Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Did the Stakes Just Get Higher?

Not for the first time this year, the political landscape in Canada has changed drastically. The sad passing of Jack Layton has left a hole in federal politics, depriving Canadians of the opportunity to see what role he would play as Leader of the Official Opposition.

Mr. Layton's commitment to social issues, mixed with his belief that politics can and should be conducted in a more civil tone will be sorely missed in Ottawa. While the NDP may appear to be the group most immediately affected by his death, there are broader implications both in Ottawa and in the provinces.

In a recent post, written shortly after Mr. Layton had announced that he was stepping down, I wrote that as much as the NDP needed him Canada needed him too:

"Mr. Layton is not just the leader of the NDP. He is the Leader of the Official Opposition and the principal critic of government.

His role tasks him with the responsibility of holding the government to account; with offering Canadians an alternative perspective on how their money is spent, their environment is protected, their security ensured and their country governed.

As we consider the challenges, opportunities and choices in front of us, we need strong voices to share all perspectives and alternatives. You don't have to agree with his politics to see that Mr. Layton offers such a voice."

With that voice now gone, who will play this role? The NDP will start the process of finding a new leader, while the Liberals continue with their own renewal process. As John Ibbitson noted this week, this reality has afforded Mr. Harper a degree of freedom that most Prime Ministers never experience.

Cue the provinces.

The stakes in the upcoming provincial elections have just been raised. With federal opposition to the government severely weakened, the provinces may be the only effective opposition facing Mr. Harper's government. This is particularly true in Ontario.

Consider the major issues of debate now facing Canada - the renegotiation of the health accord, environmental policy (and in particular climate change), economic policy, or measures taken to address deficits. As we debate these and other issues, the provinces will become potentially greater sources of opposition to the federal government than the opposition parties in Parliament.

While I am not sure to what extent voters have previously considered who is in power in Ottawa when they vote provincially, they may start doing so now. Why? Like-minded governments offer like-minded solutions. At this juncture, we need a broader perspective; a diversity of options for policy-makers to consider.

The federal NDP will offer this, but sadly they may do so in a less compelling or effective manner. The provinces, lead by Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, can fill this void.

The challenge for the voter is to take the time to consider all of this over the coming weeks. Consider how a McGuinty-Harper dynamic affects issues like health or the economy, versus a Hudak-Harper dynamic. For those of you in Toronto, factor in Mayor Ford to see how issues like transit funding may play out.

At the same time, voters should challenge themselves to consider the national story. Not just what a Liberal or Conservative government in Toronto may mean for Ontario, but what it may mean for Canada.

None of this is easy to do, but that is what engagement means. It is about considering the implications of your vote and making an informed choice. As noted in a previous post, you can't have responsible government without responsible voters.

The stakes have gotten higher. Our provincial elections will shape the national narrative in a potentially more meaningful way than perhaps we thought. Are we ready to play our part?

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