This week in Electionland: Is this it?

Three weeks of this dismal depressing excuse for an election have dragged past us, but looking forward we see little consolation – just two more months of this mundane nonsense, this putridly pretentious speechifying, this bland and carefully targeted promise-making, this cautious avoidance of anything too bold or substantial or, god forbid, anything truly controversial.

To sum the whole sordid business up in a single sentence: Is this it?

This is – or it was supposed to be – the most important election in decades. Through all the long miserable years of the Harper majority, partisans of the various opposition parties have been saying, “Just wait until 2015 – we’ll get them then!” And now here we are, it’s their big moment, their time to shine, to show us their vision for a better government – and this is it?

The conventional wisdom from the veteran campaign journalists seems to be that the parties are all waiting until after Labour Day to pull out their marquee policy announcements and their show-stopping speeches and whatnot, the idea being that a lot of folks are on vacation right now and, from a marketing politics point of view, in the immortal words of George W. Bush press secretary Andrew Card, “you don’t introduce new products in August.”

Card was explaining why the Bush administration held off on making its case for their invasion of Iraq until the fall of 2002 – it wouldn’t have sold as well in the summer, he insisted. And perhaps he was right. But there’s something unspeakably cynical about such an approach.

First of all, seeing a major change in policy as a product to be sold, rather than an idea to be debated, reveals a great deal about the fundamentally manipulative approach that many insiders take to the political process, and that’s equally true whether the “product” is a war in Iraq or a candidate for Prime Minister of Canada.

But secondly, it shows that the parties – all of them – are afraid of telling us too much about their candidates products. Deciding it’s not worth the effort to make too vigorous or detailed of a pitch because it’s cottage season demonstrates that none of the parties’ chief strategists marketers are very interested in telling the whole story, getting down into the fine details, making a thorough case for their policies. They’re operating on the level of impressions.

And hell, that’s modern politics. I can’t expect them to do any differently. But it makes for a miserable campaign, especially for people (like me) who, for reasons that are probably too complicated and uninteresting to get into here, have committed themselves to reading as much about this goddamn spectacle each day as time and morale will allow for.

I mean, this is it! This is both Thomas Mulcair’s and Justin Trudeau’s BIG SHOT at getting their dream job. This is the moment they’ve been building up to for years. And we get…what, exactly?

In Trudeau’s case, we get an animated and excitable fellow criss-crossing the country speaking extremely passionately while carefully saying as little as possible. The Montreal Gazette did a major profile of the leader this week which was, overall, extremely sympathetic. It extolled his incredible interpersonal skills, his ability to work a crowd, to deflect hecklers, to come across as authentic in conversations with voters. It praised the Liberal Party’s newfound prowess in terms of the ground game of electioneering. But even the friendly Gazette couldn’t overlook the fact that, on questions of policy, Trudeau still seems, well, really shaky and reliant on pre-planned answers:

Despite his boundless enthusiasm for glad-handing, despite a much-improved sense of discipline that’s minimized gaffes during the election, it often looks like Trudeau is feigning sincerity.

When he gets in front of a microphone, there’s a stiffness that overtakes him: every syllable is carefully enunciated and nothing sounds conversational. It all seems so scripted…

This is perhaps Trudeau’s biggest challenge in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 19 election. At his best, he makes it look easy: the way he glides through an audience, the way he gently cradles a stranger’s baby or effortlessly remembers a volunteer’s name at a rally. This is Trudeau’s clearest path to victory, winning hearts and minds one handshake at a time.

But there are still far too many moments where it looks like politics, where Trudeau’s enthusiasm causes him to break the fourth wall, where it’s very clear he’s delivering a message that was focus-grouped with laser precision. And that may be the golden rule of the game: don’t make it look like you’re playing.

Which is to say, in terms of style, Trudeau’s a natural – but in terms of substance, he’s a lightweight, and the Liberal brain-trust has compensated by feeding him well-tested lines for most imaginable questions he could face.

In other words, their pitch to us is essentially the same as the marketers of diet soda – it’ll taste so great you won’t even notice that all the substance is missing.

Or, as Trudeau himself put it in an interview in the Toronto Star in 2013, shortly after he was elected leader of the Liberal Party:

“The biggest difference between a party led by me and one by Stephen Harper will be one of tone.”

And really, what a picture of opposites the two make! Harper is the most wooden, detached, distant politician to ascend to the PMO in generations – I’m struggling to come up with a comparison, and wishing I was more well-versed in the brief and uneventful mandates of the group of four PMs known as MacDonald’s Pallbearers. Trudeau would certainly be a far more lively and human presence in the halls of power in Ottawa.

But to think that that, of all things, is the change that Canadians are clamouring for? A change in tone?

The Liberal campaign thus far seems to wholly accept that absurd notion. Trudeau has been careful to position his party as precisely in between the Conservatives and the NDP on every major issue, even when those positions make little or no sense. We don’t need to look any further than his against-it-but-still-voted-in-favour stance on Bill C-51, but if we wanted, we could delve into the nonsensical idea that he’s being a “moderate” on pipelines:

The contrast between the Conservatives and New Democrats could not be more clear, said Trudeau.

The Tories want to open the flood gates on development, regardless of the environmental consequences, and the New Democrats want to clog Canada’s economic engine with red tape that would hamper industrial production, he suggested.

“What all Canadians know is the way to grow a strong economy in the 21st century is by caring for the environment,” Trudeau said before climbing on his campaign bus.

In fact, as I detailed yesterday, the NDP is eager to move forward on many pipeline projects while providing the oil industry with the fig leaf of “credible” review that they need to silence their more moderate critics. In fact, Mulcair is aggressively trying to sell his party as the one which can get things done on pipelines and the tar sands, alleging that the Conservatives have foolishly thrown away the inadequate environmental protections which would have allowed these projects to proceed.

And speaking of the NDP, what the hell? This is the single best chance that they’ve ever had to get into power. Like, EVER. Ed Broadbent would be pissing his pants with excitement right now. And this is what we get?

Mulcair vowed that an NDP government would devote $250 million to a police recruitment fund during its first four years in office. This up-front investment would be followed by $100 million in annual funding, he added.

The money would put 2,500 more front-line police officers on the streets in communities across Canada, he said.

“Gangs, street violence, gun violence in Surrey[, B.C., where Mulcair was speaking] have now reached epidemic levels,” said Mulcair. “Our plan will focus on providing increased, ongoing funding for policing in Canadian communities.”

More cops on the street. Promises to the oil industry that “we will be there for you“. The repression of candidates who are “too critical” of Israel.

This is the friggin’ NDP we’re talking about here, the party that for generations has sold themselves as the social conscience of Canadian democracy. But I could just as easily be describing the Conservative Party.

This is their big shot, their opportunity to show Canadians what they’ve been missing out on, and this is it?

The Winnipeg Free Press nailed it when they said:

You can see the stress points on the NDP already. Earlier in the campaign, Mulcair promised federal funding to put an additional 2,500 police officers on Canadian streets. It’s an opening volley from the NDP to try to weaken the Conservative hold on law and order.

However, it’s also a weak salvo, a pledge that seems desperately out of date with the reality of today’s political marketplace.

Five years ago, politicians at all levels of government were promising more “boots on the streets” to combat crime. Today, many of those same politicians, particularly at the local government level, realize we don’t need more police officers.

Crime rates are down and spending money on hiring more police officers only creates enormous fiscal pressure on municipal budgets. In fact, most big cities in this country are trying to find a way of shrinking their police forces.

However, they lost me with this:

Pipelines and police, just two issues in a very long election campaign, are demonstrating in graphic terms the pitfalls that face any party with serious aspirations to form government. Canada is profoundly fractured along provincial and regional lines. It is difficult to find any one policy or position that plays well with voters across the country.

That is primarily why competitive federal parties have taken positions like the NDP stance on the pipeline. It would be impossible for the NDP to contemplate winning this election with a policy that rejects pipelines out of hand.

There I disagree fundamentally. Canadians are in favour of pipelines and of the tar sands primarily because of the mainstream political consensus around this issue, not the other way around. What is lacking is political leadership which is willing to educate, to inform, and to lead. In the past the NDP has shown such a willingness. This is the party, after all, which was united around voting against the unconstitutionally abhorrent War Measures Act during the FLQ crisis of 1970, and popularity be damned. But in the twenty-first century, the NDP seems to have lost its spine, along with its aspirations towards social justice.

Even their one moderately “progressive” platform plank, $15-a-day daycare, is essentially the same plan that they deliberately and knowingly killed in 2005 when they teamed up with Stephen Harper to drag down Paul Martin’s minority government before it could finish implementing its own national daycare program – which the Liberals were quick to point out after the NDP announced the policy last year:

Before Mulcair’s press conference had even wrapped up, the Liberals sent out a press release attacking the NDP for its role in bringing down Prime Minister Paul Martin’s government in 2005.

“Canada had a national child-care plan — a Liberal government negotiated a comprehensive national child-care deal with all of the provinces, contrary to Mr. Mulcair’s revisionist history,” the advisory said.
 
“In 2005, it was the NDP that joined with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to topple the Liberal government. One of Mr. Harper’s first actions was to cancel the child-care plan.”

“As a result of the NDP’s and the Conservatives’ actions, an entire generation of children was raised without access to high-quality, universal child care,” it concluded.

Much like Andrea Horwath’s decision to kill the most progressive budget in recent Ontario history last year, leading to an election which produced a Liberal majority government which has proceeded to privatize Hydro One and force striking teachers back to work, Jack Layton’s decision to bury the Martin government and destroy Martin’s national daycare program will go down in history as a poor calculation by an opportunistic third party hoping for its shot at the big-time. Mulcair’s timidly middle-of-the-road campaign may well outdo them all, however – he’s giving the NDP’s die-hard supporters no reason at all to go to the polls this fall, while utterly failing to convince most other Canadians that he offers more than Business As Usual.

Looking at things from such a macro level, while satisfying for the soul, is perhaps the wrong approach from an electioneering point of view. After all, Stephen Harper is the master of “Is this it?” politics, and he’s still very much in the running to win a fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister, a feat only Wilfred Laurier and John A. MacDonald have accomplished before. (Pierre Trudeau won four election non-consecutively.) And looking at his supporters, it’s hard not to understand why. The type of person who can respond to a reasonable question with, “Because you’re a lying piece of shit!” is not likely to be persuaded by…well…anything, really.

If you haven’t taken the time to watch this to-date-anonymous Angry Old White Man losing his shit on some reporters who had the temerity to ask Harper some moderately hard questions about the interminable Duffy scandal, you owe it to yourself to see it, if only to gain insight into the mythical Mood of the Electorate:

 

What makes this video striking, really, is the context.

The incident in question occurred at a Harper campaign event in Toronto, at which the Prime Minister announced that a re-elected Conservative government’s first priority would be the (re)introduction of a “Life Means Life” law that it cynically put forward in the dying days of its mandate, knowing it wouldn’t have time to pass. The bill, which would mandate that people found guilty of certain crimes live the rest of their lives in cages with no chance at parole, would represent a continuation of the HarperCons’ “tough on crime” assault against Canada’s vulnerable communities, following up on a four-year term that saw incarceration rates spike, particularly for minorities, despite falling rates of all types of crime across the country.

That Harper is campaigning on this policy is hardly a surprise – even I saw it coming a few months ago:

Over the past few weeks, the Conservative government has been introducing a flurry of bills that they have absolutely no intention of passing.

Many of the bills, which include motions to sentence certain criminals to life without the possibility of parole and to ban women from wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies, have been labelled as potentially unconstitutional by legal observers and rights groups. But that’s besides the point.

The Conservatives are betting on two things: first, that these bills will be popular with their base, and second, that they can slur the Liberals and NDP for opposing these motions. As the CBC puts it, “who wants to run an election campaign arguing against tough sentences for murders and rapists?”

So perhaps it’s also not surprising what a “meh” reaction this flagrantly offensive proposal has received. In fact, reporters at the campaign announcement were far more interested in getting the Prime Minster’s reactions to the latest from the Duffy trial.

In part, this is because they’re severely limited in terms of how many questions they can ask, and who can ask them. Harper typically takes a mere five questions per day, and his handlers select which reporters get to ask them. Why the press continues to participate in this facade and give an aura of legitimacy to the Harper campaign is entirely beyond me. I mean, look at this actual transcript of an actual Q&A session. Harper dodges what’s essentially the same question in exactly the same way three times – with no repercussions other than increasing levels of testiness from the press.

But it’s certainly ironic that neither Harper’s disgusting pandering policy announcement, nor the press’s insistent and fruitless questioning on Duffy and Novak and credibility and who knew what when, got nearly as much coverage as an angry foul-mouther Conservative (proudly wearing a Doug Ford For Mayor button) accusing the press of being a bunch of tax-cheating lying pieces of shit who should go stuff themselves.

It speaks to what I’m saying when I demand, “It this it?” This heckler was pretty much the story of the week, as far as the mainstream media was concerned; though more ink was spilled on the Duffy trial, surely no other story got as many clicks as this incoherent asshole, and by that metric shall we judge what is newsworthy, forever and ever, amen.

Which, by the way, is the Harper strategy for weathering the Duffy storm. This week’s testimony made it eminently clear that practically the whole PMO was well-aware of Chief of Staff Nigel Wright’s intention to pay Duffy’s questionable expense claims out of his own pocket while leading the public to believe that Duffy was behind the payment, and that Harper was either deliberately misled by a vast conspiracy of people whom he mostly chose to continue employing, or in on it. These revelations – and the outrage surrounding them – must have been entirely predictable to the Conservative Party when they made the decision to call an early election – and yet they went ahead. They must have been counting on apathy and a willingness to move on to whatever’s the next shiny thing in our range of vision:

The Duffy trial goes on hiatus at the end of next week, just as the general election campaign begins in earnest.

Questions will still be asked of the prime minister but news organizations paying $12,000 per week per reporter will want fresh meat. By the second week of September, the Duffy story may start turning blue at the edges.

There will always be events — tumbing Asian stock-markets, conflict in Korea, $40 oil. As I wrote last week, health care could become a significant campaign issue this time as the parties roll out their policies and spending plans.

The Conservative plan is undoubtedly to ride out the news cycle. By mid-October, the Duffy affair will not be as all-consuming as it is now.

And the Angry Old White Man will be forgotten, too. On to the next uninspiring policy announcement – today it was tax relief for service club members! – which will hopefully dictate the day’s news cycle and keep those swing voters in swing ridings satisfied enough to once again vote Conservative.

Election by attrition, with a healthy dose of cynical media manipulation thrown in. This is what we can expect from Harper as the weeks wear on.

And in the face of such a strategy, Mulcair and Trudeau imagine they can win by offering practically identical policies, rolled out with less precision but slightly more charm?

Look. People are ripe for inspiration. People are willing to consider change. Things as they are right now aren’t so great – and a lot of people have a sinking sensation that they’re going to get a lot worse in the years to come. And we’re at what could be a major turning point for our nation. Will we put an end to our extraction of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel on the planet? Will we stop treating Indigenous peoples like second-class citizens and act to stop the rampant over-incarceration of minorities? Will we finally, at long last, act to eradicate poverty, a goal that’s been achievable for generations and yet never seriously pursued?

These are all potential outcomes of this election, or at least I thought they were. But with each week that passes, I get the sinking sense that maybe I was just dreaming.

Maybe this is it.

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