The campaign that was, and the campaign that could have been

In a note last week for investors and clients, ScotiaBank described this federal election as a "vote about everything and nothing." That is not an unfair summation.

Pandemic election might be easy to lament, but big things are still at stake

Canadians will cast their ballots for the 44th general election on Monday. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

In a note last week for investors and clients, ScotiaBank described this federal election as a "vote about everything and nothing." That is not an unfair summation.

Though initially framed in stark terms by Justin Trudeau himself, the campaign was not seized with Socratic or fierce debates about the lessons of the last year and a half or the challenges of the untold future — even if all those things are implicitly on the ballot. 

It was an election that skimmed over many things and fastened onto a few (gun control, vaccine mandates), but without quite dwelling enough on some of the big questions — though that is probably a fair description of most electoral campaigns.

Meanwhile, the exact need for this election was debatable, and Conservative leader Erin O'Toole finished his campaign arguing that voters should see this as an election about whether there should have been an election.

So it is easy to lament for an election that should have been more about any number of things. 

But the result of any election has the potential to affect nearly everything – and this election is no different.

Long-term care talks muted

This could, for instance, have been an election about how we care for the elderly. That issue was not entirely absent, but its presence was not commensurate with the tragedy that recently unfolded.

According to the National Institute on Aging, there have been 15,285 deaths from COVID-19 among residents of long-term care facilities — accounting for more than half of all the deaths from COVID-19 in Canada. In Ontario and Quebec, the Canadian Forces were called in to stabilize the situation in some centres. 

In August, Green MP Paul Manly asked the parliamentary budget officer to estimate the cost of a comprehensive response that would eliminate the waiting list for long-term care, ensure that personal support workers were paid $25 per hour, increase the hours of care provided to residents and substantially increase the number of publicly funded hours of home care. The price tag for that plan was $13.7 billion per year. And absent federal intervention, the cost would be borne almost entirely by the provinces.

Flowers are shown outside Maison Herron, a long-term care home in the Montreal suburb of Dorval in April as COVID-19 cases continued to rise in Canada and round the world. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

None of the three leading parties came close to committing that much (the Greens did promise to implement Manly's suggestions, but they also only got around to releasing an incomplete costing of their platform on Saturday). But there are nonetheless distinctions in what the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP have proposed.

The Conservatives are committed to providing $3 billion to renovate long-term care centres — matching a sum that was included in the Liberal government's spring budget. The Conservatives could also argue that their increase to the Canada Health Transfer would leave the provinces with more money for long-term care, but most of that money would come after 2026.

The Liberals have raised their commitment and are now promising $9 billion over five years to improve long-term care, $1.7 billion to raise the wages of PSWs to $25 per hour and $500 million to train more PSWs. The Conservatives would aim to recruit more PSWs via immigration.

The NDP is promising $7.4 billion over five years to improve long-term care, but with an emphasis on eliminating the for-profit ownership of some facilities — a long-term goal that they would pursue over the next decade. 

Both the Liberals and NDP would put new standards for long-term care into federal legislation, which would have to be negotiated with the provinces. The Conservatives would work with provinces to develop non-binding guidelines. 

"This is where I'm disappointed, frankly, when I see all of the party platforms," said Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at the University Health Network Hospitals in Toronto, who spoke with Manly before the Green MP tabled his proposal. "I feel like everyone's kind of nipping at certain things in a retail way, as opposed to fundamentally dealing with the root of the issues. Because I don't think anything promised is going to prevent another devastating pandemic [from ripping] through Canada's long-term care homes."

A similar fate may have befallen reconciliation.

That deep and nuanced topic was often reduced to complaints that the Liberals had not met their own goal of ending all boil-water advisories in Indigenous committees and assertions from the NDP that they would somehow get that done faster. 

Fiscal policy positions

One might have assumed there would be a real debate about fiscal policy — and the Conservatives insist that they would show more discipline. But Scotiabank's analysis shows that the Liberals and Conservatives are proposing nearly identical fiscal tracks over the next five years — the Conservatives would run only slightly smaller annual deficits and the debt-to-GDP ratios are virtually identical. 

So maybe that's not much of a debate. But on the way to those bottom lines, the parties make different choices.

Notably, the Conservatives would increase the annual rate of growth in the Canada Health Transfer to six per cent. Talking about the CHT "escalator" is not sexy, and in the immediate term that change would not have a large impact. But if O'Toole were to sign a 10-year deal with the provinces that included that escalator, those annual increases would eventually add up to something significant — amounting to a $15-billion increase in 2031.

That outflow of funds from the federal government to the provinces would improve provincial finances, which are not currently  sustainable. But it could also eventually necessitate structural changes at the federal level.

"The 6% increase to the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) may require significant reductions to other spending measures or increases in revenue measures to maintain fiscal sustainability," the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy concluded.

And then there is climate policy.

Climate and carbon pricing plans

The difference between the Conservatives and Liberals when it comes to pricing carbon is $120 per tonne — the Conservatives would cap the national price at $50 per tonne, the Liberals would continue raising it annually until it reached $170 per tonne in 2030. 

But the parties also have different targets for emissions reductions. The Conservatives would aim to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030; the Liberals would aim to reduce emissions by 40 to 45 per cent. 

In absolute terms, a cut of 30 per cent would mean annual emissions of 511 megatonnes in 2030. At the low end of the Liberal target, annual emissions would have to be 438 Mt in 2030.

People attend a climate change protest in Montreal on Sept. 26. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

That difference of 73 megatonnes is roughly equivalent to the total emissions of Saskatchewan in 2019. 

The NDP and the Greens have both pledged even deeper cuts, but the feasibility of their plans has been questioned

But, of course, this election is not a referendum on climate policy, at least not for all voters. Because elections are always about all sorts of things — from leadership to micro-targeted tax breaks.

A grand clash of ideas might've drilled deeper into these and other issues — from government transparency to housing. Maybe this was an election that wasn't enough about anything.

But it can't be said that the result won't matter. And the crises and dilemmas that existed five weeks ago — including how we care for the eldest members of our society —will still be there when this election is over, for whoever happens to be prime minister.


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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