If I were writing the headlines this morning, and I were as biased as many papers seem to be around elections, my headline would read something to the effect: "'Not a Leader' keeps 'Cuddly Sweater Man' to minority." It was a long, tough battle in Guelph, with an 82-day campaign. Our writ was dropped on July 25th for a September 8th by-election, cancelled on September 7th, and postponed to October 14th. But our Liberal newcomer Frank Valeriote pulled it off and Guelph, almost alone in Southwest Region, stayed red.
While I did not get home from the victory celebration until almost 3 this morning, I should note that not a single one of the opposing candidates had the grace to congratulate Valeriote last night. I have a lot of thoughts about this election, both locally and nationally, to share.
I spent a good deal of the campaign volunteering, doing everything from sign crew to door-to-door to work in the office. I haven't really slept much since July. Our campaign had no paid staff on it, yet plenty of people there seven days a week. The hard work paid off as we defeated three strong candidates and six fringe candidates. Indeed, Guelph's campaign was the longest of any in the country, tied with St-Lambert and Westmount at 82 days. We had the most candidates of any riding at 10. We had the most high profile candidates, at four. As a complete aside, I want to note that several members of the campaign, including the Campaign Manager, CFO, and director of communications, along with many others, do not drive and in most cases don't have driver's licenses. That a campaign can function and win in those conditions makes me proud of our community's ever-improving transit system.
While much was made of the Green campaign in Guelph, I have to hand it to the Green supporters who think more clearly than the campaign they supported. While Greens in Guelph clearly felt they could take this riding early on, the results show them a distant third, ahead of the NDP, but well behind the second-place Conservatives. Greens and NDPers both understood the message about vote splitting, and I believe came through for the riding and the country in uniting to defeat our Conservative candidate here.
As a result of vote splitting and wide-spread strategic voting, however, Greens and NDPers especially will continue to raise proportional representation as an issue, under the guise of discussing electoral reform. As one who worked very closely on the campaign to defeat mixed-member proportional in Ontario, I will once again offer a compromise to proponents of electoral reform. I will meet you half way between STV and SMP, and support IRV, a system that would eliminate vote splitting and strategic voting, without introducing new problems to our democracy.
The NDP nationally, on the other hand, nearly achieved their goal. I have long believed that Jack Layton's goal has not so much been to become leader of the opposition, but to ensure a Stephen Harper majority. Having spent most of his campaign trying to unseat Liberals, even where the NDP itself had no chance of winning, Layton worked hard to ensure an unrestrained far right government which could ultimately lead to an extreme far left government in response to it with Jack Layton at the helm. For a party that claims to want to work with the other parties, as it does every time it offers during an election to be a coalition partner, it works very hard not to cooperate with anyone.
The Greens are going to be interesting to watch over the next couple of years. I expected them to sweep the protest vote nationally this election and come out much closer to the NDP at the end of the day. But I believe the Greens nationally understood that a vote for the Greens right now is a vote against action on climate change, and so ballot box guilt cost a lot of their support. The Greens will, however, need to ask themselves what they need to do to get their leader in the House. Running against an entrenched Conservative MP who is one of the few members of the Conservative caucus who would make strong leadership candidates when Harper moves on was not a brilliant strategic move for the party, but I appreciate the Green Party leader's decision not to run against any Liberal or NDP candidates where should would risk hurting progressives. While in any other party, with the possible exception of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, her decision would probably cost her the leadership of her party, I believe that what she accomplished in this election far exceeds what she lost. But to really make a difference, and they will hate me for saying so, I believe the Green Party should fold, and join the Liberal Party en masse, taking over some riding assocations and their policy committees, and using the vehicle of the Liberal Party to push through an agenda we largely share in common, rather than continuing an unnecessary national division.
The Conservatives, too, will have to do some soul searching. While conventional wisdom is that Stephane Dion was the big loser last night, in my opinion it was Stephen Harper. While he kept his own expectations down, he showed that with a carefully managed campaign where the public was not invited to a single campaign event from day one to voting day, where he spent millions of dollars successfully personally destroying his opponent outside of a writ period where there are few restrictions on spending, where his main opponents were essentially flat broke, and where his secondary opponents were working primarily to unseat his main opponent, he could not win a majority. If not against a broke Liberal party with what Conservatives see as a weak leader in Dion at the helm, then Consrvatives will have to ask themselves how they will ever win a majority. The answer they will come to will ultimately be: through a more centrist and less abrasive leader.
My sense of how things would go at the start can be summarised fairly simply. I felt that Canadians, by-and-large, wanted a majority government, and didn't really care who got it. The Conservatives' gaffes, with the exception of the arts and culture cuts, didn't stick. People didn't care, they just wanted an end to the minorities, something they still did not get.
The number of times I heard at the door and elsewhere through this campaign that "all politicians are liars" and therefore "I'm voting Conservative" really caught me off guard. There is only one party that ran a campaign based completely on lies, manipulation, and deceit, and people chose it over a party that offered a clear vision and honest assessment of where we needed to go and how we would get there, because they are tired of lies, manipulation, and deceit.
This brings me to our own federal party. Readers of this blog will know that I was a strong supporter of Dion through the leadership race, and have remained loyal to him since. I still strongly believe he is the only leader in the House who has any kind of vision or true leadership skills. He is not an eloquent speaker in English, but nor is Harper an eloquent speaker in French. That, to me, is his only major flaw. While we can thank Mike Duffy for throwing Ontario -- numbers in Ontario collapsed after his partisan intervention in the campaign -- people looking objectively at the video clip he posted would realise that the interviewer asked Dion a question, Dion asked for clarification ("if I were PM 2 and a half years ago?"), the interviewer repeated his initial question instead of simply agreeing to the clarification, and slipped on his answer, so asked to reanswer the question. Why that is such a big deal to people, I am not sure. I don't think there are many politicians or interviewers who have never restarted an interview. That all said, Dion's leadership is in danger. If we lose him, we will likely get some eloquent speaker with no vision or true leadership skills other than an ability to crack a whip, and people will rejoice that we have "a leader," while pretending that someone other than Dion would have done amazingly better this election. Against today's financial machine of the Conservative party, I do not see how any winner of the 2006 leadership race would have fared any better. Dion's numbers spiked after the debates. The number of times I heard complaints about Dion's leadership dwindled. It was the first chance Canadians had ever had to meet the real Dion and they liked what they saw. If perceptions were based on reality, not on smears and attacks, we would have a very different outcome.
Which leads me to my next point: money. The Liberal Party has precisely one thing to do between now and the next election. The party must convince every supporter in every part of the country who can afford to give a dime to the cause to give that dime. The party needs money to fight elections and inter-election battles. Millions of Canadians who believe in the Liberal cause must be asked to put their money where their mouth is. We have to learn to out-fundraise our opponents, and we have the base to do it if we make that our priority. That politics is decided by money and not ideas sickens me, but that is the context in which we must learn to fight.
The Conservatives spent millions of dollars on ads between elections, something that the Liberals simply couldn't afford to do. It had an obvious and direct effect as they beat the Liberals to the punch in defining the new Liberal leader by doing so, both immediately after the leadership convention and immediately before the general election. This problem would have been essentially mooted by having a well-financed party that could have fought back. It is your responsibility, and your friends, your family, and your neighbours, to ensure that this does not ever happen again.
But this brings us to a problem. I remember reading or hearing an analysis of attack advertising some years ago. It went something like this: If Wendy's released an ad saying Harvey's burgers were made of mice, then people would stop eating Harvey's burgers. If Harvey's responded by saying Wendy's burgers are made of rats, then people would stop eating Wendy's burgers. The result, ultimately, would be that people would stop eating burgers.
This approach to politics, more than any other factor I believe, is leading to the increasingly pathetic voter turnout we are seeing in elections. It isn't that people are disaffected by the nonsense of the "wasted vote" as some would have you believe, it is that voters are tired of having to choose between rats and mice. Elections should be fought on ideas first, last, and always, but almost never are. They're fought on personality, sound bites, and scored points. The result, ultimately, is that we all lose, every time. As Chretien used to like saying, "when you throw mud, you lose ground." This election was one of the dirtiest ever. With hate ads personally attacking the Liberal leader and offering no substantive reason for doing so dominating the airwaves, and with at least five Liberal ridings having homes and vehicles severely vandalised, in many cases resulting in a direct threat to life and limb, we have reached a new low in Canada.
Now that we have a Conservative government again, what becomes of policies like the Green Shift? My bet is that the Conservatives bring in a very similar but somewhat weakened policy that will not be revenue neutral in an effort to stem the tide of deficit that they have brought on us, early on in their mandate, and claim credit for it as the best idea since sliced bread. Nothing was made of the presence of a cap-and-trade system in the Conservative Party's hastily drawn up platform at the end of the campaign.
If Obama wins next door next month, this could well be the first extended period of time in which we have a Democratic president at the same time as a Conservative government. As Conservative governments tend to draw us closer to US foreign policy, this will have a tendency to limit the damage that Harper can cause to Canada if he is there for any length of time.
As we look toward the next election, which will not be more than a couple of years out, we must consider how we will go about winning. As I said before, fundraising is the key. For a party with the support and history that the Liberal Party has to be essentially out of money is ridiculous. For my friends who blog, but who make no other contribution to the party, I will say it very simply: you are not doing your part.
We have to work together to rebuild the party from the inside out, financially and organisationally. Chretien's return at the very end of the campaign was a sign of things to come and I believe the Liberal Party has woken up to the fact this morning that it really is only one party, not two, and needs to act that way if it hopes to return to power.
May we continue to live in interesting times.
Posted at 08:41 on October 15, 2008
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