Photo: flickr/ Quinn Dombrowski

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The insiders in the media have decided the election is mostly about the economy.

Are we in a recession, whether technical or otherwise, or not?

Will Canada run a small surplus by the end of this year, or a small deficit? And, political rhetoric aside, would it matter one way or the other?

Can we expect the Canadian dollar to fall any further?

It is with questions of this sort, we are to believe, that average voters are seized, if they are seized with anything.

On some days, the economy’s junior partner as a campaign issue, security, gets some airtime.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper tried to pivot from the economy — and from the Duffy trial — to those self-same security issues with his bizarre announcement that if re-elected he will make it a crime, punishable by a long term in prison, for Canadians to visit a number of unspecified, dangerous parts of the world.

Like the former Parti Québecois government’s ill-fated values charter, with its accompanying dress code, this newest whim of Harper seems, largely, to be a solution in search of a problem.

There are, however, lots of important and pressing public policy concerns that the first debate on August 6 and the leaders’ campaigns have almost entirely ignored.

Here are four of those big issues.

1. Refugees and immigrants.

For Harper and his Conservative party these have been major areas of concern. It is at least a bit odd that they have not raised them so far — except peripherally, in Harper’s repeated, but never fulfilled, pledge to bring in more Syrian refugees, as long as they come from the approved religious minority groups.

For much of his majority mandate, Harper assigned the immigration job to his star performer, Jason Kenney. Harper’s long-serving immigration minister is what passes for a star in the Conservative firmament, these days, now that they’ve lost the media-celebrity-for-hire services of Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

Kenney turned immigration policy away from anything resembling humanitarian concerns. Family reunification was out; allowing employers to directly recruit staff from the pool of prospective immigrants was in.

He also quite openly demonized refugees. He took away a good part of their health care and created a two-tiered refugee system that discriminates against asylum seekers from an arbitrary list of safe countries. Many of those safe country refugee claimants have well-founded claims of persecution.

Courts ruled that both of those Kenney initiatives are unconstitutional. But the Conservatives have been contemptuous of the rulings. The complainants in the health-care case even had to take the Harper government to court a second time in a Sisyphean effort to get it to respect the judge’s order that the federal refugees health program be fully restored.

Canada depends on immigrants to grow its population. And, for at least a moment in its history, this country also saw itself as a haven for victims of hate and persecution. Just think of the tens of thousands of Hungarians who fled invading Russian tanks to Canada in 1956, or the equally large number of Vietnamese boat people who came here decades later.

Immigration and refugee policy should, by rights, be an important topic of vigorous political debate.

Yet we have heard almost not one word about either from any of the leaders, so far, except for that laconic and disingenuous pledge from Harper about Syrian refugees.

2. Indigenous peoples.

When you consider how much of the fallow territory in Canada available for resource development lies on First Nations territory, it is more than outrageous that the few, overly simplistic discussions we have had thus far about energy and the environment have barely taken into account the existence of Indigenous communities.

The NDP’s Tom Mulcair was the only leader to bring up the concerns and needs of First Nations during the portion of the Maclean’s debate devoted to energy.

The past four years have been marked by considerable turmoil in the relationship between Indigenous communities and the federal government.

We have had hunger strikes, displaced communities, the Idle No More movement, a failed and tentative proposal for reform of First Nations education, calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, and, all along, deteriorating conditions of daily life for a large proportion of Indigenous Canadians.

By any objective measure, the situation of Aboriginal Canada should be considered a grave national crisis.

Yet it hardly bears mention in the campaign. To this writer’s knowledge, not a single one of the leaders’ debates proposed so far would even in part be devoted to Aboriginal issues.

3. Culture and broadcasting.

Driving through certain neighbourhoods in cities such as Ottawa and Winnipeg you can spot a surprising number of ‘We Vote CBC’ signs.

There are Canadians who care about the perilous state of our public broadcaster, it seems. Yet the political leaders have not yet taken notice.

The future of the CBC cannot be considered in isolation. It has to be part of a broader policy that takes into account the entire broadcasting environment (on all platforms — online, cable, satellite, etc). But those voters who put up lawn signs declaring that for them support for public broadcasting is a ballot question are indicating that they’re ready for such a broader policy discussion.

At heart, they are worried about assuring that Canadian stories get told and Canadian voices get heard in the money and corporate dominated world of media (both new and old).

They believe that cultural and artistic products are not just consumer goods, like dishwashers or hamburgers. And they hanker for an active and well-financed public presence to assure a diversity of Canadian expression in the marketplace.

Funny that those concerns have not so far found any echo in the rhetoric of our political leaders.

4. The state of Canadian democracy.

This policy area does get some attention. It was even one of the four main topics for the Maclean’s debate.

It got short shrift on that occasion because Liberal leader Justin Trudeau had been advised to find an opportunity to attack Mulcair on the infamous ‘fifty per cent plus one’ issue. The Liberal leader seized his chance when moderator Paul Wells asked him about the state of democracy in Canada.

It may have been good politics. But what to do about a referendum on separation that may very well never happen is hardly a pressing concern. What to do about Harper’s multi-pronged attacks on a number of the basic foundations of Canadian democracy is.

Harper has attacked the right to vote, the right for scientists to pursue their work and publish their findings without political interference, the right of members of Parliament to properly consider legislation (without burrowing through massive omnibus bills), and the right of Canadians to full and comprehensive information on the impact of government fiscal decisions.

On that latter issue, two Parliamentary Budget Officers never did get the simple facts they requested in order to evaluate the impact of government spending cuts.

More than one commentator has expressed chagrin that the opposition leaders so woefully missed a chance to hold Harper’s feet to the fire on his assaults on democracy during the Maclean’s debate.

The campaign is not over, however.

There is still time.

Perhaps the political parties and the media will get over their narrow fixation with that strange beast they choose to call the economy.

Immigration, First Nations, broadcasting, the environment and the way governments make decisions — all have significant economic implications.

If economic, pocket-book issues are all most voters care about, maybe we need a more fulsome definition of the economy. 


Photo: flickr/ Quinn Dombrowski

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...