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Federal Politics
Election 2015

Nine Urgent Post-Harper Challenges

Surveying hazards and opportunities across our upended political landscape.

Crawford Kilian 26 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

If Harperland was a kind of political Mordor full of ashes and orcs, Trudeauvia does not offer us sunny ways home to the Shire in time for tea and scones with the other hobbits. Much of Harperland's geography extends far beyond its borders, and now that the Conservative smoke is clearing, we can begin to see what tough terrain we still have to cross.

That landscape (to drop the Tolkien metaphor) presents both domestic and foreign hazards -- some of them already known, others emerging from the election itself. Let's consider some of them, starting with the election-related issues:

New Democrats and Conservatives as regional parties. The NDP survives largely in parts of Quebec, northern Ontario and Vancouver Island, with a few embattled enclaves in urban areas like Vancouver East. The Tories were washed out of the Maritimes and left for dead in the Toronto suburbs.

So the NDP is now a rural-industrial party, and the Conservative party a rural-suburban-corporate party. This has implications for the environment and urban planning. New Democrats are defending some remnants of traditional extractive industries like logging and mining, while Conservatives rely on farmers, small towns, the aspiring suburbanites of Ford Nation, and the dwindling base of the oil patch.

Neither base has kept ahead of even the minimal inflation of the last few years. Most Canadians have been trying to live on stagnant incomes for decades, and keeping up by going into debt. So lower taxes always sound better, even if higher taxes would save them money in the long run -- for example, by funding more sustainable green jobs and cheaper transit.

Urbanites, doing slightly better, are willing to accept deficits if new roads and bridges get them to work and home again with less hassle (for a few years, anyway). But unless their incomes go up sharply, many New Democrats and Conservatives will be unhappy about those deficits.

Skepticism about corporate media. After the wave of Harper endorsements in the mainstream media, it was clear that their corporate owners have no clues about, and no interest in, their readers. It should come as no surprise to them that their papers' circulation will continue to fall, as will what's left of their influence.

Still, the mainstream media will continue to frame our political conversation for some years to come.

Persistence of anti-Islamism. For centuries Jews were the bogeyman of choice, and Muslims didn't even register. After 9/11 the anti-Semites segued gracefully into hating the kid brother of the Abrahamic religions instead of the oldest brother. This tactic made Muslims a more useful bogeyman, with fewer opportunities to defend themselves.

Anti-Islamism also showed us how witty the Conservatives could be. Pretending righteous outrage about oppressed women, they fought an election on the niqab -- a fashion statement really on a par with a tattoo or a tongue stud. They also promised a snitch line for reporting "barbaric cultural practices" already covered by Canadian criminal law. Murdered and missing indigenous women? Big yawn.

Unfocused hopey-changey rhetoric. Justin Trudeau brilliantly plagiarized Jack Layton and Barack Obama on running a positive campaign. But hope is a short word for wishful thinking, and change is often a change for the worse.

Trudeau will have to offer solid improvements in the Canadian way of life: not just more joe jobs, but better-paying and more interesting jobs; truly cleaner water on First Nations reserves; measurably less CO2 in our emissions; and shorter wait times in our emergency rooms. Those may be more easily wished for than achieved.

Beyond the immediate problems that Trudeau and the Liberals will have to deal with, consider the chronic issues that Harper's Conservatives studiously ignored for a decade. Some are obvious:

First Nations. We need genuine accord with the First Nations, not just an idle mea culpa in Parliament. Such an accord will have to deliver measurable results: more students graduated and employed, fewer First Nations people in jail, life expectancies lengthened. For starters.

Health care. We may love it, but as Trudeau says, better is always possible. We need a serious overhaul to deal with our seniors -- and to forestall if possible the public-health crises in dementia and general caregiving. It won't be much of a heritage if our grandchildren find work simply changing their grandparents' diapers.

Medicare is going to have to include pharmacare; it's pointless to know what ails you if you can't afford to fix it.

The health system will also need to prepare for recurring epidemics triggered by climate change: nasty mosquito-borne ailments like dengue and chikungunya, for example, are migrating north as temperatures rise. Cheap air travel will bring such diseases even to Canada.

Post-secondary education and training. More access will ensure higher productivity in a smaller workforce supporting seniors and kids as well. We're signatories to a 40-year-old treaty promising free post-secondary tuition. The sooner we realize free tuition is a cost-benefit bargain, the sooner we'll be able to take care of our own.

Mass migration. The refugees now swamping Europe are just the first in a series of human tsunamis caused by climate change and resulting political violence.

Seventy years ago, war-shattered Europe still managed to deal with millions of "displaced persons." We ought to be able to do far better, and to put our share of refugees to good use for everyone's benefit.

The biggest challenge

But here is the biggest challenge Trudeauvia faces: the pace of change. We have been living in "future shock" for decades, while climate, technology and politics have changed but we have not. It's been said that we define paradise as the way we remember the world when we were 13 years old. By the time we're grown, that world is lost forever.

The issue for Trudeau, then, is not to bring back the imagined paradise of pre-Harper 2005 Canada. That Canada is as dead as a Norwegian blue parrot, and it was no utopia. The issue is how to retrieve the best of that era and strengthen it with what we've learned in a fast-changing decade.

That will require the creation of institutions for change. Governments on all levels should be able to anticipate and plan for change, including unexpected changes -- Donald Rumsfeld's famous "unknown unknowns."

This will not be easy. Our institutions are basically conservative, trying to preserve values and policies that worked in the past. Canada will need a radically new attitude, foreseeing and forestalling bad changes while encouraging good ones -- not only here at home but around the world. That attitude will depend on our willingness to confront problems, not just deny them.

To return to the Tolkien metaphor, if you have read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, you'll recall that the Shire tends to go to hell when Bilbo or Frodo is away. It takes a lot of work to get their community back to a reasonable way of life. Even Frodo, having saved Middle-Earth, packs it in and heads for Westernesse at the end.

But his loyal proletarian companion Sam Gamgee sees him off at the Grey Havens and then comes back to the serene domesticity of the Shire: "Well, I'm home."

With luck and effort, we may be able to say the same thing in a few years.  [Tyee]

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