Michael Adams is president and Andrew Parkin is executive director of the Environics Institute.
Voters have changed. Deference to authority has diminished: People no longer respect political leaders’ ideas and judgment simply because of their status. Party loyalty, once an intergenerational commitment for many families, has waned. Increasingly, people shop around for appealing platforms and telegenic leaders, changing parties from election to election.
Little wonder, then, that politicians sometimes seem almost intimidated by these fickle voters. Almost no seat is truly safe; no segment of the electorate can be taken for granted. Each voter must be carefully wooed with tailored promises and inoffensive messages. This courting may be eminently democratic but there is a downside: Politicians have become even more shy about telling voters the hard truths they’d rather not hear.
Fewer than one-in-five Canadians favour a government that’s smaller and offers fewer services. So it’s not surprising that election campaigns focus on how to expand services such as child care, health care and pharmacare.
Meanwhile, many Canadians express concerns about the cost of living. A growing proportion say they’re dissatisfied with the availability of good, affordable housing in their community, for instance. And so voters – especially those in the coveted and ill-defined “middle class” – are offered new tax credits to help them keep up with expenses.
More services and lower taxes. If you think this sounds too good to be true, you’re out of step with most Canadian voters, who seem to see no contradiction.
Our society has changed a lot since Jean Chrétien won re-election, even after breaking his 1993 promise to axe the hated goods and services tax. He kept the tax, brought the budget back to balance and remained prime minister. But since Stephen Harper reduced the GST to 5 per cent from 7 per cent after his victory in 2006, no politician has dared suggest it be restored to the previous level to pay for all the services and programs that people want.
Similarly, faced with the squeeze of public finances in the wake of the economic downturn in Alberta, the new premier of that province is more comfortable pointing the finger at Quebec than entertaining the prospect of a provincial sales tax at home.
Even in the face of what we are now rightly calling a climate emergency, the main leaders vying for the keys to 24 Sussex are promising all gain with no pain.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax comes with a promise to send out rebate cheques that will ensure most Canadians are no worse off. The Conservatives think even that is too risky. They would prefer to find ways to sell green technology to developing countries, so Canadians can actually profit from the hard work of global emissions reduction.
Either or both of these might be workable policies. Yet, it is still remarkable that in an election taking place in 2019, political parties feel compelled to reassure voters that they can save the planet at no net cost to people like themselves.
Politics have always involved a little magical thinking, with politicians using spending to attract new voters before the election, and only sheepishly getting around to dealing with the inevitable costs later on. Very often, the buy-now-pay-later approach is premised on the assumption that current levels of growth and tax revenues will continue into the foreseeable future.
“Elect me and I’ll make sure we’re well braced for an inevitable downturn,” a candidate might say, but this tends not to do well in focus groups as a campaign slogan. With deficit financing back in fashion, a more freewheeling approach to politics is easier than ever – at least until interest rates balloon debt servicing costs and bring us back to the budget shocks of the mid-1990s.
If there is any real difference between today and past eras of political overpromise, it’s perhaps the absence of a traditional left-right schism between the two main parties that can conceivably form government after this Oct. 21 election.
Voters are being asked to parse the different redistributive effects of competing tax credits, the different scale of investments in public services and the different timelines for returning the budget to balance. This leaves the economists with lots to argue about.
The average voter, however, is left feeling both flattered with all the attention, and a little suspicious. As the two most powerful parties promise that Canadians can have it all, without sacrifice, surely some voters have a sneaking feeling there’s something important they’re not being told.
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