The Death of the Big Idea

“The fact is, Ottawa is broken…”

Thomas Mulcair is peering out over his legion of MPs.  This was a call-to-arms.  A beginning of the 365-day campaign that will bring us to the doorstep of the 42nd federal election.

“The NDP is still the only party that- will- fix it.”

The dashes are typed up in Mulcair’s copy of the speech, giving him direction on how to punch up his speech to the troops.

“Canadians are counting on us.  They’re counting on us to make life more affordable for their families…”

The written-in ellipses lets him know when to wait for the scripted applause from his cohorts.

“To help them save and invest for their retirement… And to create high-paying, middle-class jobs… in every sector, in every region.”

The communications apparatchiks in the NDP have proven grumpy at any insinuation that Mulcair’s January speech to his caucus was a light one.  Indeed, they’ve gotten quite prickly with anyone who dares write that Mulcair’s battlecry was utterly devoid of concrete policy, and amounted to little more than a grocery list of the typical buzzwords.

Given that it was his summation of a week-long Parliamentary strategy session with his caucus, I guess we were foolish to believe that it would anything more.

Yet this is Thomas Mulcair, chief of the party once equally lauded and admonished for its risky and expansive policy ideas, poo-poohed in hushed tones as dictated by Krustchev’s Kremlin.  Thomas Mulcair, the Quebecois minister who ensured that all provincial policies would be evaluated on their environmental impact.  Thomas Mulcair, who enshrined each Quebecer’s right to a healthy environment in the provincial Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Some have accused that Thomas Mulcair of stripping the party of its prairie socialism.  Of forsaking its United Church roots for yuppie third-way social democracy.

That’s not entirely fair.  All Mulcair did was give up.  He gave up.  And, standing before his party, once known as Tommy Douglas’ party of mice, he eulogized the death of the big idea.

The death of the big idea was not a dramatic one.  A few of its children faced messy ends — like Brian Mulroney’s public hanging of the National Energy Program — but the one big idea died slowly and alone.  Friends and family were nowhere to be found.  It coughed once and gave up the ghost.

Canada has always proved to be a particularly ornery collection of sheep, unable to continue on a single path long enough to get anything done on its own.  An idea would often be born out of the chaos, before being adopted by one shepherd and driven by the political sheepdogs.

The overarching big idea was that we, a wildly-diverse collection of people who should still be launching tribal warfare against each other, but who somehow still stay together as a country.

Medicare was the brainchild of the imp-like Tommy Douglas, who would stump for the policy, before it was eventually sold to the country by Louis St. Laurent.  John Diefenbaker would symbolize his own ineffective stint in power by creating the Bill of Rights — a document of untold optimism which showed little effect.  Trudeau one-upped Diefenbaker with his Charter, and his Constitution, patriated through fire.  Brian Mulroney limped out of government, having himself accomplished the difficult tasks of implementing NAFTA and imposing the GST.

By the time the 90s began, the big idea was on its deathbed.

Jean Chretien’s deficit-phobia meant a lurching back-and-forth of big new funding plans, and painful axe-dropping austerity.  Even his crown jewel of equalizing marriage legislation was done so with the Supreme Court breathing down their neck.

Chretien’s government shirked the big idea.  Even sending troops to Afghanistan was treated with the business-as-usual approach that feels ill-fitting at wartime.  Paul Martin, too, opted for good fiscal prudence and a don’t-rock-the-boat strategy that spoke heavily to the Liberals’ expectation that, all else being equal, the Liberals would hold onto government in perpetuity against a divided opposition.

Ironically, the biggest idea to come out of the Liberal decade may well have been the hearts-and-minds-purchasing of Quebecers that we now know as the Sponsorship Scandal.  But that doesn’t count, as it was illegal.

So now we come to Stephen Harper: the undertaker for the big idea.

Whether you’re a die-hard Conservative, or a Harper-hating leftie, there’s little disagreement — Harper has no big plans.

He has overarching goals, and incrementalist plots to improve services (or destroy, if you’re of that persuasion.)

Harper can probably be more credited with dismantling past big ideas than with starting any of his own.  His axing of the wheat board and one arm of the firearms registry speak to his loathing of Ottawa-managed schemes to create pan-Canadian projects.

Even Senate reform, that one big Ottawa bubble program aimed at fundamentally altering how we all interact with out democratic institutions: bust.

And he doesn’t really seem to care.  In light of the Senate scandal, he’s sure talked it up.  But for years in government, Harper made little earnest effort to move forward with reform, and ultimately punted it down the road to the Supreme Court to give himself cover for his inaction.

But his opposition to the big idea is not unfounded.  While the big idea might be altruistic in its intentions, it often did become a conduit for the imposition of central Canadian values onto the rest of the country in such a patriarchal and condescending way that it didn’t exactly foster that unity.  Sometimes, the big idea really was an ineffective boondoggle that needed axing.

Yet, to replace the big projects, Harper has taken on a downloading of federal responsibility onto the provinces, coupled with an inanely consumerist agenda.  Together, it feels as though the federal government is just a kiosk at the mall.  A service-provider who is little different than Bell or Rogers.

Surprisingly, the other parties rushed to match him.

Even the biggest-of-the-big-ideas that we’ve seen in the last few election campaigns dissipate in the sunlight.  The Green Shift?  A carbon tax.  The Learning Passport?  A complex myriad of grants and scholarships.

Boldness is dead.  Innovation is a sin.  Creative thinking is for egg-heads.

The last election was about tax cuts, service improvements, and boutique tax credits.

Even golden boy Justin Trudeau, son of the biggest Canadian thinker to live in 24 Sussex Dr., a politician without a cent in his thoughtbank.

But there is one collection of Liberals who are proposing a pretty damn big idea.

They’re proposing that the party adopt the idea of a annual minimum income at their policy convention in Montreal.  It’s called the Basic Income Pilot, and it’s a pretty big idea.

It’s not unprecedented, either — it was first launched as a pilot project in Dauphin, Manitoba, and was considered to be a wild success.

An Environics poll, for the Trudeau Foundation and Concordia University, actually found that the idea was relatively popular — 46 per cent of those asked said they liked the idea, with 42 per cent opposed.

Every other big idea always sought to address a lacking.  Our private healthcare system lacked compassion for the ill and poor.  Our pre-Charter country lacked a real laundry list of enshrined rights.  Our pioneer Canada lacked a connecting railroad.

And the Basic Income Pilot notes a lack of sensibility in dealing with poverty.  Being low-income is an ailment that Canada has tried to fix by eliminating income taxes, funding shelters, creating job programs and complex welfare and employment insurance schemes that are tightly regulated and heavily monitored.  The Pilot’s simple and eloquent solution: cut out the middlemen and end the scourge of poverty by providing an income to those who need it.

It remains to be seen if Trudeau would back the idea (see: probably not) and there are very credible arguments against it, though its initial trial run seems to undercut many of them.  Yet, the idea could use serious consideration.

And, perhaps, offering a coherent broad scheme for the country will inspire the other two leaders to address the dearth of ideas in their own platforms.



Other columns by Justin Ling

Middle Eastern Opportunity Costs

To Charte, or not to Charte?

Harper and the liberal journalists of Sparks Street

Harper’s Israeli Rorschach Test

Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


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