by Terrance Hunsley
Another election season with its caricatures of professional wrestling. Personal insults. Skeletons in closets. Spending promises with unstated conditions and no accounting for results. Financial treats for major voting groups. Sound bites. Political theatre.
It’s what we might call Pandering Politics, and it distorts democracy because it ignores how well Canada is doing overall as a country and how well it is managed.
A pandemonium would ensue if large corporate investors made decisions based on the popularity of a board chairman. Instead, companies are measured by clear indicators such as market share, profits, patents and sales trends.
Our federal government has big responsibilities; to steer us into the future, to manage our collective economic and social wellbeing, to maintain a safe and just society, to ensure that our democracy functions efficiently. Although there are always current issues and things that need to be fixed, it would help if we had a set of official public goals, with progress monitored by consistent, internationally comparative measures. Political parties could compete for our vote based on whose policies are most likely to achieve them, and how well they have done in the past.
Here are some examples of possible goals that could be established in law and monitored by an agency such as the Parliamentary Budget Office using credible measures from StatsCan, the UN and OECD:
Our economy should provide good job opportunities for everyone. An important measure is the income of a median (middle) worker or household. According to Statistics Canada, measured in constant 2017 dollars, Canadians had a median income of $30,400 in 1981 and it has only crept up to $35,000 in 2017. Productivity grew during those years, but very little benefit accrued to workers.
The average 1981 income at $38,000, increased to $46,700. The increasing distance between the median (halfway) income and the average, reflects increasing inequality as top level income increases skew the average upward.
Two measurable goals that would reflect the quality of jobs in Canada would be to increase median income and decrease the distance between the median and average incomes.
A related statistic measuring the quality of jobs is the percentage of the labour force made up of low wage workers. Canada has a problem here, since about 22% of workers earn less than two thirds of the median wage. This compares to about 15% average across the OECD, with some countries below ten percent. We have a large precarious work force.
Another goal would be to decrease the percentage of workers earning less than two thirds of the median wage.
Quality of Life:
We work a bit less than our US counterparts, averaging 1708 hours per worker per year versus 1786 in the US. German workers by contrast average only 1363 hours per year, with similar GDP per capita, slightly higher wages and a lower percentage of low wage workers. If they are pursuing more hours of leisure (and why not) they are doing well.
A measurable quality of life goal would be to increase average leisure hours per year while while increasing productivity.
Our poverty levels are down somewhat from earlier decades, but we still rank only 22nd of 39 OECD countries with about 12% of the population living under a poverty measure of half of the median income. The US ranks 36th with 17% living in poverty. But there are 14 countries at 10% or less, with some in the 5% range. So we could do better.
This is one area in which measurable commitments have been made. Last year, the current government committed itself and Canada to reducing poverty by 50% by 2030, and 20% by 2020. A nice national goal. Are we on track? What is the next step? Do other parties have plans to meet it?
Canada should be seen as a proponent for a healthier national and global environment. However, our environmental performance lags in some areas because of our carbon intensive economy, according to the OECD. The Fraser Institute has challenged their methodology, suggesting that we are doing better than reported. It is a useful challenge, which could bring the government to specify its objectives on the various measures. Notably the OECD recommended that Canada put a price on carbon, which has been done. They also pointed out though that Canada is a laggard in green technology R and D and consequently, in green technology patents held.
Canada has committed itself to measurable goals under the Paris Accord, and this is a good example, since several parties are putting forward their plans for meeting or exceeding those goals. Another environmental goal would be to increase R and D in green technology and thereby to increase the number of green technology patents held in the country.
A Healthy Democracy
In order to ensure that the Canadian government has legitimate power to regulate economic activity and further the national goals of it its citizens, we need a trusted, effective democratic system. Canada ranks high on measures of professionalism in the public service, on rule of law and independent judiciary, and on female participation in political office (but still only 30%). We’re not so good on voter turnout, although it varies. The popular vote is not well-reflected in electoral results because of our first past the post voting, and electoral districts with widely varying numbers of voters. We need a better voting system.
Goals measuring a healthy democracy would be
- The number of seats a party holds reflects its percentage of the popular vote.
- An increasing number of eligible voters voting.
A healthier population
Although the provinces have primary jurisdiction over health, education and social services, these concerns are interwoven into our social and economic fabric, and the federal government has important national responsibilities to ensure good government.
There are many measures of population health. For example, our average life expectancy is about 84 years at birth, and has been rising gradually. At age 60, women expect an average of 26.4 more years and 23.4 for men. The US figures are 81 at birth, and at 60, 24.7 for women and 21.7 for men. So we are doing well on that dimension. On the other hand, the percentage of total births to adolescent parents is about 9%. This is often a predictor of problems, and we should aim to decrease the number. The US figure is twice as high, and they have a bigger problem.
A measurable social health goal would be a reduction in the percentage of total births to adolescent parents.
Our health services system is about middle of the pack among OECD countries. However, like other countries, Canada is coming to realize how pervasive and damaging mental health problems can be. We don’t yet have good statistics on this (except for suicides), although the OECD estimates that mental health problems affect about a quarter of the population in member countries.
A measurable health objective would be to ensure that every resident has a right to free and timely mental health services.
An appropriately educated population
Our education system should aim to prepare every person for a successful life. Canadian high school students perform well on the PISA international comparative tests. Canada ranks ninth in science literacy for example, compared to the US at 25th. Our labour force is highly educated relative to others, with about 70% of 25-64 year olds having some tertiary education. The US figure is about 50% and the OECD average, 40%.
While it is important for our democracy to have a highly educated populace, we have a gap between outcomes of our indigenous population and other Canadians with half vs two thirds of 25-64 year olds holding postsecondary certification, and 10% vs 25% with a university degree. We also have some graduates who have problems finding jobs appropriate to their skill levels, especially among immigrants. And we have large educational challenges ahead related to the global digital economy, AI, automation, and increasing social and cultural diversity.
A measurable goal for education would be to increase high school PISA scores, increase certification in tertiary education, reduce underemployment, and reduce the attainment gaps within the population.
How can we implement a system of government goals?
The examples given above are only a few of the possible measures by which Canadians could judge the effectiveness of their governments. There are other, equally valid indicators which are tracked internationally and permit us to have a better idea of how our country, and our governments, are doing. It would make for better elections if we could focus on a small set of consistent national goals.
In order to implement such a system, a set of goals could be adopted by Parliament, much the way international human rights or climate accord goals are adopted, to guide legislation. Provincial, territorial, indigenous and municipal governments could be invited to ratify them as well. Statistics Canada and the Parliamentary Budget Office could provide annual progress reports. To date, there has not been the political will to implement such a transparent system. However, with the decline in trust of politicians and public institutions and the rise in the power of global corporations, it is important that national governments provide effective leadership.