The Spin Cycle
Demanding Better Campaigns
By Ira Basen
June 25, 2004
Probably the safest bet you can make heading into Monday night’s melodrama
is that it won’t be too long before we will be trudging back to
the polls for more of the same. Whichever party emerges with the most
seats after the June 28 vote, they will probably only be able to hold
things together for a year or two. So even before the votes are cast or
counted, we need to start thinking about the next campaign, and what we
can do to make it a more edifying, democratic experience than this one.
Election campaigns can lift our spirits, or make us despair over the
future of the democratic experiment. The campaign of November 2000 was
clearly an example of the latter. It was almost completely devoid of substance,
focusing instead on nasty personal attacks. One writer suggested that
if an alien had arrived from outer space during the campaign, they would
have thought the contest was between Benito Mussolini running for the
Alliance, and Bugsy Siegel for the Liberals. The election of 2004, by
comparison, has been a model of civility and substance. But we can still
do better. Here are a couple of modest suggestions.
Wednesday’s edition of the Vancouver Sun included the results of
an online poll where readers were asked whether they would like the campaign
to last longer “so you can learn more before voting.” Eighty-six
per cent of respondents said no, while 14 per cent answered yes. This
must be some sort of misprint. Surely no one in Canada, not even people
who answer online newspaper polls, could possibly think the campaign is
The fact is that this campaign has been running on vapours for about
two weeks now. The leaders have run out of things to say. They, and the
people covering them, look tired and bored, and they sound that way too.
For their sakes and ours, voting day can’t get here soon enough.
In Britain, general election campaigns are about two weeks shorter than
ours. And while it’s true there is a lot more ground to cover in
Canada than over there, our leaders aren’t exactly travelling by
stream train anymore. And it’s not as if they go out mainstreeting
and meeting real people when their campaign plane touches down somewhere.
These are photo-ops designed for maximum visual exposure and minimal contact
with anyone not chosen by party organizers. Would you really care if you
got a couple of weeks less of that?
Of course, there are people who argue that we need six weeks of campaigning
to allow people to make up their minds. But increasingly, it appears that
campaigns don’t seem to change that many minds after all. A CTV-Ipsos-Reid
poll taken on May 31, a week after the campaign began, showed the NDP
at 16 per cent, the Liberals at 34 per cent, and the Conservatives at
30 per cent. More than three weeks of hard campaigning later, the same
poll shows the Liberals and the NDP at exactly the same place as they
were after the first week, while the Conservatives had dropped two per
cent, which is within the poll’s margin of error. Obviously, people
do change their minds during a campaign. But it seems there are not as
many minds being changed over the course of 36 days as it may first appear.
This year’s great debate seems to have been met with a near universal
feeling of revulsion amongst Canadians. We are in desperate need of a
new format, one in which the participants are allowed to finish their
sentences, and they actually feel obligated to answer the question that
has been posed.
In Britain, party leaders do not debate during general elections. It
is considered to be “too American” for a parliamentary system.
In Canada, debates are clearly here to stay, and we should actually be
having more of them, not less, particularly if we persist in staging campaigns
that are six weeks long. Aside from adopting new formats, these debates
should be held in different parts of the country, with local media asking
questions that will be of interest to voters in that region.
It is also entirely possible that simply by debating more often, the
leaders’ behaviour will improve. Perhaps one of the reasons they
carry on the way they do is that they know there is literally “no
tomorrow.” They have just two hours to launch their attacks and
hurl their insults. Maybe they would appear slightly less desperate if
they knew they would get another crack at their opponent some other day.
This proposal will not be well received by the party apparatchik. Frontrunners
have nothing to gain and everything to lose in a debate, and since every
party hopes to one day be a frontrunner, it will be hard to get any of
them to agree to more debates.
But here’s where things could start to get interesting. You see,
thanks to the new campaign finance law, we the taxpayers are now paying
for these campaigns. Maybe it’s time we started demanding some value
for our money. For too long, the parties have run campaigns in their own
interests, not ours. Our objectives are quite different. Theirs is to
get elected. Ours is to make an informed choice. We should use our new
financial clout to restore the balance in our favour.
Why are we paying our good money to be manipulated, bamboozled and spun?
Why not tell the party leaders that if they want to take taxpayers’
money to fight their campaigns, they will have to agree to participate
in a certain number of debates, and town hall meetings and press conferences
where reporters are allowed to ask questions on topics other than that
day’s message? It would be nice if we could also legislate against
personal attacks and endless doses of spin, but at the very least, some
of these suggestions might make it harder for them to get away with those
One of the parties in this campaign thinks we should “demand better.”
Well okay, that’s a good idea. Let’s demand better campaigns.
We may now have the power to make it happen.