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Voters look left to solve affordability concerns

There is no doubt that cost of living concerns loomed large during Canada’s federal election. Historically, economic angst has been fertile ground for a standard Conservative pitch to the electorate – one that promises to end government waste and interference, lower taxes, and put money back in our pockets so that we can seek out our own path to success. That seems to have been Andrew Scheer’s play, summed up nicely in his campaign slogan “It’s time for you to get ahead”. 

It would seem, given the results of Monday’s vote, that the Conservatives’ traditional electoral grip on economic concerns has slipped.  A majority of voters chose parties that plan to solve their affordability issues by doubling down on government’s role, both through investment and public policy, in order to produce results that better everyone’s life.

Earlier this year, the Broadbent Institute’s report, “The Affordability Equation”, showed that almost half of the those surveyed said they were worried about being able to afford their lives.  It also showed that people were looking for a suite of solutions, many of which were traditional areas of strength for the left. 

Take healthcare for example, an issue intimately tied to affordability. The average out-of-pocket medication costs have doubled over the last twenty years, and most people don’t understand why dental and other unavoidable health costs are left out of Medicare. Traditional conservative approaches to making healthcare more affordable, like introducing private competition into our health system, never saw the light of day during the election. Instead three out four national parties had robust expansions of public healthcare in their platforms, with multiparty consensus building around Pharmacare. The NDP’s contention that Medicare should cover the whole body has received significant traction and, as a result, dental, mental health, eye and ear care are now also on the radar. 

Still not convinced Canadians are looking to the left for solutions to their cost of living concerns? Let’s talk housing. Canada’s urban areas are plagued with obscene housing costs. Scheer’s approach was to give people the ability to negotiate a bigger mortgage spread over a longer amortization, and get rid of government red tape allegedly standing in the way of new housing builds. This approach fell flat. People have begun to understand that the lack of affordable housing has been fueled by unfettered real estate speculation and a dearth of public investment. The majority voted for solutions that bring the housing market in check and aggressively build homes more people can actually afford. 

Taxes have been a traditional territory of strength for conservatives but here too, we saw the conversation shift. Repealing the carbon tax was great for sloganeering but ended up being, based on the polls released just before election day, not much of a vote decider. Yes, there were tax cuts proposed by two parties in the lowest income brackets which, it should be noted, spread the majority of the rewards to those in the tax brackets above. But there was also the NDP proposal of a super wealth tax, which became almost instantly popular. Multiple parties proposed closing tax loopholes used primarily by the rich and powerful. We even heard talk of raising corporate taxes without the usual sputtering outrage predicting economic ruin. It shows the conversation around taxes has changed.  People aren’t just looking for tax breaks for themselves, they want to see everyone pay their fair share.

Don’t get me wrong. Those worried about being able to afford things they need and want, paid attention to specific measures that would better their personal finances. Each party knew it too. From boutique tax credits, to measures like controlling cellphone and internet rates, the platforms were littered with goodies for specific sets of folk geared towards putting money in your pocket. Yet for most voting in the election, they chose a vision of an affordable life where getting ahead didn’t mean pushing others further behind. 

Another welcome surprise for those of us working on progressive policy options; poll after poll put the Climate Change within the top three concerns, right next to cost of living and sometimes even ahead of it.  It’s been decades since the environment has topped the electoral polling charts and up to now, it’s been impossible to do so when economic anxiety is high. But voters just showed us that they want government to take bold action on climate change and make life more affordable. They aren’t interested in untenable trade offs anymore, and those figuring out how to stick handle the minority government should take note.