With more time, will more voters care?

More debates for Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair, some confined to actual policy

Stephen Harper's plan to revive a tax credit for home renovations encourages more consumer debt and pushes up housing costs

VICTORIA – Several readers took me to task for last week’s commentary on the beginning of our long, hot federal election campaign.

They pointed out, among other things, that there are substantial cost increases to Elections Canada as well as higher spending limits for the parties. And thanks to generous tax deductions for political donations, taxpayers subsidize all party spending whether they want to or not.

That’s the system as it is today, so rather than rail against it, it seems more useful to ask what we’re getting for our forced investment in this exercise.

First, more leader debates. The traditional main event organized by TV networks for Oct. 8 appears to be a bust, with only Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Green Party leader Elizabeth May expected to attend. Conservative leader Stephen Harper declined, prompting NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to say he will only take part in debates that include Harper.

Harper, Trudeau and Mulcair have agreed to a Sept. 17 debate hosted by The Globe and Mail and Google Canada. This one is to be focused on the economy, which should force participants to get beyond their talking points and pointing fingers.

On Sept. 28 there will be a debate focused on foreign policy hosted by Munk Debates, a charitable foundation. Harper, Trudeau and Mulcair have accepted. May and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe were not invited to either of these.

The national media have decided that the biggest issue currently is the trial of suspended senator Mike Duffy, but this has turned out to be a rehash of facts and assertions heard many times over by those who care.

The expense account abuse has pushed the issue of senate reform to the forefront. Harper declared his intention to starve the Senate by refusing any more appointments, after most provinces ignored his call to elect their nominees.

Trudeau, having expelled all Liberal senators from the party caucus, has warned that Harper’s plan and Mulcair’s long-standing position to abolish the Senate are both unworkable, if not unconstitutional. Trudeau has promised changes to the senate appointment process, but no specifics so far.

Party policies are being doled out one bit at a time, and the national and local candidate debates may help clarify them. Here are a couple that could use closer scrutiny.

Harper has promised to revive a stimulus program from the 2009 economic crisis, offering a 15 per cent tax credit for home improvements between $1,000 and $5,000. This sounds great if you’re a homeowner, but does nothing for renters, drives up the cost of housing in already overpriced urban markets and encourages more consumer debt.

Trudeau has promised an additional $2.6 billion over four years for First Nations education on reserves, and accelerated spending on school infrastructure.

Mulcair has promised to hold a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. Mulcair and Trudeau both pledge to reverse the Conservative moves to eliminate what’s left of door-to-door mail delivery, and to extend the age of eligibility for the Old Age Security pension from 65 to 67.

All of these promises are presented in the most appealing way possible by the parties that promote them, and all involve spending and taxation trade-offs that the parties would prefer not to discuss.

Another possible dividend from a formal campaign stretching more than two months is that more voters will pay attention to the real issues and actually take the time to cast a ballot. If that happens, and the long decline in voter turnout is reversed, it’s a good investment.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc


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