Monday, May 24, 2004

Sorry, but you need to pay attention to this election

VICTORIA - OK, so you never really wanted to start the summer with a federal election.
Especially a summer election with such a difficult set of choices spread before you. Except for the hard-core partisans, the people who treat politics like some sort of game, there's a broad sense that we're left with an uninspiring set of options. Paul Martin has dithered about when the election would be held, and what's it about. Stephen Harper and the new Conservatives - sounds a bit like a British New Wave band - spook many voters, who wonder if Canadian soldiers would be mired in Iraq today if Harper had been prime minister. And Jack Layton and the New Democrats remain out-of-focus.
But it's your job to figure out who would best represent you and cast a vote June 28. And despite the challenges, it's pathetically lame to decide to ignore the whole thing and let other people decide what kind of country you're going to live in. (Certainly, the choices may be limited; that doesn't change the reality that this is your best opportunity.)
It's especially important because this time your vote may matter on a national scale. We're used to everything being decided on the basis of the big chunk of seats in Ontario and Quebec. But this time the polls indicate the outcome of the election is in doubt, and a minority government - at least - is a real possibility
That means B.C.'s 36 seats could decide the kind of government Canada will have for the next several years (or several months, I suppose, if we get a particularly unworkable minority government).
And within B.C., the race is extremely close. The most recent Ipsos-Reid voter survey found Liberal support at 33 per cent, the Conservatives at 31 per cent and the New Democratic Party at 27 per cent.
That's a big swing from the actual B.C. vote in the 2000 election, which was 49 per cent Alliance, seven per cent Conservative, 28 per cent Liberal and 11 per cent New Democrat. That translated into 27 seats for the Alliance-Conservatives, five for the Liberals and two for the NDP.
This time, about half the seats in the province are too close to call today. and those seats could decide what the next government of Canada will look like.
So it's up to you.
It's a big challenge. A remarkable amount of rubbish will be spoken by the candidates over the next five weeks, covered with great seriousness and even commented on by people like me.
Your best hope is to pick a couple of issues you think are most important - perhaps a rational plan for health care, or integrity in government, or a voice for the West and B.C. in Ottawa. That doesn't mean you'll be blind to the rest of the issues; but it will give you a fighting chance of coming up with an informed vote on the subjects that are most important to you.
If that doesn't lead you to a decision on which party to support, you can also look closely at your local candidates and see if that tips the balance. On many issues the three main parties offer little to differentiate themselves. Your vote could come down to which person would do the best job of taking your views to Ottawa.
These are discouraging days for a voter, who have to penetrate the carefully crafted party statements that say as little as possible and then try and judge whether the leaders actually have any intent of doing what they say. (Martin was big on fixing the democratic deficit, for example, but then walked all over democracy to appoint his hand-picked candidates in B.C. ridings.)
But it still matters. It's still your job to sort through the information and make the best choice for your community, and your country.
Good luck. You're going to need it.
Footnote: Your vote also has a cash value this time around. New political funding rules means parties that meet a minimum threshold will get $1.75 per vote each year in funding. Even if your candidate is destined to be a hopeless also-ran, the simple act of voting will give the party extra cash to make an impact over the next four years.

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