what's not burned is baked by the heat. 

Most of this country's breadbasket is facing a drought that looks set to be among the country's worst in history. Farmers are already warning about a spike in food prices.

And on the idea of buying: is anyone prepared for food prices to spike? Or can we just add the grocery bill to the credit card debt of a generation that can't afford to buy a house and can barely manage childcare?

Farmers are already warning about a spike in food prices because of a drought that looks set to be among the country's worst in history. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Let's see, what else? Oh, how about the $100 billion deficit, and the spending rate that the PBO last year stated was unsustainable. I guess we'll just print more money to pay that off and hope we don't head into an inflation spiral or go bankrupt. 

There is a generation born in the dawn of Sept. 11, now coming of age. Many will be eligible to vote for the first time this election. 

What future can this country — a self-described genocidal nation state — offer them? Can they be confident that in, say, 2025, Canada will be more prosperous and more free than it was in 2019?  

The need to do better

Fear and anger are like the silent ocean currents that drive up land temperatures and trap dry air on land. If you miss these feelings, you'll mistake calm waters on the surface for the deep climate below. 

The future feels uncertain and unstable, and it's hard to avoid the sense that we're all managing decline — reading the will and settling the final accounts of a golden age. 

And I can't help but avoid the sense that none of our politicians is taking the future seriously. I'm not looking for some fantasy narrative of the greatness of Canada, but rather some confidence that any of these leaders understand the severity of our moment.

The emergencies aren't going to stop coming, guys. There will be another wave of the pandemic in a population already traumatized and exhausted. And we're going to get into geopolitical movements that the great powers would not have dared to contemplate if the west were stronger. (I'm looking at you, Taiwan.) 

Crises are going to compound on one another. There will be no slowing down, no period of rest between catastrophes. And as each problem hits, we are losing material and moral capacity to deal with it as we stumble, punch-drunk, into whatever the next phase of history is going to be. 

I don't bet against liberal democracy in the long run. But the "long run" can be very long indeed, and we're going to need our politics to be much, much better than this. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jen Gerson is a journalist, political commentator, and co-founder of the online newsletter The Line.

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