This Election Comes Down to Leadership

“I support sweetness and sunshine,” the campaigning politician says, “but my opponent has done nothing for sweetness and once voted against sunshine!” That’s the way elections go. Politicians claim the contrasts between them and their opponents are stark and vivid, even when -especially when -there’s very little difference.

The contrast Stephen Harper wants Canadians to focus on is the outcome of the election. Either there will be a Conservative majority government, he says, or there will be “a reckless coalition” of the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Québécois that would jeopardize the economy and even the country itself. Which do you choose?

But a mere day into the campaign, this claim got very shaky when Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said clearly and emphatically he would not form a coalition. It became positively ridiculous when NDP leader Jack Layton and BQ leader Gilles Duceppe reminded Harper that, in 2004, after Paul Martin’s Liberals had been elected with a minority, he himself had effectively proposed to do the very thing he now says would imperil the nation.

On Monday, Tom Flanagan, Harper’s former adviser, confirmed Layton’s and Duceppes’ version of events. Harper’s stark contrast disappeared in a puff of smoke.

That same day, perhaps not coincidentally, the Conservatives made a welcome switch to policy with a proposal to allow a limited sort of income-splitting for couples with children (the higher-earner could hive off part of his or her income and put it on the lower earner’s income, to be taxed at a lower rate). However, unlike the Conservatives’ cut to corporate tax rates, this change would only kick in after the budget has been balanced, which could take five years, or more.

There are reasonable arguments for and against the proposal but the immediate reaction of Ignatieff was telling for the purposes of contrasting the parties. Ignatieff condemned the Conservatives for making families wait while corporate taxes are being cut, but he had nothing bad to say about the policy itself. Later, the Liberals released talking points that criticized it for not helping single parents and favouring wealthier parents. So there is a policy gap. But it’s modest. That is pretty much the whole story on policy.

Consider the stark and vivid contrast Michael Ignatieff would like Canadians to see. The Liberal priority is supporting Canadian families, he says, but the Conservatives are pouring money into jets, jails, and corporate tax cuts. The two approaches could not be more different. This is almost as misleading as Harper’s coalition nonsense.

Only in their rhetoric are Liberals opposed to buying new jets. In reality, they support the replacement of Canada’s aging CF-18s. What they oppose is the Conservatives’ planned purchase of 65 F-35 jets, and only on the grounds that the contracting process was improper.

Jails? The Liberals voted for many of the Conservative toughon-crime bills that will push up the incarceration rate and require the construction of new cellblocks. Corporate tax cuts? It was Liberal governments that lowered corporate tax rates from almost 30 per cent to 18 per cent, and now the Liberals are fighting the Conservative plan to lower it further to 15 per cent. In economic terms, the difference between 18 and 15 per cent simply isn’t a big deal. (The Liberals are also exaggerating how much revenue the government will collect with an 18-per-cent rate, incidentally. These illusory dollars are being used to pay some of the tab on spending promises. Caveat emptor.)

Look, if you lean in close and stare, all this stuff can appear very big and the contrasts between the parties can seem very important.

But stand back and look at it in perspective. We have a significant deficit. The health accord with the provinces expires in 2014. Population aging will increasingly burden the economy, pensions, and social services. Then there are all the big global issues -energy, security, food production, climate change -we must confront. From that perspective, the policy differences between the Liberals and Conservatives are tiny.

But that may not mean this election is a choice between Kang and Kodos. In a representative democracy, voters choose individuals to exercise judgment on their behalf and in the Canadian variety of representative democracy -with its unfortunate centralization of power -the judgment that matters most is the prime minister’s.

How will the two candidates for the top job work with others, gather information, and make decisions? How will they manage institutions? In short, how will they govern?

Stephen Harper’s government fell, please remember, after a condemnatory ruling by the Speaker of the House of Commons and a parliamentary censure unprecedented in the history of Canada and the British Commonwealth. Harper shrugged. No big deal, he said. It’s just politics. But it wasn’t just politics, and that reaction said a great deal about Stephen Harper.

If Michael Ignatieff is a different and better man, and if he can demonstrate it – two enormous “ifs” -this is where we will see contrasts that really do matter.