Middle-class Canadians are still waiting for a federal champion

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
October 26, 2010.   Keith Beardsley

Municipal elections don’t always reflect what is happening in the federal arena, but they can help federal politicians to get a sense of the voter mindset and future trends.

To say that voters are angry is an understatement. Ontario’s municipal elections saw many incumbents tossed out and in Toronto a new mayor with a strong platform for change was elected. Voter anger in Quebec is also real and a nonexistent party is running in first place in recent polling. In B.C., the government is under siege for its HST tax hike. Across the country Canadians have decided that they will not take it any more.

Many see this as a revolt of the middle class, who rightly or wrongly feel they are carrying the financial pain for government spending and fiscal waste. They see their hard-earned dollars siphoned off for programs that they get little if any benefit from and they are fed up. Federal politicians that ignore this anger do so at their peril. Federal parties that don’t respond in a positive way will also pay the price in the next election.

Try as they might, the Liberals have not yet come up with a coherent platform that taps into that voter anger. However, I expect in the months ahead they will fine-tune their platform to make it more attractive, maybe even one that their current leader can deliver. Historically they have never had a problem reversing themselves if an issue came up that could earn them a few more votes. If they feel voters want fiscal restraint, watch for them to throw out or water down some previous big dollar promises. A child care program with its $5 billion price tag comes to mind as one potential example.

Their continued attacks on the F-35 purchase and the $6 billion tax reduction for corporations may yet resonate with voters. Remember the NDP attack on corporate welfare bums? Will middle class Canadians respond? They might if the Liberals can get their messaging right.

The NDP keeps trying to find a platform that will win over Canadians. They have the right idea in trying to speak for the average Canadian who feels overtaxed and abused by federal politicians. Their 5% reduction of the federal tax on heating fuel is a good one. Their real problem is a lack of credibility. One only has to look at their MPs and the programs they propose, to hear a cash register gobbling up your tax dollars. Can the federal NDP come up with a sound fiscal plan like some of their provincial leaders were able to do in the past?

Jack Layton’s other problem is that he keeps zigzagging from one issue to another. Is he seeking an NDP government or does he want to be a bit player in a Liberal-NDP coalition? I seem to recall Layton speculating about attaining a cabinet seat when he was negotiating with Paul Martin, never mind a seat in an Ignatieff-Layton government. The NDP message might be a good one, but if they can’t make up their mind as to what they want to be, Canadians won’t trust the messenger.

As for the Conservatives, they can and do tap into that voter anger, but their message hasn’t changed much in five years.  We know what they oppose and we know economically what they support — now they should just do it. Preaching fiscal restraint is one thing, let’s see some application of their policies; and let’s see some examples as well. What are they going to do for the hard-pressed middle class? It is time for the Conservatives to show us how they will protect our earnings, protect our savings and help us to meet our mortgage payments and rent.

And while they are at it, Conservatives have to do more than focus on the economy or crime. That becomes a boring narrative over time and there is a need to expand on their vision of the future. If we look back at the Reform Party’s messaging of 1993, it didn’t just include fiscal restraint and sound fiscal management, it tried to show how action today would lead to a better Canada for our future generations.   Harper and company have to show Canadians how they see Canada in five, ten or fifteen years from now. Where is the vision?

Polls have shown little change in voter preference over the last few years. To date,  no federal party has managed to capture our hearts and minds. Canadians are still waiting for a political party to show them how it will make Canada a better place for our children and grandchildren. When that happens the numbers will change. Until then Canadians watch, wait and evaluate.

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