It’s a funny little comment that I’ve heard quite a few times since Monday’s federal election, and one that rankles.
People talk about the election, and about the fact that, while the Conservatives won a majority, “at least my vote wasn’t wasted” because they happened to vote for a candidate who went on to win in their riding.
More on that later.
First, though, to my own opinion on why more and more people think that way.
There’s been a fundamental shift in the way Canadians look at governments and at the federal government in particular.
Being like a business
It started in earnest in the Mulroney years, and then continued through Chrétien and Paul Martin and on even to the present and Stephen Harper’s administration. Government used to be about the wise stewardship and administration of federal resources — trying to divine where money needed to be spent, and which programs and areas of the country most needed support.
Problem was, much more was being spent than was coming in. Some called it the welfare state — others said it was a “tax and spend” mentality that we could ill afford. They were right. Deficits aren’t the salvation of governments — they’re just an effort to export problems to the future.
But looking at everything through one telescope — that the economy, and secondarily, the government’s own fiscal performance are the only real issues that matter — has its own pitfalls, just like the facile concept that “government has to operate more like a business.”
Government isn’t a business — businesses exist to better only themselves and their owners. If anything, governments have to operate like a thrifty and bare-bones non-profit, keenly aware that their first goal is to address the needs and values of the broad base of their constituents, and not just their wallets.
Unfortunately, we’ve bought into the “government as business” concept, and with that has come a strangely pragmatic commodification of voting.
It’s not about what direction we should go, it’s about using our vote to invest in the right stock.
As shareholders, rather than citizens, we’ve become primarily concerned about our personal return.
It’s something that’s familiar to anyone watching politics in this province — for years, and still today, the main role for voters in an election is to figure out which party will win the election, and to try
and ensure that your district elects a government member. Why? Because, even though governments steadfastly deny it, government districts to this day get the lion’s share of provincial money, whether it be for fire trucks or road work.
The numbers don’t lie — the governments? Well, that’s a different story.
Even the province bought in
How entrenched is the concept?
Well, you really only need to look at provincial Finance Minister Tom Marshall, explaining on Wednesday about the premier’s decision to back the federal Conservatives.
“Not too many people had that foresight, and she did. … We recognized the importance of ensuring that, whichever party did, in fact, win the federal election, it would be in our interest if we could have representatives in either party that won that government.
“We do what we think is in the interest of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Contrast that with what was said in 2008, when then-premier Danny Williams launched the Anything But Conservative campaign: “This (ABC) campaign is not about getting the cash. … That’s simply not happening. I’m big enough and ugly enough to understand that. It’s about the principle. He made the promise. The primary goal is not necessarily to deliver the goose egg. I’d like Newfoundlanders to deliver the goose egg, but if they don’t, they don’t. That’s certainly a goal. The primary goal is to prevent him from winning a government, certainly a majority government.”
Williams went on to say that he had fundamental concerns about the direction a Harper majority would take — something much different from simply buying into the most valuable shares.
And that takes me back to the idea that voting for a candidate who doesn’t go on to win is somehow losing your vote.
The only wasted votes are the ones held by the people who didn’t bother to vote.
And everything isn’t business and trying to find yourself in the bleachers firmly behind the winning team.
A big part of what voting should be is voting your conscience — what you want your country to be, and who you think can do the best job of getting it there.
In some ways, you can envy the ideologues, whether they are Conservative, NDP or Liberal — at least they are fighting for a larger concept, rather than thinking about where to put their electoral investment.
Basing it on who will put the most in your pocket, your family’s wallet — “I’m voting Conservative become their income-splitting plan will put $1,000 in my pocket” — or the province’s coffers is not about governance.
It’s just about greed.
When votes become a commodity you simply cash for personal gain, you might as well stand outside the polling station and sell them to the highest bidder. Hey, you’d be much more like a business — and much less like a citizen.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.