Canadian politics in a word

Describe the federal political parties in a single word.  That’s what Nanos Research asked Canadians to do in a recent survey.

Profanity featured in many of the descriptors.  Beside these, Nanos reported that many Canadians described Conservatives as “untrustworthy.”  The NDP is “socialist.”  Liberals are “incompetent.”

It turns out that we don’t have much good to say about our political system.  Ridiculing elected officials is now a national pass time, as is casting doubt on politicians’ motivations for seeking office, and treating them as punch lines rather than persons to respect.

Lamenting this reality in a previous column, I encouraged Canadians to BEAVER for PoliticiansBecause Every Adequate Voter Expresses Respect for Politicians, even when s/he dislikes the decisions of certain politicians at certain times.  I even encouraged people to post comments on my blog, sharing their reasons for respecting politicians.

I received four posts.

Who can be surprised, when the Robocall scandal and Bev Oda’s frivolous spending on luxury accommodation permeate national news?

But what if we turned the table? Asked the federal parties to describe Canadian voters in a single word?  What would we learn about ourselves as citizens?

I’m a proud Canadian.  Proud enough to know there are many positive monikers to depict us.  Kind. Welcoming.  Hard-working.  Just.  Ambitious.  Polite.  Adaptive.  Helpful.  Strong.  Patriotic.

But an independent national poll by McAllister Opinion Research in fall 2011 gives reason to think many Canadian voters are also fair game for critique.

Nearly half – 45 per cent – of Canadians say that government laws, services and programs “have very little, if any positive impact on the quality of life.”  This means nearly half of citizens ignore the positive impact of public schools, universities, medical care, pensions, unemployment insurance or many other programs and services that Canadians use on a daily basis.  And where would these 45 per cent be without the laws that enforce contracts, protect our property rights, promote safety, create order from potential chaos on roads?  For that matter, who would have built those roads, ports or transit by which the good we depend on are delivered?

Given such disregard for the benefits of public investment, one could understand if political parties might describe nearly half our population as UNGRATEFUL.

Half of us may claim government doesn’t matter.  But the poll also shows we don’t mean it.

If government has so little value for so many, you’d think Canadians would be keen to cut spending.  Right?

Wrong.  When asked to identify places to reduce spending, around 90 percent of Canadians reject spending less in almost all areas of social policy. In fact, the poll shows most Canadians want governments to spend as much, if not more, on issues like families with kids, seniors, medical care, the environment and poverty reduction.

When we glibly suggest government is irrelevant, but want more government spending on social programs, who could blame political parities for describing many Canadians as DISINGENUOUS?

The fact is, Canadians are inconsistent in our political rhetoric and social policy priorities.  It has become trendy for Canadians to say that government doesn’t matter.  But for all our stated discontent with government, there isn’t a single social policy issue for which anywhere near a majority of Canadians would recommend cuts.

Regrettably, this is just the beginning of our political inconsistencies in Canada.  Although a majority of Canadians report they want more social spending, we don’t want to pay for it.  Indeed, the McAllister poll finds that 47 per cent of Canadians would “vote against any politician who wants to increase taxes on anyone for any reason.”

I had no doubt that anti-tax sentiments had become enormously fashionable across Canada over the last decade.  But before the McAllister poll, I didn’t fully appreciate that about half of Canadians are actually saying they want something for nothing.  That’s what it means to propose more spending but rejecting tax increases.  In such circumstances, we might excuse political parties if they labeled many of us as “FREE-RIDERS.”

So long as many Canadians want something for nothing, we are doomed to have political parties we regard as incompetent or untrustworthy.  Parties simply can’t deliver more government spending in some areas without spending less on others, or raising revenue – no matter how incompetent that may seem to us.  Since so many Canadians oppose both options, parties have to equivocate about their plans when campaigning.  This can’t but help engender mistrust when we confront their decisions after elections, whether they cut, raise taxes, or just don’t spend more.

I know some think if there were only fewer trips on which officials pay outrageous figures for orange juice, or less generous MP pensions, then there’d be enough money with current levels of taxation to meet the desire for more spending on health, pensions, families, transit, police, the environment, etc.  But as problematic as Bev Oda’s waste is, inefficiencies in our governments really are minor compared to the nearly $120 billion a year we spend on retirement subsidies and income, the $135 billion we spend on medical care, $52 billion on the protection of persons and property, and more than $21 billion on defense.

I wish eliminating waste was the answer.  It would be a lot simpler than addressing a root cause of the problem.  Us.  Nearly 1 in 2 casually disregard how much everybody depends on public investment in infrastructure, goods and services.  Many in the other half nod politely at ‘death and taxes’ jokes, or join in the fun of dismissing most politicians as persons without real jobs.  In the process, they fail to expose the error in logic implied by any who suppose we can increase spending in some areas without raising taxes or cutting other expenditures.

The McAllister poll holds up a mirror for Canadians.  And the reflection isn’t pretty.  Too many of us either don’t mean what we say when we suggest government doesn’t make good with tax dollars, or want something for nothing.  Either way, the poll suggests that we all have reason to acknowledge our own shortcomings as political citizens before we are quick to judge the politicians we elect.

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1 Response to Canadian politics in a word

  1. Ian Graham says:

    Re: “Canadian politics in a word”.
    I highly agree with you. It has become (perhaps has always been to some degree) a dysfunctional relationship between both sides — the public (left wing: more services without more tax; right wing: less tax without loss of service), and the politicians (more services *and* lower taxes, at least during the campaign), coupled with an ever dropping standard of decorum between opponents that undermines the whole institution of government and public service. There’s an expression something like “every democracy gets the government it deserves”? Changing these attitudes is like reducing hockey violence — lip service in the affirmative, but blood and concussions still draw the crowds.

    I can’t help but wonder why at least some politicians (perhaps those who have nothing to fear when they aren’t standing for re-election) don’t challenge the public by prompting debate on just what to cut. It can’t all come from those phantom “efficiencies”; an audit or investigation into which is a convenient stalling tactic. The very efficiency that makes so many public services widely accessible (i.e., “free” for use) devalues their perceived worth. But notwithstanding robocalls and other sleazy tactics (not unique to a single party), we are probably still better off than some countries (some European and South American instances come to mind) that elect demagogues, often with disastrous results.

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