Friday, April 22, 2011

A Triumph of Substance Over Spin: An Electoral Epiphany at the Social Planning Council's All-Candidates Meeting

Last night, I attended one of the most unusual meetings of federal election candidates that I've ever been to. Hosted by the Greater Sudbury Social Planning Council, the all-candidates meeting consisted of the normal questions and answers. What made last night's meeting a bit of a surreal experience was the strange behaviour of all of the candidates. Let me elaborate about what I saw.

I saw...candidates answer the questions they were asked, and not provide answers to the questions they might have preferred to have been asked. I heard answers which were considered and informative, largely devoid of spin, and almost entirely devoid of anything akin to an attack on the policies or personalities of the other parties. I saw candidates compliment one another, and draw attention to the good work that other parties have put into their policies.

In short, I seemed to have stepped into some sort of Twilight Zone episode where a group of politicians, opponents in an election, engaged their audience in a respectful way, and provided substantive answers to questions, in an effort to provide more information to voters.

Where was I? I thought...I thought that we were in the midst of an election here. An election where spin trumps substance, where policies are reduced to sharp spear-points used to impale opponents, rather than broad discussion points used to engage voters. Where popularity, often defined by how effectively one can skewer one's opposition, counts more for careful and considered platforms and program options.

I absolutely need to congratulate the Social Planning Council for hosting this meeting, and for sticking to the format they have developed. If Sudbury voters wanted the straight goods from the political representatives who are seeking their vote, they could not have done better than to come out to last night's meeting. Sadly, most in the audience, like myself, clearly found themselves in the “minds already made up” category.

The meeting was attended by the incumbent, Glenn Thibeault of the NDP. Thibeault was engaging and charming as usual, and aptly advanced the platform of his party in a way that made sense to those in the audience. He provided a veritable buffet of solutions on issues such as eliminating poverty and crime prevention, hitting all of his party's high notes. Thibeault, who was a very effective and persuasive speaker in the 2008 election (despite being a political novice at the time) has upped his game since being sent to the House of Commons as Sudbury's MP.

Not to be outdone by Thibeault was Carol Hartman, the Liberal candidate. She spoke concisely and effectively about some of the major Liberal platform planks, and clearly explained how those planks would go far in building the kind of Canada that Michael Ignatieff often talks about as a Liberal Canada. I had never heard Hartman speak before, and I was extremely impressed with her ability to communicate her Party's positions in a personal and engaging way. Her story about canvassing and encountering young mothers who have told her that they would really rather be working but can't afford child care really hit home with the audience.

Veteran politician Fred Twilley of the Green Party was also extremely effective at sharing his Party's views on a wide range of social issues. As a strong advocate for restorative justice, he really shone when discussing crime prevention. Along with leaving the audience curious as to just what might be in his garage, Twilley received the biggest round of applause of the evening when answering a question about the need for parties to work together in Parliament. He suggested that “coalition” and “co-operation” aren't dirty words, no matter what some are saying. Twilley clearly conveyed his understanding of the importance of our democratic institutions.

Last but not close to being the least, Will Morin from the “new kid on the block” First People's National Party challenged the audience to think about the issues in a different way. Not simply from a First Nations perspective, mind you. Morin illustrated how we our entire society has started to find itself in a similar position to First Nation's people, thanks to rampant globalization, increasing poverty and the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of us. Morin, I'm sure, left the biggest impression on the audience with his wisdom and his wit. Although representing a small political party, he showed repeatedly that he is fearless when it comes to the health of Canada's democracy. Morin is a man we must all keep our eyes on in the years ahead.

The only downer of the night was the absence of Conservative candidate Fred Slade. No explanation was provided by the Social Planning Council (which doesn't necessarily mean that they weren't provided with an explanation). However, this is the second all-candidates meeting which Slade has been absent from. Yesterday's Sudbury Star reported that Slade has also turned down an opportunity to engage with his opponents and educate Sudburians on his Party's policies and platform at the Good Green Town Hall, taking place at the Fraser Auditorium next week. Seems that Slade, an accountant, is too busy to attend, given the time of year. Scuttlebutt on the internet is that Slade will be at the Chamber of Commerce's all-candidates debate next Tuesday at City Hall. That may be the only chance that Sudburians have to ask Slade just where the heck he has been, and why he continues to think that he would be an effective representative for Sudburians in Ottawa, given that he doesn't seem to want to participate all that fully in our democratic processes.

Not to slam Slade, but the more he absents himself from public forums, the more important that it is that he come clean and address these issues. Sure, we know that Conservative candidates throughout Canada are avoiding debates. It's an effective campaign strategy for a front runner which is running largely on its record. Especially when those front runners have a bad habit of shooting their Party in the foot when they do open their mouths. Look no further than to the recent musings of Brad Trost, Saskatoon-Humboldt's MP, who wants to do all that he can to re-open the abortion debate despite his Party's best efforts to remain silent on it.

The candidates appearing at last night's meeting openly wondered about Slade's absence. It was my impression that the audience certainly wanted to know more about where Slade has been throughout this campaign, but the candidates kept their musings to a respectable level, and went on with the business of discussing their platforms and the issues with those in attendance.

And it's too bad, really, because with the format of last night's meeting, Slade would have had a great opportunity to share his Party's vision on social issues with Sudburians. There weren't any questions asked which could not have been answered effectively by someone knowledgeable with the Conservative Party's platform and performance while in government. And for once, it wasn't at all clear that there were any (ok, maybe there was one) clearly partisan questions from audience members, which is the usual fare at debates. People in attendance genuinely wanted to hear about where Canada's largest political party stood on the issues which were important for them. But it wasn't to be. Sure, I guess we can call Slade or send him an email. But you know, it's just not the same. And frankly, these absences are eroding his credibility. Sudburians are seeing that.

In my annual Crystal Ball Gazing blogpost which I wrote at the beginning of the year, I predicted that Glenn Thibeault would go down in defeat to Fred Slade, because Slade is a crafty political insider and a good communicator. What I didn't foresee was that Slade would ending up following the same route as so many other Conservative candidates (including his predecessor in the 2008 election here in Sudbury) and deliberately silence himself for whatever reason. Sure, he's had a few press conferences which have received requisite media attention, and sure, nothing horrible has befallen his campaign, but Slade has put himself in an unexpected and unnecessary hole with his absences from public forums. Given that his Party was just recently forced from government due to contempt for democracy charges being brought against them in the House, it surprises me that Slade would show this kind of contempt for local voters, despite it being an effective election strategy. Sometimes it's more important to do what's right for others than it is to do what's right for yourself. In my opinion, an election campaign, where you are a candidate and inviting people to vote for you, well, that's always one of those times.

I have just one last thing to add about last night's meeting. When I returned home, I had the chance to catch Stephen Harper's interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC's “The National”. After watching politicians honestly answer the questions put to them, it was very disheartening to watch Harper wriggle and squirm and contort himself into a pretzel to avoid answering Mansbridge's question about the constitutional legitimacy of a coalition. Look, I realize that it's not a question Harper would prefer to answer, but by avoiding a straight answer, he's left the issue dangling for further interpretation. Frankly, it does his Party and himself a great disservice, because we still don't know just what Harper believes about the legitimacy of coalition governments in Canada. He opened the door on this issue long before the campaign ever started. He owes it to Canadians to be straight with his answers, but instead he chooses to insult our intelligence by avoiding straight answers.

At last night's all-candidates meeting, I felt uplifted, engaged, and proud to be a participant (even a partisan one) in Canada's democratic process. It's too bad that all voters (and especially those whom choose not to vote) couldn't have witnessed what I saw last night. Opinions of politics and politicians might have been altered by the experience.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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