As we look forward with queasy trepidation to the year 2016 in public affairs, we have a few suggestions for making it more productive and less off-putting. They may be neither original, nor in some cases worldly. But they are needed.
To begin with the most naive, and least original, we would like a more courteous tone in politics. We realize that partisan ruthlessness and low intellectual tone are a chronic feature of politics because they work — up to a point. But so does decency.
Indeed, we venture to suggest that a significant factor in the outcome of the last federal election was the generally pleasant tone of the Liberal campaign. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that courtesy covered a multitude of intellectual sins. But if the problem was excessive faith in “political will,” combined with bad math, the solution is to re-examine the methods and the numbers, not to abandon the civil tone.
We invoke the maxim suaviter in modo, fortiter in re: pleasant in manner and firm on substance
The federal Conservatives and the NDP frequently took the rhetorical low road toward the Liberals and one another. And both wound up eating Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s sweet-smelling dust, as he regrettably said out loud recently. All three parties must now try to deal with the impracticality of much of the Liberal platform. Please do it in ways that improves policy, rather than driving everyone into a corner where they dig in their heels.
We are not suggesting the parties become mushy, vague or sentimental. Rather, we invoke the maxim suaviter in modo, fortiter in re: pleasant in manner and firm on substance. And not just federally.
We know this recommendation is not original. Indeed, most people who take the plunge into politics do so because they are repelled by its viciously unintelligent tone. But a surprising number of them quickly become part of the problem without noticing it. So we call especially on new MPs to check their mirror every day, to make sure they have not become what they came to fix.
Now to firmness on substance. Federally, a juicy piece of low-hanging fruit is inter-provincial trade barriers. They have virtually no honest friends; they are simply beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism disguised as the valid exercise of legitimate provincial powers. They certainly have no friends in principle in any of the main parties, which all want a more robust economy.
The parties may disagree about the sources of prosperity and the uses to which tax revenue ought to be put. But surely they agree that frivolous obstacles to greater prosperity and healthier public balance sheets are bad. So make this the year to fulfil George Brown’s Confederation vision to “throw down all barriers between the provinces — to make a citizen of one, citizen of the whole.”
The same is true of simplifying our overly complicated tax system. The Liberals have promised action on tax loopholes. Conservatives ought to favour taxes that raise money without distorting market incentives. And the NDP believes that tax breaks favour the wealthy or well-connected. Again, they clearly disagree about how to spend tax revenue, how much to raise and appropriate rates of taxation. They may even disagree on the merits of particular tax incentives. But the overall complexity of the system, and the extraordinary burden on individuals and corporations alike of complying with it, is a deadweight loss with no friends in principle. Let solving it in practice be another major priority this year, debated vigorously but courteously.
We must have a lucid, sensible, firm but pleasant discussion of how Canadians should elect MPs and, crucially, under what conditions it is legitimate to change the voting system
The same is surely true of defence funding. It is easy to point fingers when it comes to the dramatic decline in Canada’s military capability, in the so-called “Decade of Darkness” under the Liberals and the even leaner years under the Harper government. But snarling about it won’t fix it. And again, despite sharp disagreements about when and how to use our military, and how to equip it, no party supports an incapable military in theory, and none benefits from it in practice.
Finally, and it now seems most urgently, we must have a lucid, sensible, firm but pleasant discussion of how Canadians should elect MPs and, crucially, under what conditions it is legitimate to change the voting system. To get this issue wrong is to undermine the already shaky legitimacy of our political system, dramatically increasing the level of ill-will and abusive rhetoric among politicians, between them and citizens, and among citizens. Such an outcome would be a disaster for the country and certainly, if we must appeal to self-interest, to the political class.
We do not suggest that any of these things would be easy. But we also do not recall anyone campaigning on the grounds that even a lazy fool could do the job. And if some of our suggestions seem trite, well, there’s even less excuse for not getting them done.
We earnestly believe that an elevated, intelligent, sensible tone in politics will bring benefits to all those involved and that within limits it is possible. Please make it a priority in 2016.