An Ugly Campaign Grinds Its Way To A Conclusion

As noted in this space two weeks ago, the electorate in 2015 wanted a change from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Initially, it looked like Tom Mulcair’s NDP might be the beneficiary.

But the Liberals tacked to the left of them, promising to run declining deficits for four years while the NDP had promised fiscal responsibility. A commitment that 2015 would be the last vote using first-past-the-post was attractive to progressive voters. Promises like those, and Trudeau’s energetic and engaging style, turned the tide and the Liberals won 184 out of 338 seats.

In 2019, the NDP has not much room to the left of them, promising pharmacare for all, mental health, dental, eye and hearing coverage, reduced or eliminated post-secondary tuitions, and much more. There is no effort at fiscal responsibility.

Elizabeth May’s Greens make similar promises. She says that they would balance the budget in five years but the tax measures she proposes have no prospect of achieving that.

The Liberals never intended to deliver a diminishing deficit, and they are now projecting deficits far into the future. After four years of rapid spending growth, they forecast further spending increases of $9 billion growing to $17 billion over four years.

Their new measure of “restraint” is that the ratio of debt to GDP won’t grow, but this will quickly become impossible if there is an economic slowdown, and it would be no surprise if the Liberals abandoned that goal too.

In health care, they make lots of promises that only provinces can keep: “make sure that every Canadian has access to a family doctor or primary health care team… set clear national standards for access to mental health services so Canadians can get the support they need quickly… make home care and palliative care more available across the country…”.

The $1.75 billion per year budgeted for those, presumably for transfers to the provinces, is entirely inadequate. It was not submitted to the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) for validating, a process that the Liberals set up.

Likewise, their forecasted revenue increases from tax expenditure and government spending review and a crackdown on corporate tax loopholes are made up numbers.

The Liberals have again promised to put the United Nations Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples into law, without acknowledging the inherent contradictions with other people’s rights. That will either result in a wholesale confiscation of people’s properties or repeat disappointment for First Nations.

One might expect that the Conservatives could do much better, but the differences are not great.

They forecast deficits declining to zero over five years, but they also promise multiple tax reductions, and spending increases in health and other areas.

The estimated benefits of freezing staffing levels have been confirmed by the PBO, but programs of that type almost always flounder in the execution. Extending infrastructure spending to 15 years instead of 12 amounts to a 20% decrease.

A major area of policy difference is oil and gas, which is Canada’s largest source of export earnings. The other parties treat the industry as villains and its workers as chess pieces that can be moved to other squares with a little retraining.

The Conservatives want to enable the industry while reducing imports and cutting consumption through energy-saving initiatives. This might be a reasonable proposition if their carbon reduction measures were more plausible.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has not captured the public’s interest. One-on-one, he seems to be a thoughtful and knowledgeable politician. But he does not come across well in the heat of public debate.

Justin Trudeau has a bigger problem. The image as a fresh new face has been shown to be false. He has been frequently untruthful and was censured twice by the Ethics Commissioner. He has embarrassed himself and the country in his foreign travels. He repeated many of the parliamentary practices he promised to change.

In 2015, he was a great asset to the campaign. In 2019, he has become a liability.

There are a lot of Anyone-But-Trudeau voters. Scheer should have been the beneficiary. Six months ago, he had a six-point lead, but his diffident performance has lost that. The two major parties are about tied; as of late Thursday, neither was supported by more than a third of the voters.

Anyone-But-Trudeau voters have migrated to the NDP and Bloc Quebecois leading to some odd dynamics in the closing days of the campaign.

The Liberals are telling progressives to vote for them instead of the NDP because they are the best chance to beat the Conservatives. The NDP says that isn’t necessary because they will support a Liberal minority, and supporting the NDP votes against the Conservatives without having to vote for Trudeau.

The Conservatives might get in on this action, pointing out that the NDP will extract a price from the Liberals for their support, resulting in some hard left policies not in the Liberal platform. In other words, supporting the Liberals is really a vote for both Trudeau and the NDP.

It would have been nice to see competing visions for Canada in the next decade. It is not a good campaign when parties are mostly seeking your votes based on who they are not.

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