Lots of rhetoric, few policies

Parties have been test-driving their competing visions as they head toward a showdown

It’s “build back better” versus “Canada first.”

The Liberals and the Conservatives have almost nailed down their respective recovery slogans and, after a few days of trying out various related phrases, the leaders of both parties seem to have settled on their rhetoric.

Erin O’Toole even adds Latin to his: Per ardua ad strata. “Through adversity, to the stars.”

The policy details, though, need some more work.

The parties have been test-driving their competing visions as they head toward a showdown later this month. On Sept. 23, the Liberals will roll out their plan in a throne speech, setting the tone for an eventual election. And the Conservatives will respond in kind.

They each have some deep thinking to do before then, especially because at least on the surface, both are flirting with major departures from the economic consensus of the past.

O’Toole is plastering social media with bumper stickers. “It’s time to put Canada first,” he says. “Are you with me?”

What does that mean exactly? O’Toole’s answer is a slow reveal, and it’s not entirely coherent — at least, not yet.

In interviews, he has explained that he’s talking about “self-sufficiency” — not just making sure Canada produces its own personal protective equipment, but also our own food and energy.

In particular, he says it means pulling back manufacturing from China because China can’t be trusted, and reconsidering major trade deals that haven’t worked in Canadians’ interests.

In a Labour Day message, he included a few more strands. He wants to see higher wages and to focus on the well-being of families as well as the GDP. He has no time for big businesses that cater to shareholders by chasing cheap labour.

There are a lot of blanks to be filled in here.

Critics would connect dots to say O’Toole is advocating for an economy where one income earner could support a traditional household by working in a heavily subsidized, re-shored factory.

That person’s family would also be eating potatoes all winter, because they would have no more food from other places, and would be living in a country where everything costs a lot more because we have cut off cheap imports.

All while building pipelines through an unwilling Quebec in the name of energy self-sufficiency.

But also: O’Toole says he’s against protectionism and he’s a free trader. And he frequently says that he and his policies are “serious.”

So it might be too early to conclude that he would adopt an economic policy so laden with contradictions and in conflict with our success as independent traders who don’t usually need subsidies to thrive.

Similarly, it’s easy to make a caricature of the Liberal sloganeering.

Justin Trudeau and his ministers speak frequently about “building back better,” but for now, that’s a blank slate that any progressive interest group could write a long and expensive wish list on.

“Our country and our world is facing an unprecedented challenge, but we’ve also been given an unparalleled opportunity,” Trudeau told supporters in a virtual fundraiser on Thursday evening.

“We have the chance to build a Canada that is safer and healthier, a Canada that is greener and more competitive, more welcoming and more fair. This is our moment to define the path ahead.”

The Liberals have begun to sketch in the details, and the throne speech, followed by economic update this fall, will deliver a much more colourful portrait of what they mean.

In the meantime, critics are quick to point to the glaring absence of any fiscal “anchor” or target that keeps spending in line and gives Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland scope to say no to bad ideas.

They imagine a world of free-spending, ever-expanding government that gives out so much money that it discourages work, dumps cash into boondoggles in the name of confronting climate change, and quickly loses the confidence of international investors.

But also: Freeland is deep in consultations about what a suitable fiscal target could be and how it could allow for discipline and generous government support at the same time.

And cabinet ministers are actively grappling with competing goals of getting workers back on the job while also heeding their commitment to cut emissions.

Trudeau himself has vowed, amidst sloganeering, that the plan will be “responsible.”

In the face of populist pressures, and in the face of the pandemic, Canadians have shown themselves to be quite moderate and cohesive in how they approach change.

If those attitudes persist, the more radical versions of the two leaders’ slogans will likely give way to commonly held values of free trade and thrift, coupled with generous support for those who are struggling.

There is already some overlap in the two parties’ approaches. They both anticipate spending lots of money on the recovery. No one is in no hurry to eradicate the deficit.

And they both envision a more muscular industrial policy to make sure Canadian companies thrive and Canada has the emergency goods and services it needs at a moment’s notice.

That kind of consensus would allow us all to be both serious and responsible, while building back better and also putting Canada first.

Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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