Election 2000

A Squandered Opportunity

Vital questions needed to be discussed, but weren’t

Mary Janigan December 4 2000
Election 2000

A Squandered Opportunity

Vital questions needed to be discussed, but weren’t

Mary Janigan December 4 2000

A Squandered Opportunity

Election 2000

Mary Janigan On the Issues

Vital questions needed to be discussed, but weren’t

In the fall of 1988, in the midst of a hotly contested federal election, Tory strategist Hugh Segal wearily climbed into a Toronto taxi to shuttle from the party’s advertising production studios to campaign headquarters. It was 2 a.m.—and his second night without sleep. “What,” asked the cab driver, “do you think about this free-trade thing?” Segal, now president of the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy, murmured his approval of the controversial proposal. The driver, waving his heavily annotated version of the pact, responded with a detailed and highly astute critique of the dispute settlement and resource proposals. Segal was flabbergasted, and overjoyed. “What was wonderful about that election was that the country was truly engaged on the issue,” he says wistfully.

“This campaign is an opportunity lost.”

The nation will pay a price for that. The next Parliament must deal with pressing issues that should have been probed in this election, but weren’t. Instead, the parties flung labels with reckless ease, reducing one another’s positions to simplistic and usually inaccurate slogans. The real challenges of the 21st century remain largely unexplored—and unexplained:

• How should Ottawa support its industrial base in a highly competitive world? The Canadian Alliance contended that all grant programs, including Technology Partnerships Canada, which provides loans to high-tech industries, should be abolished in favour of corporate tax cuts. The Liberals defended those loans—and then promptly lumped them in the same category as their highly ineffective job-creation grants. They even hinted that they would pour more subsidies into the moribund shipbuilding industry. A debate about what constitutes

proper assistance never occurred.

• How should Ottawa support the health-care system when the cost of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment is skyrocketing and the population is aging? That debate never got beyond promises of more money and platitudes about the fact that there would be no two-tiered care.

• Campaign 2000, a national antipoverty organization, says that 19 per cent of all Canadian youth lives in households with incomes below the Statistics Canada low-income cutoff. Each party had differing family policies, ranging from the Alliances tax deductions for all children, including those of stay-at-home parents, to the Tories’ proposal that single-income families should not pay tax

on their first $24,000 of income by 2005. But those proposals to help poor kids were never debated—let alone questioned.

• Canada’s edge in the 21st century will be its future workforce: today’s students. Yet tuition has jumped 135 per cent in the past decade, and student debtloads are huge. How could Ottawa use its tax system to provide better help for those students? For that matter, should it?

• The Alliance offered large tax cuts in return for less spending. Do taxpayers want smaller government?

• The dollar has been tracking downward throughout the 1990s, approaching record lows during the campaign. Why? Is foreign capital heading elsewhere to invest? Has the high federal debt spooked the markets? The Liberals shrugged. Little else was said.

If democracies thrive when voters are tuned in to policy directions, then this election has been a failure. “Pick an issue —and it seems to have been pushed aside,” says Ken Battle, president of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. “The focus has been on personalities.” EH