Sunday, September 20, 2015

Time for a Change

It’s the home stretch of the federal election campaign and two leaders’ debates and endless commercials may have done more to blur lines between the parties and leaders than to clarify them. The Liberals and NDP may have even switched places, with Justin Trudeau being anxious to corral the anti-Conservative vote with ambitious talk of redistributive tax adjustment and deficit spending on infrastructure, and Mr. Mulcair striving to reassure centrist voters and buttressing the NDP’s “balanced budget” record.  If it’s any help , here are three or four  observations about what I think  should happen both during and after the election.

First, the prime minister’s attempt to portray himself as a practical, sensible fellow who is only interested in being a good manager is highly misleading.  He is far more ideological than that, and if re-elected his American-style neoconservatism will have consequences for democracy and health care and the environment that are potentially far-reaching. It is difficult to discern a large economic dividend from the government’s attempts to privilege the corporate sector, and the oil & gas sector in particular. But we need  that dividend if we are to be persuaded that this government’s game is worth its candle.

Second, the NDP’s “balanced budget” mantra is genuine.  Mr. Mulcair has latched onto the fact that, according to the historical record, NDP governments balanced budgets more often than either Liberal or Conservative governments did on average between 1980 and 2010 (although some spectacular exceptions do tend to stick in voters’ minds). This is a basis for fiscal respectability and marks a return to the fiscal tradition of Tommy Douglas. Of course, several of the Conservatives’ tax loopholes will need to be closed in order to afford this, and the corporate tax rate will need to be raised to something closer to the OECD average. But when you balance the negative impacts of raising corporate taxes to the still-competitive rate of 17% against the positive benefits of lower small business rates, a lower proportion of tax burden being borne by ordinary Canadians, and the economic benefits of more infrastructure and a million child care spaces—that should be OK.

Third, I like what Justin Trudeau has said about the importance of infrastructure spending when the need is great, the debt-to GDP ratio is low, and interest rates continue to be rock-bottom.  Although Conservative infrastructure spending  is large in absolute terms and has risen sharply (to over 4 per cent of GDP), under the circumstances we should have had more,  especially  on transit and transportation of various kinds,  and less on advertising and political spending in Tory ridings. 

With any luck, the next Parliament will have a fresh approach to democratic reform, the environment, science, health, refugees and infrastructure, within a framework that is still fiscally responsible.

Mark Crawford is a former public servant and a professor of political science at Athabasca University.

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