Federal Election: The real issues in this campaign

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Fri Mar 25 2011.

The first round of Campaign 2011 is already underway with political leaders trying to define what it’s all about. Prime Minister Stephen Harper says it’s about stability. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says the issue is trust — in Harper’s values and priorities. The NDP’s Jack Layton says it’s fairness. But elections are about us, not them. What should this campaign really be about?

The first thing to realize is how fortunate we are — and what an opportunity we have. Canada came through the Great Recession comparatively unscathed. As many of our competitors wilted, we rose in stature and relative prosperity. Toronto now ranks among the 10 top world economic centres. Harper’s claim that the recovery is too “fragile” to risk an election serves his political purposes and unambitious economic plans, but it doesn’t reflect reality. The task now is to put in place measures that will allow Canada to build on its edge. The last thing we want is to fall back when other countries recover, as they will.

That takes vision and the ability to focus on key priorities that will pay benefits five and 10 years down the road. The Conservative government’s budget-cum-election platform is the opposite of that. It scatters $2.3 billion in new spending on constituencies chosen by political calculation (tax breaks for volunteer firefighters, anyone?), not strategic planning. It also ducks some of the biggest issues on the near horizon, such as the future of health care.

Here are some of the issues that should be at the heart of the campaign debate:

Investing in innovation. The Conservatives did a poor job in their anti-recession stimulus package of building for the future. They could have turned the crisis into an opportunity, but their 2009 budget actually cut funding for scientific research (though they later addressed that mistake by creating more research chairs and luring world-class researchers to Canada). But the steps are still tentative: last year’s federal budget increased Ottawa’s spending on R&D by $200 million — while President Barack Obama was upping U.S. spending by $15 billion.

Canada needs to step up dramatically in this area. Our economy now runs on ideas; more and more of us discover, design and create things. Waterloo’s Research in Motion is the poster child for that kind of innovation, but we need much more. What kind of investment in research and higher education do the parties propose to keep the country competitive for the next generation?

Investing in people. Canada is one of only a handful of developed nations without a national child-care plan. The Conservative government has handed out $12 billion to parents of young children, but done it in a way that fails to create affordable, regulated child care for most working families. The Liberals have committed to a national plan but need to spell out the details of how they would address this growing problem.

At the other end of the age spectrum, older Canadians are finding it harder to maintain a comfortable retirement, with fewer benefitting from strong private pension plans. It’s high time to top up the Canada Pension Plan for the elderly poor and strengthen the CPP for younger workers coming up behind.

Investing in both innovation and people is the combination we need to address a long-term problem: Canada’s lagging productivity. The U.S. has boosted its productivity even more following the recession, leaving us further behind. We badly need to start closing the gap.

Investing in health care. The Conservatives’ budget has nothing to say about the future of health care, even though funding agreements with the provinces expire in 2014. In this area, most of all, fresh thinking is needed.

Dentists and even vets have ready access to computerized health records — but not most doctors in this country that regards medicare as an icon of national identity. Hospitals and extended care facilities operate in silos, with little communication or shared services. The result is inefficiency, duplicated services and frustrated patients. Where’s the federal leadership?

None of this is unaffordable. By the government’s own calculations, the federal deficit will be erased by 2015 without major cuts, by 2014 if a new review of government services produces additional savings. A country as well-placed as Canada is now should not settle for short-term politicking and stunted ambitions. We deserve a government with the imagination and boldness to take steps now that will ensure we build on the advantages we enjoy, and share them more equitably.

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