An election? Over that?
Well, no. Whatever the election, if that is indeed where we are now headed, is about, it will not be this week’s thin pamphlet of a budget. The government may or may not succeed in contriving to be defeated on it, but it is hard to imagine how it could run on it. Or, for that matter, how the opposition could run against it.
One would have supposed, prior to Jack Layton’s surprise announcement that his party would not support it, that that was the point: to write a budget that was so innocuous, so inoffensive, so utterly inconsequential that it would be bulletproof. And indeed, the betting line in the budget lock-up was that the government had offered just enough to the NDP—money for the poorest of the old, incentives for doctors to practise in rural areas, an extension of the EcoEnergy retrofit boondoggle—without giving away the store on the deficit.
The rest is a mist of microscopic subsidies and tax credits sprayed in all directions, intended to remind their recipients at every turn of all the good things Mother Ottawa has done for them. Once, you might have invested in an exciting new sector like the digital economy in the expectation of profit: now you do it in expectation of a grant. Once, parents might have decided for themselves whether their kids should take piano lessons: now the government badgers them into it, with children’s arts tax credits. Once, there were volunteer firefighters. Now they are paid volunteers, via the volunteer firefighters tax credit.
Yet the amounts involved are so trivial that it is hard to take them seriously. Nor are the differences between the parties so large as to suggest the sort of fundamental divide that might justify defeating the government and dissolving the House. The Conservatives would enrich the Guaranteed Income Supplement by $300 million; the NDP had demanded $700 million. A general election, over $400 million—one-sixth of one per cent of federal spending? The election itself would cost very nearly as much.
So no, we are not going to have an election over tax credits for volunteer firefighters. But what is the reason, then? Normally the surest guide to how politicians make decisions is crass self-interest. But even that old faithful appears to have let us down. There is simply no clear upside for any of the parties in an election at present. Two and a half years have passed, and the parties all stand at exactly the same level in public opinion as they did in the last election. I mean to the percentage point: an average of recent polls gives the Conservatives 38 per cent, the Liberals 26 per cent, and the NDP 18 per cent.
The Tories might have been supposed to enjoy some momentum, before the rash of incriminating news stories of recent weeks: though these have yet to register in the party standings, they appear to have taken their toll on the Prime Minister’s personal approval ratings, according to the latest Nanos poll. The Liberals, besides starting 12 points back, are saddled with a leader who trails the party by a similar margin, while the NDP, for all Layton’s personal popularity, must surely wonder how he will stand up to the rigours of a long campaign, given his failing health.
So, just as a thought experiment, let’s suppose this really is what some in the opposition claim it is: an election about this government’s abuse of power, its disregard for Parliament, its refusal to be held to basic norms of democratic accountability. Put that way, it is hard to see how we could avoid an election: if ever a House has lost confidence in a government, it is surely this one.
But to be an election worth having, it can’t just be a referendum on the government. The choice, after all, is not between a Conservative government and no government at all. It is between one party and another (or others: see “coalition”). If the Liberals, in particular, wish to make an issue of ethics and accountability, they will have to overcome the public’s understandable doubts about them on both counts: a recent Ipsos Reid poll, while identifying honest and open government as a key public priority, found people trust the Conservatives to deliver it more than the Liberals—though both parties trailed behind “none of the above.”
An election about restoring our democracy should be an example of it. If the parties want the public to trust them, they’re going to have to trust the public—by bringing forward specific proposals for reform, and seeking a mandate for them. If Parliament has ceased to be relevant, let’s give it real power to hold the executive to account: for example, by giving committees the staff and research budgets to do their jobs properly, or by taking from government the power to invoke closure (in Britain, it’s the prerogative of the Speaker). If MPs are too beholden to party, let’s see some bold proposals to empower them: like abolishing the requirement for candidates to get their party leader to sign their nomination papers, or restricting the confidence convention, to reduce the whips’ sway.
Let’s clean up nomination races. Let’s give MPs the right to choose their leader. Let’s trim the size of cabinet. Let’s ban the use of public dollars for partisan advertising, as Ontario has done. Let’s pass Michael Chong’s package of reforms to question period. Let’s reform our broken electoral system, and give new parties with new ideas a chance to breathe.
And before we do any of that, let’s find some way to persuade the voters that the party that promises these things will actually do any of them.