Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Getting ready to vote

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The broad themes of Campaign 2011 were apparent long before Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament last Saturday. The Conservatives would claim a record as good fiscal managers who are tough on crime, loyal to Canada's claims in the Arctic and proud of the country's military adventures. The opposition parties would portray the Tories as corrupt and disdainful of the democratic process, as well as insensitive to the struggles of ordinary Canadians.

So far the Tories have not been accused of harbouring secret agendas on abortion, health care and capital punishment, but there is still time for that. No, this time it is Mr. Harper who is talking about secret agendas by suggesting that an opposition led by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff would try to form a government even if the Conservatives had the most MPs elected.

The strategy has backfired somewhat, but the prime minister still seems to think he can gain mileage from it. Likewise, the opposition will continue to pound the Tories on the question of ethics, even though the polls have shown the allegations haven't swayed voter intentions.

At the end of the first week of the campaign, then, everyone has lived up to form. The Conservatives are promising modest new programs, including some that wouldn't take effect for five years, and only if the economy is in good shape. The Liberals and the New Democrats have made promises worth billions of dollars in new spending for families and the elderly.

But what else is awaiting Canadians over the next four weeks? Unfortunately, only the political parties themselves know for sure, and they aren't talking. The preferred method of electioneering is to offer insights and policy positions in dribs and drabs, instead of a single platform at the beginning of the campaign.

The last time a political party actually decided to trust Canadians with its full manifesto was in 1993 when the Liberals under Jean Chrétien unveiled their Red Book, which laid out their positions on all the issues and provided detailed cost estimates for every promise.

Voters need more information than they have been given so far, and sooner rather than later. What will all the Liberal promises cost and how will they be funded? How would the Tories respond to the crisis in health care -- the current model is unsustainable -- and what will they do to reinvigorate Parliament, which seems increasingly irrelevant to Canadians? Does anyone have any new ideas on how to end the appalling circumstances of Canada's First Nations?

Former Conservative leader Kim Campbell famously said elections aren't the time to discuss complex issues, but any discussion becomes even more difficult if the party leaders don't do much more than serve hotdogs or play the piano at softball media events.

A scheduled debate between the four leaders is fine, but they should be held over two days, with separate discussions on domestic and international issues. As well, Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff should square off in a single debate, regardless of the diktat of the so-called Broadcasters Consortium. If the two men agree to a match, the media will show up.

Debates, of course, are not the only basis on which voters should base their preferences, but they are one way to test the candidates and their policies.

The pessimist might say it's all irrelevant anyway, since most people have already made up their minds, while the optimist believes an election isn't over until voters have heard and analyzed every last word.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, but what's important is that the parties and the candidates treat the process with respect. They can do that by engaging and interacting with voters on the issues in more meaningful ways, and by reminding everyone that while Canada is not Egypt or Libya, it is still a country with many challenges and problems.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2011 A16

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