Election year offers chance to put Canada on a better path

Posted on January 5, 2015 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Canadians deserve a government with more ambition than the Harper Conservatives have been able to muster.
Jan 05 2015.   Editorial

Now that the season of Goodwill To All has drawn to a merry close, Canadians face a New Year that promises to be anything but. The minute Parliament resumes so will partisan rancour. It’s going to be a long year.

But an important one. Despite the downturn in oil prices Canada stands to rack up federal budget surpluses of more than $30 billion in the next five years, so the time seems right for a serious debate about the direction the country is taking after nine years of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Indeed, the opposition seems eager to frame that debate as the countdown to the Oct. 19 election gets underway.

Harper deserves credit for steering the country through the Great Recession of 2008-2009, but his chief interest has been reducing the size and ambition of the federal government. As a result of profligate Conservative tax giveaways federal revenues are now at their lowest point in half a century as a percentage of our economic output, and the Tories have been paring spending and services to eliminate the deficit.

As the Star has argued before, Canadians deserve a government with more ambition than the Harper Conservatives have been able to muster – one that aims higher, generates stronger growth and is disposed to spread the benefits more equitably. Whatever the 2015 election result, Canada needs a change of direction.

The vast majority of Canadians feel the country is getting less fair as the income gap widens. Meanwhile, we are saddled with less than optimal growth, slack business investment and unmet social needs. Ontario and other provinces are running deficits and need help from Ottawa. The jobless rate is stubbornly high, especially among youth. And many who do have jobs are clinging to precarious ones. There’s been a worrisome surge in household debt. And the pension system isn’t what it should be.

New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair was early off the mark addressing some of these needs. He has been arguing that Canada’s $2-trillion economy is robust enough — despite the clouds raised by falling oil prices — to support $15-a-day child care, a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, more investment in infrastructure, generous transfers for health care and higher corporate taxes. In the New Year he plans to address pension reform, support for seniors and the environment.

In recent weeks Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, too, has been setting out markers. He promises to re-engage with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and the other premiers and to stand up for the middle class. He would reverse the Tories’ misguided income-splitting plan and reinvest the money in education, infrastructure, job training, natural resources and innovation. He would enhance the Canada Pension Plan, put a price on carbon and legalize marijuana. Most recently he has promised more open government, better scrutiny by Parliament of our security services, budget transparency and tighter regulation of federal advertising.

Both opposition parties fault the government for “a lack of ambition and vision,” in Trudeau’s words, and for being cynical, divisive, and secretive.

All this leaves Harper’s Conservatives defending their track record on the economy, modest job creation and tax cuts. Latterly Harper has been burning through the bulk of the shrinking surplus, promising such populist measures as a family income-splitting scheme that favours the affluent, an increase in the universal child care benefit, and a bumped-up child care expense deduction.

But Harper is dogged as well by his contempt for Parliament, his political divisiveness and obsessive message control, his obtuse feud with the Supreme Court and his cold-shouldering of the Wynne government. There’s also the ongoing Senate scandal and ethical lapses by Tory operatives, the government’s abuse of taxpayer dollars to promote Tory policies, Harper’s foot-dragging on climate change and his government’s bungling of the veterans file.

Gradually the stage is being set for a principled debate on the choices Canadians face as we anticipate growing federal budget surpluses, and the role we want the national government to play. For the majority, at least, there’s a sense that Ottawa could be bolder and more attuned to the public’s concern about income disparities and unmet social needs.

The opposition parties shouldn’t shrink from challenging Harper’s costly tax giveaways, or feel bound by them. Their job is to chart a sounder course. Much of the cash Ottawa is frittering away on small tax breaks would be better spent on a child-care program along the lines of the one proposed by the NDP, or on infrastructure, health care and education programs. That would create jobs, grow the economy and provide more help for working families.

While it’s a tribute to Harper’s political skills that his Tories are still competitive as they try to chalk up a fourth election win in a row, he arguably has the hardest row to hoe. He is asking Canadians to give his Conservatives 14 consecutive years in power. And anything less than a renewed majority will feel like a rebuff.

For Trudeau, who was ahead in the polls before Parliament went on holiday, the route to success is easier. He will be considered a winner if he brings his Liberals back as the Official Opposition. And Mulcair, who has been bleeding support and running third, is struggling against the odds to resurrect Jack Layton’s coalition of hope to hang on to Official Opposition status.

For the majority of Canadians — those who want change — it’s heartening to see Trudeau and Mulcair challenge the Tory narrative, hold the government to account for its weaknesses, and offer up alternatives. This is a debate the country sorely needs.

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