This is a campaign that threatens to be about nothing. The Harper government is seeking a renewed mandate now simply to avoid the possibility of having to face the voters after the economic roof has caved in next year, or a string of potentially embarrassing formal inquiries on the conduct of the Tories has reported.
My subsequent posts will be brief, with updates through the day when appropriate. But to start off, here's a list of issues I'm sure many Canadians wish this election was about.
Ten important topics you won't hear much about in this campaign.
1. An exit strategy from Afghanistan. Canada's prolonged mission to one of the world's most geopolitically and topographically hostile war zones has accomplished nothing of much consequence, and at a cost of 97 lives lost among our armed forces and one of our most skilled diplomats. The Taliban are stronger than ever, as are the al-Qaeda operatives the Taliban shelter, both groups enjoying safe haven in the western border region of Pakistan, whose own unstable governance offers scant hope of meaningful cooperation from Islamabad.
Yet for all that our Afghan mission lacks clarity of purpose and popular support at home, our troops certainly do command widespread respect and affection, as they should, and that gives the Harper government a pass on the tough but necessary questions about what exactly we can realistically hope to achieve with a mission whose chief purpose, when Paul Martin's government launched it, was to improve relations with a Bush administration that will expire in four months.
2. The Canadian economy, long the envy of the industrialized world for its sustained, strong GDP growth and successive federal budget surpluses stretching back more than a decade - a record unmatched by any G-8 nation - is weakening finally, pulled down by a U.S. economy that is effectively in recession. Canada's export-driven manufacturing sector, based in Central Canada, is already in recession, and the impact of layoffs at Southern Ontario automakers and other manufacturers will soon migrate into the consumer economy.
None of the parties has a convincing plan for bracing against this storm, with job creation and enhanced training programs and a shift in our export economy away from over-reliance on the United States to cracking the dynamic markets of Asia.
3. Separatism. The appeal of Quebec separatism is at one of its periodic low ebbs, which won't stop Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe from the occasional demand for greater powers for his province. But the BQ leader, compromised by his flirtation with the leadership of the Parti Quebecois, won't have his heart in calls for enhanced Quebec autonomy and will focus instead on perceived threats to social and cultural programs under a renewed Harper mandate.
Meanwhile the separatist sentiment, latent for now, will not be squarely confronted with proposals for a new federalism and power-sharing arrangements, leaving outstanding perceived Quebec grievances unattended as fuel for the inevitable next Resurgence of separatist passions.
4. Climate change. A genuine effort to save the planet from this man-made scourge requires a more comprehensive, long-term scheme asking real sacrifice from Canadians than the parties have the will to promote. Harper already is demonizing the Grits' signature carbon-tax proposal (the Green Shift) as a mere tax grab. And the Liberal plan exempts so many vocational and other groups as to be ineffectual in its stated, worthwhile goal of both cutting CO2 emissions and discouraging the demand that has pushed up fuel costs for motorists and air travelers. (Even after its recent swoon, the world crude price of just over $100 (U.S.) - down from its July peak of $147 (U.S.) - remains far higher than its $70 (U.S.) of last year.)
The Tories' sensible plan for slashing conventional pollution needs to be coupled with a tough carbon-tax regimen if Canada is to boast a green commitment matching that of Europe and even rapidly growing China, which has stricter fuel-economy standards than North America.
5. Health care reform. In contrast to the leadership position the Martin government took on this provincial responsibility, the parties today will hold back from advancing "game-changing" reforms that improve the quality and reduce the cost of patient care.
These reforms include the electronic medical record-keeping proposed in the U.S. election campaign by Democratic candidate Barack Obama, which would slash bureaucratic costs and, more important, reduce medical errors; and a much greater emphasis on preventive care to cope with, for instance, the epidemic in early-onset diabetes among youth and young adults, the cause of which often is traced to diet, fitness and other "lifestyle" decisions. A campaign against early-onset diabetes and other avoidable maladies could prove as successful as the campaign against smoking has been.
But federal party leaders will be reluctant to risk the premiers' ire in appearing to intrude in a provincial jurisdiction or to dictate lifestyle changes to Canadians.
6. Native Canadians. The Harper government scrapped the promising advances in Martin's Kelowna accord, before eventually unveiling its own, less ambitious version. The fact remains that too many of Canada's population of roughly one million Native Canadians live in developing-world conditions with appalling rates of alcoholism, illicit drug use, suicide and spousal and child abuse - all rooted in chronic poverty.
Federal programs continue to be managed ineptly, and rogue band leaders withhold federal funds from their communities for their own use. Breaking the cycle of despair and dependency requires the kind of thorough overhaul of federal programs and practices that, no matter how urgently needed, won't win many votes and thus much attention in the hurly burly of an election campaign.
7. Poverty. Eighteen years after a unanimous Parliamentary vote to eradicate child poverty by 2000, an estimated one million Canadian children live below the poverty line. Alas, preoccupation with discrediting each other's leadership skills will keep the federal party leaders from proposing comprehensive schemes for addressing this crisis, which would call for increased affordable housing, daycare and tuition subsidies for single mothers seeking a hand up not a handout, and an effective campaign to reduce the rising rate of "deadbeat dads" who refuse to meet their obligations.
8. Infrastructure. Many if not the majority of Canada's bridges, hospitals, schools, water-filtration plants and other essential infrastructure are past their prime, and coping with more use than they were designed for.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, representing the more than 80 per cent of Canadians who live in urban areas, estimates that the "infrastructure deficit" in municipalities alone is $123 billion. Rebuilding world-class infrastructure would be a tremendous stimulus to the economy and strengthen Canada's long-term competitiveness. But the cost alone keeps pols from proposing anything substantial on this front, which typically requires the tragedy of a collapsed bridge or school cafeteria to provoke action.
9. Nuclear proliferation. The greatest threat to the planet in the short term isn't climate change but the thousands of unaccounted-for nuclear warheads and other nuclear bomb-making materials - or "loose nukes" - scattered across Russia and the other former Soviet republics. The epic tragedy of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and subsequent attacks on Madrid, Bali and London would be eclipsed by the detonation of even one nuclear device built by terrorists gaining access to loose nukes either directly or on the black market.
With it pioneering work in bringing about the treaty to curb land mines, Canada is diplomatically well suited to help spearhead the location and destruction of these lethal materials, in partnership with countries including the United States, where both Obama and his Republican rival, John McCain, have made a priority of reducing the world's stockpile of nuclear materials.
10. Immigration. Programs for integrating recent immigrants into the Canadian economy continue to be ad hoc, a jumble of federal, provincial and municipal initiatives that are poorly coordinated and inadequately funded.
Opening the door to refugees and other immigrants isn't enough. The newcomers require more immediate access to secure housing and more rapid recognition of their professional credentials. With the U.S., Canada is the only mature major economy not facing a decline in population by the mid-century, thanks exclusively to immigration. Future nation-builders need a genuine welcome to Canada in place of the current years of economic struggle in their new homeland. But because the issue still ignites nativist sentiment in some quarters - though far less than in the past - don't expect any party to come forward with a holistic program for making the world's brightest and hardest-working new arrivals truly at home.