A price must be paid—but by whom?

Andrew Coyne decides his ballot question, and who he will vote for

A price must  be paid—but  by whom?

Photograph by Cole Garside

Voting is a kind of jury duty, and like the jury system, derives much of its strength from the participants’ lack of specialized knowledge of the subject. A specialist can become jaded, or obsessed with finer points; the public has the benefit of distance. My own experience as a political writer confirms this. I will frequently get exercised about this or that controversy, and wonder why the public is not of the same mind. But the public is called upon to judge not only this controversy, but a great number of issues of varying weights, and in the fullness of time, as that particular issue takes its place among the others, it often does not seem quite as all-important to the public as it had earlier seemed to me. And most of the time the public is right.

To vote is to distill a complex array of different, possibly conflicting considerations into one: the parties, the leaders, the local candidates, plus whatever issues are pertinent to you, and the parties’ positions on each. Which makes that perennial journalistic search for the “ballot-box question” such a preposterous enterprise. Every single voter will have his own ballot-box question, or questions. I cannot tell you what yours is, or should be. I can only tell you mine.

For me there are two issues of overwhelming importance in this election. The first is the economy, not only in its own right but for what it means for our ability to finance the social programs we have created for ourselves. The second is the alarming state of our democracy: the decaying of Parliament’s ability to hold governments to account, and the decline, not unrelated, in Parliament’s own accountability to the people.

I can eliminate two options off the top. While both the NDP and the Greens offer appealing proposals for democratic reform, I can’t bring myself to vote for either. It isn’t only their policies—the enormous increases in spending and taxes, the ill-judged market interventions—but their personnel. Simply put, neither party is ready for government.

So the choice for me is between the Conservatives and the Liberals. And as I have wrestled with it, the ballot question that has occurred to me is this: would the Liberals do more harm to the economy than the Conservatives would do to democracy? Or perhaps: would the Liberals harm the economy more than the Conservatives would? Would re-electing the Conservatives do greater harm to our democracy than electing the Liberals? And: which concern should weigh more heavily in the balance?

I give the nod to the Conservatives on the economy, though not by a wide margin. I think their instincts are generally sounder. But their readiness to play politics keeps getting in the way. So while they have a good record in some areas—cutting corporate taxes, opening trade talks with Europe and India, abolishing tariffs on intermediate goods and introducing tax-free savings accounts among them, as well as their deft handling of the banking crisis—it has to be balanced against the politically driven plunge into deficit, the bailout of the auto industry, the cuts in GST rather than income taxes, and an approach to foreign investment that can only be described as whimsical.

The same caution applies to their platform. I don’t doubt they can cut $4 billion out of annual program spending by 2015, without harm to needed services; my only concern is whether they will. Their unwillingness to spell out what they would cut does nothing to allay that concern. More positively, they do seem to have nailed their colours to cutting corporate tax rates. But how much more could both personal and corporate rates be cut if they did not persist in doling out tax credits and subsidies to favoured constituencies?

The Liberal platform, on the other hand, is more consistent, at least in economic policy terms: it is wrong-headed in every respect—higher spending, higher taxing, more meddlesome generally. Its saving grace is that it is only half-heartedly so. The Liberals would raise corporate taxes, but more for show than anything else: lifting rates back to the 18 per cent they were last year is the wrong way to go, but hardly the apocalypse. They aren’t going to get anything like the $6 billion in revenue they claim from these, but neither do they need it. The $5.5 billion in extra spending they propose is barely two per cent of program spending, and would not on its own threaten the country’s fiscal position.

And that’s what it would take to really worry about what the Liberals would do to the economy in the short term. When it comes to taxes or regulations, it takes a long time for even the stupidest government policy—for example, the Liberals’ proposal to shower selected “Canadian Champion Sectors” with subsidies—to really harm the economy. It’s macroeconomic policy that can really run you onto the rocks: running massive deficits, or letting inflation get out of hand. Call me naive, but I do not think the Liberals would do either—even in combination with the NDP. If anything, I suspect they would be at pains to prove their fiscal-conservative credentials, for fear of financial markets’ wrath.

Still, there are differences in long-term direction between the two platforms that are worth considering. Though neither party seems inclined in the short term to brake the torrid growth in health care spending, the broad brush of Tory policy is better suited to spurring the long-term productivity growth that alone can pay for it. And while the Tories’ regulation-heavy approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is in principle more costly, per megatonne, than the Liberals’ cap and trade scheme, the overall costs are likely to be less: because the Liberals are likely to bungle their plan, and because the Tories are unlikely to pursue theirs. Sensible policy will await the return of a carbon tax to political respectability.

So that’s the economy. And on democracy? Here the choice is starker—not because I invest any great hopes in the Liberals, but because the Tory record is so dreadful. To be sure, they introduced the Accountability Act on taking office: incomplete, loophole filled, but progress nonetheless. And they have made fitful efforts to reform the Senate, when not packing it with their own strategists, fundraisers and toadies.

But the long train of offences against democratic and parliamentary principle—from proroguing Parliament, twice, to evade Parliament’s reach; to withholding documents essential to parliamentary oversight, even in defiance of Parliament’s explicit demands; to intimidating parliamentary officers and politicizing the bureaucracy; to such breaches of trust as the Emerson and Fortier appointments, the taxation of income trusts, and the evisceration of their own law on fixed election dates—are simply unforgivable.

Add to that the coarse, vicious brand of politics, the mindless partisanship for which the Tories have become known: equal parts terrorizing their own MPs and demonizing their opponents. And add to that the extreme centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, the trivialization of even cabinet posts as sources of independent authority, never mind the barracking of committees . . . Enough.

But much of this went on when the Liberals were in office, too, didn’t it? Yes. That’s just the point. To compare the Harper Tories to the Chrétien Liberals, and to the Mulroney Tories before them, and to the Trudeau Liberals before them, is hardly to excuse them: quite the opposite. The decline of democratic politics may have begun under the Liberals, but it has continued under the Tories. And it will accelerate if there is no price to be paid at the ballot box for such behaviour.

And yet, although the Liberals have tried to make accountability an issue in this election, they have signally failed. Does this mean the public has spoken? Perhaps once again I’ve attached too much importance to a single issue, at the expense of the big picture.

I don’t think so. The Liberals never gave the public much reason to translate their misgivings about the Conservatives into votes for them: a particular imperative, given their own record in office. It’s not enough just to implore people to “rise up.” You have to give them some hope that things will get better. But instead of the sort of large, concrete, attention-grabbing proposals that would really stamp the issue on the public mind, the democratic reform chapter of the Liberal platform is notably thin: reform of question period, a study of online voting, a vague nod to empowering committees.

So I will continue to make the case that we have a duty to perform as voters. Any election is in part a trial of the incumbents. Do we, the jury, find them guilty or not guilty, in this case of offences against democracy? And if we find them guilty, there has to be a penalty.

But what about the economy? In punishing the government, do we risk punishing the country? No. Economies have enormous recuperative powers: as Adam Smith said, “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” We can afford a period of Liberal silliness. What we cannot afford is the continuing slide of Parliament, and parliamentary democracy, into disrepair. Conventions once discarded, habits of self-government once lost, are much harder to regain.

If we return the Conservatives with a majority, if we let all that has gone on these past five years pass, then not only the Tories, but every party will draw the appropriate conclusions. But if we send them a different message, then maybe the work of bringing government to democratic heel, begun in the tumult of the last Parliament, can continue. And that is why I will be voting Liberal on May 2.

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