Sloganizing Not Serious Debate

The surreal air of media coverage in the federal election, the blithe focus on “gotcha” politics, is making voters even more grumpy and bored. Change is in the air, but all parties are merely offering standard packages of policy mush. How will any of them govern effectively with a mandate based on a vacuum?

Just a few months ago, the imminent campaign looked a little more exciting. Talk of the emerging Northern Tiger was no longer a joke. Now the fiscal darling of the G7 group of developed countries, Canada’s fast-growing economy and surpluses came off well when compared with moribund Europe and a hapless Bush government swamped by huge deficits. The trick for us was to stay the course, to control spending by making government more transparent and devoted to results, to ratchet down our still uncompetitive tax levels. In short, to take the long view and build on the relative prudence of 12 years of Liberal government.

As the Economist opined in a lead editorial, Canada’s first competitive election in years should mean a serious debate, not sloganizing and evasion. The magazine warns that our taxes are still too high and chides all parties for throwing more cash at policy challenges like healthcare while ignoring needed reforms. In a blind tack to the old left, the Liberals embrace a 1970s-style advocacy of expanded programs and a vigorous rejection of further tax reductions as too “American”. The Conservatives are trying to play it safe with a low-key platform that proposes, alas, more mindless healthcare spending increases. The NDP betrays once again its narrow roots with its “innovation not privatization” spiel on healthcare, a sellout to special interests in the public sector.

None of these picked-over bones offers scope for imagination or real innovation. Substantive debate requires thinking about structural reform, changing the way things are done, not merely throwing more money at ineffective systems. This means funding the end users of services, not the providers, a method which taps the knowledge of more citizens. It maximizes choice and makes policy outcomes transparent by harnessing consumer forces. Finally, lower taxes are better than higher taxes because they stimulate growth and the revenues required to pay for social programs. That level of debate might generate more excitement than a petty denunciation of Winnipeg’s spectacular new downtown footbridge, yelling about abortion or careless accusations about murdering the homeless.

The Conservatives want to cut taxes, but it’s hard to see how that comports with a spending frenzy on monopoly Medicare. On an age-adjusted basis, Canada has the world’s most expensive single payer healthcare system yet it delivers poor results, according to a recent Fraser Institute study. More resources will make little difference unless basic flaws are addressed, and the Tories ought to know it. Why aren’t they talking about a mix of competing public and private clinics within a publicly funded framework? Or balancing underused and overused facilities by placing waiting list information on line, or modernizing record and information transfers? Even the idea of means-tested user fees deserves discussion.

With unintended symbolism, the Liberals chose to have an election on Tax Freedom Day, when Canadian families finish paying for government and start to keep their earnings. Tax reductions are a fact of life in a competitive global economy. Why aggressively shun them when the tax burden needs to come down? Instead of an expensive, politicized one-size-fits-all daycare program, why not simply extend the childcare credit? Why another monopoly program that will be captured by its providers featuring rising costs and declining service as the standard experience, witness Medicare?

Wind power is featured in both the Liberal and NDP platforms. It’s a deceptively attractive, but over-rated idea. The power produced is erratic and expensive. It requires double capitalization, for the windmills and then again for backup facilities when there is no wind. Oddly, all parties are complaining about high gasoline prices. Yet nobody mentions that the Kyoto process will require huge increases in gas taxes to get even close to achieving the commitment to reduce greenhouse gases. Since the other parties are aggressively pro-Kyoto, where are the Conservatives on this one?

The NDP’s Jack Layton pointed to the recently nationalized Pan Am Sports Clinic as an example of smart public policy. Because the facility now doesn’t have to pay profits, we have more money for service, he claims. With transparent accounting that includes all costs, including those of the ponderous politics and bureaucracy that infests our health system, the Pan Am clinic is most certainly more expensive under government ownership. Layton also trotted out death taxes, the so-called inheritance tax. This was tried in B.C. ten years ago, but the people rather objected to paying a mortgage their entire life only to drop dead and have the asset half-stolen from their children. How this idea got through the NDP brain trust as a vote winner is a real mystery.

With only a few weeks to go, our politicians seem unwilling to tackle the tough questions. Is the polity shallow enough to tolerate the smear game and let them duck and dodge the hard issues until June 28?