Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.
My contribution to the confusion can be found here:
As Elly has noted, coalitions and minorities are back on the table with reporters tossing out scenarios to party leaders and demanding they respond even though no one knows what the parliament will look like after May 2.
So here’s a couple more scenarios to throw into the mix.
First, let’s say Mr Harper and the Conservatives end up on May 2 with the most number of seats (which almost everyone concedes at the moment is the most likely result) but are still in a minority having lost most if not all of their 11 MPs from Quebec.
Virtually every political operative, communications consultant and journalist watching last night’s Mansbridge/Ignatieff interview would have known immediately what would come next. And it did.
The news story flashed out on the wires and all-news TV; the Conservative war room response was immediate; the next morning’s front page headlines were large and blaring. More inferential than literal, the news stories and political attacks focused on what Mr. Ignatieff might do if the Conservatives won a minority on May 2. Most reports (and certainly the Conservatives) elevated it to a working plan to topple Mr. Harper and cobble together a government supported by other opposition parties. Mind you, not a formal coalition but something that looks like it.
As predictable as all that was the likelihood that Mansbridge would ask the question and press it home. Not as predictable was Mr. Ignatieff’s choosing to respond the way he did. It is the stuff of which election “gaffes” are made.
Or is it? And should it be?
So the week begins with a “surge” in NDP support in two online public opinion polls. That certainly fits the media’s need to find a narrative for the campaign’s final two weeks. If there isn’t going to be a race for first place, a race for second is more entertaining than no race at all.
However precedent suggests it is worth being cautious and asking some questions about NDP performance in online polls.
In the 2006 election, Decima Research conducted a series of experiments comparing polling results from an online panel it had assembled with those obtained from traditional telephone polling. The goal was to see how accurately online polls could match telephone results and to try to figure out how online polls should be weighted compared to the traditional demographic weighting done for phone polls to ensure the pool of respondents matched the demographics of the country.
Among media, week three began with a sense of pregnant expectation. This was the week that the campaign would really begin, when things might start to shift and the campaign take off. By week’s end we would know a lot more and the narrative of the election would become clearer – and hopefully more dramatic.
Well, by week’s end, we did know a lot more. Things were pretty much where they’d been. The polls moved a bit but only within their margins of error. The Conservatives were still a bit shy of majority and there was no perceived Liberal momentum. News developments – the AG report, the misleading quote, the Afghan detainee file –had bubbled up and dissipated. You could almost hear the air come out of a number of narrative balloons.
The quest for compelling campaign narrative is a powerful media instinct – the search for the Holy Grail of politics. There are still two weeks left and few yet want to write the outcome most synchronous with current evidence – a virtual rerun of 2008 with minor seat swings. The more powerful story of a dogged prime minister finally winning his majority is not in the cards (at least not yet) under the current numbers. The fall from grace story line of an utter collapse (Circa 1984) of the Harvard dream isn’t either.
This is the week, according to the way campaigns are usually covered, media attention should focus on post-debate public opinion polls. The search is on for any movement in the polls and every move is accentuated as the media looks for evidence to build a narrative of a closing race heading into second half of the campaign.
The problem this time is that so far the polls really aren’t moving. There are differences between the results reported by individual polling companies but within each poll there has been little change since the campaign started, a trend the debate didn’t change.
So the search for news means the media campaign spotlight turns to other issues – Helena Guergis, G20 spending, Afghan detainee documents – reprises of stories from the last parliament that opposition parties played hard today. That was done despite the fact that there’s no evidence that there was a significant public response that hurt the Conservative government the first time these issues came around.
Although we are now fully into the third week of the federal election campaign, a majority of Canadians will not have begun to take full notice until last night’s English-language leaders’ debate. Sparring on a set that looked like a throwback to a 1970s game show, the leaders of Canada’s three federalist parties, plus separatist leader Gilles Duceppe, exchanged barbs on a range of issues: crime control, multiculturalism, the economy and tax cuts, health care and governance.
Following the debate, each party’s war room went into full spin mode in an effort to declare their leader the winner and to set the post-debate news agenda; news networks provided nonstop analysis and reporting; and the social mediascape was abuzz, with voters, pundits and journalists offering up their favourite quotes, commentary and predictions about the next day’s headlines.
Despite the range of issues which animated the event, voters who tuned in looking for a thoughtful debate about policy will have come away disappointed. Although each party’s general position on the aforementioned issues were on display, these were mostly reduced to well-rehearsed sound-bytes designed to influence the post-debate news cycle. What’s more, several major issues were virtually ignored: climate change, telecommunications reform and Canada’s digital strategy, the aging workforce, and crumbling public infrastructure, to name just a few.
Last night’s English language debate clarified some campaign variables while others remain uncertain and speculative.
Let’s start with media, the first and influential intermediary for those who didn’t watch and for many who did.
It seems clear that no matter how you assess individual performance, there is no immediate momentum or “buzz” around Mr. Ignatieff. There is a clear media consensus about that. Post debate commentary displayed an almost tangible wistfulness for what many of them see as the end of the possible Cinderella story of a strongly competitive campaign outcome. The first polls of the morning will underscore that. They show, at least initially, no significant change and where asked, a sense that Mr. Harper did very well.
Barring some reversal in the polling data, emphasis will now switch remorselessly to the prospects of a majority government for Mr. Harper and whether strategic voting will coalesce to stop it.
The mixture of one-on-one and group engagement in last night’s debate highlighted why the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP are so happy that the broadcast consortium did their dirty work for them in being the bad guys who excluded Elizabeth May and the Green Party from the debates.
Mr Duceppe’s presence provides tangible benefits to each of the other three parties while Ms May poses a threat none of them need or want on display. As a result, the format worked for the parties but not for voters.
The one-on-one sessions between Mr Duceppe and each of the others leaders were largely irrelevant. Each was debating someone who can’t cost them any votes or threaten the $2 subsidy that goes with every vote each party receives.
The low point came in the exchange between Mr Duceppe and Mr Layton where it appeared at a couple of moments that they had simply run out of things to say and were hoping moderator Steve Paikin would put them out of their misery by ending their session early.
Replace Mr Duceppe with Ms May and the dynamic changes completely.
Yesterday, with its dueling leaks of AG drafts, was probably the most bizarre and most newsworthy pre-debate day in Canadian electoral history. It also provided a coda to a remarkable two weeks of cavalier political behaviour.
Adding it up.
Both the Liberals and Conservatives produced platforms that were outdated before they were published. They manufactured proposals on the fly or matched proposals by others. Chief among them was the extension of the 6% escalator on health transfers.
Both parties trumpeted fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets as their core guiding principles and proceeded to break the fiscal frameworks they had set for themselves. And neither could produce a plan to accommodate the new spending that even a first year policy studies student would accept as real.
And yesterday, both parties trafficked in confidential AG drafts. The first leak was identified by the reporter as coming from a supporter of the Opposition. The second leak was identified by the reporter as coming from the Conservatives directly — not that there was much doubt as both the Conservative spokesperson and designated Minister clearly acknowledged they had copies of a subsequent draft – copies they were not supposed to have. The fact that the AG’s office utterly depends on confidentiality and iterative transactions with government departments did not seem to matter to either. The willingness to risk undermining the institution was palpable in the face of what the parties saw as a potential game changing political event. And despite stern warnings from the AG for people to suspend judgment until reading the final report, the political characterizations and battle roiled on. Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that government members saw fit to misuse a six year old quote from the AG in a minority report. The government was forced to apologize to a furious AG.
And tonight the leaders will be live to the nation arguing about accountability and fitness to govern and suggesting that only they can be entrusted with safeguarding our institutions.
Good thing we didn’t have another week of campaigning before the debate to further test that proposition.
Elly Alboim is an associate professor of journalism and a former CBC TV Parliamentary Bureau Chief.
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