Saturday, August 27, 2011

Don't blame democracy

Dear Sir/Madam:

The Globe’s condescending take on plebiscitary democracy is misplaced. “HST’s defeat in BC shows danger of ruling by plebiscite”

Just because you disagree with British Columbia voters because they rejected the HST doesn’t mean they voted the wrong way.

In fact, voters usually make the right choice based on the arguments placed before them.

In the case of the BC plebiscite, the pro-HST side simply didn’t present a convincing enough case.

So don’t blame voters for the result and don’t blame democracy

Friday, August 19, 2011

In politics vagueness works

Here’s some free political advice: If you’re running for elected office don’t ever give voters dozens of reasons not to vote for you.

Now you might think that’s stupid advice because, after all, what candidate or party would ever do such a ridiculous thing?

But believe me, it happens all the time.

It happens, for instance, every time a candidate releases a detailed and specific policy platform during or before an election.

These are the platforms candidates will proudly hold up at a news conference and say something like: “Here is an extensive list of my specific promises which I will enact to get the country/province/city moving again.”

Sometimes they even have special names: Contract with America, Red Book, Pledge to America, Changebook.

It’s a nice idea, but also an incredibly risky one.

It’s risky because every specific and detailed policy idea in your contract or book or pledge has the potential to anger or frighten or confuse a voter.

A voter might say to himself, “I really liked this candidate but then I read his 75 Point Platform, and I don’t like point 15, I hate point 56 and I would never vote for a guy who would carry out point 62.”

And there’s another danger of coming out with a detailed plan: It gives your political opponents potential ammunition to use against you.

Indeed, given that most voters don’t follow policy questions all that closely, it’s pretty easy to put a negative spin on any proposal or promise that’s new or untried or in any way controversial.

For instance, during the 2011 federal election the Liberals released a “Red Book” which promised to hike corporate tax rates and to end tax breaks for oil sands development.

This gave Conservatives an opportunity to pounce, which not surprisingly, they did.

Indeed, almost as soon as the Liberal Red Book was released, the Tories were calling it tax and spend politics.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty declared” “Michael Ignatieff’s election platform will raise taxes, kill jobs and put our economic recovery in jeopardy."

Sounds pretty scary doesn’t it?

Anyway, the point is the Liberals put themselves on the defensive, at a time when they should have been attacking.

This is not to say a candidate shouldn’t have some sort of “plan.”

It’s definitely a good idea to let voters know you have an agenda or vision.

But it’s always advisable to keep your plan as vague as possible, ie “Our plan is to reduce government waste, cut taxes and promote trade.”

Any plan that’s too detailed could do more harm than good.

But what about the Liberal Party’s famous Red Book plan released during the 1993 federal election?

It contained a detailed plan for Canada and conventional political wisdom suggests it played a major role in helping the Liberals win a massive victory.

But did it?

As statisticians like to say, correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

In other words, just because a political party wins an election after releasing a detailed policy platform doesn’t mean the platform actually helped it win.

Any number of variables can determine the success or failure of a political campaign.

In the 1993 Canadian election, for instance, the Liberals were running against an extremely unpopular, tired and poorly led Progressive Conservative Party.

Given such a weak opponent, the Liberals would likely have won handily Red Book or no Red Book.

Indeed, I strongly suspect few Canadian voters even bothered to read the Liberal Red Book.

OK, I know all this sounds cynical.

But as someone once said, “cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth”.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Here’s why Senate reform isn’t going to happen

Anyone who thinks Canada’s Senate will be reformed anytime soon should brush up on their ancient Roman history.

The Romans, like us, had a Senate.

And it was a political entity that for hundreds of years was basically powerless.

But it was resilient: In fact, the Roman Senate actually kept meeting for about one hundred years after the Empire had fallen.

The point I’m trying to make is that political institutions, no matter how archaic and ineffective they might be, can sometimes prove extremely durable and resistant to change.

The Canadian Senate is one such institution.

And yes I know Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Senate reform, including having elected Senators, is one of his priorities.

But that doesn’t mean his words or his promises will translate into action.

After all, the Prime Minister is a shrewd political thinker, meaning he probably realizes that taking on the massive job of Senate reform is not really in his interest.

For one thing, convincing the provincial Premiers to go along with reforming the Upper House will require expending an awful lot of energy and an awful lot of valuable political capital on an issue that offers little in the way of positive returns.

Plus, from the Prime Minister’s perspective the Senate probably works just fine as it is.

Why would he rush to have elected Senators when having the power to appoint people to the Senate gives him a great way to reward his loyal supporters?

And let’s face it, would Harper really want elected Conservative Senators, who won’t owe their jobs to his patronage, running around Ottawa?

Such Senators might show an independent streak and (horror of horrors) speak their own minds without regard to Conservative talking points.

Of course, the Prime Minister might still push for Senate reform if there was a public demand for it.

But does anybody really care about changing the Senate?

Certainly, people cared about 25 years ago.

Indeed, back then reforming the Senate was a hot topic in Western Canada, especially in Alberta.

For instance, Albertans were demanding what was called a “Triple –E Senate”, that is a Senate that was elected, effective and equal.

It was an issue the old Reform Party took on with great gusto.

But what generated interest in Senate reform wasn’t simply a desire to reform an outdated institution.

Albertans wanted an elected and equal Senate for one basic reason: protection.

The idea was a Triple-E Senate would provide a much-needed check on the power of the Liberal dominated House of Commons which Albertans increasingly came to view as hostile to their interests.

And they had reason for such suspicion; all too often the Liberals would sacrifice the needs of Alberta or exploit its resources to appease the vote-rich provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

A classic example of this behaviour was the National Energy Program, an ill-conceived Liberal scheme which devastated Alberta’s economy.

So it’s not surprising that Westerners clamored for a Senate with real legislative power and with equality for all the provinces.

In short, they needed an effective voice in Ottawa.

But things are different now in 2011.

The Liberals have been vanquished and the Prime Minister is not only a Conservative, he’s an Albertan.

That means the central government is no longer viewed as a threat to Alberta’s resources, meaning a reformed Senate is no longer needed.

Hence there exists no organized effort in Alberta or anywhere else for that matter, to push the Harper government on Senate reform.

As a result, the Senate will remain frozen in time.

None of this would surprise the Romans.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Voters tuning out politics

According to a recent StatsCan report, a whopping 7.5 million Canadians didn’t bother to vote in the last federal election.

If you think that sounds bad, hang on; it gets worse.

Canadians, it seems, can’t even come up with good excuses as to why they won’t vote.

StatsCan reports more than a quarter (28%) of the non-voters said they were simply “not interested” in voting; while another 23% said they were just “too busy”.

In short, non-voters are apathetic about their apathy.

But what does this tell us about the state of politics in Canada?

Well, one thing it tells us is that many Canadian voters obviously don’t find the political dramas that make headlines all that riveting.

Political games and partisan battles just don’t interest them.

And it’s not just the non-voters who are tuning out.

Many Canadians who did cast ballots in the last election likely don’t follow political news all that closely.

Indeed, a poll released by the Liberal Party last January indicated only 15% of Canadians pay attention to politics.

Of course, some people do care about politics.

The activists, the partisans, the media, the political junkies – these are people who love politics, in the same way others love sports.

They will read news journals and editorials, follow blogs and online forums, attend conventions and march in rallies.

And these people know the issues backwards and forwards; they will debate experts on radio phone-in programs, they will read every line of a party’s policy platform and they will have well-thought out ideological beliefs and values.

They are informed and enthusiastic voters.

But the fact is, such political aficionados, while often vocal, represent only a tiny portion of the population.

They are, in other words, a small, small minority.

This is a fact media pundits, political consultants and politicians sometimes forget.

Every now and then, they fall into the trap of believing that just because their fellow political junkies are worked up about an issue, that all Canadians must be equally concerned about the same issue and for the same reasons.

Consider, for instance, the issue of government “ethics”, which prior to the May 2nd federal election was a major concern.

Or at least, it was a major concern for the Opposition parties and for elements of the media.

For weeks the Conservative government took a pounding over issues like the Bev Oda/Kairos affair and the so-called Elections Canada “In-out” scandal and about whether or not the government was actually in contempt of Parliament.

Eventually, the Opposition parties, egged on by their partisan supporters and media allies, came to believe the question of government ethics was a winning political issue.

So in March, the Liberals and NDP toppled the government.

And the voters responded, of course, by giving the supposedly ethically-challenged, Conservatives a majority victory.

So much for ethics being a winning political issue!

The mistake the Liberals and NDP made was in assuming that causal Canadian voters actually cared about the kinds of ethical issues that people cared so much about on Parliament Hill.

Obviously, they didn’t.

In fact, it’s likely a large number of Canadian were only dimly aware of all the ethics controversies plaguing the government. And for many of those who were aware, it was simply not a priority.

This is a lesson all political communicators should take to heart.

Voters may not be into politics, they may not follow the political news, but they do have concerns.

To succeed, find out what truly matters to voters and craft a simple message that resonates.

Otherwise, your potential supporters might too “busy to vote”