Compel or Persuade?

In his film about the conflict between Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque, The Champions, documentarist Donald Brittain refers to “the awesome weapons of office.” That attention-grabbing phrase brings to mind what politicians are fighting over and which of those weapons they would use if elected.

A consistent difference between the Liberal (LPC) and Conservative (CPC) platforms is that the Liberals will use the power to compel or command behaviour, while the Conservatives are only willing to attempt to persuade.

Guns, Germs, and Carbon

On Covid, the Liberals will establish vaccine mandates for areas of federal jurisdiction (the public service, travel, federally regulated firms) and spend $1 billion to fund the infrastructure for provincial vaccine passports. Leading by example, all their candidates (but one with a medical exemption) have declared that they have been vaccinated. The Conservatives will set a goal of a 90 percent vaccination rate but achieve it only by persuasion. And they have refused to disclose the vaccination status of their candidates.

On climate change, the Liberals’ centerpiece is the mandatory carbon tax, which will rise to the level necessary to meet the Paris (and Glasgow) Accord targets. The Conservatives’ counterpart is the carbon points plan, designed to induce consumers to use their accumulated carbon points to reduce the price of an as-yet-undisclosed list of green purchases.

On gun control, the Liberal program is to take firearms out of the hands of Canadians, period, with a carefully circumscribed and regulated exception for hunters. The Conservatives’ position (after their shift on repealing the May 2020 Order-in-Council banning semi-automatic weapons) still envisages a “review of the Firearms Act with participation by law enforcement, firearms owners, manufacturers, and members of the public.” For the Liberals, the time for talk is over.

Differences that Matter

Part of this divergence in views can be explained by differing notions of, and sensitivity, to externalities. Small-l liberals are more likely to see externalities such as contagion in the context of a pandemic and carbon emissions that must be regulated. Small-c conservatives are more likely to minimize the impact of externalities and emphasize what they see as personal freedom.

The divergence is also political. The CPC is trying to protect its right flank from the resurgent People’s Party of Canada (PPC). Erin O’Toole and his advisers are concerned that if they go too far towards compulsory policies, they will bleed base voters to the PPC, which might cost them seats in which they are in tight races with the Liberals (suburban Toronto for instance).

If elected, the Conservatives run the risk that, ultimately, they may fail to persuade their base to get vaccinated, to use their carbon points to reduce their carbon footprints, or to surrender their firearms. The anti-vax protestors stalking Justin Trudeau are unlikely to be persuaded, even if their parents die of Covid.

The Liberals’ platform of compulsory policies (vaccine mandates and passports, carbon pricing, firearms regulation) depend on widespread public support. (In addition, the carbon pricing policy required a favourable ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada.) Downtown Torontonians such as myself are strongly in favour of all these policies, but I recognize that support throughout the country might well be softer, especially for escalating increases in the carbon price. A weakening of public support for these measures could lead to a Liberal defeat.

This election could well be a turning-point in terms of whether Canadians prefer the strong arm of a government mandating behaviour or the softer approach of a government trying to persuade the recalcitrant.

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