In the next election, it's flu versus crime

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By rights, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff should own the H1N1 issue and the botch that the authorities have made of it, just as he should own the health-care issue overall. His party built and sustained our health-care system, which has re-emerged as the main concern of voters. A new poll this week finds a 90 per cent majority approve that "universal" system -- crossing all regions and demographics. Most support is "unqualified," and is highest -- this surprised me -- among the youngest group, the 18- to 29-year-olds. They haven't, on this, been swayed by the individualistic rightward shifts of recent decades, although none of them were around during the original war over medicare.

The opposition leader could have taken definitive possession of this affinity if he had visited the United States during the recent health-care debate there to defend our system against lies told about it, while proudly standing up for it. Instead, he wrote another book on his family and gave interviews to magazines in London and New York. Perhaps his new chief of staff, Peter Donolo, will rectify that. (Or maybe they should just eliminate the middleman by making Mr. Donolo the new leader, via a coup of the kind that installed Mr. Ignatieff.)

Stephen Harper cannot own this issue. It doesn't fit him. To him, our health-care system more than anything else marks Canada as what he once called "a second-tier socialistic country." He has a second-tier minister in charge of it, and their record is spotty, not just on H1N1 but on medical isotopes, for instance. He clearly lacks "empathy," as John Ibbitson wrote, with those living in some fear of flu. Health care just doesn't turn his crank.

You could see this in the verve with which Tories shifted to abolishing the long-gun registry this week. They were back in their element. What I found odd watching it unfold is that it seemed to be of a piece with their favourite political activity: getting tough on crime. Yet, it was a bill eliminating a gun-control measure; it was opposed by the police chiefs' association. Victims of gun crimes sobbed in the gallery -- no matter. Was it the implication that crime is so bad that we all need guns to defend ourselves? Or is it just that Tough on Crime is the issue? They own it, and it's whatever they say it is.

In the National Post yesterday, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson outlined "the Tory vision: a safe Canada." The way there, he said, is an end to "double credit" for time served before trial, stiffer terms, abolish parole, end the "revolving door," etc. Notice that all these have no part in preventing more crime; they involve solely an increase in punishment. What a gloomy vision. "We" can do nothing but live in fear of "them"; then make them suffer for doing it to us. I don't really get why this has such voter appeal. Maybe if they actually acted effectively to diminish crime, some people might feel they had lost their precious right to a sense of grievance. Search me.

It will be costly and require a prison "boom" of around $4-billion. The Tories don't mind lavishing tax dollars, if they go to being tough on crime or the military. To each his own comfort zone. You say safe, I say healthy.

At any rate, this could shape the next election in terms of issues: flu versus crime, health care versus prisons. It's interesting how different they are, almost metaphysically. Illness is a force that affects us all, sometimes daily. Crime is a thing we rarely encounter, often never. When you experience crime, it can be hellish, but it is very unlikely statistically, compared with the odds on illness. Yet, the power of fear and projection can't be discounted. Mere "reality" has no predictable advantage over the imagination when voters are confronted with choosing between issues. It will be an interesting election, whenever it visits us.

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