Thursday, October 28, 2010

Greater Sudbury's Municipal Election Results and What Suburians Can Expect in the Upcoming Federal Election

Since publishing yesterday’s blogpost, I’ve been receiving some critical feedback (which amazes me to no end, I have to tell you. It just blows my mind that there are people out there who actually read this blog…thanks, by the way. It makes me want to keep writing). Based on the feedback, I think that I have to clarify a couple of things, which will actually help with regards to this post. When I was writing yesterday, I was envisioning two posts about the municipal election; the first discussing what happened here in Sudbury, and the second about how this might impact upcoming federal election campaigns.


The first thing for me to clarify, though, is that while I believe that Marianne Matichuk’s campaign was absolutely something to behold, that this does not mean that I endorse in any way the strategy and tactics she employed to achieve success. My point, which maybe wasn’t expressed as clearly as it could have been, was that Matichuk was able to exploit local circumstances in such a comprehensive way that it absolutely needs to be recognized and understood, because we are going to see campaigns which try to repeat what she accomplished.

Some of the “Lessons Learned” which I wrote about yesterday really fell flat with some of those who have provided me with feedback, especially when I tried to make connections regarding the campaigns of Green candidates. I also believe that I didn’t explain what I meant by “negative” campaigning as well as I could. So, if you will indulge me for a few moments, let me try again.

For me, the concept of “going negative” is quite broad. The idea behind negative campaigning is to draw attention to the flaws of your opponent(s) whatever they may be. That leaves a very wide range of things to discuss. Flaws could be related to policy positions, priorities, past voting records, what they’ve said publicly, their appearance, the sound of their voices, sexual infidelity and other family issues, their ethnicity, etc. Clearly, for many Greens, there are a lot of things which would never be “in play” during a campaign. Nevertheless, though, we have to acknowledge that while we may consider some of these topics to be out of bounds when it comes to discussing our opponents, the same can not always be said for our opponents when talking about us (or, more often, their other opponents, because slagging Greens usually doesn’t have much of a political payoff for other candidates, because we’re not usually perceived to be that big of a threat).

In contrast, a positive campaign means that a candidate is going to talk about what that candidate can bring to the table, and why a voter should vote for the candidate. It starts from the (what I consider to be) principled position that the candidate is providing information to a voter about themselves and their Party for the voter’s sincere consideration. Rather than attack the opposition (negative) and attempt to sway voters to vote for a candidate because of what they are not, a positive campaign will provide voters with reasons why they should vote for a particular candidate.

Very few campaigns will ever be completely negative or positive; Greens, though, have this habit of campaigning primarily in positive territory. I think that’s good for many Green campaigns. However, if Greens are going to win, I continue to believe that there must be elements of negative campaigning present. And I think that, generally speaking, Greens tend to emphasize the positive a little too much.

The Matichuk campaign was overwhelmingly a negative one, although it was punctuated by short positive bursts, which were often not particularly deep in terms of content. Nevertheless, they were present, and some of her main messaging were predicated on these positive statements. She did not simply wag her finger at Rodriguez (although she mostly did this); every now and then, she would say what she would do if elected, although often even these efforts were structured in such a way as to contrast herself with Rodriguez.

Anyway, again, my point wasn’t to suggest that Greens must campaign negatively in the next election. And while I think that some negative campaigning might be good for Greens, campaigns in most areas should largely focus on the positive. Here in Sudbury and in Nickel Belt, primarily negative campaigns like Matichuk’s may work – but not for Greens.

The Upcoming Federal Election

Whenever we have the next federal election (and my bet is we’ll have one this spring), we’re likely to see some of the strategies employed by candidates who just ran for Mayor municipally here in Sudbury. In fact, I believe that there are a number of similarities between the Mayor’s race and a future federal race. Of course, though, there are also some differences. Let’s look at the differences first.

The biggest difference between any Mayoralty race and a federal election is that Members of Parliament are almost always affiliated with a political party, while ostensibly, in Ontario, our candidates for Council and Mayor are independents. The theoretical absence of party politics at the local level, however, is really just that: theoretical. Nevertheless, even in theory, this can lead to some significant differences.

The biggest difference is the absence of a much larger, national-based, Leader-driven campaign. When you’re running for Mayor, it’s just you and your team. When you’re running for MP, your Party is helping out by providing national exposure for the Party which rubs off on you. If your Party’s Leader is doing well on the campaign trail, you’ll likely receive some benefit. If they falter, chances are you might as well. And if your political party has a hard time getting any exposure at all, chances are that you may also experience a disconnect in getting your message out.

That being said, all politics is, to a certain and maybe significant degree, local in nature. You could have a very popular national leader stumping for a candidate, but if that candidate is held in contempt by local voters, there’s going to be trouble. The local circumstances always need to be considered by campaign planners. In part, that’s why it’s so difficult for pollsters to gauge seat projections based on provincial-sized sampling, and it’s also why campaigners look at each riding as a little individual war to be fought and won. The local elements of a campaign remain significant.

Just how significant will depend upon a few things. Here in Sudbury (and to a lesser extent, in Nickel Belt), they are probably a little more significant than in many other parts of Canada. That’s because we inhabit a geographically isolated urban community, separated from other areas by lots of trees and rock and several hours worth of drive-time. We also have our own local media which many in our community rely on for their source of news. That includes two newspapers (one daily, one bi-weekly); CBC radio in French and English; and a regional CTV news affiliate. There is a significant sense of community belonging here (in fact, according to the recently published Vital Signs 2010, 71.2% of Sudburians reported a strong or somewhat strong sense of community belonging, compared to a provincial average of only 66.4% and a national average of 64.8%).

That means to me that there exists here a greater opportunity for the successful exploitation of local circumstances during any campaign. Contrast our situation to that of mid-town Toronto, for example, where over 30 other candidates from one’s own party are vying for limited media attention.

John Rodriguez, Greater Sudbury’s out-going Mayor, was an MP for Sudbury from the NDP. He has retained strong ties with the NDP throughout his 4 years as Mayor. He defeated the conservative Dave Courtemanche in 2006 to become Mayor.

Our MP for Sudbury is the NDP’s Glenn Thibeault. He became MP after defeating long-serving Liberal MP Diane Marleau in 2008. Claude Gravelle, the NDP MP for Nickel Belt, succeeded long-serving Liberal Ray Bonin, who chose not to run in the 2008 election. Historically, contests in Sudbury and Nickel Belt have primarily been battles between the NDP and the Liberals, although the Conservatives have always been there in the background. The recent addition of the Green Party to the mix really hasn’t had a substantial impact, despite that some Liberals blame Green Gordon Harris’ capturing 7.8% of votes in the 2008 election as part of the reason Glenn Thibeault was able to take Sudbury from Diane Marleau.

So, a one-term NDP Mayor was just run out of town by a populist, unknown Conservative candidate. Populist unknown conservatives have been getting a lot of press this year, especially south of the border, where the Tea Party movement has taken hold. Here in Sudbury and Nickel Belt, we have two, one-term MP’s who are both likely to be battling it out for their jobs when the next federal election happens. Should the NDP be concerned about what might happen? I absolutely believe that they should, especially in Sudbury.

While I won’t venture to say that socialism is a spent force, it’s certainly in retreat across North America, for a lot of reasons. The NDP have always been divisive, raising the ire of voters as much as capturing their attention. Recently, the NDP has suffered some setbacks as a result of the long-gun registry vote, in which that party caught flack for it’s flip-flopping approach. The long-gun registry is an issue which resonates with Sudburians, as both Thibeault and Gravelle reversed themselves between second and third readings, and voted to keep the registry. This will be something which Conservative campaigners will try to exploit.

Now, I wrote earlier that Sudbury and Nickel Belt are usually NDP/Liberal battlegrounds. Well, that’s true, but what about trends? The NDP had steadily been gaining ground on the Liberals in Sudbury since the 2000 election, and finally in 2008, they overtook the Liberals by 5% (in 2000, the gap was 44%). The Conservatives, too, have been increasing their vote share in Sudbury. So, it’s fair to say that the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives have been drawing themselves closer together in Sudbury (2008 results: NDP: 35.1%; Liberals: 30.2%; Conservatives: 25.8%). Throwing the Green Party in their just muddies things that much further. Therefore, while traditionally this area has been a Liberal-NDP battleground, the Conservatives absolutely remain in play.

We’re in the midst of seeing North American voters turn increasingly to those on the right of the political spectrum, or at least, the right has been doing something right lately. Mayor John Rodriguez may have lost his recent bid for re-election in part as a result of this larger trend, although for me, it’s more likely because he wore the significant mistakes of his 4 years in office. Together, the trend towards right-wing populism and the desire to defeat a wounded incumbent, coupled with a safe and lacklustre campaign, was the end of Rodriguez. conservative/populist Matichuk was able to exploit all of these factors, while the more traditionally conservative Callaghan could not, and Derek Young’s appeal to youth and voters with an urban vision found no resonance whatsoever. In short, Greater Sudbury voted John Rodriguez out of office, rather than voting Matichuk in, although the result is that Matichuk will be our new Mayor.

Could something similar happen to Glenn Thibeault and Claude Gravelle? Let’s look at Thibeault first. Clearly, Thibeault hasn’t bungled things to the same degree that Rodriguez did, however Thibeault is just a small cog in a larger political party. What then of the Party itself? While the NDP hasn’t really accomplished very much in the past several years, it can’t be said that they’ve dropped the ball on too many things (the long gun registry excepted, and maybe on the mining bill last night). However, they’ve not shone either. Looks to me like Thibeault and the NDP come out looking brighter than Rodriguez, so maybe they won’t be in as much trouble.

Here is a problem for Thibeault, however. The Liberals have nominated Sudbury Regional Hospital CEO Carol Hartman to carry their banner during the next election. Now, I don’t know Hartman, but I can tell you that the electorate will perceive her as carrying a significant amount of baggage. Rightly or wrongly, that’s going to be the perception, because the newly built regional hospital has been a local fiasco story. Further, as a Liberal, Hartman is encumbered by the very lacklustre performance of Leader Michael Ignatieff. And then there’s Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty to consider as well. Right now, Liberals aren’t the most popular bunch in Ontario. Yes, all federal polls indicate that the Liberals and Conservatives are going to battle it out here in Ontario. But that’s not going to help Hartman, and it’s not likely to help Thibeault.

The Liberals don’t tend to engage in negative campaigning on the same level as the NDP and Conservatives. In Hartman’s case, this leaves her at a distinct disadvantage, because you can bet that the Conservative candidate is going to come out swinging for Thibeault’s head.

Conservative nominated candidate Fred Slade has everything going for him right now. Whether anyone in Sudbury knows it or not, that’s where the momentum in the upcoming federal election already lies. This trend towards right-wing, populist politics will help Slade, as will Conservative Leader Stephen’s Harper continued popularity. Unless Harper drops the ball big-time, Fred Slade here in Sudbury might yet end up as the MP.

I don’t know Fred Slade, but I keep seeing him around everywhere I go, whether it’s driving his car covered in Conservative Party decals, or just wearing his Conservative Party jacket. He was at a number of municipal election events. I see him at the farmer’s market. He was at the mall the same time as me the other day. Maybe we just like going to the same places, I don’t know. More likely I keep seeing him everywhere because he’s making the effort to be everywhere. He’s getting noticed, and he’ll continue to get noticed. In short, Slade has been campaigning since he received the nomination. Given that he has been very involved with his Party for many years, it’s fair to say that he’s a political animal with good instincts and that he knows what to do to win.

And what he will do is go negative all over Thibeault. Just as Matichuk attacked Rodriguez, so too can we expect Fred Slade to rage on the warpath.

One slight difference to consider, however, is that Thibeault, unlike Rodriguez, will be running a negative campaign himself to some degree. Whether he wants to or not, he won’t have any choice when Slade comes out of the gates. And unlike Rodriguez, Thibeault is able to mix it up with the best of them.

Anyway, it’s going to be something to watch when it happens. I don’t know which of these two is going to have the upper hand. Frankly, who gets the upper hand in this battle isn’t as important as something else which I wrote, that being “which of these two”. For unless Carol Hartman goes negative quickly and more successfully than Slade, she’s going to be sidelined in the election, just as Ted Callaghan experienced municipally.

I predict that the next federal election will end up being a contest between Thibeault and Slade, because Thibeault, being an incumbent with only a few pock-marks to blemish his otherwise lacklustre record, will have to be front and centre; Slade will be there because he and his team put him there. And that puts Thibeault’s success in danger, especially if Sudbury voters decide it’s time for him to go and support coalesces around the perceived front runner, Slade. In fact, Slade even stands to benefit more if Stephen Harper’s national campaign falls off of the rails a little bit, and it begins to look like a majority Conservative government is put out of reach. In that scenario, even more voters might shift their support from Hartman to Slade.

Thibeault better hope that Hartman at least makes a show of things, or else the local media is going to focus its efforts all on Slade. He would likely hang on in a three-way race. He is much more vulnerable in a two-way race between him and Slade.

And where is the Green Party in all of this? If Thibeault is Rodriguez, and Slade is Matichuk, and Hartman is Callaghan, I guess that leaves the Green Party’s Fred Twilley to play the role of Derek Young. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, but I believe that the next election is going to be a significant challenge for our Party here in Sudbury. Remember, we’re still a fairly new party on the political scene in Sudbury, and although we more than doubled our vote total between 2006 and 2008, we’re still a ways back of the pack.

The next election campaign in Sudbury is going to be quite different than 2008’s. For starters, Conservative Fred Slade is going to show up. In 2008, Conservative Gerry Labelle was largely absent, likely having been muzzled by his own Party (as so many Conservatives were) after speaking out against a decision made by Conservative cabinet minister Tony Clement. Labelle did not engage in negative campaigning, or much in the way of any campaigning. Diane Marleau, the Liberal incumbent, was walking wounded. There was a significant local movement to dump her in favour of pretty much anybody. Glenn Thibeault, a relative unknown, was young and dynamic, and ended up spending a lot of money to get himself elected. Gordon Harris had a good showing for a Green, but ultimately that’s a relative comment. While there was bad blood between Marleau and Thibeault (who engaged in negative tactics), for the most part, the campaign was a staid affair. But might the outcome have been different if Labelle had campaigned at all, and negatively at that? I guess we’ll never know.

It’s because negative campaigns so often capture the attention of the media and get everyone talking that they are so successful. If you’re going to rely on policy pronouncements and inspiring, visionary messages as the theme of your campaign, that’s all well and good, but I hope that you’re not the one coming under attack.

Nevertheless, the best route to victory available for Fred Twilley and the Greens is the following: don’t engage in the negative. Play honest-broker. Offer up ideas to the public. Talk about policy. Tell voters why the Green Party is different. And above all else, connect with voters on a personal level. This type of principled campaign is going to be a lot harder for anyone to run, much less for the Green Party, short on resources, name recognition, national campaign etc., as we are. What’s needed is a slew of volunteers, some money, and constant campaigning. If the Green Party has any hope of electing Fred Twilley it’s going to be because of those personal connections.

As a result of all of this, Twilley and us Greens can expect less media coverage in the next election, as the media will be attracted to the story of the Slade/Thibeault battle. They may even try to stoke that blaze in the same way that they did by intervening in favour of Matichuk against Rodriguez. And with a national campaign which will see our Leader less than we did in 2008 for several reasons (focus on her own riding; the fact that she is 3 hours behind us, and running in an area with little national media coverage; not to mention that she will likely wrongly be shut out of the national televised debates), we Greens are going to have to create our own opportunities. Again, they’re going to have to be through personal connections, one voter at a time. And that’s going to be our big challenge.

Nevertheless, we have to rise up against this negativism, at least here in Sudbury, as we will gain nothing if we go negative. Due to our relative size and experience, even if Twilley comes out with the best one-liners ever written, we’re not going to be the media’s story in this campaign. What we have to figure out how to do is to come up the middle by using the personal touch, and by identifying our voters and getting them out to the polls. Our ideas, and our personal stories are going to be our assets. Not how loudly we can shout others down.

So rest assured, Greens, when I wrote about the benefits of negative campaigning yesterday, I did not mean to suggest that we here in Sudbury should be stooping so low. Politics is local, and a successful campaign must consider local circumstances. It also must consider what our own inherent strengths are, and as Greens, we have many of those (and they are quite different than what is being offered by the other parties). Here in Sudbury, our success depends upon our sincerity, upon our ideas, and our values. And upon getting the message out to voters about all of those things.

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