Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Big issues get short shrift in Campaign 2011

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In 1993, then Prime Minister Kim Campbell was crucified by the press and opponents alike for suggesting a campaign is no time to discuss real policy.

It was considered one of the campaign miscues that helped drive her party's collapse.

But look who's discussing policy in Campaign 2011. Hardly a soul.

"This election isn't a test of policy; it's a test of leadership," said Ryerson University politics professor Duncan MacLellan. "Each of the party leaders all seem to say they can govern better but they're not saying how they will deal with big policy issues."

Some of those big policy issues barely got a mention. Some are listed in campaign platforms but not highlighted by the leaders.

 

Poverty/Housing

 

Nearly one in 10 Canadians live in poverty, an estimated three million people. In some places, such as Winnipeg's inner city ridings, as many as half of children live below the poverty line.

But you haven't heard much talk about them.

Ryerson's MacLellan said that's in part because poor Canadians don't vote in large numbers and because there is no quick fix.

"It seems like that is an issue they don't want to discuss," he said. "The gaps in this country are widening significantly but it is a complex issue and it's difficult to put it into a 30-second sound bite."

Sid Frankel, board member of the Social Planning Council in Winnipeg, said at least in this election all parties but the Conservatives have a poverty reduction plan.

"But it has not been emphasized in the public discussion," he noted.

Frankel said Canadians often don't understand the wide reaching implications of poverty and that eliminating poverty would help reduce health care costs, improve the skilled labour force, reduce crime and generally add value to the economy.

While an election is a perfect opportunity to have that discussion, "unfortunately party leaders are more attuned to looking at what the public already understands," said Frankel.

 

Aboriginals

 

More than a million people in Canada identify themselves as aboriginal, including more than 15 per cent of Manitoba's population.

Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing demographic in the country.

Yet the only time in this election an aboriginal issue got a lot of attention was over racist comments made by two Bloc Quebecois and Liberal candidates in Quebec.

Nary a whisper was made in the debates about the poverty, lack of access to good education programs or the health care crises facing First Nations.

The platforms do mention aboriginals -- the Liberals and NDP both promise money to improve on-reserve education, the Conservatives pledged to improve adult education in the territories. The Conservatives also promise to implement a backbencher's bill to publicize the salaries of chiefs to improve aboriginal financial transparency.

But the promises haven't been emphasized amid a slew of discussions about corporate tax cuts, fighter jets and coalition government bogeymen.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said reserves in northern Manitoba have to have running water but the pledge was not in the Liberal platform. It was made in reaction to a question about the subject from the media.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo , in a speech at the Canadian Club in Toronto mid-way through the campaign, said Canadians and politicians just don't seem to be aware of the "tremendous implications" of First Nations Canadians remaining on the margins of society.

Canadian Medical Association President Dr. Jeff Turnbull said when tuberculosis rates on some reserves are higher than in Third World areas where he has worked, it should be a big deal. But there's been no mention of TB during the campaign.

 

War

Canada is in two shooting wars, one of which we joined just before the campaign began.

Afghanistan, now the longest wartime engagement in Canadian history, barely registered save for a few sound bites about bringing the troops home.

Six Canadian fighter jets and hundreds of military personnel headed to the Middle East to help enforce a no-fly zone in Libya just a week before the election began. The mission was supported unanimously in the House of Commons.

Since the election began, the debate has mainly been about whether the Libyan campaign validates the Conservatives' purchase of expensive new fighter jets.

Retired General Rick Hillier criticized all the parties for the lack of any Libyan discussion. Hillier, who led the Canadian military through much of the Afghanistan conflict until he retired in 2008, said he couldn't understand the silence and said an election would be the perfect place to have a serious discussion about it.

 

Environment

 

If the environment was top of mind 2008, it ranks somewhere near the bottom this time.

"It's perplexing," said MacLellan, the Ryerson prof. "Environmental issues haven't gone away. The international community is asking us to do more. But the parties don't have a will to take it on."

MacLellan said the Grits are probably green-shy after their drubbing over the carbon-shift plank in 2008.

"After Stephane Dion and what happened, they probably want to stay away from it," he said.

Talk of regulating energy production and setting real emissions targets can alienate voters, particularly in Alberta and Quebec.

Canadians, said MacLellan, are often friendly to the environment only to a point.

"They don't want to do it at the expense of their own quality of life," he said.

 

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2011 A6

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