'In politics, you need to get people fired up': Prof talks election strategies, scandals
Carleton University's Jonathan Malloy on attack ads, debate dodging and why the election hasn't been called
The federal election is due to be called on or before Sept. 15, but campaign tactics are already becoming evident, as parties unofficially jockey for votes.
Jonathan Malloy, professor of political science at Carlton University, spoke to guest host Doug Dirks on the Calgary Eyeopener Monday about ongoing scandals, which parties are doing effective damage control and election strategies as we close in on election season.
Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: For listeners who took this summer off from politics, what did they miss over the past few weeks?
A: They missed a lot of the parties testing some of their campaign ideas and attacking each other, which they've really been doing for months and even years. But a couple of highlights would certainly be the Ethics Commissioner's report on SNC-Lavalin, which was very damning for the prime minister. Also, the Liberals released a video of Andrew Scheer talking about same-sex marriage back in 2005, which was not a big secret. It's well-known. But that really hit the Conservatives hard — harder than I thought it would — and Mr. Scheer had some trouble explaining some of his positions on social conservative issues. Those are a couple of big highlights.
Q: How are the parties doing at damage control so far?
A: Some better than others. [The Liberals are] clearly weathering out SNC-Lavalin. They don't have a lot they can defend there, but they're just hunkering down and continuing with it. The Conservatives, though, had a lot of trouble handling that social conservative issue because it is something they are vulnerable on, they are trying to straddle the issue, and so they had trouble articulating their position there.
Another highlight might be last week in New Brunswick, when the Green Party announced a number of New Democrat candidates had switched over to the Green Party. The New Democrats then fought back and showed it wasn't really the case, and it was a lot more complicated than that. So, that would be a good example where the NDP, I think, had some effective damage control.
Q: There are several debates already scheduled, but Justin Trudeau has said he won't participate in all of them. What do you make of that?
A: It's pretty logical. If you're [the] sitting prime minister, you want to minimize the number of debates — just because you're already well-exposed to the country, everybody knows you, and it's just more chances for the opposition to gang up on you and to make errors. Whereas if you're an opposition leader, basically you want all the debates you can. You want to get your face out there, you want to show you can attack the prime minister. So, both sides are acting pretty logically that way.
Q: We're already starting to see the attack ads, so what do you make of the tone so far?
A: I'm not sure this is going to be much different than any other Canadian election campaign where the parties are going to put positive messages about how they're best for Canadians ... But of course, you're also going to have attacks. There'll be a lot of attacks on the government record, on Mr. Trudeau's failed promises, and the government's going to fight back — and in particular with Andrew Scheer and social conservatism, which is something they've been doing for months now already.
Q: We're expecting the official election call by Sunday. What's taking so long? How about the timing of all this?
A: Two things, really. One is the "caretaker convention" — when the writ officially drops, then the government officially goes into full caretaker mode. So cabinet ministers can't be going around at taxpayer expense making announcements on things, which they are doing still.
But also, the big issue is spending. Under the rules, the parties have been limited in how much spending they can do since last June 30, and they can't really fully start spending money until the writ is actually dropped. And the Conservatives almost certainly have more money than the Liberals. So it's in the Liberals interest to drag it out as long as possible before that Conservative spending machine can really get going. That's almost certainly what's happening here.
Q: I've spoken to several people who have already been turned off by the tone of the campaign so far, and they'd like to hear more about policy than personal attacks. So what about policy? What can we expect to hear over the next six weeks or so?
A: I mean, there's lots of policy out there. All the parties have … released all their platforms pretty much [and] others are coming out. You can see some clear divisions, pipelines certainly being a key one ... But frankly, often it is the negative stuff that gets people's attention, and particularly in politics, you need to get people fired up. You need to get Canadians to decide they actually want to come out and vote. And so, the parties do talk policy — but it's the negativity that usually ... gets people talking.
Q: One person you haven't mentioned yet is Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People's Party of Canada. What are we expecting from him?
A: The best answer I can give is [that] I don't know, because Mr. Bernier is pretty unpredictable. The People's Party came out a year ago, [and] I have to admit I was dismissive [because] these things usually don't go anywhere, but he's been able to raise money [and] he's got almost a full slate of candidates. But he's ... getting increasingly strident in anti-immigrant talk, in anti-environmentalist talk — he's very, very unpredictable that way ... He could have a distraction for some conservative voters, [or] he may have no effect at all.
Q: The Canadian economy is in pretty good shape right now with the exception perhaps of some of the issues we've seen here in Alberta. So what impact is that going to have on voters' minds when we go to the polls at the end of October?
A: It's hard to know, because a lot of the economic figures — employment figures and things like that — are actually pretty good for Canada these days. But people obviously evaluate things based on how they feel about themselves, not what the statistics say, and you see some of the parties really targeting that. The Conservative slogan is, "It's time for you to get ahead," so very individualistic, saying you should economically prosper. But the Liberals have been talking about the middle class in the last election and they're saying it again.
So each party is going to be talking about people's economic prospects, but they're gonna be phrasing it in different ways, trying to resonate with how people personally evaluate their own economic situation.
With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.