I took a break from working on a look at big issues in the federal election campaign and flipped through some old newspapers sitting on a chair in the office.
They were from 1961. And they raised a question for all the political parties – how come we aren’t happier or better off than we were then?
Stephen Harper and Stephane Dion will go back and forth about crime and climate change and leadership. Those are all important. They will slag each other in quite nasty and unfair ways. That’s not so important.
But no one is going to talk about the sense that a lot of Canadians feel like things have got worse for them over the years.
The 1961 paper had a front-page story about a new contract for teachers. The top wage was to be $8,360. Today, the top teacher wage here is about $78,000.
Then I flipped to the classifieds. There was an ad for a four-bedroom house on a quiet street in Oak Bay for $10,000. I checked; it’s assessed today at $575,000. (Both prices are typical for the time.)
So an established teacher could figure on buying that home for 14 months’ salary. Mortgage payments would be one-sixth of his income.
Today, the same house, at $575,000, would cost the equivalent of more than seven year’s gross pay. The mortgage payments would consume more than 40 per cent of the income.
It’s not just teachers, of course. Forest workers, office staff, people on an assembly line or fixing cars, even journalists – they all faced a different, cheerier future in 1961. They could afford a house and new car and if not a cabin, at least a couple of weeks at one. Moms could stay home (or were forced to). Families expected things would be even better for their children. Things like the introduction of medicare were on the horizon.
Today, a lot of people see their kids facing a much tougher time than they did, or perhaps their parents did.
John Diefenbaker was prime minister in 1961; Lester Pearson led the Liberal opposition; Tommy Douglas was the leader of the truly New Democratic Party, formed that year. Not pantheonic, necessarily, but have we had three leaders who commanded similar respect in the last 20 years. Paul Martin? Brian Mulroney?
Maybe that’s what this election — and the provincial election next May, and the municipal elections in November — should be about. Which politicians understand the concerns of the average Canadian? Who among them thins things could be better, and has some ideas? Who, in Parliament or cabinet, wouldn’t disillusion or embarrass the people who voted for, and against, them?
Who would make the priority creating happier, more prosperous average Canadians?
It’s hard at this point to see which leader is going to step into that role. Stephen Harper comes off as kind of cranky and doesn’t seem to see government as responsible for bringing a better life to Canadians. There’s a sense that the Conservatives are too infatuated with the failed polices of American Republicans, from militarism to simplistic lock-em-up crime responses.
Stephane Dion seems barely in control of his own party, fuzzy on the direction his government would go and a little shell-shocked. Jack Layton, Elizabeth May, Gilles Duceppe — none are likely to captivate voters with vision and plans.
Some voters, of course, would disagree. They are passionate in their belief that one party or another has the answers.
Most voters, I’d suggest, aren’t looking really forward to casting their ballots. Many have resigned themselves to voting against someone, rather than for a politician or platform they truly support.
Maybe we should keep that in mind over this election campaign. We can assess the issues and look at hard at the local candidates.
But it would be nice to hear a candidate or a leader acknowledge that for a lot of people, things seem harder than they did a few decades ago.
And that making them better was one of their concerns.
Footnote: B.C. should be a critical battleground in a close election. Some five Conservative seats and four seats each for the Liberals and the New Democrats, are likely in play. The Island and Lower Mainland should see most of the focus from the parties.