Canada's first Conservative majority government in a generation is facing an election next year, just as the country's post-recession comeback is starting to falter. So this is a good time to start thinking about how to judge the Conservatives' signature project: managing Canada's economy.
In a series of posts, I've looked at that question from different angles: Slowing growth rates, the uncertain labor market, stagnant wages and rising debt levels, rising poverty rates for seniors and more households going hungry, and carbon intensity figures moving in the wrong direction.
How much of this is the current government's fault? Not all of it, to be sure. Many of these changes reflect a mix of forces, from global economic pressure to demographic and technological shifts. Some may have been too strong for the federal government to overcome, whichever party held the reins.
But government action matters, especially when one party makes a strong economy the core of its argument for public support. So the question that ought to define the next election is whether, beneath the slogans and the happy talk, Canada's economy can be judged a success -- and what exactly the other parties propose doing differently.
Sounds obvious, right? If you think so, go back and watch the sole English-language debate among party leaders during Canada's last federal election, when the opposition parties rambled on about the Conservatives' perceived ethical faults, leaving Prime Minister Stephen Harper's mantle of economic super-manager all but unchallenged.
The scandals have only piled up since then, and with them the temptation to make the next campaign another attempt for the opposition to claim the moral high ground. They shouldn't. If there's one lesson from the last election, it's that bad behavior is inherently subjective.
The economy, on the other hand, isn't -- or at least it doesn't need to be. But an election campaign that fails to generate a debate on a handful of key economic problems, with each party explaining how it would address those problems and why, is one that gives the winners a free hand to act as they please, pursuing a mandate so vague -- who does not want a stronger economy, for the middle class or anyone else? -- as to be meaningless.
A better question than the importance of policy is the ability of most voters to make sense of it. How much economic detail is the average voter really interested in? Isn't it better for everyone if the parties focus instead on the values that motivate them and the strength of their character, and then ask voters to let them pursue the policies that best match those values?
That view might have made a lot of sense 100 years ago, when anything more than a high-school education was the preserve of the lucky few. It might even have made some sense 20 years ago, when information on the economy (or anything else) was harder to get. But almost two thirds of Canadians aged 25 to 54 now have a post-secondary education of some kind, and almost all have access to the internet. Meanwhile, social media has made the policy views of academics more readily available and accessible to the public. So Canadians have more access to information than ever before, more capacity to make sense of it and more people willing to help them understand the fine points.
Assuming that voters can't understand the employment-to-population ratio or median earnings figures, or don't care what those things say, relegates campaigns to a battle of symbols, in which the objectives are trust and likability, the weapons are attack ads, and the losers go looking not for better ideas but better smiles.
Of course, a meaningful campaign about the economy, making clear the policy options for improving it and highlighting the trade-offs of those options, probably is not the campaign we are going to get next year. But it is a campaign that voters and the media can push for. It is a campaign that would serve the country better than another pointless argument about what constitutes appropriate parliamentary behavior. And it might even be fun to watch.
(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @cflav. This post is adapted from an article published in the April edition of the Literary Review of Canada.)
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