Coyne: A narcissism of minor differences

Stakes in a Canadian election have seldom been this low

My fellow Canadians;

As election day looms, it is traditional for the political parties to tell you that the choice has never been clearer, the stakes have never been higher.

This election is no different. The country, Stephen Harper says, stands at “a fork in the road,” a point on which he is in complete agreement with Stéphane Dion. To hear the leaders speak, it is a choice between the “laissez-faire, I-don’t-care” approach of the Conservatives, or the “massive” and “reckless” increases in taxes and spending the Liberals would impose—not to mention the “old-fashioned socialism” of the NDP.

We in the media are only too eager to reinforce this all-party message of significance. It would be a surprise if we didn’t—we are, after all, in the significance business. We find significance in every passing cloud.

So it is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you that, sometimes, there just isn’t that much at stake; that in this election the choice is fuzzy; that whatever the differences between the parties, they do not amount to the kind of stark parting of the ways that all the parties would have you believe.

Let’s begin with the economy, the issue that, halfway through the campaign, suddenly vaulted from the most important issue to the only issue. I know that many of you are anxious about your RRSPs, worried about the value of your home, perhaps even fearful of losing your job. You should know that none of the party leaders proposes to do anything about it.

It’s not clear there’s much they need to do—Harper is right to say that Canada’s housing market is not in the same battered shape as America’s, nor are our financial institutions as fragile—and it’s even less clear there’s much they could do. But what’s inarguable is that they won’t do much.

Whatever his complaints about Harper’s “do-nothing” attitude, Jack Layton is not going to protect your savings from sudden drops in the stock market. Four of the points in Stéphane Dion’s “five-point plan,” unveiled mid-campaign, are promises to hold meetings; the last is a commitment to spend funds that have already been committed. Nobody’s proposing to go into deficit—indeed, they all insist, with increasing implausibility, they will not —which means no fiscal “stimulus,” even if you believe that would do any good.

The only difference is that Harper makes a virtue of his inaction —sorry, his refusal to panic— whereas the other leaders insist it shows he “doesn’t get it,” or better yet, “doesn’t care,” a point of peculiar fascination to the media. The whole issue, then, can be boiled down to that famous London Sun headline, addressed to the Queen at the height of the Diana fiasco: “Show us you care, ma’am.”

What about those fiscal plans? A couple of numbers should make the point. Total program spending over the next four years, under the Conservatives: $932 billion. Total program spending, under the Liberals: $943 billion. There’s a dispute over whether the Liberals could find $12 billion (over four years) in unspecified cuts elsewhere in the budget to set against $30 billion in new spending, but please: we’re pretty much talking rounding error. One per cent does not count as “reckless,” nor does close to a trillion dollars in spending meet most definitions of “laissez-faire.”

It is true that Dion would raise taxes, net: his $40 billion in carbon tax revenues is only partly offset by $26 billion in honest-to-goodness tax cuts. The other $14 billion in tax credits should not properly be accounted as tax cuts, but as spending (as I’ve done above). But the Tories would be in a better position to make that point had they not done exactly the same thing—claimed tax credits as tax cuts. In any case, the extra costs imposed by the Liberal carbon tax are comparable to the extra costs imposed by the Conservative (and NDP) cap-and-trade scheme: though both would nominally apply to business, both would be passed on, in whole or in part, to consumers.

And while all the parties favour “putting a price on carbon,” none of them actually follow through on the logic of their position, namely that individuals and businesses can be relied upon to respond to price signals by reducing their emissions. Rather, each party insists on larding up its plan with a vast array of subsidy and regulation schemes of proven ineffectiveness, whose premise is precisely that individuals and businesses can’t be relied upon to respond to price signals, or not without government leading them by the hand.

There are some interesting differences between the parties. When it comes to paying for child care, for example, the Tories would index the current $100 a month universal child care benefit to inflation, while also providing hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the provinces for child care “spaces.” Whereas the Liberals would provide up to $1.25 billion a year to the provinces, without reducing the monthly child care benefit. And whereas the Tories would raise the Age Tax Credit for seniors by $1,000, the Liberals would raise the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors by $600.

I kid, slightly. The Liberals and the NDP both promise to reduce poverty by roughly a third in the space of a single term, with child poverty to be cut in half. The Tories make no such pledge. The Liberals and the NDP would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to the provinces to hire more doctors and nurses. The Tories make no specific promise in that regard. The Liberals promise modest cuts in personal and corporate income tax rates; the Conservatives would cut the diesel tax, raise the threshold of eligiblity for the small-business tax rate, and abolish tariffs on imports of machinery and equipment; the NDP would raise corporate taxes, though only to where they were under the last government.

The NDP platform, it should be said, is more overtly interventionist than the others’: among a very long list, the party would restrict imports, subsidize exports, cap credit card rates, ban ATM fees, regulate gas prices, set wages, and “review” the whole system of financial regulation. It would set up a “job protection commissioner” to investigate layoffs, “citizen oversight committees” to investigate bank and utility fees, plus “sector-specific strategies” for just about every industry you can name.

But in general one is struck more by the similarities than the differences. All three parties would spend about the same amount on “infrastructure” (née roads and sewers), and all would hand over billions of dollars every year in federal gas tax revenues to the cities to spend as they please. They would all spend more on the arts. All favour subsidies to industry, and would expand the current sheaf of impenetrably named regional development agencies (FEDNOR, FORD-Q, ACOA, etc.) to include those few parts of the country not already papered over with federal cash. None would cut subsidies to farmers, or touch a hair on supply management’s expensive, consumer-abusing head.

All promise to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan, in one year or three. None, God knows, would so much as talk about abortion.

All favour “respectful” or indeed “open” federalism, the current vogue term for the old “co-operative” federalism, wherein the feds co-operate and the provinces do whatever they like. None would start up any new shared-cost social programs without the provinces’ say-so, and then only if dissenting provinces could “opt out with compensation.” Intriguingly, however, the Conservatives threaten to invoke the federal trade and commerce power if the provinces do not dismantle their trade barriers by 2010. And the Conservatives are the only party to evince an interest in Senate reform. You may decide how likely that is in your lifetime.

But in general, there just aren’t the sorts of vast philosophical divides between the parties that there might
have been in the past. In large part this is welcome. It’s good news that deficit spending is dead, as it is that nobody now proposes to increase the rate of inflation. Even the NDP doesn’t want to pull out of NAFTA any more, just “renegotiate” it.

But this is nothing more than the triumph of the status quo. And in other areas, a more wide-ranging debate is surely in order. Take foreign investment. The Conservatives would slightly loosen the rules in two sectors, airlines and uranium, and then only if other countries do likewise. Is that the best we can do? The Liberals would knock one percentage point off the bottom tax brackets, leaving the top rate where it has been for two decades. Is that the stuff of which Northern Tigers are made?

The Greens, at least, promise proportional representation (along with a $50 carbon tax and tens of billions of new spending), which would open up the political marketplace to parties like, well, the Greens. Must we wait until then for Canadian politics to get interesting?

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