University of Victoria crowd hears about silent election issues

Topics being glossed over in campaign, panelists say

The dominating theme of the 2013 B.C. election campaign is undoubtedly the economy, as resource development, environmental concerns and the rising provincial debt loom in the minds of politicians and voters.

But what isn’t being discussed in the run-up to May 14? A panel of political academics and former and present politicians addressed that question Tuesday at the University of Victoria in front of about 150 people.

“This has been an election of abstractions – who can manage the economy, create jobs, growth, lower taxes and debts. They mean something to some voters, but a great many people don’t connect with them,” said former UVic political scientist Dennis Pilon, now at York University in Toronto.

George Abbott, former B.C. Liberal health minister and self-described “recovering politician,” said health-care costs are a pending crisis in the province, due to the fact people are living longer.

Health-care costs are about $3,300 per year for the average 60-year-old, but $11,600 for an 80-year-old, according to Ministry of Health numbers Abbott presented. B.C. residents lucky enough to live to 90 cost the system more than $22,000 on average each year, he said.

“(Health-care spending) is going to be a challenge for the next 10, 20, 30 years. We are going to have to find ways of managing those pressures that we haven’t had before,” he said.

Politicians vying to become premier should be talking more about preventative and primary care, such as finding ways to reduce the use of tobacco, Abbott added. “I wish the next government well in meeting this challenge, (but) it’s not going to go away. It’s going to eat into the opportunity to make investments in other social services.”

Adrienne Carr, a Vancouver councillor and former B.C. Green leader, said the non-issues in the campaign are global warming, poverty and the larger economic crisis. She said politicians need to find ways to strengthen local economies instead of relying on the global economy for growth.

Carr characterized election campaigns as primarily “popularity contests” in which candidates are afraid to make promises they can’t keep.

“There is a fundamental fear of being bold and brave in an election,” she said.

Carr criticized the “lollipop attitude” towards theoretical natural gas revenues, and said the current obsession with resource extraction will fail to produce a long-term sustainable economy. The high levels of unemployment seen in several European countries are “a hint of things to come” in Canada, she added, unless there is a shift in economic focus.

Western countries are suffering from the ills of a “trinket economy,” where goods are cheap, but most people have trouble finding stable work and housing, Pilon said. Instead, he said, government should focus on creating a “stability economy.”

Pilon pointed to legislation passed by the 1960’s Social Credit government that forced forestry companies in the B.C. Interior to pay employees year-round, a move that allowed families to put down roots in smaller towns.

“The politics of the era recognized the bottom line was about delivering stability to people as much as balancing the books,” he said.

Simon Fraser University communications professor Shane Gunster spoke primarily about the need to galvanize all levels of government on such issues as climate change through public engagement.

The public appetite is healthy for broad, meaningful change towards a greener economy, he said, but the media fails in its role to inform, instead leaning towards cynical reporting.

“The idea that developing our natural resources is the only way we’re going to create jobs is very disturbing,” said Gunster, adding he’s disappointed the NDP hasn’t discussed alternative ways to stimulate the economy.

“It’s a lost opportunity for the NDP, perhaps because they’re afraid of being tarred with the anti-development brush.”

To learn more about voting, visit elections.bc.ca.

dpalmer@vicnews.com