Monday, April 25, 2011

Rural-urban divide: Conservatives cater to the 'me' votes while 'we' votes are scattered

By Don Mitchell
April 25, 2011

When people consider their vote in the current federal election there are two different starting points. One perspective begins with "me," the individual. A second perspective weighs more the consequences of policies on the whole community.

Conservatives pitch to the "me" voters with appeal to self-interest and personal security. The promise of broad tax cuts is a prime example. Tax cuts and tax incentives motivate the "me" voter with direct personal financial gain, especially for the wealthy. Direct cash payments intended to subsidize family child care costs, tax credits for family recreational expenses and tax free savings accounts all provide direct monetary gains or savings to individuals while depleting the pool of social capital available to address broad community needs.

The platform promises of the other parties, NDP, Liberal, Green and BQ, in general, put more weight on social or collective benefits. Public health care, universal childcare, environmental protection and mandatory public pension increases are all examples. From a "we" or community perspective, tax cuts are negative because, in the end, they lead to reduced or unsustainable services.

This divide between the "me" and the "we" perspective also reinforces an urban and rural divide that is both practical and ideological. Rural residents are in practical terms more ‘on their own' with respect to many services such as sewer and water, housing, childcare and recreation. It is, therefore, not surprising that they have a higher proportion of Conservative voters. Their ideological space is more often that of the rugged individualist. Some, for example, are offended by the very thought that rifle and shotgun possession should be registered "community" information for purposes of public safety.

Two issues stand out as most critical for urban dwellers. These are affordable housing and community infrastructure replacement. Politicians and pundits of all parties have largely ignored both these issues. The Conservatives have shown the most contempt with Jim Flaherty's declaration that "the federal government is not in the pothole business." (In seeming contradiction, they did get well beyond pot holes in Tony Clement's Ontario riding.)

The essential role of the federal government in addressing current housing needs and priorities cries out for attention in this election. Of similar urgency is the federal role in providing tax tools, or revenue, for repair, replacement and expansion of crumbling community infrastructure such as water and sewer systems. The federal mandate is doubly urgent with first nations communities where water and wastewater standards are a major public health issue.

On affordable housing there is a stark contrast between the parties. While the Liberal, New Democrat and Green platforms all have reference to affordable housing strategies and funding commitments, the Conservatives are largely silent. There is, importantly, a Conservative budget commitment to a one year $400 million extension to the Eco-Energy Retrofit program. This provides federal subsidy grants of up to $5,000 to homeowners who undertake energy-efficient renovations to existing properties. But there are no new commitments to address affordable housing needs. Existing programs have significant budget reductions projected for the next budget year. The Conservatives are continuing the phased abandonment of the federal government role in housing, which began with Liberal Paul Martin's savage budget cuts, in 1995.

The Conservatives in their election platform make a general commitment to "work with provinces, territories, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and other stakeholders to develop a long-term plan for public infrastructure that extends beyond the expiry of the Building Canada Plan in 2014."

While this commitment seems like a hopeful promise, there is a parallel commitment to reduce the annual federal budget by $11 billion per year in order to eliminate the deficit by 2014. This reduction in expenditures is in addition to corporate tax reductions. Corporate taxes are being reduced from 22 to 15 per cent. It's been estimated this will eliminate $16 billion in annual federal revenues by 2012. Can there be a sustainable plan for infrastructure funding to assist municipalities when the revenue cupboard has been stripped so bare?

Communities across Canada don't have the luxury of ignoring the pressing housing and infrastructure needs of their citizens. Municipalities lack the tax tools and resources possessed by the provincial and federal governments. Whatever the political stripe of the next federal government, cities and towns depend on a shared federal commitment to address a list of community priorities.

If the "me" voters dominate in the choice of leadership on May 2, community priorities will continue to be neglected. "We" voters need to further mobilize, with all the available networks, to promote understanding of what's at stake.


  1. This article was obviously written by someone who lives in the city - I do not appreciate the assessment that rural communities are "me" focused. The community phenomenon is often more "we" oriented than the cities. Does the author honestly see rural lifers as just rugged pioneers with farms and shotguns?

  2. While I agree, essentially, with Don Mitchell's observations, they are a tad simplistic. I see at least 3 strata: Me, My Family, and We. The injection of My Family (merely a slight extension of Me) into the discussion allows Conservatives to appear much more human and considerate.

    In the end, though, the Conservative notion remains the same: input resources (money, support, legislation, etc.) into the highest parts of the economy and good things will trickle down to the plebians.

    The problem with that is that after 40 years of trickling down, the poor and middle class are merely poor and the rich are even richer. It seems that wealth is sticky and doesn't trickle down.

    I have another idea: how about bubbling up? Maybe we should inject resourses/support into the lowest income people and let the much vaunted entrepreneurs find ways of making money from the formerly poor? Lets let the wealth bubble up.