The federal election campaign has begun. Parties are unveiling their slogans and campaign ads. Candidates are perfecting their door-to-door pitch. Party policy platforms are being finalized and are ready to go to the printers (well, they would be if parties still produced printed copies of their platforms!)
So, for those of us who care about the development of new public policy, it must be time to just sit back and watch the platforms roll out for Canadians to pass judgment? I mean, when it comes to policy, everything must be cast in stone by now, right?
Not on your life.
Contrary to Kim Campbell’s assertion in 1993 that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues,” elections are the perfect time to put forward new policy ideas and even get commitments from party leaders or local candidates that can turn into concrete reality in the years following the vote.
It is true that by this stage, all of the major parties will have developed their broad, key policy planks and the announcements that they plan to use to frame their campaigns. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t also room for ideas and commitments that no party is championing as the main items in their platforms.
Political leaders spend a lot of time thinking about emerging policy issues or challenges facing society. Sometimes all it takes is the right prompting for them to speak their minds and open up whole new avenues of public policy.
Take cannabis for example. Six years ago, nobody was seriously talking about legalization, and then one day at a rally in a park in Kelowna, Justin Trudeau saw a sign calling for the decriminalization of marijuana. He responded to it saying, “I’m actually in favour of legalizing it; tax and regulate it.” And now here we are in 2019, where cannabis represents a growing, multi-billion-dollar industry, which raked in $186 million in combined federal and provincial tax revenue in the first five months of legalization alone.
You may not see the policy idea or strategic plan that you favour in the front window of any party, but that doesn’t mean that if the right questions are asked it won’t find its way out of the backroom; literally.
All the political parties who are in contention to win more than three seats (Yes, that means you too now, Green Party!) have policy staff toiling in the back rooms in party headquarters dedicated to considering new issues that could arise during an election campaign and responding to specific policy questions put to their parties. And sometimes the answers to those questions bear significant fruit.
For example, during the 2015 election, the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability sent a letter to the Liberals asking if the party supported creating an independent ombudsman to ensure mining companies operating internationally respect proper environmental and labour practices. Although the idea of creating such an office had been discussed for years on Parliament Hill, and had been promoted by several MPs, there was no specific commitment on this in the Liberal platform. Yet, no doubt after consulting the party’s policy experts, Liberal Party President, Anna Gainey wrote back to the CNCA saying the Liberals supported the move. After the election that commitment became government policy and earlier this year, the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise became a reality.
Opposition parties are even more predisposed to create policies during election campaigns as they are often looking for bold differentiators that will separate them from their political opponents.
It has become common practice for key political stakeholders such as national associations, unions or private entities to send questionnaires to the party leaders or local candidates probing very specific or specialized issue areas or seeking commitments that concern their group and then publish the results for their members when the parties reply. Some premiers now use a similar strategy and will send party leaders letters seeking commitments to policies or actions important to their province or territory.
Parties also create new policy ideas during campaigns to respond to emerging events or to appeal to a particular demographic. In the last election, the Liberals reacted to the tragic photo of little Alan Kurdi by committing to settle more Syrian refugees and then challenged other parties to do likewise.
Party platforms are not fully baked until the minute they are announced, and amendments can happen Anytime. In my many years of working on election campaigns, I have on a number of occasions witnessed changes made to policy planks as late as the very morning they were being announced.
Sometimes very local issues can arise during a campaign which could swing the vote in a few ridings in a particular region. Policy staff and campaign officials will scramble to hammer out a quick policy position to ensure their local candidates can make the commitments they need to remain competitive. After the election, stakeholders will hold the winning party’s feet to the fire and work to turn those promises into actual results, be it a policy change or an announcement in the budget.
Parties and political leaders will also sometimes make national mid-election policy commitments to match or one-up those of their opponents to ensure they don’t get outflanked, such as the commitment many parties’ made to a six-percent escalator for the Canada Health Transfer in the 2011 election. The tighter the election, the more sensitive parties are to these external pressures, and the more open they are to making policy shifts.
A recent academic study by Université Laval’s Centre for Public Policy Analysis showed that contrary to popular belief, political parties do implement the vast majority of their election promises. They found that the Trudeau government fully or partially honoured 92 per cent of their election commitments and that the Harper government had met 85 per cent of its promises in its final term.
The lesson, then, for those seeking new policies, funding commitments or government actions is that elections are an ideal time to get out and ensure the right questions are being asked about the issues they care about.
So, don’t put down your tools at election time. Elections are the best time for those working to shape public policy to redouble their efforts. Write a letter, send a questionnaire and maybe even show up at an event with your idea on a sign. After all, it is the seeds planted as policy commitments at election time that grow into government actions for years to come.