Since the onset of the recession in 2008, economic concerns have been the top priority of voters in most countries. They are rightly concerned about their jobs, incomes, mortgage rates, tax levels and the capacity of the economy to support services essential to their quality of life - pensions, health care, education, environmental protection and transportation infrastructure.
Canada is no exception, and interest in the current federal election campaign is directly proportional to the attention that the parties, leaders, candidates and media devote to this concern. The fact that the public did not want an election and that the opposition campaign has focused on non-economic issues have contributed to an exceptionally low level of voter interest. I hope that this will change as election day nears, and that full attention will be focused on which leader and party is best qualified to lead Canada toward full economic recovery.
I am obviously not an unbiased commentator on this question, given my own involvement in federal politics as a former party and opposition leader. Nevertheless, I do know something about most of the players. So let me give you my frank assessment of their qualifications to lead the economic recovery.
The Bloc Québécois is unqualified for the job by definition, since its only real interest in Canada is to separate from it, and because of its irresponsible contention that Quebec and Canada would be better off economically if they went their separate ways. One of the most bizarre moments in the leaders debates was when Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe questioned Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "moral authority" to govern - as if a separatist leader sitting as a paid MP of the country he seeks to leave possesses any "moral authority" whatsoever.
And Jack Layton and the NDP, while no doubt well meaning, are not really qualified to lead the recovery, either. Most of the party's platform focuses on promises to increase social spending, and much of that in areas of provincial jurisdiction. The federal NDP, which has never formed a government, suffers from the converse of Lord Acton's statement that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In the NDP's case, "powerlessness" - never having to actually deliver on its promises - also has a corrupting effect that perpetuates itself and threatens to relegate the party to permanent opposition status.
Which brings us to Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals. Mr. Ignatieff is a very intelligent and well-read man. But his problem is that the economy is not his strong suit. He has written and lectured on the Cold War, ethics, human rights, terrorism, penitentiaries during the industrial revolution, the Scottish enlightenment and virtual war. He has written on Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, South Africa, his Russian heritage, and even one book on searching for Canada. But little of this qualifies him to lead on the issue of economic recovery.
And unfortunately for Mr. Ignatieff, his party can't be much help to him on this front, either. Parties long in government, like the Liberal Party of Canada, tend to use up their intellectual capital and to deteriorate ethically. On losing office, they need a good 10 years in the wilderness to purge themselves of the intellectually and ethically challenged remnants of the old regime and to replenish themselves with fresh blood and new ideas. This has not yet happened to the Liberal Party that Mr. Ignatieff inherited, leaving him without the backup resources required to lead on issues where he himself is less than qualified to do so.
So, finally, Mr. Harper. I have known him since he was a graduate student in economics at the University of Calgary and came to work for the Reform Party as our policy chief. For more than 25 years, his principal preoccupation has been with economic issues - monetary policy, exchange-rate policy, fiscal policy, budgetary policy, tax policy, trade policy, job-creation policy, social investment policy, competition policy and, more recently, policies to secure increased productivity, continental energy security and economic recovery.
This preoccupation may not have turned him into the kind of fellow you would invite to the neighbourhood barbecue. But if, as a voter, you are in search of the best qualified leader to lead the economic recovery on which your livelihood and quality of life depends, Mr. Harper, in my judgment, is your best candidate.
Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
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