Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Life catches up with a lot of candidates

Has Google cost most Canadians their chance to run for Parliament?
One of the oddest aspects of this election campaign is the number of candidates who have been fired by their parties, dropped out or at least embarrassed by their pasts.
There are four possible explanations. This could be a flawed group of candidates, but it's hard to see why that would be true. We - the public - could have become more judgmental. But again, why would we?
The parties are likely more intent on digging dirt on their rivals. One of the most offensive aspects of elections today is the "war rooms." These are big budget operations set up mainly to snipe at the other side. The concept assumes both that politics is a game, and the object is annihilation. Surely we've gone beyond tribal warfare?
The biggest factor is the online world. Our pasts are much more with us than ever before.
On some level that's good when it comes to political candidates. They should be accountable for the lives they've led. But the peccadilloes being picked on vary wildly in significance.
And will any reasonable people run in future, knowing that they will be judged on such small aspects of the lives?
The New Democrats have lost three candidates here in B.C., One was linked to a business that sold coca seeds and had been broadcast on the Internet driving after smoking pot, as a demonstration that it wasn't risky. Another had been broadcast judging various strains of marijuana on a webcast. It was hardly a shock - both were long-time marijuana activists.
The Conservatives have lost a candidate to drugs too. A Saskatchewan MP said he wouldn't run because he had to deal with an addiction to prescription sedatives. (Though based on the number of Canadians reporting drug and alcohol dependencies, about 30 MPs should be representing their concerns.)
Nudity has come up a few times. Liberal candidate Briony Penn did a stylish Lady Godiva ride in 2001 in downtown Vancouver to protest logging. Conservative candidate Sharon Smith was briefly famous in 2003, after she had been elected mayor of Houston. Her husband had taken photos of her in the mayor's chair, wearing just the chain of office. Her kids had a party, someone peeked at the computer and Houston was on the map. Neither candidate has faced any real criticism.
But New Democrat candidate Julian West's candidacy came to an end this week over reports he was too keen on skinny dipping at a 1996 environmental conference attended by young teens. He also reportedly dropped his pants during a body painting session. He was 31 at the time. It sounded creepy, really.
What's weird is that this wasn't really a surprise. The allegations were covered at the time.
West's withdrawal came too late for the New Democrats to replace him and made things very interesting in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands. Gary Lunn, the Conservative natural resources minister, looked a good re-election bet, in part because Green Andrew Lewis, New Democrat West and Liberal Penn would split the vote. With the NDP out, Penn has a better chance.
The Conservatives have had their own creepy episode. Toronto Conservative candidate Chris Reid quit the race, suddenly too busy to run, once his blog postings became public. He had written that gays and women should be carrying handguns to protect themselves. Canadian gun laws, he said, had created "a castrated effeminate population."
A Conservative candidate in Burnaby-New Westminster is hanging in, despite reports he's been disciplined three time for incompetence and misconduct by real estate regulators. And two Quebec Conservatives were dumped over anti-aboriginal comments.
This kind of candidate attrition is new. And worrying.
Worrying because some quite bad candidates seem to make it through the nomination process, which is mostly a sign of a lack of involvement in candidate selection.
And worrying some good candidates are being hassled over long-ago, minor stumbles.
Footnote: This should be a useful lesson, especially for young people. The YouTube video from a party that seems so funny today, or the blog that sets out to provoke with outrageous comments, is permanent. In 20 years, it might be awkward to explain why it seemed such a good idea.

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.