03/29/2016 11:32 EDT | Updated 03/30/2017 05:12 EDT

How Will The Saskatchewan Election Affect Its Citizens?

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Saskatchewan Legislative Building at dusk in Regina Saskatchewan.

The recent Saskatchewan leaders' debate has been criticized as a great deal of shouting with very little substance. This is disappointing, as elections are exciting moments to consider important ideas in the light of what matters most: our health and well-being.

That health is determined by income, education, employment, housing, food security and the wider environment. These social determinants of health are key to understanding how to improve outcomes, and how to make wise political decisions.

Beyond the debate, what do the party platforms say about how seriously they take the health and wellbeing of the people of Saskatchewan? What are their long-term visions for improving the upstream factors that determine health?

Every party, Liberals and Greens included, talks of increasing the percentage of our energy supply from renewable sources, an important step given that the World Health Organization calls climate change "the biggest threat to human health in the 21st century".

For the two major party platforms, that's where the commonalities end.

A stable foundation is critical for a healthy life, making housing affordability key. The Sask Party proposes a property tax reduction for low-income seniors. The NDP promises an increase of 2,500 social housing units and a Housing First strategy to address homelessness and addictions.

Beyond that, there is little in the Sask Party platform that would improve the health determinants of Saskatchewan people, simply because there is little in the platform at all. They list ten relatively minor new initiatives, using the rest of the 31-page document to point to past efforts. They do commit to an investment in remote presence technology for Northern health care. However, they also include a program that would decrease equitable access to health care, allowing wealthier patients to skip the queue for CT scans and gain quicker access to surgeries and other services.

The Saskatchewan NDP platform is much more detailed, giving a clearer glimpse of what that party sees as essential to building a healthier society.

Income is the leading factor determining health. The NDP platform features modest wealth redistribution through slightly higher income taxes for Saskatchewan's highest earners. They also propose a pilot of a basic income guarantee (already Green Party policy for some time), an increase in the minimum wage, and a commitment to a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy.

This contrasts with the most surprising omission in the SK Party platform; there is no mention of their poverty reduction strategy, quietly released shortly before the writ dropped. The lack of meaningful measures was badly received by anti-poverty advocates, but it's surprising to see no reference at all to the greatest cause of ill health.

On the subject of education, the NDP platform proposes increased funding for early childhood development, 2,000 new childcare spaces, increased numbers of teachers and educational assistants, and changing post-secondary funding from loans to grants. Given the health inequities in Saskatchewan, the promise to bring equal funding for First Nations schools would be one of the more impactful measures proposed. The Sask Party promises increasing a scholarship for high school students continuing their education from $400 to $750 if finances allow.

Perhaps the most important idea in this election is a quiet one: the NDP proposal to use a Health in All Policies approach. Reorienting the metrics of success for all government departments to health outcomes - whether Education, the Economy or Environment - is a sensible way to concentrate on what matters most.

Which is, in a way, the point of this exercise of reviewing the platforms based on the evidence for health improvement.

However, with so little information in one of the platforms, voters are left to read between the lines with the question in mind: which party will help us to live healthier, happier lives? Hopefully they will choose to pose this question to their candidates. It's only with demand from citizens that would-be leaders will start to see that their primary role is to improve the health and wellbeing of the people who elect them.

Ryan Meili is a Saskatoon Family Physician and author of "A Healthy Society: How a focus on health can revive Canadian democracy. "

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