Monday, September 22, 2008

A federal election campaign about nothing

What an odd federal election campaign. We've had naked pictures of a Conservative candidate, a couple of New Democrats and another Tory dumped for drug use, jokes about wishing for an opponent's death.
Stephen Harper is wandering around the country in baby blue sweaters, talking like Mr. Rogers. It's jarring - like he's on some new drug that mixes Valium and ecstasy.
Stephane Dion is leaving baffled audiences in most of Canada. He might be able to speak English on a basic level, but he's not able to communicate passion or complex ideas easily. (Especially why the Green Shift isn't really all that central to the Liberals' platform after all.)
Elizabeth May is on a train across the country. I've done that a few times. It's going tough campaigning when you're stuck on a siding somewhere outside Kenora waiting for a freight to pass. (And tough to sleep when guys get on with their duffle bag full of alcohol in Chapleau.)
Jack Layton is working hard, I guess.
As for the media, we're probably doing one of our worst jobs ever in communicating information to voters in a way that allows them to make an informed decision. Polls and gaffes, we've got covered. Strategies in responding to polls and gaffes, we've also got. Party spokesmen - the Conservatives, bizarrely, demand a secret identity - are asked to say how the last week went. (Usually pretty well their guys, apparently, and badly for the other side.)
My impression that most people are not only paying little attention, but wishing this wasn't happening to them right now. The Conservative minority was OK.
But you still should vote Oct. 14 - a little over three weeks away. Here are some things worth considering.
First, Harper promised that Canadian Forces would withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011. That's a big policy change for him, if he's to be believed. The war will not be won by then, and Afghan police and military won't be ready to be on their own.
But Harper says Canadians will have done enough.
I agree. But it's a big change from Harper's position that deadlines are impossible and that Canada would stay until the job was done. And it raises a question about the value of Canadian deaths between now and then, particularly if conditions continue to deteriorate.
Dion has backed away, but the major Liberal policy remains a carbon tax on most fuels - not gasoline - and offsetting cuts to other taxes. It makes perfect sense economically, but people don't like it. Certainly beats the two other main parties' positions on climate change.
After that, it gets blurry. I bounced through all the major media websites looking for a basic summary of the platform pledges so far.
No luck, though about everything else, from comedian Rick Mercer's take to nude shots of a Conservative candidate, were covered (or uncovered).
There are policy differences. Dion has promised money for the auto industry, farmers and post-secondary students and to boost arts spending. He's also pledged to honour the Kelowna accord and introduce a child care plan and spend more on social housing.
Harper offers about $750 to help first-time homebuyers and a tax break for seniors. He'll let the self-employed claim maternity benefits. And he'll cut the tax on diesel fuel, reducing transportation costs.
Neither leader of the main parties says he will increase taxes.
There's more to come. But so far, this has become a campaign about itself.
The two main parties are mostly trying to create a sense that the other guys are risky - note those Conservative ads suggesting electing Dion would be like pumping money into a slot machine - and that they are at least OK.
Voters are already trying to figure out how to vote strategically, in our outmoded system, to get the least bad outcome.
Good luck choosing.
Footnote: OK, this column might be considered part of the problem. As the campaign continues, I'll try to write once a week on the issues and where the parties stand.
But this is a campaign - again - that will likely be based on who voters don't want to see in power and on which party can do the best job of persuading its supporters to vote on Oct. 14.


Anonymous said...


There is some lingering consternation over campaign finances from the last time Harper's Conservatives put Canadian's through the election ringer.

I am wondering if even one of the too many 'journalists' covering this federal fiasco have asked any political ponies whether or not they are doing the old $$ in/out?

Gazetteer said...

Mr Willcocks said:

"As for the media, we're probably doing one of our worst jobs ever in communicating information to voters in a way that allows them to make an informed decision."

I agree.

Thus, I asked the CanWest reporter David Akin, who is on the campaign trail with Mr. Harper, a direct question about why there has been so little from the media regarding the policy change that led to the removal of government inspectors from meat processing plants (ie. as opposed to all the coverage of the 'jokes' associated with the aftermath of that policy change).

Mr. Akin, who like Mr. Willcocks has a blog with comments that he often answers, very kindly wrote a detailed and extremely illuminating response.

It can be found here.

For me, the following passage contains the take-home message:

"We are not getting to put questions to him (Mr. Harper) with the same frequency that we did in the 2006 campaign. On that campaign, every reporter travelling with him got to ask at least one question a day. This time around, his staff is restricting us to 10 questions a day -- eight from the press travelling with him and two for reporters from the region we are travelling in. Because there are more than eight national reporters, we must rotate and, as a result, we get just one question -- no followup -- every other day.

So there you have it.

National reporters following Mr Harper around the country get to ask one question every two days!

And worse, no follow-ups, which means the candidate can toss off anything he likes with impunity, which is precisely how Mr. Harper dealt with this (warning: pdf).

Given that, is it any wonder that, as a result, we are in the midst of a campaign about nothing?

(and it might also be worth considering why the candidate and his handlers like it that way)


paul said...

I wonder if the national media should just say no more national campaign coverage.
Let the local and regional media cover the campaign stops. That would force the parties to come up with relevant proposals every day.
And it would free all those reporters to report, instead of waiting to show up at the next photo op crafted by the career political guys.
Paul Willcocks

Vancouver Kingsway 2008 said...

Maybe Election 2008 can best be described as the "Seinfeld Election:" An election about nothing. Let's face it, Canadians didn't need, or want this election, it was more likely Harper's American handlers who suggested it before America shifts to the more centre-left Democratic leadership, that is unless the whole place crashes and the "shadowy men" find a way to suspend the election. No bailout of fake $$$ is going to save that big ole ship from smashing into the rocks.

Since I suspected as much about our election, I created my own blog, in which I'm advising the candidates and parties what appears to matter most to Canadians. This is based on my rabid media perusal, community involvement (not so rabid) and discussions with regular folks. Seems to be taking off like a house on fire, so I may be onto something. I don't think most Canadians find any relevancy in any of the leaders or parties. And many Canadians certainly don't feel like they have a voice in this silly political system.

Gazetteer said...


In principle I agree with you.

However, in practice this is exactly what the Republicans desired, and to some extent achieved in the last U.S. presidential election cycle.

Why would they want that? - Because they feel that the regional media (especially electronic) are less critical....and that regardless where stuff comes from (often directly from the campaign, fed to the regionals) once it is 'broadcast' it will be picked up by the Nationals because it is viewed as legitimate.

Good discussion about the worst excesses of this policy here.

And I for one, especially as someone who lives in Vancouver Kingsway, like what VanKingBlogspot is doing.


Anonymous said...

Paul, with all due respect -- and unlike most who start with that phrase, I quite mean it, because I normally love your pieces -- this column is absolutely part of the problem.

In a democracy, cynicism is mere laziness. The fact that the headlines have been about trivialities ignores the fact that all three major parties have put out lots of information about where they stand on issues like the environment, the economy and all the rest. Each party has a website chock full of information about where they want to see the country go.

Anyone who says that all the parties are the same needs to put a little mental energy into it. Certainly they all dumb-down their policies to talking points but that's mostly in response to a populace that pays so little real attention to the issues of the day. You don't think the wonkish types in these parties wouldn't love to regale you with the minutae of their proposals? Boy howdy, wouldn't that make for some great TV!

People talk about electoral reform as the saviour of our democracy. Nothing will save our democracy until the people of this country start to get involved - not just at elections, but by being aware and staying on top of the issues we face individually and collectively. And it would be helpful if our friendly neighbourhood media would be a little more interested in covering the real issues instead of focusing on triviality or falling back on the crutch of cynicism.