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Real debate during the campaign? Don't hold your breath

00:00 EDT Wednesday, May 26, 2004   

It's never easy for politicians to talk sensibly about policies that affect the economy, whether it involves budgets, taxes, social spending or economic development. Such debate is even less edifying during an election campaign.

Former (and briefly, because she made comments like this) prime minister Kim Campbell is remembered mainly for her 1993 assertion that campaigns are not a time for deep policy discussions. She was right, of course, and for her candour was savaged by the media and her opponents. Such things are simply Not Said.

The problem is that policy debate requires a willingness to engage in honest discussion. How exactly might different policies work? How they might interact? Would some reinforce others, or weaken them? What are their weaknesses as well as their strengths?

Smart politicians know these are legitimate questions. When in power, they ask such questions of themselves and their officials. But once a campaign begins, politicians must always present themselves to the public as promoters of policies that are 100-per-cent workable, wise and wonderful for all, even though they know that all policies involve difficult tradeoffs. Hard choices are not to be shared with the public.

For example, there are perfectly defensible arguments to be made for shifting personal taxation away from the income tax to consumption taxes like the goods and services tax, and many perfectly defensible arguments against such a move. But the GST is taboo territory, so you won't hear the parties talk about any of them.

This is not simply a federal thing. It is one of the deeper ironies of Canadian politics that Alberta, resolutely conservative on most matters provincially, loathes any form of sales tax, even though such taxes are usually favoured by conservative economists.

There are good arguments to be had over levels and types of corporate taxes as well. But companies are easy to pillory, so the NDP can promise to reverse the latest federal corporate tax cuts without fear of a direct challenge. No party will promise corporate tax cuts unless they cloak it with a vague debate over competitiveness. Elections are simply not the time to explore the possible effects of corporate and capital taxes on productivity, economic growth or job creation. The public would turn away out of sheer boredom.

However, we are already getting plenty of numbers, especially on the size of the future surpluses that Ottawa is likely to run up. The Conservatives say Ottawa is on track for a total surplus of about $90-billion over the next five years. The Liberals, with exaggerated horror, say the figure is closer to $30-billion.

The Liberals tout their numbers as prudent and fiscally responsible. The Conservatives (and the NDP, who are always happy to spend more) can reply that the Liberals' surplus forecasts have been a joke for ages. Since 1997, they have run up a surplus totalling $52-billion and used it to pay down debt. But they began each year with the assertion that the budget would produce a surplus of, at most, $3-billion or so. If no one now believes their projections, they have only themselves to blame.

The actual numbers are unimportant in the sense that the future always holds surprises. A look back at the Liberals election-time projections in 2000 shows that they wound up spending more on programs than they predicted. They still got surpluses mainly because interest rates were much lower than expected (a legacy of Sept. 11, 2001) and that cut the cost of interest payments on the federal debt.

They are not alone here. In 1995, the Ontario Conservatives under Mike Harris promised to cut program spending by 13 per cent over the next five years; they increased it by 10 per cent.

Surplus forecasts are important only because they serve as a springboard for the parties to talk about how they should be managed: With tax cuts or higher spending to prevent big surpluses from appearing? Or with big debt paydowns when they do materialize?

That's a dandy debate too, but to treat it seriously, the federal parties would have to talk about how we will pay for health care in the 2010s and 2020s, when the big wave of baby boomers will be turning 65. The old, as everyone knows, consume far more health services than the young, putting more pressure on health costs.

But hey, this election is only about the next four or five years. Don't distract us with ruminations over whether we should cut debt faster now in case we need the fiscal flexibility to take care of people in another 10 or 20 years.

U.S. economist Lester Thurow said that the task of politicians is to represent the future to the present. They should tell us the consequences -- for better or worse -- of the decisions we make today.

As campaigning politicians know, the real future arrives on election day. Anything beyond that can wait.



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