Politics

LET THEM SLING IDEAS

Forget the insults, When the election comes, let’s talk serious issues.

JOHN GEDDES May 23 2005
Politics

LET THEM SLING IDEAS

Forget the insults, When the election comes, let’s talk serious issues.

JOHN GEDDES May 23 2005

LET THEM SLING IDEAS

Politics

JOHN GEDDES

Forget the insults, When the election comes, let’s talk serious issues.

HOW LOW CAN IT GO? The answer delivered resoundingly these days from Parliament Hill: very. Charges that Liberals are criminally corrupt are so, well, liberally hurled that nobody takes notice anymore. Claims that the Conservatives harbour sinister hidden agendas are so commonplace they amount to background noise. With such routine invective drawing only yawns, Stephen Harper still managed to grab everybody’s attention last week by suggesting the Prime Minister was delaying a day of reckoning in the House until two Tory MPs with cancer were too sick to show up to vote. No wonder conventional wisdom holds that the campaign that could begin as early as this week, should the Liberal minority fall on a confidence vote over the budget, is shaping up to be possibly the most vicious in memory.

And yet there is another theory, crazy though it might sound, that the parties will pull themselves up out of the muck to address the issues. It’s based on strategic calculation, not wishful thinking. For Liberal planners,

Martin and Harper need to address medicine, education and the economy

the incentive to shift attention to policy is clear enough: anything to get the spotlight off the sordid revelations ofjustice John Gomery’s inquiry. For Conservatives, the urge to keep the focus solely on Gomery is strong, but smart Tories see the need to diversify. They learned the hard way, in last year’s election, that accusing Liberals of being unethical could only take them so far. “We probably tried to ride corruption a week or two longer than we should have,” said Tory strategist Tim Powers. “You’ve got to find that right point where you change from saying the other guy is bad to showcasing why you are good.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean voters can count on the slanging match turning into a respectful debate. But the fact that the main adversaries both see advantage in delivering at least some substance is cause for hope. And, anyhow, it doesn’t hurt to dream before the race is really on. Macleans asked some experts to frame the issues as they’d like to see them emerge in the campaign.

TOUGH MEDICINE:

Canadians invest so much pride in public health care that politicians shy away from proposing real reform. But Dr. Albert Schumacher, the Windsor, Ont., general practitioner who is president of the Canadian Medical Association, pleads for a new frankness. Last fall’s funding deal between Martin and the premiers, he contends, only restored stability to a teetering system that had suffered from cuts during the deficit-fighting years. Fixing the long-term problem of ever-rising government health spending, Schumacher says, will require a clear-eyed look at which services should continue to be provided only under public health insurance, and which should sometimes be paid for by private plans or out of patients’ pockets. “We need this to be debated without rhetoric and fear-mongering,” he says. And he adds that Canadian politicians must confront the need to invest heavily in training many more health care providers. About 2,200 new doctors a year are being trained, but probably 3,000 are needed.

FAILING GRADES:

What politician doesn’t piously support higher education? But which federal party is making the state of the universities an urgent priority? Robert Best, national vice-president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, points to troubling trend lines that should be top campaign concerns. Between 1980 and 2005, U.S. government spending on public four-year schools increased 25 per cent per student. In Canada, there was a 20 per cent decline in the same period. That leaves U.S. governments investing $5,000 more a year for every student than Canadian ones. And since Americans generally accept higher tuition fees, U.S. public universities also charge an extra $3,000 per student more on average than their Canadian rivals. “That’s a lot more money,” Best observes, “to pour into lower student-faculty ratios, libraries and technology.” He suggests that a new federal transfer payment to the provinces earmarked only for post-secondary education should be up for discussion.

SHORT-SIGHTED

ECONOMY:

After the federal deficit was wiped out in 1997, the urgency went out of economic policy debate. After all, Canada has seemed on a roll since then, topping the G7 countries in the rate of increase in our standard of living. But complacency is dangerous. Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, points to Canada’s disturbing tendency to spend more on current consumption, such as health and social services, compared to the U.S. investing more in future competitiveness in areas like education and infrastructure. Similarly, Canadian companies invest less than their American competitors on machinery and equipment. As individuals, Canadians are less likely than Americans to invest in their own advanced education; we have as many bachelor’s-degree engineers and science grads per capita, but 39 per cent fewer M.A.s and Ph.D.s. “We’re into a potential slide,” warns Martin. “We could wake up in 20 years and realize we can’t keep up— we just didn’t invest.”

KYOTO CREDIBILITY:

Even Conservatives now say they would uphold Canada’s Kyoto protocol commitment, joining the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois. But if it’s to be done, then how? The challenge is huge: Canada is on course to be pumping out 840 megatonnes of greenhouse gases a year by 2010, and must cut that by 270 megatonnes to meet its obligation. The Liberal plan released last month failed to impress pro-Kyoto experts. “It meets the target on paper,” says Matthew Bramley, climate change director of the Pembina Institute, a non-profit environmental policy group. “But it’s difficult to believe it meets it in practice.” Under the government’s plan, large industries would have to make emissions cuts that amount to 13 per cent of the total target, even though those industries account for nearly 50 per cent of all emissions. Road transport generates 19 per cent of emissions, but a voluntary deal with the automakers accounts for only two per cent of the needed cuts. No doubt a more hard-headed plan would spark an outcry from industry-just as declaring the target unachievable would raise an uproar from environmentalists. Still, for Kyoto to generate more than hot air, the parties would have to come clean during the campaign.

THERE’S LOTS more, of course—child care, the plight of urban Aboriginals, managing the Canada-U.S. border, to name a few. But daring, detailed policies on health, education, the economy and Kyoto would be a bracing start. Or maybe, when the leaders’ campaign jets finally take off, the mud will just keep flying along with them. Until then, though, they can’t stop anyone from wishing for something better.