I usually stick to blogging about my writing but I cannot let yesterday’s federal election pass without comment. While the hard-fought campaign yielded a predictable result, another Tory minority government, a troubling trend emerged, as it has more or less in the last few elections. Voter turnout continued its decline setting a new record for apathy. Only 59 percent of eligible voters made the trek to the polling station to exercise their democratic right, or should I say responsibility, and cast their ballot. Voter turnout peaked in 1958 with nearly 80 percent of voters marking the X next to their preferred candidate. Since then, with blips here and there, it’s been all downhill.
While I have no exhaustive research to support my position, my observation over the last 25 years or so, is that voter apathy has grown in lockstep with the widespread adoption of negative campaigning. Virtually all of the parties are guilty of “going negative” and in this past campaign, and it seemed to happen right after the writ dropped. Is there a connection? I think so. When parties spend their members’ donations on TV advertising that simply tears down their opponents, often employing distortions and exaggerations, while making little or no comment on their own policies, I truly believe the voters lose faith in our democratic institutions. This year’s Leaders Debate resembled a kindergarten playground of insults and aspersions. The ad campaigns of both the Conservatives and my own Liberals were malevolent and malicious. I was embarrassed. My 16 year old son’s flickering interest in politics was all but snuffed out by the behaviour of our parties. We need his generation to be inspired by our brand of democracy, not disgusted by it.
The parties’ market research must support the use of negative campaigning. It may well be effective in undermining opponents and sewing the seeds of doubt in the voter’s mind. But I think there’s a greater long term cost to our democracy if we continue down this path. And I think Canadians are ready for a party and a leader who refuses to leap into the gutter and “go negative” even if the other parties are doing it. I think Canadians are ready for a party and a leader who takes the high road and focuses exclusively on laying out a blueprint for the country’s future rather than dwelling on the inadequacies, faults, and misdeeds, real or embellished, of his or her opponents. I think Canadians would reward such behaviour and I also believe the other parties and leaders would eventually be forced to follow suit. Finally, I think voter turnout would start to climb if the schoolyard taunts and adolescent insults of recent campaigns simply stopped.
But someone has to lead the charge. As a committed Liberal, I’d like it to be our party and leader who cuts this new path. But this election has now passed us by, and so has a golden opportunity to reject “politics as usual” and chart a new course. However, with another minority government, a new chance to “do the right thing” may only be a few years off.
If Angus McLintock were to rise from the pages of The Best Laid Plans, I know he’d hold this view too. Who knows, perhaps the sequel will give Angus an opportunity to rail against the tradition of “going negative.” Isn’t that what satire is for?