Politicians figure all the angles. Or at least they think they do. Sometimes the voters figure one more angle than the politicians. When that happens, the politicians are dismayed, not to mention defeated. People think it can’t happen in an age of scientifically drawn opinion polling, but it still can. It is what makes democracy fun.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the electoral politics of summer, that magic moment in political time when the candidate approaches the voter, and the voter asks the candidate to please rub some on his back. Gary Filmon and David Peterson are finding out about summer politics. The premiers, respectively, of Manitoba and Ontario decided to call early September elections, for reasons of varying validity. Filmon’s was that he had a minority government and had a chance, after two years in office, to win a majority. Peterson’s was that he had a majority government and had a chance, after three years in office, to win another one.
So they both pulled the plug, with Filmon’s election falling on Sept. 11, Peterson’s on Sept. 6. Since then, analysis of the two campaigns has focused on how unready the voters are to face them. The voters are on vacation, their entire awareness of current affairs consisting of tomorrow’s weather forecast. Many of them are far from home, so when a candidate comes calling to talk local issues, he is talking about the wrong ones.
Political smart guys in government think that’s just fine. The less prepared the voters are to think about the issues, the theory goes, the less inclined they will be to think unflattering thoughts about the government. Furthermore, the happier voters are with their lives, the more content they will be politically. Since voters on vacation are perceived to be at their happiest, it is presumed that the party in power—Filmon’s Conservatives, Peterson’s Liberals—will benefit.
Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.
The fact that it makes sense—Peterson won a landslide victory in an election held at about this time three years ago—doesn’t mean it always works. It is worth remembering that these same angles were covered only six years ago—by the governing federal Liberals under John Turner. Turner looked at the polls, saw favorable numbers, saw that it was summer and dropped the writ. Somewhere, in a haze of suntan oil, mosquito repellent and barbecue fumes, the voters saw the name Brian Mulroney.
This summer, voters in two late-summer byelections, one in Oshawa, one in Montreal, looked through the same haze and found the names of opposition candidates. Political smart guys can be too smart for their own good.
Even the voter’s inattention to the issues can work against the party in power. Because if the voter is not paying attention to the issues dreamed up by politicians, he is paying attention to issues of his own. No more dangerous situation can exist for a politician than when a voter wanders away from the agenda and begins thinking for himself.
In the minds of the voters, real issues exist in an end-of-summer election. The politicians, obsessed with Meech Lake and forgetting
Stony Lake, Lake Huron, Lac Massawippi, Lake of the Woods, Clear Lake, White Lake, Lake Louise and Lake Joseph, easily lose sight of what is really on the minds of the voters as summer recedes. While the governing parties try to downplay the language issue, neutralize the scandal issue and sidestep the taxation issue, they are neglecting what may be, as summer fades, the real issues—issues such as:
• When is the government going to do something about this weather?
• What about those reports of beaver droppings contaminating the drinking water?
• What is the government doing about developing a silent crow?
• How come the American baseball games come in loud and strong on the radio at night, but the Canadian ones don’t?
• Why don’t the raccoons go back to the city?
• There seem to be more mosquitoes now than when the government was first elected.
• How come biodegradable soap has to smell like exotic vegetables?
• Even before this Iraq thing, the price of gas at the marina was way, way up.
These are not topics to be taken lightly. The symbolism of the beaver droppings question is self-evident. The baseball issue speaks to ageold nationalist yearnings. And the mosquitoes bite. Yet the politicians, campaigning in the old way, devote not the slightest part of their attention to such problems. The height of their devotion to the problems of summer is a quick photo op eating com at a lake, then, quick, back into the bus and back to the city where the voters are.
And of course there are voters in the city. But they are not thinking politics either—at least not in the traditional sense. Their political thoughts include the following:
• What’s the government going to do about that guy’s stereo down the street?
• Why does the whole world smell like frying grease?
• When is the construction going to stop?
• Has it clouded over, or is that the haze again?
• Why don’t the raccoons go back to the country?
• Is it possible to buy a lunch box that doesn’t have a turtle on it?
• Why can’t someone find a left-handed relief pitcher?
• Will the river always be too polluted to swim? As Labor Day approaches, we are not normal people. The body politic is sunburned. We do not think as normal voters. We itch in places the politicians can’t scratch. We are too busy thinldng about back to school to think about the weaknesses of the education system. Much as we might like to ponder the deficit, the question uppermost in our minds is when they’re going to four-lane this stupid highway. We are not ourselves. We are likely to do something really crazy—like throw the provincial government out for no reason or elect a separatist to the federal Parliament.
You would think Peterson, Filmon and the rest had lived in this country long enough to know better, but apparently not. They have unleashed forces they don’t understand.
David Peterson and Gary Filmon pulled the plug, but the voters’ entire awareness is of tomorrow’s weather
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