Some commentators would prefer political debate in Canada to provide civil discussion rather than a battle similar to a bar fight.
It's hard to know what will be decided in the May 2 election, but it's just as hard to imagine that Canadians will decide well unless we inject respect, sincerity, honesty and a few high-minded ideals into our political culture.
We can't run a country on vitriolic rhetoric, political tactics and cheap-shot ads, said Christian think-tank director Peter Stockland. Looking at the latest attack ads turned Stockland's stomach.
"I was absolutely appalled that a government and a lot of people in that government would unleash something like that," said the director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal. "Where's the charity?"
The Conservative ads claim Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is dangerously soft on crime and a Liberal government would make people unsafe in their homes and neighbourhoods.
"It's either the worst kind of pandering to 1.6 per cent of the population – and I don't know why you would do that – or it's absolute cynicism," said Stockland, formerly editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette and editor of the Calgary Sun.
The veteran political observer doesn't just blame the Conservatives. He's also leery of opportunistic opposition manoeuvring to have the government fall on a contempt-of-Parliament motion rather than the budget.
"The opposition parties feel they have an opportunity here to capitalize on some of the ethical things the government has been dealing with," he said. "There don't seem to be, as there have been in elections past, really pressing, central issues."
The argument that attack ads work just doesn't cut it ethically, said Stockland. "A broken bottle works in a bar fight, but I don't think most of us would advocate it as a way to get along with our neighbours."
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto wants the election to be about issues facing the country rather than issues facing Parliament.
The voters' guide Catholic Charities puts out on behalf of its 28 agencies will be ready shortly and will target four issues: poverty, housing, aging and immigration.
They are issues that have had little attention from the last minority Parliament, said Jack Panozzo of Catholic Charities.
"A lot of the issues just sort of sat there," he said.
When less than 60 per cent of voters show up to cast a ballot, as occurred in the last election in 2008, it's important to make the election about big issues that matter to the whole country, said Catholic Charities executive director Michael Fullan.
"It's part of our democratic process," he said. "It's the social teachings of the Church — that's really what it's about."
For Campaign Life Coalition, elections are always about just one issue.
"At each election we've gained candidates in the parties – whether it's Conservative or Liberal, we don't care," said acting executive director Mary Ellen Douglas.
"And if we found somebody in the NDP who was pro-life we would support them too."
Douglas claims about 100 MPs from the last Parliament could be classed as pro-life. This election Parliament will lose three British Columbia Conservatives who were strongly pro-life — Stockwell Day, Chuck Strahl and John Cummins — but Douglas hopes they can be replaced.
Over the course of the election, Campaign Life will distribute questionnaires to every Bloc Quebecois, NDP, Green, Liberal and Conservative candidate in all 308 ridings across the country. Based on answers or on refusal to answer, Campaign Life ranks candidates as pro-life, anti-life or capable of being educated.
Results are posted on its website (www.campaignlifecoalition.com).
"Our ultimate goal, our reason for existence at Campaign Life, is to get a law to protect all life from conception to natural death," said Douglas. "Without that law, all life is in danger."
Project Ploughshares executive director John Siebert is pretty sure Canadians won't elect the next government based on Canada's contribution to peace in the world, despite a decade of Canadian soldiers fighting to make peace in Afghanistan and now in warplanes over Libya.
"International affairs rarely feature in Canadian elections," he said.
While the fighter jets will get some play in election coverage, it will mostly be about whether the jets will cost $16 billion as the Conservatives insist or $30 billion as the parliamentary budget office claims.
But there's more to it than a budget battle, said Siebert.
"Canadian international policy has shifted decisively to a military framework and a downplaying of both diplomacy and development in Canada's contribution to international peace and security," he said.
"Canada's failure to gain an elected seat on the (United Nations) Security Council in the fall of 2010 is symptomatic of the rejection in the international community of Canada's new face."
Canada needs a "peace surge," but the issue isn't getting much attention, said Siebert.
Canada's Make Poverty History campaign knows it also has an uphill battle engaging Canadians when headlines and official campaigns concentrate on horse-race politics, but national co-ordinator Dennis Howlett insists they're going to get the attention of politicians.
"We will try to get individual candidates to debate these issues, even if it's proving difficult to get the prime minister to really take this issue seriously," he said. "We're going to count on Church leaders, union leaders and so on to try to get their membership engaged as well."
Make Poverty History wants the federal government to have a poverty-reduction strategy complete with timelines, targets and objective measures of poverty reduction.
Given that six provinces already have such plans, a federal plan is essential, said Howlett.
Make Poverty History has broad ecumenical support, including participation from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Poverty reduction isn't a left or right issue, but one that holds the key to Canada's future, said Howlett.
"Poverty reduction, both globally and domestically, is going to do more to improve our security than some fighter jets will. Addressing the causes of crime will create safer communities than building more jails," he said.
"The single best way to reduce health care costs is to reduce poverty. Poverty is the single largest cause of most disease. Our economic competitiveness is being compromised by so many people trapped in poverty."
If Canadians want better leaders, they're going to have to become better voters, said Howlett. "Voters should get engaged in saying what they want their leaders to be doing, and not just be consumers of what the parties want us to hear."
At Citizens for Public Justice, another ecumenical group trying to foster debate on social justice, this election will be about four issues – a federal poverty-reduction plan, climate change, immigration and taxes.
CPJ wants Canadians to think about the need for higher taxes.
"We want to move away from the idea that all taxes are somehow evil," said executive director Joe Gunn.
"I don't think we want to argue that every tax is a wonderful thing. But you want to be able to say to people, 'Let's focus on some of the things that we could never do without that (tax).'"
CPJ's own voters' guide will go out to 1,200 members and a network of churches across the country at the end of March.