Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, April 8, 2011

The desperate search for an election issue in Canada

In a world of political distemper, Canadians find themselves in a strange and wonderfully unique position – being in the midst of a national election without a single big national issue. Everyone is trying. (“Rich corporations” and “majority government” are raised in every speech.) Yet, so far, nothing beats the wide-eyed news coverage of “scandal-ettes” and inside gossip. Big challenges make it into speeches. But none of the party platforms threaten to resolve any of them.
This weekend—on the eve of next Tuesday’s leader’s national debate—thoughtful Canadians who can’t garden yet or even those who work in campaign war rooms will feel under terrible pressure to find something important to argue about—a proposition on which ‘good’ people can strongly disagree and on which they can say “yes” or “no.”  
Corporate tax cuts could grow as an issue if the Liberals want to take on the inequities of capitalism rather than just empathize with the middle class. However, only western Canadians have ever elected (and re-elected) economic populist governments. And, today, the west is booming and enthusiastic about attracting foreign investment.
Harper’s call for a majority government has been framed as the safest way to keep the others out of power. It could take off as an issue if he discussed how a majority could be used positively. But many parts of the country may not want what it could produce—such as a re-organized House of Commons with seats strictly allocated according to where Canadians now live, or, unemployment insurance strictly defined by national labor market conditions.
The prospect of another trivial election determined by innuendo and advertising is embarrassing. However, looking too hard for that big issue could do more harm than good. The most menacing cry out there today is “let’s have an adult national debate about Canada’s health care crisis.” And, of course, every poll puts health at or near the top of people’s concerns.
This week, a well regarded retiring parliamentarian Dr. Keith Martin and the C. D. Howe Institute, with the help of retired Governor of the Bank of Canada David Dodge provoked fresh calls for “national” leadership on affordable, timely health care. As you’d expect, the retiring politician explicitly provoked the clamor.
“Our health-care system must be overhauled in order to fulfill its ultimate objective, which is to ensure that all Canadians, regardless of income, will have timely access to the quality care they need when they fall ill. During this election, political parties must not be allowed to hide from this, our citizens’ most urgent concern. Lives depend on it.”
Let’s hope other politicians don’t bite.
The facts on the ground—not just wise federalist theory—suggest that Ottawa is the last healthy place to look for leadership on the efficient delivery of health care. Federal leadership, beyond the “power to convene” meetings as Michael Ignatieff describes it, is fueled almost entirely by “aspirational” targets and tens of $billions in transfers to the provinces.
There may be better ways to transfer the money, leaving greater flexibility to the provinces or greater say to their taxpayers. Amending the guidelines of the Canada Health Act may be necessary. However, going any further at a federal level would only cloud the issues and slow effective change.
The national government has all sorts of interesting responsibilities to impress us on. Healthcare, however, is emphatically a provincial problem that must be addressed by steady, gutsy provincial leadership. The province’s own most of Canada’s public healthcare system and raise almost 80 % of the taxes that pay to operate it. They should be encouraged to shift any of their responsibilities.
Premiers will win office or be thrown out on how they manage this issue. It isn’t an issue that should make or break prime ministers.

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