Let me be clear. I was totally engaged by the U.S. election until it began. The runup — the primary season — was gripping, especially the Obama-Clinton duel. But since the official campaigns launched, it’s been dull and alienating. Ours is the opposite: dreary before, not now. Take this week’s big issues: the May May debate? debate and the back-down here; the lipstick smear there.

The two parties readiest with their scripts, the Conservatives and NDP, were knocked right off stride. Why didn’t they want Elizabeth May in the debates? You could see the reason on opening day. She appears to say what she thinks and think as she speaks. Just by seeming human and spontaneous, she makes the others look like programmed stiffs. If they went head to head with her, she might hand them their heads, as Ralph Nader would do in the U.S., if they would ever let him in a presidential debate, which they won’t. Take note. It’s not that outsiders never participate in U.S. TV debates. Ross Perot, eccentric millionaire, did in 1992. They just won’t let a real outsider and critic like Ralph Nader in.

But the mystery is: Why did the Harper-Layton-media juggernaut back down here? I never expected it. Jeffrey Simpson says they “misread public opinion,” which “insisted Ms. May be heard.” So what? The public wants lots of things. Usually it’s just ignored. Two years ago, everyone in the U.S. knew the public wanted out of Iraq. George Bush’s own advisory panel advised it. So he “surged” in more troops. He didn’t agonize, he just did it. Why didn’t Canada’s heavies tough it out on the debate? I don’t have an answer, but the situation here seems a bit more fluid, responsive and democratic than there.

Contrast the lipstick smear: that Barack Obama insulted Sarah Palin with his crack about lipstick on a pig, although he said it about McCain policies. They all know it’s a nonsense charge, but they keep discussing it as if it’s discussion-worthy. It becomes the issue du jour instead of a democratic matter like who gets to debate, or a substantive issue like climate change.

Okay, let’s talk change. In the U.S., the change issue is — change. Per se. Metaphysically and abstractly — qualified only as “real” change or change “you can believe in.” Senator Obama wants some. But John McCain promises change too — and he’s got Sarah Palin! This is like lunatics who think they’re Plato and Aristotle debating the ideal meaning of change in the asylum.

In our election, the change issue is climate change. What a relief — we’re out of the asylum! It’s a specific kind of change. Its effects can be argued, along with notions of a fix. We get to be adults, not inmates.

Best of all, our election has an unpredictable, contingent quality so far. I know reporters on the trail say the Liberals are screwed; they couldn’t get a plane, they don’t have their candidates, the Leader looks lost. But then contingency erupts and it tends to trump strategy. Stephen Harper wants to seem cozy, but can’t help grunting he “assumes” Stéphane is a family man too. (Like Hillary saying she has no “evidence” Barack is a Muslim — God, I miss her outbursts.) Some act of Conservative meanness (the pooping puffin ad, an aide dumped for maligning a dead soldier’s grieving dad) makes those fuzzy ads seem like they’re there to hide reality, not show it. Newfoundland’s Conservative Premier says the PM is a “fraud” and we “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” The anti-Dion ads start making Stephen look like a bully, and Stéphane can hardly help looking better when he finally gets to speak for himself.

So vote for Canada’s election this fall. Us, not the U.S. Even Elizabeth May seems worried about this. On Day 1, she urged Canadians to pay attention here despite the exciting politics down south. Relax, Elizabeth, it’s no contest. Maybe she’s just been hanging with too many journalists.

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.