/William Watson: The media says this election’s theme is the cost of living. Are we sure about that?

William Watson: The media says this election’s theme is the cost of living. Are we sure about that?

So far the media seem to be playing up this election as being about affordability and the cost of living.

In medialand, you see, it’s very important that every election have a theme, that is, some defining set of ideas. Otherwise, voters are just flailing around in the un-themed dark, making ad hoc choices about who they think would be the best prime minister — or MP, if they’re very old-fashioned — on the basis of their own un-themed impressions of what the different candidates say, do and publish over the six weeks of the campaign, without judging how they are or aren’t in concordance with what is supposed to be that election’s theme.

In fact, very few elections have coherent themes. Even 1988’s great free trade election ended up not really being about free trade. When it was, early in the campaign, John Turner’s Liberals zoomed ahead. But once they got ahead, the media started asking them about other things voters reasonably wanted to know about a prospective government and it became clear Turner and his party had no program. Their evident unpreparedness for government became the election’s true deciding theme, as it should have been and, I believe, always is. As a result, alas, in every election since 1988 every Liberal leader has produced a “red book” chock full of promises in order to show that, like Elizabeth Warren, the Liberals really do have a plan for everything. With the other parties responding, pandering is now encyclopedic.

This election’s supposed theme of affordability is puzzling. The best measure we have of the cost of living is the all-items consumer price index. It isn’t a perfect measure. Studies say it probably over-states true inflation by as much as half a percentage point a year.

But what’s the one overriding fact about the CPI over the past 30 years? That it is locked in at two per cent, which is the official Bank of Canada/Department of Finance agreed target for it. We don’t always say nice things about governments on this page but the Bank, which is part of government, has a proven record of hitting its inflation targets.

True, inflation isn’t always bang on two per cent. In three months over the first seven months of this year it was exactly 2.0 — bullseye — which is pretty good. (I’m measuring it here on a year-on-year basis). Yes, in May it was 2.4, which is high. But in other months it was 1.4, 1.5 and 1.9. In sum, the Bank’s inflation record undermines the old saw: “Close enough for government work.”

Personally, I’ve always thought two per cent inflation is terrible. No inflation, or maybe a half a per cent inflation, to cover the measurement error, would be better. Then prices wouldn’t actually inflate over time. They’d be constant and would mean something year to year, decade to decade, maybe even century to century.

But that is very much a minority view. Even economists at big financial institutions, which you’d think would be starchily conservative places, now refer to the inflation numbers as having “disappointed” whenever they come in under two per cent. Less inflation is “disappointing?” Less debasing of the currency is “disappointing?” What have banks come to?

Whatever it is, they — and we — have come to it. So without there having been any big bump up in the CPI, with the inflation rate banging against the same target we’ve had for it for almost 30 years now, I don’t understand how affordability and the cost of living are now the hinge on which an entire federal election supposedly will turn.

Less inflation is ‘disappointing?’ What have banks come to?

Actually, I do understand it a bit. This summer the CBC ran a whole week’s worth of results from a poll it had commissioned asking people many different things, including what they thought were the big problems of the day. It’s the kind of thing media does in summer, when staff go away, you need to fill air time and you can’t rerun too many features from last winter.

Surprisingly, one result of this poll was that a plurality of people (32 per cent) said what really worried them was the cost of living. I suspect that shocked people at CBC, who likely assumed the answer would be climate change or income inequality or social justice. But it wasn’t. It was the cost of living.

This was not your usual random telephone survey, however. It was an online poll, the result of a questionnaire several thousand Canadians had volunteered to answer in exchange for small payments. Personal information they supplied was then used to weight the sample so it had something more like Canada’s actual demographic structure.

But are people who answer online surveys for money really representative of all Canadians? Offhand, you’d expect them to be more concerned about money, and therefore about such things as the cost of living, than the average Canadian would be.

I hope the peculiar style of this poll, whose results got a lot of play when it came out, didn’t set a false theme for the election, one reflecting the concerns of online, opinion-selling Canadians but not Canadians at large.

In the end, whatever the media and parties say is the election theme, my bet is most Canadians will be deciding the way they always decide, by trying to figure out which local candidate, which party and which leader seems up to the big jobs they seek.