It is supposed to be the easiest thing in the world. You enter the polling booth, make a mark with a pencil and then, a few hours later, a result is announced, a Member of Parliament is elected and democracy is said to have happened. Your pencil mark means you participated in the democratic process. But it is becoming more complicated each time we walk into the polling both to make that mark. Democracy is about more than voting.
The democratic process begins well before elections with the work of informing people about issues, challenges, opportunities, threats and possible policies. For this work we rely on the “old” media, social media as well as friendship networks, families and campaign organizations. This is not easy work, since complex issues get reduced to slogans and ideas marketing. Few give time to study issues in depth, relying instead on catch phrases and headlines for their information. One hundred and forty characters is not enough to convey the challenges of climate change, population decline, immigration or the challenges faced by our cultural institutions. Yet the “twittersphere” is becoming as important as newspapers, radio and television as means for conveying ideas. The commentariat – those who write to inform and comment – say less and less but do so more often.
Making sense of the world and seeing what needs to be changed is the essence of politics. Yet the world makes less sense to many and party politics is just nonsense to some. In fact, voter turnout over the last several elections shows the continued neglect of voting by a growing number of people across Canada. They are disengaged, disenfranchised and disgusted by politics.
But it is not just the lack of understanding that is affecting our politics. The cult of personality is also getting in the way. In the current Canadian Federal election the media seems preoccupied with the leaders of the main political parties – they cover their every move. The only other concern is the various faux pas of candidates from all parties. The more bizarre the comment, behaviour, Facebook entry or past university indiscretion the more space was dedicated to revealing the poor judgement of candidates. Several ended their candidacy after being revealed to be unfit for office following media scrutiny. This scrutiny is also about personality or, more accurately, character. Not unimportant, but less important than the work they intend to do.
Leaders matter. But so too does their analysis of the current challenges and their strategic intentions. So too does their ability to engage, involve and understand the needs of constituents. So too does the whole team that will have responsibilities in office, not just the leader. So too does policy.
Policy. That elusive thing. That thing that seems to shift with the wind during an election. That thing that, though there have been many months and years to develop sound and measured detailed policies, seems to be rethought on the fly rather than stuck to because focus groups and polling suggest that it is not popular or is too complicated. We now see policy in terms of being seeing to do good rather than doing the right things right.
Take climate change. Taxing carbon emissions is seen by most to be doing good and doing what is expected. Yet the right thing may be something quite different – changing the energy strategy of a nation, investing more in public transport and investing heavily in energy efficiency. Policy as a mantra rather than carefully thought through development seems to be the norm. Take health care policy. What people expect is a strong defence of Canada’s publicly funded health system. Yet the right thing might be to shift to multiple providers funded by a single payer. Take the CBC. What many expect is a strong defence of public broadcasting. What might be the right thing is closing CBC television but focusing instead on the power of radio and online multimedia. Good policies may require risk, imagination and creativity – not things one generally finds in mainstream political policy thinking.
The economic strategy is another area where all tread carefully. The “balanced budget mantra”, which is an epidemic amongst Canadian politicians, makes little sense in a shifting and changing economy which, frankly, is not doing very well. What is needed is stimulus spending, focused investments in innovation and a reinvestment in specific social programs to stimulate change. Debt should be welcomed not feared. Only one leader suggests this and is widely ridiculed by the commentariat for doing so. Canada is also secretly negotiating a trade management deal with other Pacific rim nations which will, in the long term, be very damaging to Canada. Yet this is seen as too complex an issue to really explore.
The thinking voter seeks to understand such issues, wants to know that the candidates and their leaders understanding the issues and wants to see policies which address the complexity of the issues. Sound bite policies are not enough. The engaged voter wants to be part of the process of developing policy and needs to see themselves able to participate in making policy happen locally, Provincially and regionally. Instead, the parties just seek our vote not our commitment. Rather than engage, they seek to canvas and truck voters to the poll to ensure they vote. The electorate is a vote-fodder, not engaged citizens.
And then there is the question of the team. Who is the team that will govern? When I was involved in political work, the strategy was always to display the bench-strength of the team. It was more than the leader. In the current Canadian election, the team is kept in the dungeon, locked up and out of sight in case they say things which the leader then has to clarify, correct or challenge. When they do emerge, the commentariat seems surprised to hear from them and unsure what to do in reporting their views. Why are we not seeing team profiles and the potential strategies they will pursue when in office? Who are these people? We all want to know.
In a few days I will walk to an early poll to cast my vote. It's a depressing task. The candidates have been knocking on my door, but don't really want to engage (“we have lots of doors to knock”) or debate. What they want to do is win, despite their lack of depth. One just spent their precious few minutes extolling the virtues of their leader. Yet it is not the leader I am voting for, it was him. Another said he would love to debate policy with me after the election. I am reminded of what an elementary school student told me when I ran a mock election in our classroom: “it doesn't matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in!”.
I have to vote tactically, since my real choice is “none of the above” and “definitely not the current lot”. Fortunately, the candidate I will vote for is someone I know personally and think I can trust to focus on what matters most. But even he is keeping a low profile, keeping out of the limelight and seeking to lower expectations. It is all a depressing experience. Whatever happened to genuine, engaged, passionate and compassionate politics? Where did the fervour go?