Editorial: This is an election about something

There are a lot of big issues on the table this election, a fact many pundits and politicians are ignoring.

Canadians across the country are voting in a federal election on May 2, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Politicians haven’t enjoyed a monopoly on foolish statements during the federal election. The writ was still falling when one pollster invoked the words “Seinfeld election,” a tired phrase suggesting this is a campaign about nothing. And while the pundits have returned to the Seinfeld comparison, the notion is as inaccurate as it is dated in its pop culture reference. It has, in fact, been heartening to see how much of the campaign has focused on legitimate questions of policy. While the Conservatives devoted considerable time and money to attacking Michael Ignatieff’s character in the lead-up to the election, they shifted to matters of policy soon after the election began. Be it the Conservatives’ call to cut $11 billion in government expenditures or the Liberals’ plan to raise corporate taxes by 1.5 percentage points back to 2010 levels, these are issues of substance. Yes, there is showmanship in allegations that Ignatieff suffers from taxophilia, just as there is hyperbole in claims that Stephen Harper wants to gut public medicine. To demand a campaign without propaganda is to ignore several centuries of electoral precedent. At its heart, the central question of this election, as conveyed by all leading parties, is: Who are the best stewards of our country’s economy and its Parliament? It is hard to think of a more fundamental ballot question.

There is ample evidence that voters welcome the discussion. A poll of 990 Canadians conducted by Nanos Research on the eve of the leaders’ debates found 52.6% of respondents said party policies were the “most important” factor in deciding their vote, compared with 22.5% who focused on the party leader. Furthermore, nearly four million people watched the English-language leaders’ debate, a roughly 26% increase over the 2008 election. All of this flows counter to the popular image of a cynical, disengaged electorate.

Still, neither recent Liberal nor Conservative governments have adequately tackled the country’s gaping infrastructure deficit. Canada still lacks a cohesive plan to spur innovation. If this election is truly about the future of the Canadian economy, then these issues must be addressed. To that end, we asked veteran Parliament Hill correspondent Kathleen Harris to step away from the sideshows and rhetoric to offer a comprehensive analysis of the top five economic issues in this campaign (page 38).

To tackle these issues, politicians will need to abandon their timidity. During a recent interview with TVOntario’s Steve Paikin, Brian Mulroney bemoaned the “dearth” of big ideas in politics these days. He noted the traditional explanation for politicians’ policy caution—minority parliaments—made no sense when stacked against Lester Pearson’s achievements in the ’60s. “There are great things the country can do,” said the man who championed free trade and the GST.

Indeed, the public awaits big ideas. If voters seem hesitant to push any party into majority territory, perhaps it is because the party platforms are incremental, uninspired or connected to some hypothetical future when the deficit is gone. If the public seems disengaged, it’s partly because nobody is offering truly exciting ideas on the issues that matter. We’ve identified five issues in need of bold action. Politicians and pundits have no excuses for favouring petty politics over policy. It’s time to prove this election is about something.