COVER

Just Not Good Enough

Panelists say campaigns need less hype, more substance

PATRICIA CHISHOLM June 9 1997
COVER

Just Not Good Enough

Panelists say campaigns need less hype, more substance

PATRICIA CHISHOLM June 9 1997

Just Not Good Enough

The Maclean's Election Panel

Panelists say campaigns need less hype, more substance

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

After five weeks of politicians, pundits and pollsters, Canadians could be forgiven if they are now turning their thoughts to beer and barbecues. But as Macleans found in its sixth and final weekly survey of about 50 undecided voters in five ridings across the country, the federal election was also an opportunity to reflect on the modern campaign machine, as well as the state of democracy in a country deeply splintered along regional lines. The panelists called for changes in everything from polling to the airing of complex policy issues. Yet a surprising number also voiced a deep-seated belief in the power of their vote. “Of course my vote is important,” said Condon Macleod, 45, a café owner in Halifax. “Otherwise, there would be no democracy.”

POLLING Polls, polls and more polls. With every election, it seems that the parties’ fortunes are more closely monitored by formal surveys, with even slight shifts in popularity elevated to headline news. Polls are perceived to be powerful—so powerful, in fact, that the federal Elections Act prohibits results being reported within 72 hours of an election to avoid influencing voters. This year, Elections Canada decreed that the ban even extends to informal “burger polls.” But many panelists said that polls have little effect on their decision, and for the most part receive too much media attention. A handful, though, called for fewer such surveys because they believe others may be swayed by them. ‘To me, polls just frighten undecided voters,” says Dawn Sloane, 29, a Halifax draftsman who works in computer-assisted design. “A lot of people want to be on the winning side.” But Kevin Ackhurst, a graduate law student who lives in the central Toronto riding of «

St. Paul’s, supports the use of polls and thinks that the three-day ban, especially on informal polls, is “ludicrous.” % Stephen Kimber, dean of journalism at King’s g College, believes that polls can provide a broad picture | of a campaign, but that more coverage should be given ¡ to analysis and the views of individuals. A different poll g every day, he says, is probably too much. “In general, ° coverage of the election was pretty good,” he said. “But some elements were missing and that is part of the reason that people had so much difficulty making up their minds.”

ADVERTISING AND THE DEBATES Along with polls, television advertising and TV debates are the power tools of party workers. Their capacity to influence the outcome is undoubted: the Conservatives, for instance, suffered badly in 1993 after the public condemmed Tory ads that personally attacked Jean Chrétien. But while most panelists seemed inured to the inevitability of both ads and debates, many called for changes. Too often, they said, a leader’s image was emphasized over policy and performance. “It all boils

down to how people look and sound on camera,” said Larry Bekich, 39, a consultant who lives in the St. Paul’s riding. “We’re bombarded by advertising—the messages are repeated, and the issues aren’t clarified in any meaningful way.” Several panelists also dismissed most ads as mudslinging, and expressed their distaste for such tactics. The debates suffered from some of the same problems, many added. They should be less confrontational, panelists suggested, and perhaps more frequent, with fuller explanations of policy positions and more intervention by moderators to prevent free-for-alls. A few, however, said they are a waste of time altogether, largely because of the leaders’ poor debating skills. “Personally, I’d prefer to watch a hockey game any day,” said Bruce Short, 48, an installer for BC Tel. “The days of Trudeau and Mulroney are long over.”

Commentator Robert Bothwell, professor of history at the University of Toronto, agreed that the level of this year’s debates was poor—and that the quality of the participants was the main reason. With the exception of Jean Charest, Bothwell said the leaders were “like kids on their first debate—the object was just to stay alive.” But he was even less inspired by the parties’ advertising. Some TV ads by the Reform party were bigoted, he said, while the Liberals were patronizing, and at least one Tory entry was so lacking in detail as to be “just stupid.”

AIRING THE ISSUES Many panelists complained about the overall quality of discussion during the campaign. Issues, large and small, were not thoroughly explored, many said, and some—such as child care and the environment—were ignored almost completely. In many ways, they noted, the campaign was far too superficial. “Most of the time was spent talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the different party leaders,” observed Valerie Snowdon, 54, an administrative assistant who lives in the riding of Calgary West. “I would like to see more all-candidates meetings and fewer photo opportunities—no more baby kissing!”

Some panelists said part of the problem was the shortened campaign: five weeks, they said, is not enough time to mull over the problems facing the country. Others, however, said that the leaders were the ones at fault, ducking too many of the hard questions or, in the case of the opposition parties, coming up with easy answers they knew would never be tested. One way to combat those problems, some suggested, would be to allow more direct votes on questions of key importance. “I think that is where your vote can really count,” said Eric Ross, 34, a magazine business manager who lives in Halifax.

“That’s like direct action. You can see the results.”

A HOUSE DIVIDED Most panelists predict that Parliament will retain its fractured makeup for some years to come, but many seem confused about its impact on the country’s future. A number believe little will change under any scenario. “They are stuck in their ways,” says secretary Marjolaine Emond of MPs. The 31-year-old, who lives in the Montreal-area riding of Brossard/La Prairie, added: “There’s not much we can do about it. It’s been like that for so long—it’s like an old pair of shoes.” Musician Mark De Jong, 28, who lives in the riding of Calgary West, echoed the views of many panelists who said they see considerable merit in minority governments, which may become a fact of life with so many parties splitting the vote. “In some ways, I think that a minority government is the most effective way to represent voters,” De Jong said. “It may be a way to really hash out the issues.” On the other hand, he noted that a vote for a regional party is often a strategic, so-called protest vote. “I don’t think that people in the West really want Preston Manning to be prime minister, but if he had an effective voice, that would be enough,” he explained.

National affairs journalist Ron Lebel, a Maclean’s panel expert, said that many voters are frustrated because Canada’s Parliament—originally designed for the two-party system—is not working well with five parties, each of them enjoying mostly re-

gional support. He predicted, however, that there may be fewer parties five years from now, since it is difficult for a party to survive simply as a regional protest group. Nevertheless, minority governments may become commonplace in the future, he said, and that could lead to a raft of problems, such as heavy government spending to ensure popularity and a general reluctance to propose controversial measures. “But it can place a check on arrogance and abuse of power,” he added.

FIVE SOLITUDES With five major parties, and five increasingly divided regions, some Canadians worry that the country is becoming even more difficult to govern. For some, however, that regional emphasis is long overdue. Says British Columbia’s Shott: “The West is a tax base. The country is ruled by Ontario, the vote is swung by Quebec. The Atlantic provinces and anything west of the Lakehead is not served by Parliament.” But even some of

the most committed regionalists still seemed to harbor strong feelings for the country. Benoit Bourbeau, 36, who describes himself as a Quebec nationalist, says he would be happy to be part of Canada under certain circumstances. “I’m fine in that big country,” says the insurance broker who lives in the Brossard/La Prairie riding. “We could renew federalism by decentralizing many things and granting each province a distinct society status.” But more than a few panelists are deeply concerned about what may lie ahead. Realtor Anita Yagod, 56, who lives in Toronto’s St. Paul’s riding, is disturbed by what she views as drastic changes in the political landscape. “It’s not a Canada anymore,” she says, “it’s an Ontario, a West, a Quebec. It’s coming to be like a bickering Europe. It’s very unproductive, and it costs a lot.”

But commentator Michael Howlett, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, said that the growth in the number of parties may not necessarily be a problem, since it gives a voice to regional concerns that tend to be drowned out in the age of globalization. The system can work, he suggests, so long as at least one party is addressing national concerns and the others are willing to bend. “If they are totally divisive, then it’s not a great thing,” he said. “But if they are willing to compromise, then you are ensuring that regional grievances are articulated and that they will be part of any solutions that are arrived at.” □

The Maclean’s panel responses were compiled with the participation of experts and students at five universities. In Halifax, Stephen Kimber, dean of journalism at King’s College, was assisted by Erin Pamela Greeno and Jaime Kathleen Little. Lindsay Crysler, director of journalism at Concordia University, and national affairs journalist Ron Lebel supervised Jean-François Bégin and David Gambrill in Montreal. University of Toronto history professor Robert Bothwell was assisted by Kathleen Rasmussen and Ann Flanagan. At the University of Calgary, political science professor Keith Archer oversaw the work of Carey Anne Hill and Mebs Kanji. At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., Michael Howlett, professor of political science, and John Richards, professor of business, were assisted by Russell LaPointe and Colleen Wetherall.