It could be a Conservative majority or minority. It could be a Liberal majority or minority. Thomas Mulcair could end up as prime minister. It is wide open.

Several public opinion surveys taken over the past few months confirm this view offered by a veteran parliamentarian. For the first time in a quarter century Canadians head into a federal election in which the Conservatives, the Liberals and the NDP are within striking distance of one another. The outcome of the contest is highly unpredictable and could take any number of configurations.

What does this electoral fluidity imply for Canada’s policy agenda going forward?

More than likely it means that in 2016 and beyond Canadians will be in for significant public policy change in Ottawa, whoever wins the election and independent of the parties’ platforms. In other words, fairly big and unexpected policy change is probably in the air.

Typically, party platforms in Canada are not detailed governing agendas for a mandate. Rather, they tend to contain a few big commitments and a litany of trivial items designed to win votes, shore up the brands of political parties and their leaders, and motivate certain segments of the electorate.

At the time of writing the parties haven’t released their full platforms, although some significant commitments have been made. The Liberals, for example, have said they will make changes to marginal tax rates — increasing the top rate and decreasing the middle rate — along with a significant boost to child benefits. They also seem to remain committed to Justin Trudeau’s promise during his successful leadership bid to legalize marijuana. The NDP have told Canadians they will increase corporate tax rates to help pay for a national daycare scheme. The Conservatives haven’t promised anything new beyond the measures in this year’s federal budget. But there are rumours that the party of tax cuts might commit to go one step further with another reduction in the harmonized sales tax/goods and services tax (HST/GST).

Platform commitments, however, are but a fraction of what any government deals with during a mandate. Responding to what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously called “events,” together with the pressures of running a complex country, means whichever party forms government will be going well beyond election commitments. In other words, the real policy agendas of the parties might not become clear until the campaign is over.

So what can we expect from the Liberals, the NDP and the Conservatives in office? What significant and unexpected policy changes might be in the offing for Canadians in 2016?

Prior to his landslide election victory in 1984, Brian Mulroney famously promised to deliver “pink slips and running shoes” to what in his view was a bloated federal public service that had become too Liberal in orientation over the previous two decades, when Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson were in charge. But it wasn’t that the public service that had become Liberal through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Rather, the Liberal Party, or at least many senior members of the Trudeau government, had become public servants in all but name.

As a classic brokerage party with no fixed ideology — and to some critics no convictions at all — the Liberals then, as now, tend once in office to be strong believers in what is fashionably called “evidence-based policy.” In other words, the Liberals often think like public servants, eschewing an ideological agenda in favour of public policy rooted in facts and analysis.

When Jean Chrétien and his team were elected in 1993, for example, they tried to follow through with promises contained in Creating Opportunity, better known as the “Red Book.” However, within a few months of the Liberals assuming office, the Red Book’s moderate fiscal agenda, aimed at cutting the federal deficit — which stood at over 6 percent of GDP — in half over four years, was jettisoned in favour of the most aggressive austerity drive any federal government has taken since the Second World War. Within three years the Liberals erased the deficit entirely through deep spending cuts to federal departments and sharp reductions in transfers to provinces.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Red Book was authored by Finance Minister Paul Martin and the Prime Minister’s director of policy, Chaviva Hosek, it didn’t take long before the public service, and in particular officials from Finance Canada, seized the moment and forced a true austerity agenda through the breach of an evidence-based brokerage party that harboured conflicting views on the deficit, the central policy issue facing the country at that time. This macroeconomic agenda was in turn linked to a public-service-inspired microeconomic policy thrust based on trade and investment liberalization, deregulation of some sectors of the economy and privatization of federal assets — ideas that had caused the Liberals conniption fits while in opposition.

As a result, by the mid-1990s, Canada had its first truly right wing federal economic and fiscal policy in a generation. No one, least of all the Chrétien cabinet—oscillating between its right, left and centre poles — expected that to happen. You can largely thank Finance Canada and a handful of senior officials in some other economic portfolios for turning senior members of the Chrétien government into deficit hawks and Thatcherites, through the skilful use of evidence and argument.

This is but one example of the degree to which the public service has influenced the direction of Liberal governments. If Justin Trudeau’s Liberals take control of the levers of power this fall, expect them to revert to this type. Senior officials whose policy advice has been supplanted by the ideology and populism of Stephen Harper’s government will need to get ready to be asked for their research, analysis and opinion ad nauseam if Team Trudeau takes the reins. In this context, if the public service has a clear agenda and good leadership, bureaucrats can have enormous policy influence on a Liberal Party that lacks an ideological anchor and is often internally conflicted on big issues.

For example, officials in the Department of Justice would likely try and could perhaps succeed in convincing a Liberal justice minister to junk some of Harper’s “tough on crime” legislative initiatives, which legal experts consider to have been forged in an evidence-free zone.

Likewise, expect tax policy purists in the Department of Finance to step forward and trash most of Harper’s and the late Jim Flaherty’s tax credit bonanza, which is ridiculed by the economically literate and has drained the treasury of billions. If the finance department managed to persuade Chrétien and Martin to abandon one of their central campaign commitments from the 1993 election — the pledge to “replace” the reviled GST — they probably have a shot at motivating Trudeau and his finance minister to abandon some of the most egregious elements of the Harper government’s tax populi. Doing so would of course have the added benefit of helping the Liberals in their quest for scarce revenue to fund their priorities. And we can almost guarantee that Finance officials will at least try to persuade the Liberals to back off their commitment to increase the top marginal tax rate, which would move the combined federal-provincial top rate to over 50 percent, something economists think merely increases tax avoidance among high income earners and produces very little added revenue for the treasury.

Then there is the beleaguered Department of Foreign Affairs, which has been marginalized by Harper’s office for years. Expect Foreign Affairs officials to lean forward, such that we would likely see an immediate and major shift in the tone if not the substance of international relations under the Liberals. The Harper government’s good versus evil, at turns bellicose, foreign policy would give way with alacrity under the Liberals to a more nuanced — some would say feckless — “on the one hand, on the other hand” posture that the professional diplomats abide. This will play out most obviously and immediately in the case of Israel. Under a Trudeau government, the prime minister of Canada will no longer be Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest friend, nor will Canada be the world’s leading supporter of unrestrained Zionism.

These are the kinds of public policy shifts that are quite possible if the Liberals form a majority government. A Liberal minority, on the other hand, would be much more constrained in the degree to which it could indulge an evidence-based, public-service-driven agenda. Likely governing with the support of the NDP, a Liberal minority would need to adhere primarily to its election platform commitments, while at the same time making some big concessions to the NDP, as Paul Martin’s minority government did in its 2005 budget (in the final analysis conceding almost $5 billion in additional social program spending to ensure the budget passed through Parliament).

In either a Liberal majority or a minority configuration, then, we could expect a very busy time on Wellington Street, as Prime Minister Trudeau gets tutored by the senior mandarins on what his policy priorities should really be now that the electioneering is over. Or, alternatively, Trudeau could be spending more time than he would like getting to know Thomas Mulcair and the NDP agenda.

Bob Rae’s political memoir, From Protest to Power, published shortly after his government lost the 1995 Ontario election, offered two important messages for NDP leaders. First, if you come to office in the midst of an economic and fiscal crisis, as Rae faced when elected in 1990, don’t be wedded to old nostrums and rigid ideological positions. Second, if you follow that advice, watch your back, because your core constituencies will be stabbing you in it.

Thomas Mulcair won’t face an economic and fiscal crisis if he becomes prime minister this fall. And to his credit, he has done what Rae failed to do in opposition — he has moved his party off some of its most extreme legacy positions. Yet we know from the NDP policy book that many of the party’s core beliefs remain outside the Canadian policy mainstream; for example, the suggestion that an NDP government would meddle with the independence of the Bank of Canada to ensure a low interest rate policy. The degree to which such beliefs would translate into hard and fast platform commitments remains to be seen. But we can certainly expect Mulcairism to usher in some major policy changes.

This would be the first federal social democratic government in Canadian history — truly a watershed moment. And while Mulcair has moved the NDP closer to the political centre with a balanced budget commitment, more mainstream foreign and defence policy positions and a pledge not to raise personal income or sales taxes, we can still expect some signature social democratic initiatives to emerge on the NDP watch, whether they formed a majority or a minority government. Notable among them, of course, is their $15- a-day universal daycare scheme, based on the Quebec model (which the Quebec government has just abandoned as being too expensive) and financed by an as yet unspecified increase in corporate taxes.

No one has accused Mulcair of having a hidden agenda. Nevertheless, in office we can expect a NDP government to face, and probably cave in to, some pressure from its core supporters who have toiled for two generations to get their party’s hands on the levers of power. The need to prevent the knives from coming out within the extended NDP family will likely mean, therefore, that Mulcair will placate at least some of these old guard interests. We could see, for example, the auto unions demand and get concessions — large subsidies to attract production work from the Big Three parents in the United States, for example — for the struggling Canadian auto industry.
As Brian Mulroney was in 1984, an NDP government will be less than comfortable with a federal bureaucracy that has been serving Liberal, Progressive Conservative and Conservative governments forever and is known to be right of centre on many big issues. A Mulcair government will therefore likely reach back into provincial ministries and bring to Ottawa senior mandarins who have worked well with NDP governments in the provinces. Canadians could be in for some policy surprises if a few deputy ministers from the provinces get the helm of a handful of federal departments and are given latitude to indulge a more provincialist agenda. We might, for example, see a willingness to support provincial demands for significant increases in intergovernmental transfer payments and infrastructure funding beyond what the NDP commits to in its platform.

Mulcair wants Canadians to believe that his is not your father’s NDP — and it isn’t; the party has clearly moderated itself in some key areas. However, if the New Democrats were actually to come out on top in this election, expect to see some real social democratic public policy come to the fore in Ottawa, not to mention some surprises aimed at keeping the unreconstructed NDP supportive, or at least tolerant, of Mulcairism.

Unlike Tom Mulcair, when Stephen Harper was opposition leader he was frequently accused of having a hidden agenda that would be implemented if he came to power. Yet after nearly a decade in office, Harper’s governing record has proven to be the most transparent of any prime minister in 30 years.

On the big issues, the Harper Conservatives have campaigned in four successive elections on a few themes — cutting taxes significantly, getting “tough on crime,” staying clear of provincial jurisdiction and pursuing a muscular foreign policy rooted in “moral clarity.” Those campaign themes have been largely faithful to the policy and legislative agenda of three successive Harper governments.

If Harper’s parliamentary standing after this election is reduced to a minority, Canadians would be unlikely to see big policy change. An electorally chastened Conservative government would not want to tempt parliamentary fate with any bold moves. However, judging by Harper’s first two minority governments in 2006-08 and 2008-11, Canadians shouldn’t expect these Conservatives to make many concessions to the opposition in order to stay in office either. Rather, a Harper minority will likely assume the Liberals and the NDP will have neither the guts nor the election war chests to defeat them quickly and force another election. This dynamic should allow the Conservatives at least a year or two of running room for an agenda based on continuity.

However, if Stephen Harper is to be re-elected this year with a majority, expect something bolder and perhaps even a hidden agenda of sorts to emerge — although it would be one that likely hasn’t yet been written down or thought about much inside Conservative circles.

A second Conservative majority would likely lead Harper to become fixated on his place in Canadian history, as this will almost certainly be his final mandate. This is the norm for long-serving prime ministers as they eye the end of the political road and ask themselves the question, “What historically important achievements have I made in office?” For Pierre Trudeau, the answer was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For Brian Mulroney, it was free trade with the United States. For Jean Chrétien, it was ending a quarter century of federal deficits. For Harper the answer is probably unclear at this point.

In their final mandates, prime ministers often look to the international arena to make their mark on history. And as the second-longest-serving leader in the G7, Harper appears very comfortable on the global stage, making bold pronouncements on global economic affairs and sometimes leading the charge on issues of peace and security — against Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, for example. It is far from obvious what major foreign policy initiative Harper could pursue that would secure his place in the Canadian history books, but it is not hard to imagine he will try to find one.

On the domestic front, there aren’t many ideologically Conservative files left to tackle that would be considered historic achievements. There is, however, one issue that is the stuff of history, which we know Stephen Harper is passionate about: Senate reform.

Is it conceivable that if he won another majority Harper would swallow his pride and engage the provinces in a constitutional negotiation to forge a consensus on Senate reform? With the Senate now engulfed in scandal and at a low-water mark in public support, and given a re-elected Harper majority with loads of political capital, a window of opportunity would surely exist to reform the Senate the hard way — through negotiation with the premiers followed by constitutional amendment. If he pursued that path and succeeded, Harper’s place in the pantheon of great Canadian prime ministers would be assured. There are those who would counter that this prime minister would never abandon his long-standing position against opening up the Constitution. Perhaps. But who would have thought 10 years ago that the Harper Conservatives, who pledged never to run a deficit, would be in the red seven out of their nine years in office?

Canadians have seen relative continuity in Ottawa’s policy agenda following the last two general elections (2008 and 2011). Harper’s Conservatives, victors in both of those contests, have for the most part pursued initiatives that should not have come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to Canadian politics. If they were to be returned this fall with a minority government, the policy trajectory they have established over the past decade would likely continue. But if any of the other likely electoral outcomes emerge — a Liberal or NDP governments or a Conservative majority — Canadians can expect significant policy change, a good deal of which would not be evident by reading election platforms.

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