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Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

Demanding Better Campaigns
By Ira Basen

June 25, 2004

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

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 too short.

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 things.

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.

Past Spin Cycles

Ira Basen has been with CBC Radio since 1984 as a documentary maker, senior producer and executive producer. He has written for Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus, and has taught a course titled "Spin: PR, Journalism and the Search for Truth" at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Ira's book on public relations and the media will be published by Penguin Books in 2005.

You can subscribe to Ira's column and have each new edition e-mailed to you.

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