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Friday, 4 September 2015

Campaign Battle 2015: Of Bile and Budgets

A month in, the 2015 election has been relatively civil and subdued to this point. Surprises have been few; parties have stuck to predictable points, the Macleans debate almost entirely pointless so early in the contest. A straightforward narrative of left, right, and centre seemed to be in store.

Then something interesting happened: the question of balancing budgets entered the foreground, with curious results. The prospect of any party balancing 2015 or 2016 budgets should be met with skepticism given the plunging Canadian Dollar and the oil bubble that has yet to find a bottom (39.65/barrel as of August 30). Balanced budgets are an article of faith for fiscal conservatives, few surprises that the government holds them as an end in themselves (despite their mixed track record). Some creative accounting allows the Conservative government to claim a surplus for 2015, despite contradictory statements from Finance Canada (1.4 billion surplus) and the parliamentary budget office (1.5 billion deficit). The recently legislated income splitting is likely to account for 2 to 3 billion in lost revenue, with campaign pledges for infrastructure spending and further tax credits/breaks chipping further into the deficit territory.

The creative accounting of the Conservatives is matched by the unsubstantiated accounting of the NDP. Since the beginning of the election they have pledged funding for municipal infrastructure projects, subsidized/public daycare, restored funding to the CBC and Canada Post, renewable energy projects, small business tax credits, research and development grants, funding for additional police officers, amongst other things. These are enticing proposals, but likely costly ones. To offset these costs the New Democratic platform calls for increased corporate tax rates ( by an unspecified amount),ending subsidies to the petrochemical industry, scrapping income splitting, and saved cost by abolition of the Canadian Senate (requiring a constitutional amendment).

Most of these proposals are similar to NDP platforms of past elections. The turn comes in Thomas Mulcair's pledge to balance the federal budget in 2016. As noted prior, the possibility of any party producing a balanced budget is dubious, even with increased revues. Liberal and Conservative candidates have wasted no time in denouncing Mulcair's claims, despite their likelihood or intent to run into the red.

The proper question here is not "Can X party balance the budget", but rather; what does a commitment to balance of budgets (or not) says in strategic-political terms?  For that matter, with fiscal responsibility being a historic plank of conservative support, why would the NDP attempt to challenge the Conservatives in this arena? The answer may be surprising.

The NDP budget pledge is primarily meant to counter the image of the party as bad economic managers, as evidence by former New Democrat governments of Ontario and British Columbia, and appear less radical to moderate voters. The secondary effect is one of the shrewder elements in this campaign. Election victories come by engaging new voters, advantageous demographic shifts, and appropriating opponent support. The NDP have historically had success in the first two areas, while this budget business falls into the latter category. Strange as it may sound, Mulcair may be using this strategy to covertly campaign for disaffected conservatives.

Given their divisive politics and length of tenure, the Harper government has had many opportunities to alienate elements of the electorate. Conservative Party support is shakier now than any time since their formation. The union (coalition?) of the Progressive Conservative and Alliance brought together a diverse voting pool of Canadians that may vote for right wing of centre-right parties for a variety of factors. Centrist and progressive conservatives have been increasingly marginalized by the Prime Minister's domineering and centralized style; yet it has also been a mixed blessing (at best) for former Reform/Alliance supporters. The increased government debt and senate patronage/corruption are in direct violation of Reform founding principles. Recent economic reports (2 quarters of negative GDP growth, Statistics Canada) have taken the shine off the government's record of economic management, an area from which they draw broad support. Harper's aptitude is being called into question, and thus the opposition leaders attempt to present themselves as more competent managers.

What might be Thomas Mulcair's greatest advantage in this election is that he is neither Stephen Harper nor Justin Trudeau. Mulcair arrived into national consciousness upon becoming opposition leader in late 2011, and done reasonably well in that role. In contrast, Stephen Harper has been on the national political scene since the mid 90's, and held the role of Prime Minister for nearly a decade. After several decades of national politics, one will have gained many detractors: call it political attrition.

 In the fall election, a large contingent of votes for the Liberals and NDP will be primarily anti- Harper votes. The New Democrats stand to gain the most from this by pooling the anti-Harper vote with an anti-Trudeau vote. For many right leaning voters, even if they are sick of the current government, the thought of voting for a Trudeau is unthinkable. The legacy of his father leave a bad taste in the mouth of conservatives and Western Canadians (Alberta in particular). Combined with years of Conservative attack ads and good old Western alienation (reacting to perceived Eastern elites), we have a situation in which dissected conservatives are unlikely to vote Liberal (or maybe at all), despite being closer in relative ideological terms than other alternatives. Mulcair's budget pledge is an olive branch to "small c" conservatives. Less ideologically motivated voters with an interest in fiscal balance has traditionally been a boon to the right, but in this election the NDP are attempting to tap this demographic by downplaying the perception that they are all radical socialists. If Mulcair can convince them that an NDP government would not "wreck the economy" it may be enough to take power.

This strategy has the inherent drawback of exposing their left flank, the progressive-activist base of the party. The Liberals have wasted no time attempting to outmaneuver their rival, accusing Mulcair of dishonesty in his accounting, insisting there is no way to introduce their proposed spending while balancing the budget. To this end, Trudeau has announced the Liberals program of a massive deficient financed infrastructure program ($185 over four years). This New Deal style [and classic appeal to the Keynesian sentiment] policy is meant to appeal to progressives who do not identify with the NDP, or feel they have moved too far to the right. To his credit, Trudeau is the only major leader to offer a true counter-narrative to balanced budgets being an end in themselves. The main reason he can do so is that, even in their best case scenario, the Liberals will almost certainly remain the third party, albeit a much stronger one. Making big statements and offering a counter narrative to the dominant parties is the primary role of parties that do not form the government or primary opposition, it was the bread-and-butter of the NDP for most of its existence.

It is possible that the positions of the New Democrats and Liberals could disadvantageously split the progressive-left vote in this election, however, polling numbers and media reports have posited Mulcair as running neck-and-neck with Harper and gaining momentum; thus potentially rallying the anti-Harper vote to his side.

The ultimate x factor in this election (as with most) will be voter turnout. Canadians increasingly feel frustrated and alienated by economic and social trends and realities. Change is the byword of the day, yet many potential voters are dissatisfied with all political parties, with political campaigns only increasing the feeling of disconnection and powerlessness. Perhaps this election will ultimately be a battle of disgust; either the disgust of disaffected party loyal, or disgust of the nonvoting masses to the point that that have no choice but to start taking politics seriously.   

 Image courtesy of Asclepias at Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons licence 3.0 

Zac Dabmann is an Edmonton based musician, eccentric, and  cynical ex-Marxist. All ideas and opinions are meant to be insightful, to challenge conventional narratives, and as such; are purely speculative and occasionally ridiculous.