Policies have a tendency to revert to old equilibria even after they’ve been consciously adjusted.

In his provocative introduction to this special feature for Policy Options, Eugene Lang argues that if the Conservatives are reelected with a minority government, we will get more of the same: steady as she goes. But if the Liberals or the NDP are victorious or the Conservatives get a majority government, we should expect “significant policy change” of which only vague outlines are currently visible.

It is also possible that not much will change regardless of who wins. Policy, after all, doesn’t change very rapidly, and in some areas hardly at all. For example, Stephen Harper has taken three governments to give us his version of “tough on crime” and he has met stiff resistance along the way. His effort to seal this deal with a recent raft of judicial appointments is no guarantee that the judiciary will respect his government’s theories of criminal justice when he is no longer around.

Policies have a tendency to revert to old equilibria even after they’ve been consciously adjusted. The Harper government’s alignment with Israel and its stern rebuke of Russia are cases in point. These are out of character with the traditional Canadian approach to foreign policy and are likely to be eventually modified.

Shifting policies from their current state is difficult, no matter the economic or political logic. Canada has retained a supply management approach to dairy and poultry products for decades in spite of the fact that it offends free markets and compromises our trade relationships. It may change with the advent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but watch for a slow and painstaking introduction of new rules with plenty of protection for those on the knife edge of adjustment.

Policy change is slow, uneven and occasionally impossible because vested interests within and outside of government are assembled to resist any change. These interests are the product of institutional arrangements, which actually create them, and of the policies themselves.

If policies were always benign adjustments that everyone agreed were furthering our collective social welfare, then policy change would be continuous and relatively seamless. But policies create winners and losers. We often think of these winners and losers in terms of economic interests – farmers, business and unions – in short, those who are readily organized. Change for them is a high-stakes business, and they are well positioned to marshal arguments (and occasionally threats) that discourage all but the most committed of reformers.

Institutions also create a strong status quo bias. The federal bureaucracy is simultaneously responsive to the government of the day and protective of its own prerogatives and preferences. If a Justin Trudeau government elects to empower the bureaucracy, as Lang anticipates, policy change will likely be slow and incremental. The days of major policy shifts originating from the public service are long gone. And now all changes to policy must pass legal hurdles that an earlier Trudeau laboured so hard to put in place. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures that legal precedents make wholesale changes hard to accomplish without the full collaboration of the judiciary.

It is not hard to think of entrenched and institutionalized interests that stand in the way of policy change. Highly diffused interests – consumers, the poor and immigrants, for example – are much more difficult to mobilize. But policy isn’t just about organized (or unorganized) interests. Sometimes the winners and losers of public policy represent large parts of the public, such as those who benefit from recent changes to the child support program or those who lose when governments decide to require extra years in the workforce to retain pension eligibility.

Normally large and diffuse segments of the public have very few chances to effect change or overcome intransigence, but national elections are one of them. This coming federal election, like elections that featured the Free Trade Agreement and the GST, could conceivably alter the entire policy landscape by mobilizing all of our governments behind national strategies to enhance our collective well-being. But to do so, any government elected this year will have to confront the challenge of working with the provinces.

There is no institutional obstacle to policy change as large and potent as federalism. Harper’s “open federalism,” in which his government gives the provinces a wide berth and expects the same in return, is a recipe for policy stasis, or at least for change confined to areas that are exclusively the preserve of the provinces or the federal government. That leaves large areas in which policy change is highly desirable and likely to be suboptimal if it occurs at all. Let’s consider three areas in which comprehensive policy change would be welcome but unlikely without federal-provincial collaboration.

First, the environmental challenges facing Canada are well known and widely recognized by scientists. From climate change to oil spills and water pollution, the issues at hand are both serious and without respect for political boundaries. In the case of Canada, dealing with environmental issues will require both direct action from the federal government and collaboration between Ottawa and the provinces.

The issue of climate change is a case in point. While the Prime Minister is strategically coy on the matter, few politicians in Canada dispute the reality of climate change and few are in a position to know, with certainty, its full implications. What provincial politicians do know is that their economic fates will be different depending on the policy path chosen. So some – in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec – have chosen to act on climate change, and others have chosen to do little or nothing at all. Choosing to do nothing is far easier when there is no federal leadership and no commitment to meeting international obligations.

Just like Australia under current Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Canada is now widely regarded as a delinquent country on the environmental front. For Canada to improve its record, the federal government would need to show leadership by moving forward with ideas on a federal carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. None of the federal political parties are interested in discussing these ideas during an election campaign. It is much easier to change the subject, allow the provinces to draw the heat by proposing new taxation or simply imply that these problems are subject to technological fixes without much active intervention by governments. Yet, after the October election, regardless of which party is in power, federal leadership on climate change should become a necessity.

For centuries, Aboriginal peoples have faced the negative effects of colonization, displacement, racism and social exclusion. Although progress has been made through public recognition of historical injustices such as the residential school system, the economic, social and political challenges remain tremendous. Today in Canada, Aboriginal peoples are much more likely than the average Canadian to face poverty, unemployment, violence and incarceration. As the Idle No More movement suggests, the anger caused by these ills and by the lack of adequate policy response to them by both government and traditional Aboriginal leaders is mounting. The current debate over the issue of murdered and missing Aboriginal women illustrates this but also points to growing awareness among Canadians of the suffering associated with a long history of colonization and racism.

Can we expect this election campaign to mark a major shift in relations between Aboriginal groups and the federal government? So far, none of the parties are promising much. In government, the Conservatives have used a transactional approach to the challenge, providing significant amounts of compensation for past wrongs, while holding out the promise of much more in exchange for higher levels of accountability.

Although emphasizing the need for accountability is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, it is totally lacking on its own. Ongoing and constructive dialogue between Aboriginal peoples and all levels of government is necessary to tackle the massive problems at hand. Yet the Harper government has mainly adopted a unilateral approach, consistent with open federalism but not with sound policy.

Research on public attitudes toward Aboriginal policies suggests a strong antipathy toward special treatment of Aboriginal peoples, even though treaties and agreements clearly provide for it. Which party will risk a systemic approach to these problems in the midst of an election campaign? Likely none of them. The Liberals and NDP would give us an inquiry into the fate of murdered and missing Aboriginal women, but this is a stopgap. It would address and uncover a series of major problems that may take generations to repair. Compensation is an appropriate tool but if framed exclusively in financial terms, ignoring the power and governance dimensions, it is a recipe for very little progress.

In recent decades, major changes to demographic and family structures have reshaped advanced economies. Witnessing low fertility rates and high levels of dual-earner as well as single-parent families, many of these societies have responded by creating new policies to support working parents, increase labour market participation and improve early childhood education. Related to what is known as a logic of social investment, these developments are seen as consistent with long-term demographic and economic imperatives.

With the exception of Quebec, which adopted a subsidized child care system in the late 1990s, Canada is lagging behind many Northern European countries in child care and early childhood education. This situation is bad for parents in general – who have to pay more for child care every year – but it is especially hard on single parents, most of whom are women. Simultaneously, the absence of creative policy is detrimental to our economy, which requires improved education outcomes, something greatly facilitated by comprehensive early childhood education.

Investing massively in child care and early childhood education would require direct bargaining between Ottawa and the provinces, as witnessed during the Martin years. Instead of adopting a similar approach, the Harper government decided to adopt a policy solution compatible with open federalism, the de facto reintroduction of family allowances. The Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) created in 2006 is not about child care in the strict sense of the term. It is about giving money to parents, independent of whether they use it for child care services. Here is a policy idea that is good electoral politics for all parties, and all of them have their own version of a direct payment or subsidy regime. Yet the UCCB does not solve child care problems, which most provinces and too many citizens struggle with. In fact, the UCCB simply returns to the logic of universal family allowances created in 1945 and gradually phased out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There is no evidence that the current UCCB, or similar direct payments to families, will solve the child care crisis. Canada needs a partnership between the federal government and the provinces to craft a policy that will have results for our children. This approach is far more consistent with current Liberal and NDP proposals than with a Conservative approach rooted in open rather than collaborative federalism.

These three issues are serious policy challenges that require bold federal actions. Because they belong to policy areas that are not the preserve of either order of government, however, a structured dialogue between Ottawa and the provinces is needed to properly address them. This reality goes against the logic of open federalism so dear to Harper. Policy change is hard to achieve under any circumstances, but in these policy areas at least, we must say farewell to open federalism and refuse to look back.

Michael Atkinson is a professor in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan campus.

Daniel Béland is Canada Research Chair in Public Policy and a professor in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan campus.