After a Tumultuous Decade, a Political Forecast for the Roaring 2020s
We peer into our crystal ball to predict what the roaring 2020s have in store politically. Photo: Mohammad Shahidian / EyeEm
As the sun sets on the decade, we bid adieu to a tumultuous period in Canadian political history. We’ve seen the rise and subsequent fall of the Conservative Party, Trudeaumania 2.0 and the rebirth of the Liberal Party, a nasty trade war and deteriorating relations with the U.S. and a bitter election that saw a scandal-plagued prime minister return to Ottawa with a weakened mandate and a brewing national unity crisis. Putting it all behind us, we shift our gaze to the next 10 years to predict what will alter our political landscape beyond recognition.
A third Liberal dynasty?
The last decade began with a Stephen Harper-led Conservative minority in Ottawa, a Liberal party going nowhere under the unpopular Stephan Dion in Opposition, the Bloc Quebecois holding the balance of power and the NDP and Greens on the outside looking in. A decade later, the emergence of Justin Trudeau on the political scene could herald another Liberal dynasty, like Mackenzie King’s 13-year reign between 1935 to 1948 or Jean Chretien’s ascendancy between 1993 and 2003.
With the Conservative Party struggling to find its identity and the rest of Parliament splintered between the BQ, NDP and Greens, what’s going to stop them? While the Liberals certainly don’t enjoy broad support across the nation — they were almost completely shut out in the West in the 2019 election — they’ve built up a progressive/centrist fortress in the riding-rich cities of Montreal and Toronto that, at the moment, seems impregnable. More so when you factor in that the Liberals won the election despite their leader suffering two brand-destroying scandals (SNC-Lavalin and Blackface) on top of the government’s mishandling of the climate change, pipeline and Indigenous rights files. Unless there’s another major scandal in the offing (Trudeau will be much more careful this time around), an economic downturn (the Finance Minister says “no recession” is likely) or the Conservatives choose a likeable leader who can unite a fractious band of angry Westerners, social conservatives and centrist Red Tories (I’m not holding my breath), we could see the Liberals extend their grip on power for the next few election cycles.
The Trump factor
Brian Mulroney once said that, other than national unity, the No. 1 file on every prime minister’s desk is “our relationship with the U.S.” Unfortunately, this task became exponentially more difficult since U.S. President Donald Trump assumed office in 2016. Unlike the bromance that developed between Trudeau and Obama, the two current leaders just don’t see eye to eye on anything. Their failure to get along has caused severe rifts in the once neighbourly relations. During negotiations on a new free-trade deal got bogged down and Trump slapped his infamous steel tariffs on Canada, accused Canada on reneging on its NATO commitments and accused Trudeau at a G-7 meeting of being “meek and mild” and “dishonest and weak.” The prime minister hasn’t exactly tried to soothe matters, responding to the trade war by implementing our own tariffs and making needling comments about how the president operates. The whole thing reached a climax in the recent NATO summit in London when Trudeau was caught on camera mocking the president for his extra-long press conferences. For this, Trump called him “two-faced.” Whether or not the bond between the two countries improves depends largely on who wins the 2020 U.S. presidential election. If Trump survives the impeachment trial, as he’s expected to do, and somehow gets re-elected to the White House, U.S.-Canadian relations may continue to flounder. However, if the voters south of the border choose a Democrat instead, we’ll probably say goodbye to this never-ending cycle of childishly petty disputes. Trump has set the bar for diplomatic relations so low, anyone who follows him will be an improvement.
In the upcoming years, Trudeau’s Liberals will not only face the huge task of repairing relations with the U.S. They’ve got their own divisions inside the country, namely a simmering regionalism that is threatening to become a full-blown unity crisis. Since Confederation, we’ve always assumed Quebec to be the home of regional self-determination. But after the divisive 2019 election, a nascent sovereignty movement has begun sprouting up in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Because the government has no MPs from either of those two provinces, Westerners feel their lives are being controlled by a government that doesn’t represent or understand their issues and aspirations. It’s similar to the regionalist movement that’s convulsing Britain, where voters are bound and determined to cut ties with a distant European government that not only controls how they prepare their chocolate and brew their beer but also decides on bigger social issues, like immigration. It’s now reached Canada. Westerners feel that their livelihoods — indeed the whole future of the oil patch — are being destroyed by ham-fisted decisions made by uninformed Eastern-based politicians. So Brexit in the U.K. becomes Wexit in Canada and, along with the re-birth of the Bloc Quebecois, written off for dead in 2015, regionalism could re-shape our political landscape in the years ahead. While Alberta sovereignty may seem like a distant pipe dream, it’s unlikely that the animus that fuels it will be extinguished anytime soon.
Electoral reform reboot?
The best way to defuse regional fervour is to make our Parliament more representational. In order to achieve that, we have to decide whether our current electoral system (First Past the Post) is still the best way of choosing our legislative officials or whether we need to adopt a fairer model of proportional representation like those used in almost every European country.
During his 2015 campaign and again in his speech from the throne, meaningful electoral reform was one of Trudeau’s most highly anticipated pledges. Trudeau promised Canadians that his new government would “take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” Well, we all know how that turned out — in 2017, the prime minister abruptly changed tack and abandoned any talk of reforming the FPTP system, instructing Karina Gould, his new minister for democratic institutions that “Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.” Reading the tea leaves at the time, Trudeau and his canny advisers correctly surmised that his party actually benefitted from the prevailing system.
This edge became painfully clear in 2019, when the bruised and battered Liberals emerged from a difficult election with a strong minority (36 more seats than the runner-up Conservative Party) despite finishing second place in the popular vote. The current FPTP system not only benefits the Liberals but is stacked against the smaller parties: the NDP, for example, won 15.5 per cent of the popular vote but only won seven per cent of seats in Parliament. And the Greens are underrepresented in Parliament; despite winning 6.555 per cent of the vote, the party has only one per cent of the power in Parliament. (One post-election analysis determined that the Green Party elected one MP for every 387,000 votes while the much more efficient Liberals garnered one MP for every 37,000 votes.)
While the Liberals obviously have no appetite to change a system that has given this Liberal dynasty its grip on power, it’s likely that over the next decade we’ll see the NDP and Greens step up their campaign to pressure the government to put electoral reform back on the agenda. The day after the 2019 election, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said, “The results show a broken electoral system, and it’s certainly clear we need to fix it.” If our system can’t deliver a fair model of representation, we’ll hear increased noise about changing it.
Digital democracy meets Big Brother
Voter disillusionment about the way governments operate is a trend we could see grow throughout the decade. The traditional cycle of a party offering a bevvy of unrealistic promises then conveniently forgetting them once they get in power, is getting old. Millennials are demanding a more open democracy. With advances in communications, cloud-based technology and Artificial Intelligence, we will begin to see governments, albeit slowly and reluctantly, reach out digitally and canvass their citizens in real time before they pass legislation.
In Estonia, it’s already happening. Voters in this tiny Baltic country are issued cryptographically secure digital signatures, which allows them to vote in elections online, pay their taxes, browse their medical records, register their businesses and access any government department without having to navigate the painful maze of bureaucracy we’ve all become inured to. Digital utopians feel that advances in communications and cloud technology could eventually lead to a more democratic form of government that more accurately represents the true wishes of the people. They envision a system where all key government policies are not only voted on by the people (through a digital referendum) but that the very laws themselves will be vetted and approved by voters before being turned over to politicians for legislation. We’ve already seen embryonic forms of digital democracy take shape in South Korea, where the city government of Seoul is developing on online platform that gathers suggestions and opinions from its citizens and will then determine how to implement them. And Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, is experimenting with this technology, developing a “participation platform” that will allow residents to submit ideas on how city council should spend its tax revenue.
While these breakthroughs in digital democracy promise to create a more responsive and transparent government, there are two big flaws. First, there’s no guarantee that an online referendum system won’t be hacked by foreign operators or even lobbyists. Even more worrisome, if everyone is digitally connected to the government, it puts a framework in place that could allow any totalitarian leader to unleash an alarmingly effective state-surveillance system that would make Big Brother envious. But because the younger generations seem blithely inclined to downplay concerns us oldies may have about invasions of privacy, it’s a given that digital technology will soon disrupt the politic arena just as it has done every other part of our lives.
Which brings us to …
Election night 2030. Canada’s newly elected Liberal prime minister is preparing to take the stage to greet the cheering crowd. This is a politician unlike any we’ve seen before, one who may lack charisma but is an expert decision-maker, is highly knowledgeable, completely impartial and morally incorruptible. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome our very first Artificially Intelligent robot prime minister!
While that scenario sounds far-fetched (except for the Liberal part), there’s a significant movement of political disruptors musing about the possibility of removing highly flawed human politicians from the mix and replacing them with machines for years. One eccentric techie in New Zealand has taken this logic to its absurd extreme and created SAM: “the world’s first virtual politician.”
SAM is an AI chatbot, who is learning about voters’ issues by interacting with them over Facebook Messenger. As he gathers this data, he will “consider everyone’s opinion” and offer solutions. “With your help,” says SAM, “I can grow into a politician that can truly represent all New Zealanders.” Unaffiliated with any party, SAM promises to “never knowingly tell a lie or misrepresent information.”
SAM’s campaign director (creator Nick Gerritsen) says that because traditional politicians seem “wildly out of touch with what people actually think and want,” perhaps it’s time to test “whether technology can produce better results for the people.” Gerritsen’s views are echoed in a Wired article, suggesting the “time is coming when AIs will have better judgment than most politicians.” Human politicians, it posits, are prone to making short-term and poor decisions based on emotion, prejudice, impulse, ego or the desire to get re-elected. The writer believes that, because an AI politician will have none of these flaws, “It’s entirely possible that AI will lead to a new era of human prosperity and peace.”
With such lofty dreams in mind, I eagerly anticipated my interview with SAM. Alas, when I visited SAM’s official website to talk to the digital-age candidate, I was ignominiously rebuffed without explanation. When I clicked the “Talk to SAM” button, all I got in response was a blank page, a robotic-issued “no comment.” Either SAM’s silence means he’s taking a hiatus from politics to sort out some personal issues (technical glitches) or he’s just learned the age-old expediency of ignoring a reporter’s questions. That’s just what we need – another lousy stonewalling politician. Some things will never change.