This post is a continuation from yesterday. To read lessons 1-5, click here. "I found it very difficult," explains Ray Pennings, "to vote for party whose leaders I viewed as either lacking character or incompetent, regardless of the platform." Which shows that…
Alberta is simply the latest example. B.C. observers will recall an even more dramatic example last year in which the conventional wisdom regarding voting preferences on the day the election was called was very different from the result on election day. Some of that can be attributed to weaknesses in our polling methods, but most of it should be attributed to the fact that many Canadians largely pay close attention to politics only during election campaigns. The implication is that when we read “horse race” polls between elections, we have to exercise great caution. “If an election were held today, who would you vote for?” is, in most cases, an almost irrelevant question. Indeed, the only truly relevant question is who voters will vote for after the campaign ends. If Albertans had been asked on October 18, 2014 (the day Rachel Notley was chosen NDP leader) if they would vote her, it’s impossible to imagine them saying “yes” in sufficient numbers to win her 53 seats in the legislature. Indeed, a majority might not have even known who she was. At the end of the 2015 campaign, they not only knew her but also gave her that majority. Campaigns matter.
Unfortunately, this also means….
Image and slogan trump policy substance. I’m a political geek so actually do read the platforms, candidate profiles, and daily news coverage. Most of my neighbours don’t. It became clear in conversations about the Alberta election campaign, reinforcing long-held perceptions, that the “swing voters” (people who do vote but follow politics superficially at best), are influenced by images and perceptions. I understand that in party war rooms, news coverage is watched with the sound off: it is only the pictures and images that really make an impact. There is no doubt that in Alberta, Premier Notley won the campaign that was fought with the sound off. And the irony is that those whom I expect to be most offended by this principle, and suggest they are “more substantial” in their evaluations, often demonstrate by their rhetoric that they are as influenced as anyone by slogans and headlines over considered substance.
There is a disconnect between campaigning and governance.
Within hours of the NDP being elected, its platform and candidate profiles were removed from relevant websites. Premier Notley understood that being elected was different from campaigning for election. She is hardly the first. On one hand, this is alarming. On the other, it is a hat-tip to realism. Campaigns tend to make ideas absolute as either brilliant or terrible, all good or all bad, depending on the side of the issue you’re on. Nuance doesn’t make for good sound bites, and it's meaningless for campaigns with the sound turned off. Governance, however, takes place closer to the middle of the spectrum and involves acknowledging and dealing with the pros and cons of every issue. On a spectrum of 1-100, campaigns take place in the zero to 30 and 70 to 100 range of rhetoric. Governance operates mostly in the 40 to 60 range where public policy is changed by slow incremental movement in one direction or the other.
That reality means…. Politics has its limits.
A consequence of the difference between governance and politics—or more accurately, the precursor that makes this so—is politics mostly following culture rather than leading it. As a social conservative, I found it interesting that there wasn’t a single party in the Alberta election willing to touch social conservative issues. The Conservatives adopted Bill 10, which required so-called Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs in every school. It was their attempt to remove an NDP argument in ridings where the Tories felt themselves vulnerable (they didn’t know, then, just how vulnerable they were; see “campaigns matter” above). The Wildrose leader, Brian Jean, punted a social conservative candidate over an eight-year-old blog posting that, hypocritically, he knew about beforehand and only acted upon when the opposition raised it (see “character and conviction” above). This isn’t an argument about controversial social issues. It is a demonstration that when the culture is clearly on one side of an issue, politicians are impotent to take the issue on.
Which leads to…. The importance of recovering ancient democratic principles. The resignation of Tory leader Jim Prentice on election night, despite his having won a seat in the legislature, highlights a most depressing truth. Legislatures seem to matter less and less, so much so that leaders like Prentice do not deign it worth their time to sit as “only MLAs” if the opportunity to serve as a cabinet minister or premier seems remote. And while his resignation seemed a distasteful expression of this reality, he is hardly alone. Federal and provincial legislatures are increasingly viewed as inconvenient nuisances by majority governments. Although there is struggle occurring between the executive and judicial branches of governments, the legislative branch is drawing the short stick, protestations from MP Michael Chong and columnist Andrew Coyne notwithstanding. If the changes in democratic politics sketched above are to have any real significance, balance must be restored between the legislative and executive branches at the very least.
But how do we get there from here, especially in light of a Supreme Court that has made Senate Reform next to impossible? I wish I could say I knew. Having begun my active political life at 14, and now passed into middle age, the one thing I see with certainty is that Canadian democracy remains in the midst of a slow metamorphosis in which the experience of genuine democratic inclusiveness and health seems a long-shot hope. At the same time, just six months ago, candidates, campaign managers and pundits were all saying much the same about Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP.