The other night, I meant to catch TV Ontario’s “The Agenda” with Steve Paikin, as Paikin was hosting the candidates of the Toronto Centre by-election for a debate on public issues. However, several children of mine who didn’t want to go to bed at their usual hour kept me away from enjoying the livestream. Up and down out of my chair, I decided that perhaps it was best to follow the debate sort-of as it was happening but a little after the fact maybe, by reviewing the numerous reactions in my Twitter feed, just shy of real time.
I follow a fair number of media personalities on Twitter, and more than a few Greens, a good number of whom are from the Toronto area. I also follow a sprinkling of members and supporters of other political parties. As a result, my Twitter feed really lit up with tweets about the Toronto Centre debate. Had I been disinterested in this debate, I would have certainly resolved to extricate myself from Twitter over the hour which the debate raged, because very few tweets about anything else seemed to be getting through.
Last night, I had the opportunity to watch the debate, courtesy of TV Ontario’s excellent website. After watching the debate myself, and transposing it against the feelings that I had for the debate based on my Twitter feed review experience, I almost feel as if there were two different debates. As a result, today’s blogpost is going to explore, to a degree, the power of partisans on Twitter and they way in which this social media tool could be used to shape political public opinion. Yes, I’m sure these topics have been discussed with greater clarity by those more knowledgeable than me – but my focus will be on my own (surprising) personal experiences regarding this one specific hour-long debate, and what this might mean for the Green Party.
The Green Party - Getting the Message Out - Challenges
Over the last little while, there have been a number of mainstream media articles published in the National Post and through Sun Media which have been critical of the positions and policies of the Green Party of Canada. More accurately, these articles have been critical about the perceived positions and policies of the Green Party, rather than to actual policies, for the most part. Further, as I enjoy expressing myself as a partisan Green, I have certainly encountered on social media significant distortions of the Green Party’s positions and policies – most often being made by the political partisans and core-supporters of other parties.
The Green Party of Canada’s candidate in the Toronto Centre by-election is John Deverell. John has been a journalist, most notably with the Toronto Star, but in the past few years, he has worked on political campaigns, most recently that of Joyce Murray, in her bid for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada (which was won by Justin Trudeau). One of John’s driving issues is electoral reform – particularly, getting rid of our archaic First-Past-the-Post electoral system, and replacing it with a more representative and democratic system. For constant readers of my blog, it should not come as a surprise that based on John’s passion for electoral reform alone, I am predisposed to want to like John. A lot.
The John Deverell on display through my Twitter feed on Wednesday night, however, was an individual who seemed to be sadly lacking in new ideas – and where he did try to talk about new ideas, was completely unable to express himself without sounding like either A) an idiot, or B) a pompous moron. For the most part, my Twitter feed largely ignored John, sometimes with apologies about not be able to reproduce the “jargon-filled” rants that Deverell seemed inclined to make.
Generally speaking, John Deverell came across as raving non-entity – at least according to my Twitter feed.
It is worth mentioning at this time how my Twitter feed seemed to react to Geoff Pollock, the Conservative candidate. Geoff, too, appeared to be a marginal participant in the debate – perhaps bombastic, particularly in his unwavering support of this Party and Prime Minister –but well-spoken and perhaps someone who, in a different riding, might actually have a chance to get elected.
Debate Perceptions - McQuaig and Freeland
From my Twitter feed, it seemed to me that Paikin must be largely ignoring both John Deverell and Geoff Pollock, and instead must have been concentrating on responses from the NDP’s Linda McQuaig and the Liberal Party’s Chrystia Freeland, whom appear to be the two front-runners in the riding. I recall wondering if this might actually be so, given the number of past debates that I’ve watched Steve moderate. I certainly had my doubts. But seemingly 9 out of 10 tweets that I was reading had to do with McQuaig and Freeland.
McQuaig and Freeland, according to my Twitter feed, were each knocking each other for loops. It sounded sometimes as if there were a physical brawl going on. It was difficult for me to discern which of these candidates appeared to be making the better points – or even just getting in the best shots with one-line zingers. I took two things away from my Twitter feed about McQuaig and Freeland: Twitter could not help me make up my mind which of the two were having the better performance; and, McQuaig was engaging in personal attacks on Freeland, at times very vile ones.
Interestingly, when I watched the debate myself, which I tried to do with an open mind, what I witnessed with regards to McQuaig and Freeland was pretty much what I had witnessed through my Twitter feed the night before. Both McQuaig and Freeland appeared to be effective debaters, but their styles were quite different. McQuaig certainly engaged in personal attacks on Freeland, including this foolish notion that Freeland was somehow responsible (or should accept responsibility for) the outsourcing of jobs from Canada to Asia during her time as Editor at the Financial Post. McQuaig took issue numerous times with Freeland having lived outside of Canada for the past decade, never once conceding that Freeland’s experiences might actually serve her well as an MP.
McQuaig also engaged in a debating strategy which I’ve found NDP candidates in particular to be famous for: oxygen-sucking. McQuaig would rarely yield the floor back to the other candidates, or even to the moderator Paikin, unless pushed to do so, in an attempt to dominate the discourse. When other candidates, particularly Freeland, were talking, McQuaig would constantly try to interrupt – and would sometimes succeed in having the floor yielded back to her as a result. That kind of nonsense really annoys me – and yes, Freeland also tried to talk over McQuaig a few times, but mostly it appeared to me that Freeland was doing so simply in an effort to be heard, or to try to finish a derailed train of thought.
Generally, though, in contrast to McQuaig, Freeland sounded reasonable, and did not retaliate by trying to personally attack McQuaig. Although Freeland articulated a number of policy ideas and concepts which I find problematic and dangerous, they appeared to be generally consistent with long-held Liberal views. That being said, I don’t know that she scored as many “points” (whatever they are) in the debate as did McQuaig. For all of McQuaig’s aggressiveness, she at least seemed to be able to articulate policy and ideas in a more compelling way than did Freeland. Which isn’t to suggest that Freeland didn’t know her stuff – it’s just to suggest that McQuaig appeared to know her stuff, understood debating tactics and came across as more politically astute – if also annoying.
But, for the most part, it seemed that the battle between the two as characterized on my Twitter feed played out in real time more or less as Twitter would have led me to believe, with one exception: the Freeland and McQuaig exchanges, while they did dominate the debate, certainly did not dominate the debate in terms of time in the way that Twitter would have had me believe. Paikin certainly seemed to give Pollock and Deverell almost as much time as McQuaig and Freeland received to make whatever points they tried to make.
John Deverell and the Green Language Barrier
And this is where things get interesting. The John Deverell that I watched in the debate was not the same John Deverell that I heard about second-hand through my Twitter feed. Yes, there were elements of the latter in the former – sometimes John appeared to use terms and language in a way which appeared a little high-handed (some might say “pompous”) – but certainly the buffoonish Deverell character I expected to see based on my Twitter feed was not the one that I saw at the debate.
First off, I believe that Greens almost always have a harder time in public forums like candidates debates than do the candidates from the other old-line parties (but not, generally speaking, a harder time than the candidates from even smaller parties). The problem is often one of language – and some Green candidates (and smaller party candidates) can overcome this issue through sheer dynamism – but the fact is that Greens use words, terms and ideas in a slightly different way than do the other parties – and different from mainstream Canada.
This language barrier can get us into trouble sometimes, as it did for John Deverell on several occasions. Two issues in particular caught my attention. First, on Twitter, John was taken to task for expressing that capitalism is “radical”. On the surface, that sounds like a pretty strange thing to say. In my Twitter feed, it certainly came across as being bizarre and slightly unhinged. When I watched John in action, it appeared to me that Twitter really dropped the ball – choosing instead to focus on the words themselves, rather than the bigger-picture idea John was trying to express. It’s not even that John chose the words poorly, because he didn’t. In the context of what John was describing, which was capitalism’s chameleon-like ability to constantly change, it is a “radical” concept because it is far from the force of conservatism that we often think it to be. John was talking about how capitalism breeds innovation, and how we should be aware of that, rather to think of capitalism as a static, non-dynamic force. In that respect, capitalism is “radical” – not because of what it is, but because of the way in which we should look at it, but mostly don’t. Most Greens, I think, get this.
Anyway, John’s “radical” remark didn’t appear to be too problematic while watching the debate. But it certainly was problematic to read about it on Twitter.
Greens and Growth
The other issue for which John was taken to task, both on Twitter and at the debate, was John’s notion that “growth” (as in “economic growth”) was somehow bad. When the topic of conversation moved in the direction of economic growth, Deverell seemed to suggest that growth wasn’t going to resolve the issues being debated. Paiken seemed to be a little surprised at the remark and asked for clarification, at which point Deverell clearly indicated that his preference was not to embrace growth. Paikin then went around the room to ask the other candidates whether they supported growth or not. Freeland and Pollock acknowledged that they did, while McQuaig said that she supported “sustainable growth”, a term she used a couple of times during the debate. This terminology was not challenged by the candidates or by the moderator, Paikin.
On Twitter, the notion that “growth” could somehow be challenged sounded preposterous! Isn’t economic growth, after all, the panacea which is going to grow the economy and bring jobs to everybody?
Sorry, I had to take a moment there to step aside from the computer and laugh.
Ok, back to the question – how on earth could growth ever be considered “bad”? Both Freeland and Pollock talked about the need for growth, putting forward economic growth as the only option available for the future. Watching the debate, it seemed to me that Freeland, Pollock and Paiken were all genuinely shocked to be sharing the same space with the double-headed hydra Deverell who (seriously) was knocking growth. My Twitter feed was even worse. It was largely from the remarks made to Deverell’s claims about growth that people on Twitter started to write him off as a crank.
The End of Growth
Of course, Deverell is right – even if people don’t want to hear it. There is no future in economic growth. Economic growth requires a number of inputs to be in balance: the cost of raw materials, labour, capital, energy, etc. Right now, our economy is fuelled largely by fossil fuels, which have increased in price considerably over the past couple of decades. As a result, savings have needed to be found elsewhere, which means that labour prices have needed to be checked (which is why the middle class hasn’t experienced any real increase in wages). Truthfully, most of the economic growth we’ve experienced over the past 20 years has come about largely through the debt we’ve accumulated. We’ve been using tomorrow’s money to finance today’s growth.
Clearly, that’s not a sustainable option, so there are a few targets which must be assessed if growth is to continue. The first are those pesky labour costs. Outsourcing and downsizing were popular options over the past couple of decades, and we’ve seen well-paying jobs flee North America as a result. Now, the latest push is to roll back collective agreements with unions as part of a broader assault on workers wages. There really aren’t any better options right now, as energy prices are expected to remain relatively high. So, if we want to grow the economy, we’re going to have make most people poorer.
Business is lowering its energy costs, however, mainly through conservation. But for the most part, business has failed to embrace conservation as a way of promoting growth, perhaps in part because it seems counterintuitive that you can grow an economy by using less energy. Certainly I keep hearing the arguments that we need more energy for growth as a reason to develop the tar sands and frack the nation. But the reality is quite different. Saving money on costs (be it labour or energy), and you end up with growth.
Problems with Growth
We could experience growth by switching to renewable energy. Over the medium term, the use of renewables is sure to bring the cost of energy inputs down, especially when compared to increasingly scarce and expensive fossil resources. In the short term, the construction of renewable energy infrastructure, to service the economy of tomorrow, could lead to growth. I suspect that when Linda McQuaig and the NDP talks about “sustainable growth”, this may be the idea that they have in mind: creating the architecture for the emergent green economy is good for growth in the short and medium term, and good for the planet. Clearly, that’s the case – and it’s a worthy pursuit. But it's not a complete story.
Ultimately, there can be no denying that economic growth feeds on itself, and is not sustainable over the longer term. You can finance growth through debt until you can’t any longer; you can depress wages until people can’t afford the goods and services needed for growth to occur; you can even reduce the price of some inputs, like energy, through using less (conservation) or by switching to cheaper renewables. But at the end of the day, you’re going to run into a wall. And that wall has to do with finite resources.
In other words, when all of the economically accessible non-renewable resources have been taken from the ground (like metals) are used up, what are you going to do then? Well, with metals, at least you can re-use them, but at the end of the day, there is only ever going to be a finite amount of any one thing available for you to work with. That moment when nothing “new” can be created is the end of growth. It’s certainly not the end of economic activity, however. Economic development will continue (think of how we’ll need to ramp up to build the recycling infrastructure we’ll need to extract useable resources from the waste products of previous generations).
The 2 Degrees C Line in the Sand
While this point might sound far-off in the future, it really isn’t. We might even already be there – not because we’ve taken everything out of the ground that we can conceivably use – but instead because we know we must leave a lot of known resources in the ground if we are going to stave off the very worst effects of a changing climate by holding the line of warming at the internationally acknowledged 2 degrees Celsius. If we are to say within our global carbon budget of approximately 500 megatonnes between now and 2100, over two thirds of proven fossil fuel resources will need to remain buried in the ground, no matter that their use might seem to be required to grow the economy.
While it is true that extracting and burning those resources might be the easiest way to grow the economy (because we know how to mine and burn coal, oil and gas – and our transportation, communication and home heating infrastructure is already in place to make it easy to do so), we risk pitting economic growth against the environment. Some, like members of Chrystia Freeland’s Liberal Party and Geoff Pollock’s Conservative Party, are willing to abandon the global environment in the pursuit of growth. That’s not an exaggeration – if you believe that our fossil industries must grow, you have already written off the planet – the two are mutually exclusive – unless you take the absurd position that Canada only should be allowed to pollute, while all other fossil enterprises must be shut down.
The NDP and the Hypocrisy of "Sustainable Growth"
Linda McQuaig’s NDP is trying to peddle the line of “sustainable growth” as an alternative, but really, like the term itself, the NDP’s position on the matter is contradictory. I was a little put out that Deverell didn’t challenge her on it. The other debate participants, including the moderator, quite likely didn’t press McQuaig because they failed to see the contradiction. Certainly, the people commenting in my Twitter feed were not calling her out on the contradiction either – if anything, she was receiving a fair bit of praise for putting forward this “revolutionary” idea.
Deverell’s position, to be against “growth”, was the only consistently expressed economic position of the four debaters. The Conservative Pollock professed to be concerned about climate change - and touted his Party’s use of regulations over a “job killing carbon” tax to keep emissions down. Pollock and Freeland wanted voters to believe that we can have both continued economic growth of our fossil industries, and address the climate crisis. For we know that we must leave two thirds of known reserves in the ground. Knowing that, why the need for more pipelines (wherever they might go) and yet more infrastructure in support of last century’s brown economy?
McQuaig’s NDP, with their wildly dumb notion of “sustainable growth”, seems to be in favour of fossil fuels on the one hand and against them on the other – a typically inconsistent approach for the NDP – and a really problematic position to take on Canada’s economy. In defence of McQuaig and the NDP, they are certainly not the first social democrats to try to pull the wool over the eyes of voters through the use of the term “sustainable growth”. I can certainly recall U.S. President Obama talking about this idea on a number of occasions. I will repeat it once again: “sustainable growth” is redundant, an oxymoron, and an impossibility. But the notion that it isn’t any of these things makes good politics, which is why the NDP has embraced the term.
At least the NDP does appear to be in favour of slowing down the expansion of our fossil industry. I think. Certainly, from McQuaig, it’s far from clear that this is the case – Freeland asked the relevant question, “If you’re not in favour of Keystone XL, but you are in favour an east-west pipeline, what the difference?” McQuaig’s answer was satisfying only from a certain perspective: she wanted to keep jobs in Canada. But from the perspective of climate change and the expansion of the tar sands, the development to either pipeline will lead to further expansion of the enterprise, and greater carbon emissions.
In short, if you believe that Keystone XL is environmentally dangerous (from an emissions perspective) – as the NDP does – it is foolish to then champion any other pipeline – even one that creates jobs – at least from an emissions perspective. There may be other reasons to champion an east-west pipeline over a north-south one, such as energy security, and the potential to bolster our own refining industry, potentially for the purpose of avoiding carbon tariffs against Canadian products. But from an emissions perspective, if building infrastructure like pipelines leads to expansion of the enterprise, our climate is sunk – unless we are willing to pay for costly carbon offsets. Which is dumb economics considering the other option available: do nothing and leave the bitumen unharvested, in the ground.
Stepping Back Before Stepping Forward
Sorry for that lengthy sidetrack, but I thought that it was worth exploring a little, given the criticism and skepticism which John Deverell’s anti-growth comments received at the Toronto Centre debate, and by those on Twitter following the debate. With all of the above in mind, Deverell’s position against growth was the only honest and truthful (and economically sound) position taken. And for telling the people the truth, and not what they want to hear, Deverell will likely finish dead last in this by-election – a fate which many Green candidates before him have experienced, and which many Greens after him will also surely encounter.
Now, let me turn to some of the lessons that I’ve learned from the Toronto Centre debate. First of all, for those readers of my blog who would like to one day represent the Green Party – if you want to be taken seriously at this point in history, you may need to step back before you can go forward. By that I mean you might have to lay the groundwork at the outset of public discussions/debates around how it is that you’ve arrived at the conclusions that you’re going to talk about. Unfortunately, this takes some time – valuable time in a debate, because no one has much of it, and let’s face it, as the Green Party, chances are you’re going to be marginalized in the discussion anyway. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to do this because you avoid looking like a bit of an “I’m against everything” wingnut.
John Deverell actually laid out his case for democratic reform very well. He spoke to the historical problems, and pointed out how these distortions have really served us badly over the years, and only then made his case for a better electoral system. On the matter of climate change, because it seemed to come up out of nowhere, and by the time Deverell got a chance to enter the discussion, the same sort of groundwork was not laid, and Deverell’s remarks about capitalism and growth really struck raw nerves.
Our ideas are hard to sell at the best of time, because the other parties aren’t really even talking about them for the most part (the same can be said for a Guaranteed Annual Income – another issue which Deverell didn’t explain, but perhaps by not expanding on it, saved himself from looking different than the other candidates).
Greens, we’re at a disadvantage in these sorts of forums, because we’ve got to explain what we’re talking about, because our ideas are in some cases beyond the mainstream. That doesn’t make them bad ideas, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about them. We just need to be cognizant that when we do talk about, we need to back up a little first before we go forward.
Oxygen Sucking and Other Debate Dominance Tactics
Another lesson that I learned is that the NDP’s “oxygen sucking” debate style works, along with other "debate dominance" tactics, such as trying to drown out one's opponent by constantly speaking over them. Yes, it’s annoying, but if you can monopolize the floor and drown out your opponents, whether you’re saying something important or even relevant just doesn’t matter. McQuaig employed this tactic, and she looked aggressive, engaged and able to take on anybody about anything – and those are winning qualities in a debate, and they stick with people long after the debate is over. In many respects, I found McQuaig’s running roughshod over Freeland time and again the defining part of the debate, and likely the reason why so many have selected her as the debate’s winner.
However, this tactic will not work for Greens, generally speaking, and should not be employed by Green candidates looking to be elected at this time. As I wrote earlier, Greens should instead focus on laying the groundwork to bolster their points and positions as a priority. If we engage in “oxygen sucking”, we will end up looking like bossy-know-it-alls – and if we engage in the kind of personal attacks that McQuaig hammered away at Freeland with – we will find ourselves having dragged politics back to a level which we decry. In short, it’s better for us, I think, to talk about the Green Party than it is to knock the other parties and their candidates. Just turn your backs.
Wanted: Green Tweeps
Now, here’s the biggest lesson that I learned from my debate experience – and its one which the Green Party has to try to figure out a way of addressing, and which will be difficult for us to do, because of the smaller number of supporters that we have.
Social media matters. The opinions expressed by a cadre of people using Twitter does matter. Not only are individual tweets passed back and forth by sharing, in some cases they end up in mainstream news organizations reports, and they can impact public opinion. They can certainly impact the perception of people who might not have seen an actual debate, or even if they are watching it live, a really good tweet might get someone thinking about words just spoken in a different way.
The power of partisan tweeps cannot be undersold.
It used to be that if you were a candidate and you went to a public forum, you brought along as many of your own supporters as you could – so that they could be seen (and heard) cheering you on, so that they could line up at microphones and lob you softball questions, and so that an uncritical media might foolishly write about the reception some of your answers received (without referencing the fact that all of those clapping would have applauded you no matter how you answered). Greens have come to the game late, and I know for a fact that too many Greens remain surprised when the show up at all candidates meetings only to discover that there isn’t really one single undecided voter in the audience.
Candidates go to all candidates meetings because that’s what candidates should be doing. These meetings are part of our democratic tradition, after all. Oh, and of course, the media might be there, and wouldn’t it be good for a campaign to have nice things written about you in the paper, or to have your picture on TV? Having attended a number of debates in the past as both an undecided voter (seriously) and a Green partisan, it’s my observation that the tone of the debate changes the moment the media steps into the room – and changes again should they leave.
The Toronto Centre debate was made available to a very large public because it was broadcast on TV Ontario. Not all debates are like that – in fact, very few are. In the past, it wasn’t all that unusual to go to a debate and never hear anything more about it again if the media wasn’t there.
Everybody Can Help Shape Public Opinion
Times have changed. Now, everybody is a reporter. People attending debates, whether they are partisans or the rare undecided voter, they are all potentially reporters. Live tweeting debates is only going to become more common – and Greens must be prepared to engage the other parties on these terms. It’s no longer just enough to have our partisans show up and cheer the smart remarks of our candidates. They must show up with their smart phones and tablets and broadcast their “take” on the debate.
But even that’s not enough. You can’t just pick up your phone and log into Twitter or Facebook and start delivering the goods. If no one is paying attention to you, you could put the best spin on a debate in the world, and no one would ever know. So, Green partisans must become engaged in social media to a considerable extent – to the same extent that our opponents in the other parties are engaged.
On Twitter, that means having a lot of followers – and not just any old followers, but the sort of followers you can rely on to retweet your messages far and wide – so hopefully the kind of followers who also have a lot of followers.
When you go looking for someone to follow on Twitter, we’re often swayed by how many followers that individual has already amassed. Someone with 10,000 followers is someone we presume must have something interesting to say – at least more so that someone with only 25 followers. Also, the number, frequency and quality of tweets matters.
Right now, simply put, we just don’t have enough Green partisans using Twitter or other social media platforms to promote the Party. We must get more partisans active on Twitter, and build up their lists of followers, so that when local or national debates happen, we can mobilize the base to participate in the process and to actually influence public opinion.
As I wrote early on in this post, I follow a number of Greens on Twitter – but I didn’t see many tweets from Greens when I was following my Twitter feed as the debate was being broadcast live on TVO. As a result, even I was left with the opinion that John Deverell faired poorly in the debate.
So, Green candidates and campaign teams, as we move forward towards the next election, keep Twitter in mind. Mobilize your supporters to actively use Twitter and engage with others on it. When the time comes, use Twitter to your advantage, and don’t let the other parties suck the oxygen out of social media.
Choosing a "Winner"
Now, finally, after all of this, I feel it would be remiss to terminate this blogpost without saying one last word about the Toronto Centre debate. Although I have written that I was impressed with both John Deverell and Linda McQuaig’s performances in the debate (Deverell’s because he expressed ideas that I agree with, and McQuaig for her superior tactics), I always feel the need to select a “winner” based on my own criteria – which isn’t always about which candidate had the best policies or was the more effective communicator. For me, choosing a winner means looking at a number of factors, including how well a candidate spoke, was able to recall and explain party policy, their body language, etc. Choosing a winner is often difficult, based on any criteria. And I know that at the end of the day, “winning” a debate doesn’t really matter – except when it does because reporting a win is one more positive for the winning camp.
The most effective performance of the night for me was clearly that of the Conservative Party’s Geoff Pollock. I give him the “win” because I found him to be the most appealing and sincere of the candidates at the debate. Geoff spoke with wisdom, with clarity and was able to express the positions of his Party (no matter how egregious) with great sincerity. He was affable and polite. And he refused to engage in the politics of negativity (which was easier for him to refrain from doing – because he’s not going to win in Toronto Centre – yes, I believe that negative campaigning is an effective way of winning elections – I do not believe that we should use it, and I hate this tactic with a passion – but I can’t deny that it works). For all of these reasons, I’ll give the “win” (for what that’s worth) to Pollock.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)
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