The lament of the centre

The other day, I sat down over nachos and wings with some old friends. We meet every month for “pub night” in Milton, a Toronto bedroom community conveniently located west of Toronto, east of Kitchener/Waterloo and north of Hamilton. It doesn’t get more “Southern Ontario” than this. 

My middle-aged, married, middle-class friends have one or two kids each (except for the token DINK) and drive in from points north, south, east and west. They are not old enough to be baby boomers and not young enough to be the latest “letter generation”. They work in industries like automotive, industrial equipment and high tech. 

And they vote. If there is a traditional centre to Ontario politics, these guys have a claim.

We talked about family, work and recreation before starting on the election. There was an initial reticence to advance an opinion, as is often the case with overly-civil Canadians. But, with time, lips loosened. 

The mood was sour. None of the options appealed. Historically, this group probably trends Liberal, with exceptions being a token Green protest vote, a shout out to the NDP in times of youthful idealism and maybe a Conservative vote to send the Liberals to the wilderness to clean up after the sponsorship scandal. But now, they feel abandoned as voters.

If you promised them a Liberal majority with a return to Nineties-era Paul Martin as finance minister, attacking the deficit first before getting into the debate about what to do with the surplus, they’d sign up.

But they know a Liberal majority is impossible.

They also don’t know if this latest iteration of the Liberal party would continue to “campaign from the left and govern from the centre” like in prior years, or if they would indeed govern from the left. A Liberal minority supported by the NDP might not be as fiscally prudent as they would like. They don’t care about the gun registry either way, and think the fighter jets thing is a red herring. They like the idea of more education money for their kids, but see it as a very long-term promise with lots of opportunity to go astray. They agree with the Liberals that this isn’t the time to cut taxes. That can wait till the books are balanced.

On the other hand, the Conservatives offer stability, and the government of the past five years hasn’t been as bad as some had expected.

It was business as usual from an economic perspective. The Conservatives spent as they needed to spend to avert the worst of the recession, and avoided any real discussion of social conservative policy like capital punishment or abortion.

Still, the idea of a Conservative majority makes my friends nervous. They don’t like Steven Harper’s controlling style. They don’t care for money spent on mega prisons in an era of falling crime rates. They fear a socially conservative agenda is lurking.  Most of all, they fear Canadian Conservatives might follow the lead of their American counterparts and cut taxes for ideological or political reasons (see GST cut) and increase debt even further. 

Our night out occurred before the recent NDP surge in the polls. At the time, the NDP were not seen as a contender. For my friends, I doubt that has changed much. It is not that these men are heartless – they believe in universal health care, the welfare state and even funding for the arts. But the parties to the centre and right are delivering these things already. They fear the NDP would overspend in the short term, leaving the books unbalanced and threatening future education funding for their kids, and health care funding for themselves as they age.

The Bloc is irrelevant to them for obvious reasons.  

My friends are an environmentally conscious group but neither contending party offers anything but platitudes. Still, the Greens are not an alternative except as a protest vote.

In the end, I didn’t ask specifically what each of my friends would do on Election Day. But, having listened to them air their grievances, I can offer a guess. On May 2, my friends will most likely look at the polls for their riding. If they think they can make a difference, they will hold their noses and cast the vote most likely to lead to a Conservative minority government. If their vote is irrelevant, they may cast a protest vote. 

But they will vote. And they’ll get up the next day, be dis-satisfied the outcome, and then go to work. Life will go on as before.

They will hope for better choices next time. But most of all, they will hope they won’t have to do it all again in six months or less.

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