The Impatient Supply Sider or the Deliberative Democrat?

While there is no end to the analysis a leader’s debate could engender, I choose to focus on the narratives that Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff have used the English-language debate to convey. Both attempt to tell a story that extends into the future, namely what the country would look like with either a Harper or an Ignatieff government.

Stephen Harper’s narrative is based on continual tax reduction. As I indicate in the title, Harper is a supply-sider who has lowered taxes in the past and would like to continue doing so in the future because he believes that lower taxes, both corporate and personal, will dramatically stimulate economic growth. And this economic growth will enable the government to pay for future programs while maintaining fiscal balance. Harper thus downplays tradeoffs among policies. For him, parliamentary democracy, “bickering” as he called it, is an impediment to enacting his economic program. If the Conservatives are given a majority, Canada won’t have such frequent elections, and Harper will be able to get on with assuring economic growth.

Harper’s personal delivery was in synch with his message. Straightforward and looking at the camera, not the other leaders. Low key uninflected tone of voice. Very few facial gestures except for the occasional half-smile. Hands in front, opening outward, in effect presenting a package.

While the promise of lower taxes is designed to appeal to the voter’s self-interest, Harper also referred to academic research by the well-known economist Jack Mintz claiming that lowering corporate taxes by 1.5 per cent will create 200,000 jobs. I find it interesting that Harper cited this research and that the opposition leaders didn’t challenge it. Yes, Jack Mintz is a respected economist. But as an economist myself, there are numerous questions I’d ask about the model that underlies Mintz’s claims. What does it assume about the level of employment in the economy? If there are unemployed resources, as is the case now, wouldn’t corporations use the money to strengthen their cash position, rather than invest it to increase capacity? Does Mintz’s model compare private sector investment in physical capital with public sector investment in human capital? For example, if corporate taxes are not lowered and if, as the Liberals propose, the money is used for programs to enhance human capital, what would be the impact on the economy?

Michael Ignatieff engaged in a spirited attack on Harper, both in terms of his policies and his style of governing. The policy attack dealt with Harper’s agenda of both lowering taxes and building up the coercive machinery of the state, in particular prisons and next generation fighter aircraft. The governance attack, epitomized by the soundbite, “what you can’t control you shut down,” focused on Harper’s being cited for contempt of Parliament, two prorogations, and lack of transparency. Ignatieff’s alternative narrative is of a government that would, through taxation, keep a greater share of GDP in the public sector, using it for the human services policies contained in the Liberals’ family pack: support for post-secondary education, childhood learning, family care, public pensions, and green renovation.

Ignatieff’s vision of governance, while spelled out less clearly than his policies, is very different from Harper’s. He would provide greater transparency, more parliamentary debate, and more public consultation and deliberative democracy.

Ignatieff’s personal style, as befits someone taking the offensive, was much more animated than Harper’s. More vocal dynamics, in particular expressions of indignation towards Harper, and a greater range of facial gestures and arm gestures.

The debate has thus given us two very clearly contrasting visions from the two people who could emerge on May 2 as prime minister.

The question, on several levels, is what voters will make of these contrasting visions. Which of the two policy packages will they prefer? While the neo-conservative ideology Harper embraced favours tax reduction and a diminished public sector, there is still strong support in Canada for a more dynamic state.

How will voters react to the very differing personal styles, the cooler Harper or the passionate and indignant Ignatieff? There is a presumption that, in our supposedly phlegmatic northern culture, the cool “in charge” style generally wins over the passionate and indignant. How do Canadians feel about democratic governance and parliamentary institutions? Are they just partisan bickering and of much less significance than the private pursuit of prosperity?

Harper, in a way, channels C.D. Howe, the Liberal super-minister for economic development in the fifties, a person who also had much more affection for the executive than the legislative role of government. Ignatieff channels the election campaigns of John Diefenbaker in 1957 and 1958 and Brian Mulroney in 1984. In both cases, Conservative leaders were able to ride to power on a wave of public indignation about Liberal disrespect for parliamentary democracy.

The debate has, I believe, established these two rival policy and governance narratives. Over the remainder of the campaign, the question is how voters will react to them.

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