If you’re a suburban homeowner lying awake at night stressing about how you’ll ever get out from under your mountain of mortgage-infused debt, congratulations. You’re the most important voter in next month’s federal election.
You’re the person Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is really talking to in those heavy-rotation TV ads about hard-working middle-class Canadians struggling to get ahead, and how he’ll make it all better. You’re the reason his first major platform announcement was an income-tax cut. You’re why Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau led his campaign with pledges on home-buying affordability and increases to his government’s Canada Child Benefit.
Yes, it’s all for you. Sure, others will benefit from these proposed programs. And we’ll all pay billions for their annual cost hit on the federal budget. But let’s not kid ourselves. Federal political strategists know full well that Canadian elections are won and lost in the suburbs. That makes suburban problems everyone’s problem at election time.
Both of the leading parties vying to form the next government have taken the nervous pulse of suburban voters, and concluded – correctly – that their debt problems have fuelled a rich vein of anxiety and disillusionment to be tapped in this campaign.
As The Globe and Mail’s Rachelle Younglai and Chen Wang reported last Saturday, Canada’s near-record household debt burdens are more acute – dramatically so – in the suburbs surrounding its biggest cities, where housing prices have soared and incomes haven’t kept up. It doesn’t take long when you look at the maps to recognize that these high-debt hot spots are in many of the same key battlegrounds for the election – hotly contested suburban ridings that could form the margin between winning and losing. In probably the most important war zone of all – the vast suburban expanse surrounding Toronto – the map of the most heavily indebted regions looks strikingly similar to a map of federal ridings that are considered too close to call: places such as Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Aurora, Milton.
These are the epicentres of economic disillusionment in this country – something Mr. Scheer’s Conservatives know they have to harness if they are going to prevail in this election. Despite a relatively strong economy, booming employment and growing wages, these voters struggling with heavy debts feel like they’re running non-stop just to stand still. Their own economic well-being doesn’t seem to be growing at all.
Mr. Scheer is happy to point the blame at Liberal taxes – though he knows full well, or ought to, that the debt problem at the root of this dissatisfaction has little to do with the current government’s tax policies. Rather, ultra-low interest rates, and the soaring housing prices and excessive borrowing that they spawned, are what have handcuffed Canadian suburbanites with debt, and those factors were in play long before Mr. Trudeau’s government came to power – their causes can be traced back to the Great Recession of 2008-09. One could even argue that the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper contributed more to these conditions than the current government; its years of belt-tightening in pursuit of a balanced budget starved a then-struggling economy of fiscal stimulus, forcing the Bank of Canada to keep the economy primed with low interest rates that fuelled debt accumulation.
But Mr. Scheer knows that the blame game plays to his advantage. Unhappy voters seek change – and he’s the face of change in this election. He’s also the guy willing to use tax cuts to put money in the pocket of voters who are burning through an awful lot of their disposable income on debt payments. When someone is offering to throw you a life preserver, it’s easy to forget that you were the one who jumped into the deep end of your own free will.
Meanwhile, it’s no accident that Mr. Trudeau kicked off the Liberal campaign with a home-ownership affordability package. It’s a gesture right out of the gate designed to appeal to suburbanites, whose monthly housing costs are the highest in the country, and for whom affordability is understandably a front-burner issue.
Of course, none of these campaign proposals will do much to help Canada as a nation lift itself out of the consumer debt hole it has dug over the past decade. What indebted households ultimately need is a strong, stable, growing economy that will fuel healthy, sustained income growth, coupled with redistributive tax policies that will assure that this income is shared equitably. It will take comprehensive long-term planning on innovation, infrastructure, skills development, immigration.
And it will take the guts not to pander to targeted voting blocks. But first, the political operatives will protest, you have to get elected.