Cost of living issues are dominating Ontario’s provincial election campaign. That is understandable because of recent price increases in food, gas and housing. It is also unfortunate because public debate focuses on short-term fixes when we need wise direction for the long-term challenges facing Ontario.
Short-termism is already baked into our electoral system. But changing public policies, such as auto licenses, to give immediate rebates so people have a bit more money in pocket before election day, is extremely short-sighted. Buck-a-ride is superficial, as was buck-a-beer.
What gets missed?
Other important issues get lost as candidates compete to bribe voters with their own tax dollars. Many young people who will live with the impacts of climate change, for example, are frustrated that it seems to have fallen off the agenda again. It is not top-of-mind today, but significant change is needed to adapt to more uncertainty in our environment now, as well as to prevent longer-term harm to creation. Electric vehicles replacing gas-guzzlers is only one small piece of what Ontario needs to do in the next decade. I am thankful for the voice of Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Green Party, who effectively raised longer-term challenges and linked them to short-term choices in the second leader’s debate. That is the kind of political approach we badly need in Ontario and across Canada at this point in time.
Another impact of the focus on costs of living is the tendency to frame voter choices in terms of which leader will spend the most to reduce personal costs. Budget-type announcements dominate leader events and media stories. But this comes at the expense of debating directional choices within each area, such as education, health care, elder care and child care. More money does not fix systemic problems; that requires clear principles and priorities, which should be publicly debated during election campaigns. So far in this election campaign the focus on spending more has also avoided genuine accountability; in energy policy, for example, changes made after the last election have led to higher costs and less green energy. A future-oriented, sustainable energy policy is key to Ontario’s future but getting very little attention this time.
Affordability tends to give priority to suburban, middle-class issues, such as the price of gas and new homes, even though people on social assistance are the most affected by price increases. Increasing social assistance rates does not get much discussion, although some parties are promising to reconsider a basic income pilot program. Increased costs for persons with disabilities are getting a bit more attention, but not systemic issues, such as the way autism services and other supports for children with disabilities are provided.
Could a minority be good for Ontario?
Some frame the voter’s choice as Doug Ford or who can beat Ford. Looking at all the platforms leaves me with a sense that a minority government might be a positive outcome for the long-term well-being of Ontario. It would require all the parties to engage in more serious discussion of policy directions, including priorities and trade-offs. The best ideas of each party might advance – and promises made to court one group of voters might be left behind. There are strong individual candidates in the various parties. Personally I hope Irwin Elman, the former Children’s Advocate, is elected because he will bring the voice of young people into the legislature. NDP candidate in Ottawa West-Nepean Chandra Pasma, known to some Christian Courier readers through her writing and work with Citizens for Public Justice, would bring a strong sense of justice and skill in assessing impacts of different policy options for those in greatest need. A few more members of the Green Party would expand Mike Shreiner’s ability to get some action on environmental issues across party lines. More on-going engagement with different elements of the population, required in a minority situation, might also help to reduce the growing political polarization, rather than what happens when one party wins all the power. It might also lead to more on-going debate instead of waiting four years to talk about the issues that are missing in the current focus on immediate cost of living.
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