Federal Election

Political candidates are skilled at fielding tough questions. Really tough questions require answers that offend some potential voters no matter how they are answered. Ambiguity, platitudes and answering some question other than the one that was asked are ways of coping with such questions. Some candidates in the 2015 campaign, however, have found avoidance techniques. They avoid whole issue realms by simply not being where we are used to seeing them.

The first network televised, English language all-leaders’ debate took place in August while most Canadians were on vacation or not paying much attention. This summertime debate covered all the issues. Missed it because you were at the cottage or having a barbeque? Too bad for you.

The other two English debates covered only one unavoidable subject area each: the economy and foreign policy. They were on relatively minor channels and websites. They excluded Elizabeth May. Many Canadians only saw selected clips and the prattling of pundits regarding who “won,” This is dramatically different than last election when the debates outdrew the Stanley Cup playoffs by a wide margin.  

Without Elizabeth May there was less discussion of topics, like the environment, that might discomfort the Prime Minister. To the credit of Trudeau and Mulcair there was more than I expected; the foreign policy debate, to its credit, had a segment on climate change. However, another, almost invisible discussion, on the “doubtful” topic — women’s issues — was a no show for Canada’s Prime Minister.

Another almost unnoticed Prime Ministerial no show was a New York luncheon hosted by the UN Secretary General to discuss climate change. This absence may seem unrelated, but everything just now, including the structuring of the debates described above, is about keeping public attention away from matters that could hurt Conservative election prospects. Leaders from Brazil, India and Europe and many other nations were in New York, but they were not working hard at being invisible in relation to certain issues prior to October 19th. A focus on climate might, after all, distract voters from worries about what “those people” wear to citizenship ceremonies.

The 2015 campaign seems to avoid rather systematically many issues that matter, but what cannot be avoided are campaign ads. They play over and over until sane people want to scream. One party in particular seems to have too much money to have come by it without having been very nice to very wealthy entities.

Personal attacks predominate in Conservative Party ads. The issues, any issues, are rarely mentioned. The ads are repeated relentlessly where likely Conservative voters watch disproportionately: sports channels and the Business News Network (BNN). Making the debates hard to find and narrowly framed avoids undermining those ads. Otherwise even more viewers might see for themselves that one’s opponents are not the inept fools you have so expensively painted them to be.

Finally, there are the riding all-candidate debates. However, again, selectively by issue, everyone is not there. This happened in my riding (Peterborough) when the Conservative did not show at a well-attended debate on First Nations’ issues. After that, I noticed no shows all across the country, in British Columbia on the environment or pipelines, in Ottawa on all manner of issues, and elsewhere. Same party missing. Seems to be a pattern — one might even hazard, a plan — to avoid unenthusiastic audiences.

This election campaign is about what is visible and what is not. The Prime Minister himself came to Peterborough, but the public could not get in to see him. He did, however, appear on Peterborough televisions looking terribly interested in the products of a local factory. He seemingly conversed with people there, but there was no audio. There will, however, be audio on the next batch of ads, but no difficult questions will be asked. And no issues mentioned. 

Robert Paehlke is a professor emeritus at Trent University where he taught environmental policy and politics for 35 years. About 40 years ago, he envisioned a magazine that was both scientifically sound and journalistically interesting, and Alternatives was born. “Bob P,” as we call him, sits on the magazine’s editorial board and he contributes articles and blog posts as often as we can trick him into it.

He is the author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (1989), Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (2004), Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada (2008) and Hegemony and Global Citizenship (2014).  

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