Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.
During the last week of the 2008 election campaign, a news photographer caught a humorous scene. Stéphane Dion, whose campaign was foundering, was sitting on a television news set. Behind him was a weather graphic: five days of unremitting dark clouds and pouring rain ahead.
Dion was a complete innocent in this embarrassing photo of course: a hapless victim of a clever photographer. Even Robert Stanfield actually had to fumble the football before his cringing-inducing moment was plastered on the front page of the Globe and Mail. What the photographers had done in both cases, though, was to find a symbolic pictorial representation of a broader media perception about the success of the candidates and their campaigns.
This morning I arrived a little late to see Michael Ignatieff make an announcement on his day care policy at a pre-school in Winnipeg South (the constituency I grew up in, as it happens). I had not seen Ignatieff at a political event in person for about a year, and what surprised me was his obvious comfort and self-confidence. He seemed like he was enjoying himself, which has not always been a given for Ignatieff in his time as leader.
Day six of the campaign and media narratives, many of them predictable, are emerging.
Journalism loves narrative, especially at election time. One of the great classical story lines is “the surge of the underdog.” The other is the ”comeuppance of the prideful”. Both are equally attractive as dramatic narrative. For Michael Ignatieff at the start of the campaign either was possible as a framing narrative.
On another level, political journalists love a contest – it adds dramatic tension and makes you feel that getting up in the morning in yet another city is worth doing. Every election campaign begins with the journalistic hope for a meaningful contest.
There are signs that we are seeing both story lines emerging. Although it is all impressionistic – as these things are – there is a sense that coverage of Michael Ignatieff is clustering around the “underdog beginning to surprise” and in doing so, turning what seemed a probable rout into a possible contest. It is early days and there will need to be more evidence to sustain the story line over time if it is to be viable. But today’s poll showing for the first time that the Liberal number starts with a 3 will be seized upon. If there are others showing that, or a narrowing of the gap, the media dynamic will change substantially and accelerate.
The CBC’s Vote Compass feature, which claims to help you figure out which of the five political parties most closely aligns with your views and values, has been a phenomenal box office success. Almost 700,000 people have already used the interactive feature on the CBC’s website as I write, and the number is growing by more than 100,000 a day. While the growth may settle down as we move into mid-campaign, you’d expect another surge as voters get closer to having to make their final decision on May 2.
Like anything popular — Justin Bieber round my house for example — it has critics as well as enthusiasts. Today the Ottawa Sun ran a story headlined CBC Vote Tool Flawed: Prof, quoting a Queen’s political scientist, Kathy Brock, as saying she used several strategies — giving the same answer to every question (e.g., “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree”) — and always came out Liberal. Similarly, someone (obviously a Tory) has posted a video purporting to illustrate that the Vote Compass is “totally rigged” towards the Liberals.
The Sun quotes a researcher who worked on the project as saying that since the questions are deliberately split between the left and the right of the spectrum, if you give the same answer to everything you end up in the middle. In other words, if you strongly agree that Canada should get out of Afghanistan immediately and that military spending should be increased, that the problems with oil sands are exaggerated and that there should be a carbon tax, you are not only nuts, you’re a Liberal!
The decision by the networks to exclude Elizabeth May from the Leaders’ Debates goes to the heart of the media’s sense of hubris in election campaigns.
Elections always feature a continuing struggle between media and political parties for control of the agenda. Media take on for themselves the role of arbiter of the truth and organizer of the hierarchy of importance of issues. In doing so, they work under two often contradictory values – loudly proclaiming the importance of accessibility and transparency and insisting on what they call news value in determining what they cover. Implicit in their narrow definition of news value is that the issue be interesting and/or entertaining to their audience, a judgment they insist is their excusive purview to exercise.
In the debates (and I’ve been party to those discussion many times), media organizers and producers worry first and foremost about the “watchability” of the debates and how to make it “good TV.” Although they cloak the discussion in high-minded discourse of making it accessible and interesting to viewers to foster increased democratic participation, it really is about applying game show and sports entertainment values to the process. They prize direct confrontation and angry conflict. Boring and incremental discussion doesn’t cut it – hence the rules on thirty second answers and the reportorial focus on “knock-out punches” and winners and losers in the coverage of the debates themselves. It isn’t really clear why that is important to them – after all there are no commercials to sell and no inter-network competitive urges to satisfy. But they can’t seem to stop themselves from being driven by production values because that is what they do every other day of their professional lives.
So we are back where we were in 2008 – should Elizabeth May be in the leader’s debates or not?
Of course she should, as her party receives an annual subsidy based on votes and in 2008 collected 937,613 votes – 6.8 per cent of the total votes cast.
The broadcasters’ rationale that only parties with seats in the House should be in the debate is a circular argument – almost no coverage of smaller parties even during campaigns and then keeping them out of debates so they don’t get the visibility that might help them get enough votes to elect an MP – designed to make it almost impossible for any new national party without a strong regional base to get in. (Where is the Competition Bureau when you need it!) In fact it is an approach designed to encourage the further regionalization of the Canadian political system.
In 2010 as media coverage of elections fractions in a million directions between the mainstream media and everyone else on the Internet, leaders’ debates are too important as the one common media experience open to all voters to assess the alternatives, to remain the personal fiefdoms of the political parties and their broadcast colleagues.
Here are my conclusions from round one of the debate about the debates in the media chapter in The Canadian Federal Election of 2008 – the book Carleton produces after every election.
There are a few milestones in an election campaign. The milestones are moments when voters begin to focus on what is at stake in the election and start the process towards deciding which party will receive their support. The first few days of the campaign is one such milestone. At that time, voters begin to realize they will be called upon to cast their ballot sooner than later and they seek to catch up on what has happened since the last time they paid attention to politics. It is an important process since we know from the 2008 Canadian Election Study that about one-third of voters (33%) will make up their mind about which party to support during the election campaign – some of them very early on – while close to 20% will wait until Election Day.
In the process of getting up to speed on politics, voters will seek information from families and friends; will pay closer attention to the news and party advertisements or will be visited by local candidates who will distribute campaign literature. Others may turn to polls to get a sense of where the respective parties stand within the public opinion environment. Those voters who are turning to polls for some insights are likely confused at this point.
The Conservative plan to introduce income-splitting for some families but only when the deficit is eliminated, isn’t the first time in recent elections a political party has used the ‘announce now-deliver later’ strategy but nether the Liberals nor the Conservatives want to mention that.
In the 1993 election the first Liberal Red Book election platform document included a conditional plan to spend $720 million in a three-year program that would establish 150,000 new child care spaces across the country.
But there was a catch. It would only happen in the future when the economy was growing at three percent. With 1993 growth at about one per cent , the Red Book projected the new plan would start in 1995-96.
Of course it never happened and that’s why the Conservatives don’t want to mention the concept’s been road-tested in a previous campaign. For the Liberals any mention of it is just reminds people that they have announced but not delivered child care plans before.
Instead of child care, after they were elected the Liberals introduced widespread spending cuts in Paul Martin’s 1995 budget in a plan to eliminate a deficit of more than $40 billion. Sound familiar?
Christopher Waddell is director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News. You can follow him on Twitter @cwaddell27
Susan Delacourt has learned ten lessons from a mere eight election campaigns!
I especially like #4: Reporters will make “fit to govern” judgments based on how well the tour buses perform in the area of feeding and accommodating the media. Campaign buses that get lost or break down or fail to provide three square meals a day to reporters will be pronounced abject failures at political leadership/competence.
Paul Adams is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton. He is a former Parliament Hill reporter and worked in the polling industry. You can follow him on Twitter @padams29
There’s a reason finance departments hate policies like the newly announced family income splitting promise by the Conservatives.
First of all, promising something at least five years out is a promise subject to the vagaries of events, to put it charitably. It pre-allocates spending years before fiscal pressures develop and are understood.
But there are lots of other policy issues to think about.
• Tax fairness. It creates two classes of taxpayers (not recipients, the ones tax expenditures like subsidizing hockey sticks target, though those are unfair as well). And it is much more lucrative than any of those. Currently, to be fair, seniors can split pension income, but there are compelling public policy reasons to do that.
• It is divisive: single parents, singles, and the childless are not eligible.
• It is regressive. The more you earn, the more you can transfer at the highest marginal rate. The biggest benefit accrues to the largest earners and where there is the largest income gap between spouses –by definition largely the well-off.
• It rewards those who can afford to stay home. Those who can’t get less and less depending on the income disparity
• It will be horribly complex to administer. What do you do about divorced parents sharing custody? Families with kids over and under 18? Which spouse gets the deductions?
• It will create a disincentive to work among some. For a person with a high income spouse, the attributed income is taxed at the marginal rate in that spouse’s hands..When it is assigned to the low income spouse, the income is taxed at the lowest rate. (the higher the income, the higher the marginal rate savings.) The lower the income of the recipient spouse, and the higher the income of the contributing spouse, the larger the savings. For very low current wage earners, there may well be a net gain from the tax savings versus working part time or at minimum wage. Certainly there will be a curve that shows only a marginal gain to working versus the psychic gain of staying with the kids for many people. Roughly, at highest marginal tax rate of say 43 percent (presumably this has to be followed by the provinces, otherwise you would file jointly in one jurisdiction and separately in another) the tax savings on transferring fifty thousand dollars could be over twenty thousand to the high income spouse which is offset by the tax paid by the lower income spouse (at lower tax rates.) The net tax savings diminish as the lower spouse’s work income increases.
It is a massive structural change in the tax system without consultation or discussion.
Finally, it will come at a time when the demographic crunch is hitting Canada’s health care system. Is this the fairest and best way to spend the first dollars of a surplus? Does it come out of health transfers, for instance?
Elly Alboim is an Associate Professor of Journalism and a strategic communications consultant who has worked on nine federal and two provincial budgets.
Vote Compass is a nifty online survey put together by CBC and a group of political scientists to try to help you determine what political party best represents your views.
The survey covers a wide range of issues, from the economy and the environment, through gun control and mercy killing – 30 questions in all.
Log in, answer the questions, and see where you fall on the graph in relationship to where the major parties are.
A national panel of political scientists wrote the questions and plotted party positions on the basis of what the parties themselves say they would do if elected.
The survey launched Saturday. Within two days more than 300,000 people had participated. (I hope this is a sign voter turnout will be high May 2.) Read more…
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