How the ‘wedge solution’ is further dividing Canadians

COMMENTARY: The carbon tax is an example of a 'wedge solution' that entrenches both sides of the debate, write Toby Fyfe and Mike Colledge. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

There is a growing divide in Canadian society on complex policy issues, resulting in increasingly polarized political debate. We face an erosion of trust in, and support for, government and its institutions, conventions and practices. This growing decline in Canadian social cohesion is putting the ability of governments to find shared and workable solutions at risk.

According to an Ipsos study, 62 per cent of Canadians think that the country is divided and 51 per cent believe that things have become worse over the past decade. Sixty per cent have no, or not very much confidence, in government. Political parties fare worse at 74 per cent.

Not only are we losing faith in government and politicians (nearly two in three agree government does not prioritize concerns of people like them) we are losing faith in ourselves: 60 per cent believe that other Canadians do not care about facts on politics or society anymore, they just believe what they want.

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Some argue that the decline in trust is caused by governments’ poor performance. Others say social and economic factors such as the speed of change, income disparity, and generational differences are driving the lack of confidence.

It is more complicated. We live in a complex world where both causes and effects have become co-dependent and re-enforcing. And even if they could be identified, reversing our steps is impossible.

Unfortunately, as we move into this year’s election campaign, our political leaders seem intent on reinforcing the polarizing debate by creating “wedge solutions.”

The use of wedge issues, of course, has become the political norm. Wedge issues are not policy tools, they are political tactics. They are designed to unite supporters by angering opponents and creating an “us vs. them” mentality. Whether they are designed around taxes, immigration, gun control, crime, or the role of government, their increasing use in politics makes finding policy compromises nearly impossible.

A relatively new phenomenon is the emergence of wedge solutions. Wedge solutions occur when everyone agrees there is a problem, but battle lines are drawn around a proposed solution. Instead of engaging and building consensus, citizens are divided up, fired up, and asked to choose between black and white choices.

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Climate change is a good example: 75 per cent of Canadians agree Canada needs to do more to address the issue, yet the proposed carbon tax (or price on pollution) has been positioned as a wedge solution by its opponents and proponents.

The “wedge” has nothing to do with whether the policy will work but everything to do with its political impact and people’s emotional reaction to a tax. The wedge solution entrenches both sides, “those who can afford or feel that the impact of a carbon tax will have minimal impact on their lives” and “those who feel they are struggling financially or feel the carbon tax is just one more cost they just can’t afford.”

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Thus, even though there is broad public support for action, the debate splits the public and leaves no incentive for either side to bring the majority of Canadians together.

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Wedge solutions cheapen the political process, reducing the give-and-take of decision-making to insults and fake news. They magnify and entrench legitimate divisions, reduce opportunities for compromise and set the stage for an expensive and confusing see-saw of policy direction depending on the flavour of the day.

WATCH BELOW: Here’s where the federal parties stand on the carbon tax

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It is critical in our geographically, linguistically and multi-culturally diverse country that we focus on working together to find cross-cutting solutions to the challenges we face. If political leaders continue to apply wedge solutions to today’s complex issues, not only will the divisions in the country grow, but citizens will continue to lose faith in governments, politicians and democracy itself.

Unfortunately, wedge solutions are likely here to stay — at least in the political sphere. To move ahead two things must happen.

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First, the public sector, NGOs and the private sector must search for the middle ground and create opportunities for compromise.

Second, we need to remember who we are and what unites us as Canadians. Perhaps then the tone will change, and the politicians will follow.

Toby Fyfe is president of the Institute on Governance in Ottawa. Mike Colledge is president of Ipsos Public Affairs.

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