A smart and compassionate friend of mine recently told me that while he couldn’t stomach Stephen Harper – given Harper’s manifest disrespect for democratic institutions, the unseemly behaviour of the Prime Minister’s Office under his command, his coldness in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis, and so on – my friend was too concerned about the economy to bring himself to vote for either Justin Trudeau or Tom Mulcair. Neither man, according to my friend, could really be trusted with the Canadian economy. To start with, neither can claim a track record in this regard, and the stakes are high. My friend is clearly not alone in this worry. And so many voters will see this as a one-issue election, and will feel that the one issue that matters is the economy.
But I think this is a grave mistake, for two reasons. First, it’s a mistake because it puts overriding value on one factor, one value, when there are others at stake. And secondly it’s a mistake because that one factor – the economy – is one the significance of which is easy to overestimate in this context. Let’s look at those two problems in reverse order.
First, it is a mistake to focus exclusively on the economy because it’s a mistake to overestimate the impact that a prime minister has on the economy. The identity of the prime minister simply isn’t a make-or-break issue as far as our prosperity is concerned. For one thing, none of the leaders currently vying for the job has suggested he will, if elected, make any dramatic moves, from an economic point of view. And each of them would, when serving as prime minister, be the recipient of sober, expert advice from the relevant civil servants and economists. And each of them knows that getting elected next time requires that they not do anything foolish, anything too dramatic.
It is true, of course, that the PM has his hands on some meaningful economic levers, at least indirectly. The prime minister, through his dominant role in parliament, gets to raise or lower key taxes. He gets to appoint the Finance Minister, who in turn gets to appoint the Governor of the Bank of Canada. But the changes any prime minister might make through these mechanisms are small, and in the short or medium run, an economy the size and complexity of Canada’s simply isn’t that sensitive to small changes of those sorts.
Add to that the fact that the differences between the three main parties, in terms of economic policy, are actually pretty small – intending a few percentage points cut from or added to this tax or that, a slight difference in total federal spending. The fact is that all three of Canada’s mainstream federal parties are more or less centrist, from an economic point of view.
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On other matters, however – matters beyond the economy – the case is quite different. In this regard, Stephen Harper’s track record is simply abysmal. Consider his ill-conceived Bill C-51, which threatens civil liberties without making Canadians appreciably safer. Or his muzzling of Canadian scientists, which both betrays a disrespect for science in general, and buries information that is central to important ongoing policy debates. Running an economy requires data, not just hunches. Or consider his seeming indifference to the fate of Syrian refugees, while Canada’s premiers and mayors rightly promise significant help. Most recently, there is his government’s creation of a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline, which, as pointed out by U of T’s Joseph Heath, can’t easily be regarded as anything other than racist in intent. Harper’s stance on such issues does not represent Canada, and nor does it showcase Canadians particularly well on the international stage.
Now, I should make clear that while I’m politically aware, I’m not politically devoted. I have no strong party allegiance. Over the course of my adult life, I have in fact voted for each of the three major parties at some point or another, sometimes simply based on whom I thought the best candidate was, locally. So my argument here is not partisan in origin. It’s about which federal leader I think best represents core Canadian values – the values that Canadians espouse when we are being the people we aspire to be. And those are not the values that Stephen Harper has manifested.
While Canadians should never vote for someone who would jeopardize the economy, none of the three major players is in that category. Canadians thus should vote with their values, and vote for someone who stands for what we, together as Canadians, want to be known for.