By Sandra Dunham

Often, we think that government could change the way a country thinks, acts, and behaves, by amending or passing legislation. It seems to me that the opposite is true. Citizens change the way they think, act, and behave, and then government changes legislation. Why do I put this hypothesis forward? Because the number-one goal of government is to be reelected. If government passes unpopular legislation, they will be ousted from office.

Other than legislation, the government has financial and public-relations tools at its disposal to change behavior.

On the financial side, they can choose to tax behaviours that are deemed to be negative (e.g., sin taxes). They can issue tax credits for behaviours that are deemed to be positive (e.g., allowing tax relief for charitable deductions). Or they can spend money on programs or services deemed to be in the public interest (e.g., health and education).

However, before the government ever passes legislation or enacts changes to fiscal policy, it must convince Canadians that the change will be beneficial. The easiest demonstration of government using all three tools of change is tobacco use.

Had the government banned smoking in public places in 1960, it would have been ousted from office by the majority of Canadians who smoked. Along with many public interest groups, the government publicized studies showing that smoking was a health hazard. The government slowly began to make cigarettes less affordable to Canadians by increasing taxation. It also began helping Canadians quit smoking by publicly funding agencies that offered smoking cessation programs. As more people voluntarily gave up smoking, the government helped to promote studies demonstrating the harmful effects of smoking on non-smokers (i.e., secondhand smoke).

This was the point at which legislation was being passed at different levels of government, including issuing limits on where people can smoke. However, even after almost 60 years of changing public opinion, using fiscal policy to influence change and using regulation and legislation to limit a behaviour, smoking remains legal in Canada.

When CFIC considers the desire for a more secular Canada, in which government neither promotes nor restricts religious practice, the first change we need to see is a change in public behaviour. When the majority of Canadians oppose legislation which promotes or restricts religious practice and supports government decisions which are based on logic and science, we will begin to see the rules of government change.

CFIC supports the democratic process, and we strongly encourage our membership to become educated voters and to cast their ballot in the upcoming federal election. To that end, we have conducted a poll asking our members to identify what they view as the most critical issues we need to speak to in the election.

We are working on a report that will list the five most important areas of concern identified by CFIC members. We will also provide a list of suggested issues and questions members and others can raise with candidates from all political parties.

We’ll have a summary in the October issue of Critical Links, with the full report available on the CFIC website.

This article appears in the September 2019 version of Critical Links.