Canada 2020

Demont: Politics as Analogy

March 29, 2011

The first major promise of the 2011 federal campaign is one that no one really believes will come to fruition – at least for the foreseeable future.

Stephen Harper’s pledge to allow families to split their incomes in calculating federal incomes tax is expensive – three times the cost of the NDP’s notion of boosting the seniors’ tax exemption, regressive – allowing wealthy families to reduce their tax burden – and fiscally questionable – even though the change would only come into effect once the federal books was balanced, the move would immediately send the budget back into the red.

Promises as theme music

Those criticisms, however, miss the point.

The tax pledge, indeed every promise in the current campaign, Liberal, NDP or Conservative, will not be a watertight provision with all contingencies examined and designed to boost economic growth, improve societal equity or fulfill some other social goal.

Instead, Harper’s tax provision is similar the hue of the sky in an old black-and-white movie thriller. It is designed to set the tone.

In an era where governments are constrained by the size of their budgetary deficits and the reaction of international capital markets to the shortfall, where voters are increasingly skeptical of the ability of elected officials to solve outstanding national issues, where the spectrum of acceptable options is increasingly narrow, a party’s policies are analogies for its governing style.

What a party promises or what a government does is usually designed to give voters the main theme of a potential government, not to be a menu of how an administration expects to get to a particular goal.

Finding the needle in a stack of needles

Often the main parties in a campaign see the same problems and have somewhat similar solutions. It is usually that minor policy or peripheral issue that provides the voting key.

The policy does not have to all-encompassing or even particular important to a new government.

But, the trick for a government or a party seeking election is to find that policy which serves to show how that group would, in broad strokes, run the country, province or city.

David Peterson’s promise to put beer and wine in corner stores in Ontario during the provincial campaign of 1985, George Bush Senior’s Willie Horton anti-crime ads and, more recently, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s promise to end the City Hall gravy train are all examples of policies that show more style than substance.

Information overload

In a world where the river of available information has overwhelmed voters’ ability to process data, however, style – or analogy – might be the only way the electorate has to decide which party and which leader would govern to their liking.

Obviously, Harper wants to show his government as a low-tax administration, one with the concerns of middle-class families at its core.

A middle class tax break, even one that is realistically four years in the future, shows the electorate that a Conservative government is working hard to put money back in your wallet.

The Liberals and the NDP are in the same race, trying to carve out some psychic space in voters’ minds as to what kind of government they would run.

Michael Ignatiefff appears to be trying out a theme of honesty and integrity while Jack Layton is test-driving a ‘concern for the common man’ motif.

The key is not to provide a menu of policies for voters to choose. After all, they are picking a government, not a smorgasbord of initiatives for an administration.

The important factor for the three leaders is whether they recognize the sentiment closest to the electorate and whether they have a policy – big or small – that tells that story.

Philip DeMont, a veteran print and television journalist based in Toronto, is a co-author (with Eugene Lang) of Turning Point: Moving Beyond Neoconservative.

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