By Geoffrey Stevens
Commentators “down under” dubbed the Australian federal election of August 2010 a “Seinfeld election” – an election about nothing. The same tag has been hung on the current Canadian election by, among others, pollster Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Reid.
I can’t vouch for Australia, but I don’t think the Seinfeld lapel fits the campaign here. The problem with this election, it seems to me, is not that it is about nothing, but that it is about too much.
So many issues are clamouring for attention that they become a kind of white noise in the background, drowning out even most important matters and reducing them to a blur to the electorate.
Has there ever been a Canadian election with so many issues? Some are inconsequential or inflated, but others are so fundamental that any one of them could have determined the outcome of elections in the past.
Think back a few years. The sponsorship scandal broke the Liberal government in 2004 and elected the Conservatives in 2006. Although it made the earth move in Ottawa, it was simply a patronage scandal (nothing new about that) featuring generous dollops of fraud as roughly one-third of the program’s $300 million found its way from the public purse into the pockets of (surprise!) friends of the ruling party.
It is not to trivialize the sponsorship scandal – it was serious stuff – or to excuse the Liberal regime of the day, but an argument can be made that some of the issues in this election strike more deeply at the heart of our democracy.
We are being asked to re-elect a government that twice prorogued Parliament – they actually shut the place down – to avoid questions and confidence votes. We are being asked to ignore the fact that the government was cited, by a vote of the Commons, for contempt of Parliament – the first time that had happened in Canada or the Commonwealth. Win some, lose some, the Prime Minister responded, dismissively.
Then there are the new fighter aircraft, those F-35s, that the government has ordered – the largest military purchase in Canadian history at $30 billion or more – without competition or public tenders. Next, the $10 billion or so (the government won’t say how much) for new prisons, the need for which has never been demonstrated.
The Liberal government of Jean Chrétien spent and largely wasted $300 million on the sponsorship program over a period of seven years. In a period of a month or so last year, the Harper government spent and largely wasted $1 billion on the G8/G20 summits in Huntsville and Toronto. The summit spending did not involve the same criminality as the sponsorship scandal, but the patronage was writ equally large, as the government diverted $50 million meant for border security and spent it on the beautification of the riding of Tony Clement, the minister of gazebos and fake lakes.
Putting money matters aside, there are human issues in this election. There’s Helena Guergis, the former minister, who for reasons I cannot fathom, brings out the brutish side of Stephen Harper. He fired her from the cabinet, kicked her out of the caucus, denied her the right to seek re-election as a Conservative, and sent her file to the RCMP. The Mounties found absolutely nothing wrong and, when her file became public last week, it proved to contain nothing but a bunch of rumours and baseless innuendo.
Guergis is an innocent person whose career has been destroyed by the PMO. Harper will not apologize. He won’t even let her same pass his lips. “This individual,” he says, will never be allowed back in the Conservative caucus.
There are other issues, some of which cast the government in a favourable light, while some do not. The party leaders cannot be accused of failing to raise the issues, but the fact that the opinion polls have barely budged since the outset suggests they are not being heard. The white noise is winning.
(published April 18, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org