NDP leader Howard Hampton lashed out at the media yesterday for paying too much attention to faith-based schooling at the expense of the real issues. This blog stands guilty as charged but unrepentant. The real issues, according to Hampton, are seniors in soiled diapers. Leaving aside the fact that soiled diapers are not the kind of thing anyone wants to talk about, ever—not to mention the fact that other “real” issues of poverty, schooling and seniors’ care have received quite a lot of attention in the newspapers, on the Web and on public-affairs programs like TVO’s The Agenda, where I will be helping with election-night coverage—there’s a perfectly good reason why such issues haven’t been as prominent: they’re a wash with voters.
Better care for seniors. Less child poverty. Better schools. Affordable housing. More doctors. Shorter medical wait times. Fewer criminals on the streets. A cleaner environment. These are motherhood issues. All the parties and their leaders are in favour of them. And we expect all governments to address them. Yet the problems have persisted through administrations of every stripe, and so, at the same time, we don’t expect to find the silver-bullet solution hiding in the details of the individual parties’ policies. Faith-based schooling, on the other hand, struck a deeper chord among voters: it spoke to Ontarians’ collective sense of self, to their attitudes towards faith and tolerance and the vision they have for their children and the future. That made it a messy issue to discuss, which in turn made it irresistible for the media. Whether Hampton or John Tory like the idea or not, it is a perfectly legitimate issue upon which to decide how to cast your ballot. It’s the one issue in this campaign that has people feel as though they aren’t voting for interchangeability.
It’s true that this entire campaign has been a bit of a letdown. The three party leaders are all men of substance, each dedicated to public service. Many Torontonians remember the 2003 mayoral election, in which Tory took on David Miller in a lengthy battle of ideas and hoped this provincial campaign would have a similar tenor. No such luck. All three party leaders share the blame for the way it has unfolded. Tory went out of his way to craft a pseudo-Liberal platform, believing that the “image” issue of leadership could put him over the top. The strategy amounted, in effect, to taking real issues off the table. And once the Liberals figured out just how well the religious-schools issue worked in their favour—it gave people an emotional stake in maintaining the status quo, which they rarely have—they exploited it at the expense of everything else, including their own accomplishments. Hampton needs to take a long look in the mirror as well. As I wrote earlier this week, the NDP’s Web site, once a compendium of the party’s work and positions on all sorts of issues, has been stripped down to six talking points (like toys in a cereal box—collect all six!) and a “Click here to donate” link. I suspect Hampton is lashing out because his campaign is doing poorly and he needs to energize his own core supporters so they show up at the polls.
The real lesson to take away from the campaign thus far is that voters want to discuss issues that speak to a greater vision of society. Tory inadvertently provided a vision that Ontarians are not prepared to accept. Hampton failed to provide one at all. What do you get? Four more years.