There’s a reason this election is so listless

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Unless you’re the most rabid of partisans, it’s pretty much agreed that this election has been utterly insufferable, and that everyone seems to focusing on a whole lot of penny ante bullshit rather than anything of substance.  It used to be that we could fight elections over a clear issue, and that we could have parties lay out clear positions and that there could be a genuine debate over those positions, and Canadians could go to the polls to make their preferences clear.  This election, however, is so far removed from that kind of narrative, and it’s become wearying.  But what has changed that makes this election so egregiously bad?  I would argue that it’s intricately tied to the fact that we are now in the reality of fixed election dates – and it’s suffocating what elections should be about.

It used to be that a government could chose the timing of an election – within a constitutional five-year window – and be able to put a question to the public.  It didn’t always happen this way, granted, but more than not, there was an impetus to the timing of the election call, and that could help set a narrative for what Canadians could be voting on.  The most famous example in recent memory was the 1988 election on free trade with the United States, where Mulroney faced enough political pressure, in the Senate and elsewhere, that an election was called in order for Canadians to be able to weigh in.  With the Liberals and NDP against him, Mulroney won a second majority parliament, and the FTA went ahead, and soon after became NAFTA – and the political centre of gravity shifted where trade is concern, where the Liberals are now free traders and the NDP’s anti-trade tendencies are somewhat more tempered.

But what is there to put to people when your election date is prescribed in four-year increments?  It essentially turns an election into a decision of whether to renew the current lease that the party in power has on the PMO.  Yes, there is an element of accountability to this – which elections should very much be about, and one of the things that an electoral system like ours is very good at doing.  The ability to “throw the bums out” is one of the most defining features of “first-past-the-post,” and we are all the better for it.  But unless you’re able to attach that question to a question about why the government deserves to carry on, it makes it harder for Canadians to care about the choice being put to them.

The parties have been trying to force their own narratives onto that choice – the Conservatives with a forced narrative of “affordability” that is largely a sham, built on a misreading of poll results that stated that nearly half of Canadians are $200 or less from insolvency at the end of the month.  But even there, the Conservatives keep getting distracted as to whether they want to make that the ballot question, as they try to use that “affordability” wedge to preach a watered-down version of climate denialism, and the constant flailing at trying to insist that Justin Trudeau is unfit to be prime minister – and because they seem incapable of basing their arguments on any very real issues or failings of Trudeau and his government – they have build a campaign on a series of lies, while asking Canadians which party they trust.  It’s hardly inspiring stuff.

The NDP, meanwhile, are trying to catch the “affordability” wave but trying to frame it around the Liberals and the Conservatives being too cozy with corporations – and then offering their own mischaracterizations about things like pharmacare (for all of those lobby meetings with the pharmaceutical industry that they keep pointing to, said industry is mighty unhappy with the government for their changes to the Patented Medicines Price Review Board that are forcing down the prices of prescription drugs) or the output-based pricing system for large emitters (falsely claiming that heavy industry is exempted when they are not, and that temporary exemptions are for the sake of those industries that are trade-exposed, which you would think a party concerned about workers and jobs would be all over).  Not to mention, they have a campaign whose promises all areas of provincial jurisdiction and telling Canadians that they’ll totally get the provinces to agree (while simultaneously offering them vetoes on things like pipelines).

The Liberals, unable to communicate their way out of a wet paper bag, have decided to try and run the campaign on the backs of Doug Ford and Jason Kenney, and asking Canadians if they want to be subjected to the same kinds of cuts on a federal level as those provinces are experiencing.  “Choose Forward,” a clumsy slogan if there ever was one, doesn’t really communicate that theirs is a government trying to make some transformational changes to the way this country is governed and that it’s a project that needs more than four years, so would Canadians like to see it carry on?  I’m sure they’d also like to make this a climate election, contrasting their record of actually bending the curve on emissions versus Scheer’s plan to undo the steps they have taken, but again, they can’t even get their message straight there, and promising to come up with future implementation plans leaves them vulnerable.

But for as much as the four-year election cycle is the imposition of Americana on our Westminster system, the increasing presidentialization of our media frames makes these elections more leader-focused than policy-driven.  That too is dragging down the discourse in this election, where you have leaders who are either damaged goods after repeated disappointments, uninspiring even to their own base, or who have alienated swaths of their supporters because they can’t organize to save their political lives.  And with the media pouring all of its focus onto those leaders, it’s leaving people to try and make an unpalatable decision that will only serve to turn people off.  These attempts at Americanizing our elections is making them intolerable, and it will only get worse the longer we keep down this path.

Photo Credit: Maclean’s

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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