Canadians are alienated, but the politicians ‘just don’t get it’
E. KAYE FULTONSeptember131993
Canadians are alienated, but the politicians ‘just don’t get it’
During the federal election of 1965, Conservative Leader John Diefenbaker stubbornly boarded a train to conduct a 5,500-km campaign odyssey across Canada. Many of his advisers, fearing a Liberal rout, considered the trip by rail a tactical blunder. Trains were too slow, they argued, while railway stations were political anachronisms, reduced by the automobile to a string of bleak and empty platforms. In his elegant cocoon, Diefenbaker could be reached only by telegram, sent to the next stop on his journey. Overhead, Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson darted about the nation in a leased Viscount jet, churning out a steady stream of news releases. The Liberals won that election, but it was no rout. They held on as a minority government with 131 of 265 seats, to the Tories’ 97 and the NDP’s 21. It was Diefenbaker’s defiant whistle-stop campaign, doomed though it was, that stirred the public’s imagination: as the aging populist swept across the Prairies, town after town emerged to greet him with signs that read: “He cared enough to come.”
The politicians who stand ready to wage the 1993 federal election can only look back in envy at the public mood inspired by Diefenbaker’s quixotic journey. Seven federal elections later, much of the hope and optimism that formerly colored Canadian society has vanished. Voters have never been more alienated from the political process, more cynical and tired of talk or more despairing of their future. Politicians, meanwhile, have rarely appeared as eager to disavow the trappings of power or as anxious to project a caring image. Everywhere, elected officials are scrambling to adapt to the no-nonsense expectations of a nation that is no longer easily impressed. “This is the first time,” says pollster Michael Adams, hilly conscious of the irony, “that the party that promises the least may get the most.” Politicians have always faced the electorate with trepidation. With the vulnerability and guile of contestants in a beauty pageant, politi-
Frugality is in, empathy is crucial and less is more. In the 1990s, image still counts—it’s just that the rules have all changed.
cal candidates in the past were judged on image, poise and elocution. Ability and experience mattered; longstanding family political allegiances and a feast of campaign promises often mattered more. For all the differences in party platforms, the range of national leaders was clear: voters were asked to choose among three, sometimes four or five, men in suits.
But these are hardly normal times. The defeat of the constitutional referendum in October, 1992, represented a repudiation not only of the country’s political establishment but of its business and social elites. Now, with 1.6 million people officially unemployed, and a national debt approaching $500 billion, Canadians have made it \
abundantly clear that they have i f ú lost faith in the political system. * ^ * '
In 1988, Brian Mulroney’s Tories won re-election after a campaign in which they promised to “manage change.”
Five years later, voters no more trust the ability of their elected leaders—men or women—to manage than they blindly accept a political commitment to deliver.
are keeping tke public
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Take one step back.
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Your TV ads look too slick—skould kave used tkat kand-keld Camcorder. Take two steps back.
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What is not yet clear is what voters plan to do about it. ‘There’s something going on out there at a very deep level,” says Richard Anderson, a veteran Ottawa lobbyist who now plots strategy for the Calgary-based Reform party. “Canadians are ready to explore some serious changes to the way this country operates.”
Those changes are certain to affect the role of politicians themselves. In Canada and abroad, the political mood of the 1990s is perhaps best captured by the refrain ‘They just don’t get it.” Only days before Ottawa virtually closed down the East Coast fishery and tossed as many as 12,000 people out of work, Public Security Minister Doug Lewis complained to a reporter about the media’s fixation with the 11.6-per-cent unemployment rate. “No matter how you slice it,” he said, “88 per cent of the people are working.”
They just don't get it.
The New Democratic Party and its leader, Audrey McLaughlin, have repeatedly accused the Tories of selling out Canadian jobs to the Americans in the 1989 Free Trade Agreement. Amazingly, the party recently hired a Washington, D.C., firm to help produce the party’s election video.
They just don’t get it.
The Liberals have spent the past three years ducking any detailed public discussion of party policy because, they explained, they were afraid that other parties would steal their ideas.
They just don’t get it.
In the search for ways of coping with the unsettled 1990s, Canadian politicians are predictably devouring the lessons of the 1992 U.S. presidential election. One of the most obvious lessons concerns the electorate’s volatility. In 1991, thanks largely to the Gulf War, George Bush
was the most popular leader in the Western world. A year later, Americans decided that he was out of touch—and dumped him in favor of the previously obscure governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. And Clinton’s victory points up the importance of another factor: the extent to which voters can identify with a politician. Says Liberal pollster Michael Marzolini: “Baby boomers looked at the Clintons—Bill and Hillary—and could see themselves going out to dinner or to a show with them. They weren’t ordinary, but they were very representative.” Little wonder, then, that Canadian political leaders want voters to think of them as “just one of the folks.” The fashion industry may grumble, but Tory image-makers were delighted that Prime Minister Kim Campbell places a low priority on how many outfits she owns (“I’m so sick of that damn grey suit and those pearl earrings,” laments Campbell's friend Diana Lam, a Vancouver art gallery owner). Anxious to shed his image as yesterday’s man, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien posed for his official campaign poster in a blue denim Gap shirt, rather than the more conventional dark suit. While Campbell danced the twist in Toronto, Chrétien water-skied slalom-style for a photographer at his cottage near his home town of Shawinigan, Que. McLaughlin, meanwhile, has clung to her habit of walking to work from her downtown Ottawa apartment despite winning the NDP leadership in 1989. And Reform Leader Preston Manning, the millionaire son of a former Alberta premier, has cultivated a populist image with a down-home, “aw-shucks” manner—and a collection of string ties.
Of more practical strategic value, the U.S. election provided numerous examples of what works in the 1990s—and what does not. Clinton’s decision to do much of his campaigning by bus helped to create a folksy image of accessibility. Not by coincidence, Chrétien embarked this spring on his own pre-election bus tours of Quebec, the Maritimes and southern Ontario. Both Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot learned how to bypass the traditional—and often skeptical—media horde by staging electronic town hall meetings and appearing on cable television shows such as Larry King Live. “You know why I can stiff you on the press conferences?” Clinton taunted reporters last March. “Because Larry King liberated me from you by giving me to the American people directly.” Since then, MuchMusic, Canada’s national cable-TV rock station, has interviewed Campbell, Manning and Chrétien—who also has the distinction of being the first national party leader to appear on the CTV afternoon talk show Shirley. Says Kevin Shea, president of the Liberal election advertising team: “Politicians will visit places they never dreamed they’d find themselves. Basically, they’ll stop wherever they can get in front of as many eyeballs or beside as many ears as they can.”
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Unemplogment? You cant wave a magic wand and put people back to work, but at least gou care. Take four steps forward.
On a mid-afternoon television program last spring, three uncommitted Tory delegates in different parts of the country discussed their likely choices at the approaching June leadership convention. Two of them commented favorably about long-shot candidate James Edwards. After taping the segment in his Toronto office, John Laschinger, Edwards’s campaign manager, used a computer to draft three letters, complete with Edwards’s signature. Laschinger then transmitted the letters to Edwards in Calgary for approval. At 8 p.m. that day, a computer delivered the letters to Canada Post, which relayed them to post offices in the cities where the delegates lived. Laser printers transferred the letters onto paper; machines folded them into addressed envelopes. “By 10 a.m. the next day,” recounts Laschinger,
“the delegate was reading ‘Dear Samantha, thank you very much for the nice things you said about me yesterday afternoon.’ ”
The challenge for candidates this fall is similar—to break through the barrage of campaign messages with a faster, cleaner and more personalized message of their own. The Tories’ dominance in 1984 and 1988 was based in part on the party’s mastery of technology. Quite simply, the party outgunned its rivals with a lightning-fast internal communications network and a directmail system that targeted undecided voters in swing ridings. Those techniques are now standard fare for any party that can afford them. “People are going to try to find that swing voter and pummel him with direct mail, with questionnaires, with phone calls,” says Laschinger.
“They’ll reach in as low as you can get to find people who will make that difference.”
The advent of 24hour cable news channels — CBC Newsworld in Cana-
You finally convinced voters that you really don't want to be PM.
YOU WIN! K
Damage control —you announce that the new furniture will come from IKEA. You're back in the game.
Take linedancing lessons to show you're not a cultural elitist.
Take two steps forward.
You announce that you're more used to holding doors open for women than campaigning against them. Take three steps back.
da, CNN almost everywhere—has added a roller-coaster element to that style of guerrilla warfare. Issue by issue, Clinton used CNN to counter attacks from Bush with same-day responses that shifted the emphasis to his own remarks rather than the initial story. With a similar strategy in mind, the Tories have installed a satellite dish atop their Ottawa headquarters to monitor television feeds from reporters on the campaign. As a result, the party will be able to monitor what will be reported on the evening news long before it is broadcast to the rest of the country.
In the past, political parties mapped out a strategy at the beginning of a campaign and hoped that nothing unexpected dislodged it. Now, strategists would regard that approach as risky, if not downright foolhardy. During the 1988 televised leaders’ debate, then-Prime Minister John Turner knew that the audience was responding favorably to his impassioned attacks on free trade—because pollsters canvassing the viewing audience by telephone while the program was on the air told him so. In this year’s campaign, shifts in strategy are expected to hinge on an even closer tracking of public opinion. “Every morning we will be able to review every cough of the electorate the night before,” says Liberal pollster Marzolini. “If someone makes an unfortunate speech, or concern for an issue increases, we’ll know about it immediately.”
Most voters would be surprised by how much political parties know about them. Computer technology has pried open the doors of private homes to pinpoint with ever-increasing accuracy who lives inside. Reginald Alcock, who resigned this summer as a Liberal MLA in Manitoba to run for the party federally in Winnipeg South, has blended the official voters’ list with computerized information of his own. One of Alcock’s programs targets groups with similar interests in his riding of 65,000 voters; another tells him which voters posted Liberal lawn signs in the last provincial and federal elections; and another notes which ones have called his office for information. “A politician never wants to forget anybody,” says Alcock.
At a whistle-stop in the Alberta town of Taber in 1965, the late John Diefenbaker, then 70, told an audience of schoolchildren: “I only wish that I could come back when you’re my age to see the kind of Canada that you’ll see.” Twenty-eight years later, many of the people who heard those words have children of their own. Some are probably unemployed; chances are that most are more disenchanted with the political system than Diefenbaker could have imagined. And it will take more than a visit to their home towns by Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien or one of the other party leaders to restore their shattered faith.
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