Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Trash Talking on the Campaign Trail

“Elections are pretty catty, aren’t they?””

That’s what my 16-year-old daughter said this morning, while we listened to politicians trash each other’s latest proposals for health care, taxes, or whatever. No matter what the statement, the first, predictable, response, was scorn, contempt, sneering…(insert your favourite modifier here.)

Nowhere is there any attempt to engage in a real debate. No, that would not be the way it’s done these days. We’re off and running on Day 4 of the Great Canadian Election…and we’re already getting tired. True, it does look like it will be an interesting contest, with no one sure about the final outcome. But like many others that I’m hearing and reading, I’m just a little tired of the predictable and negative nature of modern campaigning.

It’s a leader’s campaign, no doubt about it. The TV networks and newspapers are full of what the leaders are saying, where they’re going, and what they’re saying about each other. It’s Paul Martin’s health care plan, Jack Layton’s inheritance tax and Stephen Harper’s musings about the welfare of Atlantic Canada under another Liberal government. OK, they might be party positions, but that’s not the spin that’s put on them. We’re supposed to vote for the leader we like the best, the one we trust the most and the one who seems the most competent.

That’s why my youngest daughter’s comments are so intriguing. If what I’m reading about in all the major media is true, she’s the generation that today’s politicians should be taking square aim at. Her cynicism and lack of real interest is a simmering problem. Or perhaps the better target might be my 19-year-old son and his friends. They’re all eligible to vote in their first federal election. But a quick sampling of a few of their opinions reveal a distinct lack of interest in what’s going on. Elections are for others, despite the fact that they all participated in mock election exercises in high school. They’re not tuned out…they just don’t see politics (and government) as relevant to them. Maybe they’re right. (The Globe and Mail has an interesting series on what younger voters think.)

When I came of age, voting was something you did. I don’t remember thinking about it much. I voted, and that was it. My father was a civil servant, and never revealed his voting intentions to any of our family. He was an old school public servant, who believed he and his colleagues should be non-political. During his career, his view fell out of fashion, as various Saskatchewan governments began encouraging, and then expecting, civil servants to take an active role in ensuring that the current government (the one signing your paycheque!) stayed in power. My Dad watched as political appointees took over from career civil servants. Eventually, he was squeezed out too, since he wouldn’t agree to be politicized. I know some of what happened to him now, but at the time, I had no idea. It was only after he retired that some of what he went through came out.

I suppose my background influenced my own political views. I have a strong respect for our parliamentary tradition. But I still don’t tell people how I vote. That made sense while I was a journalist, but now, I guess it’s just a habit. When I was a reporter at the legislature in Regina, I often stayed late at night listening to the debates, even though there was no earthly reason to do so. I liked the arcane detail and the traditions. I probably would have been happy to have been a clerk. It wasn’t news and nothing I was listening to was going to make it into my stories. In fact, my stories were long gone. Most of the day’s news was written immediately after Question Period, which conveniently occurred at 1:30 pm, so that the TV news guys could file in time for the supper hour news. For the rest of the day, the press gallery was a pretty lonely place. Just the odd print reporter hanging around to see if anything interesting happened.

I’m digressing…back to the point that started this rambling post. I know I’m a hopeless romantic, but there’s little about political discourse today that attracts me anymore. Today’s election campaigns are calculated, scheduled and managed. There is little that happens that hasn’t been planned in advance. Sure, there are still mistakes, and they’ll still make big news. And you know that voters are going to surprise us yet again. They may not end up voting the way that pollsters predict. Or they might. There’s enough polls during the campaign that chances are someone, somewhere will probably get the results right. During the campaign itself, however, the comments will be “catty” most of the time.

Back in 1993, Kim Campbell was crucified for her candid comments that election campaigns were not the place for a serious discussion about public policy. Although she paid a price for that statement (and a few others), it looks like she was right. We don’t discuss serious policy during election campaigns. But the difference now is that the politicians are up front about it. They walk from one planned event to another, secure in the knowledge that they’re aiming their comments at the TV, not the real people that are in front of them. (Or not, as is sometimes the case in the case of some photo-ops for the cameras.) You’d think that people would be upset about it, and in truth, you do hear a lot of grumbling about the process. There might even be more grumbling this time than in previous elections. But the process doesn’t seem to be changing much.

Will I be voting on June 28? Sure…but then, I usually do. I wonder how many others will be joining me?

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