Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, former NDP national director and regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.
As every political insider will tell you, the real purpose of all campaigning is to establish the ballot question – that is, what each of us should be thinking when we actually vote. For the good of Canada, here's what I hope the ballot question proves to be on October 19: Can Stephen Harper be trusted with another term in office?
In elections, we vote for a party and especially its leader not just on the basis of its contrived election-time platform but because we think we can trust them when unpredictable events take over the agenda, as they always do. There's no way to plan or prepare for such phenomena – wars, recession, terrorism. Who knows what's next? A leader's character determines how he or she will respond to the unexpected.
In a real sense, the entire history of Mr. Harper's almost 10 years in office has revolved explicitly around trust. Time after time, his government pushed initiatives that were harshly criticized by experts in the field. Each time, we had to ask ourselves: Do I believe what the government is telling me or do I go with the scientists, academics, health experts, constitutional maven and all the other specialists who have attacked so many of the government's initiatives?
This past week has offered yet another example of this curious ritual. The Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette reported that the government will run a billion-dollar budget deficit this year, despite explicit assurances from the Prime Minister and Finance Minister Joe Oliver that the budget will be balanced.
What should us poor citizens do in the face of such a disagreement? How can we know what's true? Since most of us can hardly be experts in all areas of governance, we really have no choice but to accept one side or the other. The answer, as so often in the past nine years, boils down to this: We can only believe the government's blanket assurances if we disregard the evidence of the experts.
When the Harper government tells us that certain forms of asbestos are not necessarily toxic, yet virtually all scientists agree that all asbestos kills, there is no middle ground. We need to decide which side has the most credibility. This is not a hard one.
When the overwhelming number of scientists believe climate change is a clear and present danger but our government refuses to take the issue seriously, implicitly denying the scientific findings, whom do we believe? Another no-brainer, I'd say.
When the government actively pursues its law 'n' order agenda while Statistics Canada reports that violent crimes in Canada have generally fallen for the eighth straight year, what should we believe about how dangerous our streets are? And why does this issue remain a Harper government priority when the facts tell a different story? Are we talking about ideology and political opportunism, or evidence-based public policy?
What were we to think last year when literally hundreds of political scientists and constitutional experts told us the Fair Voting Act was deeply flawed, even antidemocratic, while day after day Pierre Poilievre for the government summarily dismissed every one of their concerns? Who was more credible?
Or when a large variety of experts warned against the excesses and dangers of the anti-terrorist bill C-51, while the government turned a completely deaf ear? There was no middle ground: You had to trust either the government or its authoritative critics. Again, not a particularly hard choice.
And the examples multiply still. When the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada publicly disagree, who do we believe? When armed forces veterans and the government bitterly disagree, what do we think? When the Prime Minister insists he had nothing to do with Mike Duffy being paid $90,000 by the PM's own chief of staff, can we believe Mr. Harper? Wouldn't that depend on how credible he's been on other matters?
For many, Mr. Harper's omnibus budget bills are among the best reason to mistrust him. John Ralston Saul neatly describes them as "a thick jungle hiding dozens of dangerous traps." Mr. Harper has dropped eight such traps on the House of Commons, some with over 400 pages covering issues that are wholly unrelated to each other. How could MPs even know all they contained? This newspaper editorialized that such bills reflect the Harper government's "contempt for parliament." Pretty straightforward on this one, then.
Any Canadian who has followed the practices of our government over the past decade will have her own examples of its integrity: The way they vilify and smear their opponents, perhaps; their contempt for democracy as well as Parliament; their foreign policy based on electoral considerations; their seeming indifference to aboriginal peoples. At bottom, all of these are issues that tell us how our government thinks and operates. They tell us whether the Prime Minister and his team can be trusted. Or as Chico asked Groucho, "Who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?" Gotta love those Marxists.