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The not-so-amazing race, Canada 

Winning over the nation's voters is a marathon, not a sprint.

click to enlarge Who will win the $500,000 cash prize? - MATT BUSTIN
  • Who will win the $500,000 cash prize?
  • Matt Bustin

The anticipated dog days of August in Canada’s Ocean Playground caught few people by surprise. Three provinces away, neither did the dissolution of Parliament.

Aside from customary sunny periods and high temperatures, Nova Scotians and others across the land were exposed to the elements of an early federal election call when prime minister Stephen Harper triggered an 11-week campaign on August 2, leading to our fixed-date voting day on October 19.

The call signalled the official start of political candidates’ photo-ops, platitudes and promises season. In Nova Scotia, 11 ridings are up for grabs. Four years ago, in the last general election, the Conservatives and Liberals each won four seats here and the NDP picked up three.

Early days of the summer-and-fall race included extensive coverage of run-of-the-mill campaign events during a traditionally sleepy news period in this country’s media bunkers. Also, the colour-whirl of political hopefuls’ signs—those eye-catching promotional posters—could be seen on householders’ trimmed, green lawns or flowerpot-adorned apartment balconies.

Orange was the colour in late August, on a quiet Sunday in Halifax, when the New Democratic Party hosted an early-afternoon event at a downtown venue that attracted the usual suspects: candidates, campaign workers, other voters and journalists. The star of the show was party leader Tom Mulcair.

His campaign stop was more predictable pep rally than informative happening. Their cell phones and partisan hashtags at the ready, attendees at the staged-and-scripted event heard familiar pledges and requisite bashing of political opponents. Mulcair unsurprisingly included Nova Scotia and Halifax references in his prepared speech, delivered mostly in English but with some French, too.

One of the biggest rounds of applause came after he told a packed convention centre ballroom that, if elected, the NDP would “give a raise to over 100,000 low-wage workers by introducing a $15-an-hour federal minimum.” Partisans and reporters tweeted, Mulcair shook hands, then the orange revue moved on to the next town.

Haligonian John Webb, a semi-retired 66-year-old who votes regularly, says 11 weeks for an election campaign is a bit much. Eight weeks of following the media’s coverage and considering his options would do it.

“Every night I watch the evening news and read [the paper], getting the leaders’ stances on major issues,” says Webb. He adds there are “lots of the same sound bites day after day, but the promises are getting made now, and more to come as October approaches.”

This contest is a close one but it remains to be seen if it becomes a full-tilt boogie and the political version of The Amazing Race: Canada. At the halfway mark, poll results had the NDP in the lead. In recent days, polls have shown the Conservatives gaining ground, before being overtaken by the Liberals. It’s still anyone’s game.

The initial English-language leaders’ debate during the 78-day campaign was televised from Toronto on August 6. Days after, controversy found its way onto the trail in the placid Annapolis Valley. The actions of New Democrats’ Kings-Hants candidate, Morgan Wheeldon, prompted headlines for his online comment posted last year about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. He quit the race, alleging he’d been smeared by the Conservatives. Weeks later, the NDP’s Kings-Hants riding association president resigned.

On Day 19 of the campaign, the parties’ war rooms received grim economic news: world stock markets fell toward their worst week of the year. Slumping North American markets dropped for the fourth straight session. On September 1, Statistics Canada announced Canada’s economy was officially in recession.

Not surprisingly, the second English-language debate—it was a pugnacious one held in Calgary on September 17—threw the spotlight on our nation’s fragile economy. (Fretful fact: The federal debt is more than $600 billion.) “Stylistically, as a TV show, it left a lot to be desired,” says debate watcher Dan Leger, a Halifax freelance journalist and author.

Leger says Liberal leader Justin Trudeau “especially sounded a bit shrill,” perhaps feeling he “really needed to score some points” during the event. “Mulcair performed well, up to expectations.” Harper showed that he, like Mulcair, is a skilled debater. Harper “had the most to lose” in the Cowtown debate, Leger says. “He didn’t lose.”

Jim Bickerton, a political science professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, says Canadian voters tend not to take notice of federal elections until mid-race, at least when political campaigns are of a normal length. He said the run-up to election day “will be a test case of sorts for a host of questions” linked to the impact of a lengthy campaign.

Bickerton said such unknowns include the influence on campaign strategy and voter turnout. Canadian history is being made here, he suggested. “Canada has never had an election even close to this one in length since the 19th century,” Bickerton says in an email.

Another unknown is the bottom line. A standard-length federal campaign, lasting a law-required minimum of 37 days, would be about $375 million to administer, says Elections Canada. The taxpayers’ bill for the 2015 version will include more expenses and probably be substantially higher.

Elections Canada says there were 733,094 eligible voters in the province during the last federal election, in 2011. Four years ago, voter turnout in Nova Scotia was 61.3 percent.

Asked about so-called safe seats, Bickerton said “the Cape Breton seats are generally considered to be safe seats for the Liberals, along with Scott Brison’s Kings-Hants seat (and) Peter Stoffer’s Halifax-area seat...for the NDP.” Bickerton said he expects “a number of dogfights” in federal ridings in the province, adding, “no Conservative seat is safe in Nova Scotia right now.”

By early September, results from an Abacus Data survey of Atlantic region voters showed the Liberals were polling ahead of the NDP, and were way in front of the third-place Conservatives. Nationally, near the end of the month (September 28), results from a Nanos Research survey showed the New Democrats had slipped to third place, the Liberals were second and the Conservatives were leading with 33 percent support. By October 4, a Nanos poll had the NDP still in third, the Tories in second place and the Liberals out front with 35.3 percent support.

Top election issues this time around include the Canadian economy, health care and job creation. The cost of living was another on the list of priorities for Canadian electors. Trudeau has announced he would not balance the federal budget until 2019 in order to give infrastructure funding a boost. The jobless rate in August in Nova Scotia was 8.4 percent. Nationally, it was 7 percent, says Statistics Canada.

Aside from economic matters, the environment is an issue for lots of voters—surfacing again after years of not resonating at all with the electorate. Just past mid-August, when campaign advertising was heating up and joined by the annual back-to-school ads, the environment was mentioned distinctly at regional stops by leaders of the Greens, Liberals and NDP.

But on September 3, an enduring humanitarian situation on the other side of the world suddenly entered the election race in Canada. Party leaders were compelled to say what Ottawa’s response should be to the migrant crisis in Europe, after media images of the corpse of a drowned toddler found on a beach in Turkey were published. The Syrian boy’s brother and mother also died. Bickerton says it’s not unusual for current events to have an unanticipated affect on a federal campaign. “Certainly, such a long campaign period—three months versus six weeks—increases the likelihood that something like the refugee crisis will crop up.”

Or, something like the recent Federal Court of Appeal ruling about wearing a niqab during a Canadian citizenship ceremony. The Conservatives are now seeking to suspend that decision.

Dan Beauchamp, 25, has been following the election campaign since its early days and monitors issues effecting the nation all year, when he can. The Halifax resident acknowledges he focuses “a lot of attention” on the debates. As for visiting online communities that share information about the campaign, Beauchamp is perhaps more old-school than his years on this planet would indicate.

“I don’t pay any attention to the election on social media,” he says. “I feel that people only voice their opinions and post articles that will have them receive the most likes, not because it’s a quality post.”

Regarding the length of time electors need to educate themselves, Beacuhamp says two to four weeks should suffice. “This way, you can understand what exactly you are voting for and you can decide personally which party holds the values that are most important to you.”

Immediately following the general election in 2011, Elections Canada commissioned a national survey of adults between 18 and 34 years old. A random sample of 1,372 young people was taken, as well as a non-random sample of 1,293 youth from such groups as aboriginals, the disabled and rural residents.

The study’s goal was to research voting behaviour with an aim to “increase youth participation in the electoral process,” Elections Canada’s website says. Beauchamp says of his close friends and associates, probably less than half were following the election campaign in its preliminary stages. “Most of them will be voting—probably 90 percent,” he adds.

In early September, at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, a back-to-school event attracted students whose various ages form part of that Elections Canada survey demographic. Asked about youth voter turnout, political science student Dominick Desjardins says he believes a record number of young people will cast ballots, “as the platforms of some of Canada’s major parties are very youth-inclusive.”

Desjardins, the 23-year-old president of the SMU Young Liberals, says he feels a federal campaign need only be five to six weeks long. “The fear [regarding] youth is the disengagement factor if a campaign period is prolonged. Not to mention, many students are transitioning this time of year,” he says, just before the Labour Day weekend. He added that members of his generation he’s talked to “all seem engaged and ready to vote.”

On September 14, economic matters found their way back to the campaign trail. The big news was Ottawa posted a $1.9-billion surplus in the 2014-15 fiscal year, balancing the books a year ahead of schedule.

Following six deficits, the federal government’s annual financial report showed Canada’s finances were back in the black.

This summer’s election call was the worst-kept secret in Ottawa during late July, coming 44 days after the House of Commons adjourned on June 19. Government announcements and advertising were rolled out leading up to the August 2 decree, as federal cabinet ministers dropped pre-campaign bribe bombs in every region of the country.

On our shores, former justice minister Peter MacKay, who represented Central Nova in Harper’s government and was first elected as an MP in 1997, dutifully delivered his last basket of publicly funded goodies before leaving politics. MacKay’s website in early August featured a scrolling, electronic ticker showing varying amounts of government largesse dished out to projects in Nova Scotia. Of the four Tory incumbent MPs, three of them—MacKay, Gregg Kerr and Gerald Keddy—are not reoffering. The fourth, Scott Armstrong, could be in the political fight of his life with former Conservative and independent MP Bill Casey now carrying the Liberals’ flag in the battle for the Cumberland-Colchester seat. (Armstrong is a former campaign manager of Casey’s.)

In Quebec, the sovereignty-promoting Bloc Quebecois looks like a non-entity. A writer with the Gazette in Montreal said during the summer that the New Democratic Party was polling so strongly in la belle province, it was “light-years ahead” of the once-popular Bloc in terms of voter support. Since then, however, the NDP has lost considerable ground in Quebec and is fighting for support in various regions of the province. 

Then there’s this sobering thought: if the vote count on October 19 results in a minority government, it likely won’t be too long before another caffeine-fuelled, rhetoric-filled election campaign takes place. On the other hand, votes cast in our electoral first-past-the-post system could yet again put a government in Ottawa with a majority of seats in the House of Commons, but with less than a majority of votes from Canadian electors.

A race lasting nearly three months that began on the Sunday of a long weekend (in most provinces) in August will be over in 11 days—a week after Thanksgiving Monday. By any measure, it’s been a mixed bag. It has been dull, eye-opening, head-shaking, informative, thought-provoking and humourous.

Will the country change direction? Or will it be a case of (apologies to Pete Townshend) “meet the new boss, same as the old boss?”

Michael Lightstone is a freelance journalist.


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