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April 29, 2011

Showing contempt for Canadian voters

Dr. David Lorge Parnas

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From its start, the 2011 Canadian election campaign has been generating more heat than light. The discourse has been shallow with politicians treating us as if we could not think for ourselves. They avoid subtle issues, thereby treating us with contempt. It's time for the politicians to pay more respect to the voters and for the voters to look into the issues more deeply.

The Debates

The most disappointing campaign events (so far) were the televised confrontations on April 11 and 12, the so-called debates. They weren't real debates; they were opportunities to hurl barbs, repeat standard campaign slogans, and get laughs with witty one-liners. The leaders often ignored the formal questions and rarely responded to each other's answers. On the rare occasions that a candidate did respond to an opponent's remark, the response was an unsubstantiated "that's not true".

The participants repeatedly missed chances to question their opponent's position, explain their own position, or point out flaws in their opponents’ reasoning.

  • When Mr. Layton questioned Mr. Ignatieff's poor attendance record, Mr. Ignatieff did not explain his record and, more surprisingly, Layton did not point that out.
  • When Mr. Harper dismissed the "contempt of Parliament" resolution as “simply a case of the other three parties outvoting us.”, none of his opponents pointed out that there were many other ways to bring down a minority government or that the Mr. Harper was demonstrating his contempt of Parliament by implying that 156 duly elected and sworn MPs would vote for an unprecedented motion that they did not believe to be justified.
  • When Mr. Harper defended his party’s position on corporate taxation by naming one economist who agreed with it, the opponents did not take the opportunity to name any of the many economists who disagree or even to mention that such economists exist.
  • When Mr. Harper dismissed the leaked Auditor General's report as a draft, none of the participants asked him to explain the facts that we already know.

There were many more such incidents during the debates. I had hoped to experience real debates in which the participants discussed issues instead of each other and countered their opponent's arguments instead of ignoring them. An event that should have been a duel, fought with rapiers, was actually a brawl, fought with baseball bats.

Business Tax Levels

The discussion of using low tax levels to attract businesses has avoided a basic issue, “How do we determine the best level?”  Clearly, with a 100% tax on business, we would have no businesses; everyone seems to agree that 0% would be too low. Each of the parties has picked a number between those limits; none has explained how they arrived at their number.

More important, none of the parties has discussed the lessons that can be learned by studying other countries that have taken this approach. For example, the Republic of Ireland chose a low business tax policy; it was rewarded by a boom that made Ireland known as the Celtic Tiger. Many companies opened plants in Ireland; others placed a few people in Ireland and adjusted their accounting policies so that they could claim that profits were earned there; that approach reduced their taxes and brought income into Irish government coffers. The policy was so successful that other EU countries complained that it was unfair competition.

For a few years, everything was wonderful. People built large houses, investors built hotels and there were so many jobs that Ireland switched from being a land of emigration to a land full of returned emigrants and new immigrants. Everyone spent money as if the boom would never end.

Then, without much warning, everything went wrong. In my city, an American company packed up its manufacturing equipment and shipped it all to a newer EU country where its costs would be lower. Five thousand jobs vanished. Other companies closed their Irish plants when the slowdown came. The hotels and new houses were empty. The banks, which had invested as if the boom would never end, required bailouts. Finally, the EU had to bail out the government. For Ireland, basing its economy on a low tax policy turned out to building on sand. Companies who came to Ireland for that reason proved to be fair-weather friends.

Ireland, and other countries, should be our "canary in the mine". They can show us what can be achieved with a low tax policy but they also show us how easily those benefits can evaporate. We should be discussing what happened elsewhere and learning from it. Instead we just hear, phrases like “too high” or “give-away”. I have not heard one candidate go deeper than that.

Infrastructure policy

For many years, Canada was neglecting its infrastructure to reduce spending. When a “crash” led to a crisis of confidence and a sudden slowdown, the government, with obvious reluctance, began spending on infrastructure. Now that our cyclic economy has entered, somewhat hesitantly, a more positive phase, infrastructure spending is being cut back again. Here too, I see inadequate discussion. What is the optimal level of infrastructure spending? How would we determine it? We hear about the costs, but seldom hear about the benefits of improved infrastructure.

Infrastructure spending creates jobs in many ways. In addition to the direct creation of jobs for those who build and maintain the infrastructure, good infrastructure allows companies and individuals to function more efficiently. Countries with good infrastructure are more attractive places to invest. The private sector is strengthened by the availability of well-educated employees, transportation that allows goods and people to avoid long waits on clogged roads, a public health insurance plan that lowers the costs of taking on a new employee, etc. A strong infrastructure makes everything work better. The jobs created by infrastructure investment are less likely to be “exported”; investment attracted by a country’s infrastructure is unlikely to move elsewhere.

Many have observed that reducing taxes to attract investment leads to a race to the bottom as other countries take the same approach. Why is nobody discussing a possible “race to the top”, a race to make Canada the best place to live productive, safe, and pleasant lives?

Coalitions

The three nationwide parties are tripping over each other denying that they would have anything to do with a coalition government. They say that, even if they do not get a majority, they will not form a government by sharing the Cabinet table with members of other parties. The disparagement of coalitions began when the governing party labeled a proposed coalition as a “back-room deal”. In this year’s election, they are called unreliable and unstable. Nobody mentions that there are benefits to forming a coalition.

  • In a coalition government, the Cabinet represents the views of a majority of citizens. Strangely, we are told that this is less democratic than a minority government?
  • A coalition brings more viewpoints to the cabinet table, and gives more people the feeling that their views are heard and understood.
  • The best solutions to problems are often found when a set of people with differing approaches sit together to work out a common approach.
  • A coalition government is less likely to give patronage appointments to party supporters (because other coalition partners will object).
  • A coalition government enhances stability because it forces the participating parties to meet and work together.

All the Party Leaders know that a coalition is a legitimate, and frequently used, way to form a stable democratic government. Why are they insulting voter’s intelligence by suggesting otherwise?

Separatists and Separatism

All the parties claim that they do not want national unity to become an election issue. However, they are exacerbating the problem by treating the members of the Bloc Quebecois as if they were lepers. It has been suggested that the inclusion of the BQ in a coalition government would be disgraceful and unthinkable.

There are separatist movements in many countries. Often, they start long bloody wars or resort to terrorist tactics. Canada is extremely lucky to have separatists who have chosen to work for what they want by democratic and peaceful means. Unlike many other groups, they are seeking to convince others of their views rather than blowing up police stations. They deserve our respect and we need to show them that we respect them.

Mr. Harper has said that the best thing we can do to fight the sovereignty movement is to give him a majority. That would be the worst thing that we could do. Sovereigntists believe that Quebecers are different from other Canadians, so different that they must leave Canada to have the kind of society they want. Mr. Harper’s views are not shared by most Quebecers. Giving Harper a majority would confirm the sovereigntists message that Quebecer’s views are really different and drive more soft sovereigntists into the PQ camp.

If we allow the Separatists to play a role in our government, we would be showing them that their views will be heard, accepted and respected. They would learn that they can move towards the type of society that they want by being an integral part of Canadian society. It might seem to some that allowing the BQ to participate would be a victory for Separatists, but I think it would lead to the decline of separatism. Canadian voters are quite capable of understanding this.

Unnecessary Election

Mr, Harper tells us that this election was not necessary. Neither he, nor his opponents, mentions the 2008 election. In 2008, there was no confidence vote; Mr. Harper himself asked for the election. Although the results shifted the balance slightly, it made no real difference. If we had not had the 2008 election, this one would be on schedule. Which one was unnecessary?

A National Election for Prime Minister

All of the major parties are guilty of campaigning as if we are voting in a National Election and electing a Prime Minister. The truth is that we are having 308 local elections. Even a huge victory in one riding does not influence any other riding’s results. If your favourite candidate is not running in your riding you cannot vote for her; you might waste your vote if you try. Above all, we must not base our vote on national polls. The only poll that should influence your vote are polls in your riding. Honest politicians would remind us of that fact in every speech.

Foreign Policy

Foreign policy has gotten relatively little discussion in this campaign except for the frequently repeated reminder that Canada lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council and has gotten a number of “booby Canada was once seen as a principled player in the world. That has changed. There are two questions that candidates are not discussing.

  • Should Canada’s foreign policy be based on clearly enunciated, and consistently applied, principles or should it be one of unconditional support for our allies?
  • If it should be based on principles, which principles?

Census statistics

The decision not to have a mandatory long-form census is a policy decision that did receive some discussion before the campaign. The government’s way of defending that decision has not been discussed. Clearly, and repeatedly, the Minister in charge stated (a) that increasing the size of the distribution of the long-form would compensate for making it optional, and (b) that Statistics Canada had supported this policy. Anyone who has the most basic understanding of statistics would understand that increasing the size of a biased sample does not remove the bias. The resignation of the Head of Statistics Canada showed that the second statement was untrue. Any educated person who made the first statement is either unbelievably stupid or intent on fooling the public. The untruth of the second statement tells us a lot about the trustworthiness of the government that made it.

Respect for Parliament and Voters

The Harper government was defeated on the issue of “Contempt for parliament”. However, Party leaders are now demonstrating contempt for the voters by the shallowness of their debates and arguments. Respect has to be earned. The candidates have to earn our respect by discussing more deeply. The voters have to earn respect by insisting that candidates who want our votes have to explain their positions fully by considering all sides of an issue.

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