“Ask not what you can do for your country;
ask what your country can do for you.”
This twisting of John F. Kennedy’s most powerful sentence in his 1961 inaugural speech could well represent the predominant theme of Canada’s current election campaign. Apart from carbon reduction and energy-saving strategies, politicians for the most part seem to be engaged in a contest to out-promise one another. Party platforms are heavily-laden with “trays of goodies” to woo and win voters to their cause. Some of the most enticing freebies are:
—-“free” tuition, pharmacare and dental care
—-a half million affordable houses, increased child and old age security benefits
—-universal day care, thousands more after school spaces
—-tax-free home heating bills and kids’ fitness programs
—-greater federal tax exemptions for low income-earners
—-more public transit and improved infrastructure.
I hasten to add that some of these promises are designed only for low to mid-income Canadians. As a former social worker, I readily acknowledge the need and worthiness of some of these programs. My purpose in making these non-partisan observations is only to highlight how current party platforms appeal to an enticing philosophy: “What your country can do for you … if only you will vote for us.”
Every economist and astute citizen knows there are no “free programs or promises.” Taxpayers must generate government revenues. While political parties do attempt to explain how these promises can be paid for, each admits that much of their cost will simply be added to our country’s deficit and debt, a burden which will fall upon the shoulders of our children and grandkids. Unlike most cautious family financing, no party is attempting to achieve a balanced budget – not this fiscal year or even projected into the near future.
On the brighter side, Canada’s debt to GDP ratio may be more manageable compared with some other developed countries. The problem is, that if our nation hits a recession and added government stimulus spending is required, this percentage could rapidly increase, plunging Canada back into a 1990s worrisome debt-GDP ratio. It is also a bright glimmer of hope however, that many of our teens and young adults voice both a concern for their future and a vision for change to fulfill that hope.
What did JFK promise his nation on that bitterly cold, 1961 January day in Washington? Instead of more goodies, he challenged his fellow Americans with this one stirring, eloquent sentence:
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
His fellow citizens responded with the Peace Corp, Green Berets and the growing Civil Rights Movement. A truly great statesman or woman always has a vision; the ability to motivate people to move beyond narrow interests to a common good and higher purpose. Think of Churchill and his soaring rhetoric in the darkest days of World War Two when Britain and the Commonwealth stood alone but resolute against the might of a German aggressor. Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fireside chats to encourage Americans mired in the throes of the Great Depression. Our own nation needs the stirring voice of another Sir Wilfred Laurier or Tommy Douglas.
I have yet to hear that kind of inspiring vision in our own current election campaign. Instead I hear politicians, not statesmen or women, making promise after promise, guided by that tried and true winning formula: ask what your country can do for you.
On this election day may we at least “do for our country” by exercising that cherished democratic privilege to get to a polling station and vote. It is that vision of freedom that many in our land protected at the cost of their lives.