By Trevor Busch
As Canadians begin to count the days — not weeks or months — until a federal election this fall, they will be treated to a dazzling spectacle only repeated once every four or so years.
This spectacle is a familiar one for those used to the more grasping aspects of modern democracy in the Great White North, featuring spending announcements, spending cuts, tax increases, tax cuts, attack ads, partisan propaganda, and a virtual army of grinning candidates attempting to outpace themselves through a vigourous schedule of baby kissing and hand pumping, and more than a dash or two of character assassination for their most challenging political enemies.
Each party carefully begins to manoeuvre itself as the party of the right, the party of the left, the party of the centre. Friends of the family, friends of seniors, friends of the workers, friends of education, friends of industry, friends of the environment — people never had so many friends.
But never, seemingly, friends of the single working Canadian, one of Canada’s fastest growing demographics making up one quarter of Canadian households — but pulling in a median household income of only $31,000, one third of what a median two-parent family with children hauls in, according to Statistics Canada. When it comes down to selling the idea of increased benefits for singles to an electorate reared on family values, you can guess what most of the major parties have decided. Single Canadians, it seems, don’t matter when it comes to securing power in Ottawa. And who said our federal political parties aren’t self-serving?
It’s all in a day’s work for most of Canada’s energetic federal representatives. But while the House of Commons increasingly tends to resemble a three-ring circus on the best of days, a federal election is a political fanfare extravaganza that dwarfs the everyday mundane tit-for-tat that streaks across the screen of CPAC and bores the average Canadian viewer to tears. As impressive-looking fuddy-duddies drone on about the latest budget reports, or attempt to slip in the odd four-letter word under the watchful ears of the Speaker, one wonders sometimes if the vitality of our democracy is waning not unlike the increasingly greyish pallor of a great many of our federal representatives.
Unfortunately, election season in Canada also means shameless electioneering season, and that doesn’t look like it will be changing anytime soon. Does anyone really believe the majority of the promises that are made to them will be kept after a deep draught of the tonic of power? Probably not. But that doesn’t make it any less galling for the average voter — and all parties bear some responsibility for this accepted travesty of institutionalized falsification.
As election season reaches full swing, the ruling party always seems to be looking for new ways to pass off blatant attempts at vote-grabbing as the hum-drum everyday business of government. Canadians have already seen this through the Conservative’s micro-managing of taxpayer-funded federal government advertising, which always appears to somehow paint the ruling party in a positive light, or attack a platform policy of an opposing party.
Most recently, the timing of what has been described as the largest one-time benefit payment in federal history, the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), has numerous eyebrows raised as the we count the days to October. Mailed out this week, more than $3 billion in new and retro-active payments under the program have been sent out to parents in a lump sum that should have families wallowing in a not insubstantial influx of free government cash three months before an election.
Retroactive to the start of the year, that means $520 for children under six, and up to $420 for every child six to 17. Not bad for a trip to the mailbox. Of course our Conservative overlords would have us believe the timing of this is all just a matter of simple efficiency, an exercise in the mechanics of a well-oiled bureaucracy. Handing out billions in cash the summer before an election a coincidence? We think not. Of course the gullibility of average Canadians could have risen sharply to dramatic new heights recently, but we don’t have any numbers on that one.
But here’s some numbers we do have. An analysis released recently by The Canadian Press suggests that while the enriched UCCB has been touted as a benefit to all Canadians, it would seem it’s going to disproportionately benefit families that currently reside in Conservative ridings, especially suburban Alberta and key swing ridings surrounding Toronto. Using census data to plot the location of Canadian children in each of Canada’s 338 federal ridings, according to The Canadian Press’ analysis, only two of the top 20 destinations for enriched UCCB payments are ridings where the opposition NDP are considered favourites.
Not that simply where a child lives in Canada should on first glance be a matter of allegations of semi-partisan hand-outs on the part of the Conservatives. Children can be found everywhere, not just in Conservative-friendly ridings. But on the other hand, are we to believe that population demographics weren’t studied and taken into account by the party prior to making this billion-dollar rollout? That one requires a significantly greater suspension of our disbelief.
After all, it’s OK to buy votes in Canada with nothing more than a hand-out of cold hard taxpayer cash. Alberta is a prime example. During the 1930s, desperate farmers and citizens were willing to succumb to William Aberhart’s foolhardy promises of Social Credit cash for all — most know how that fiasco ended. And the relatively recent (by comparison) Klein PC government’s hand-out of “prosperity cheques”? Most are probably wondering what happened to the prosperity, not if the cheques could have been socked away and better used to stifle today’s escalating deficit.
Water under the bridge, you say. Probably right. And the fact that all governments, to a greater or a lesser degree, are fond of playing these little funding games, using semantics and a colourful vocabulary to cover their tracks as they shamelessly sex themselves up for the big ballot day pole dance? Probably water under the bridge, too. But that doesn’t make it right, or that Canadians shouldn’t be justifiably outraged by such tactics.
The problem is they aren’t, and they aren’t likely to be. Most eligible will probably wink and pocket the cash and believe they’re putting one over on the government, not the other way around.
The fact that this kind of electioneering has become commonplace and accepted by Canadians is the really revealing thing about these kinds of announcements — it puts on full display what a semi-engaged electorate is willing to stomach. And it is also illustrative of the fact that this very same electorate is losing touch with one of the fundamental aspects of a strong democracy — that however insignificant you might think you are as one single voter, as a group you hold all the power. People seem to have almost forgotten that it is not our privilege to be ruled by those we elect, but actually the other way around — for the electorate to rule those we elect, at least in the philosophical sense of that phrase — not be told what’s best for us. It’s important that we let politicians know from time to time just who is really in charge. We call it an election.
Just who is shaping up to emerge triumphant in our coming federal election is entering murkier waters of late.
The expected clash of the titans between veteran Conservative skirmisher Stephen Harper and young Turk Justin Trudeau may not be shaping up as expected.
Surges from the left-leaning NDP and Thomas Mulcair — often credited to the recent NDP sweep of Alberta — have had the Conservatives running scared, switching some of their seemingly endless attack ad campaigns to the stodgy Mulcair.
And Harper’s old general staff of hell-for-leather campaigners has been stripped away with retirements and lucrative private sector offerings, leaving only a skeleton crew of familiar cabinet faces for Canada’s premier political survivor.
While the shameless timing of the distribution of the UCCB might be able to secure a few more votes for the Conservatives in the high stakes poker game of electioneering, let us at least put them on notice that when it comes time for explanations, most Canadians are still from Missouri.