MORRISBURG — At last week’s all-candidates meeting sponsored by the Cornwall & Area Chamber of Commerce brought out some finger pointing by the candidates at each other, and some booing and cat-calls by the audience. Some complained openly after the meeting about the lack of decorum, however decorum in politics is a romanticized myth.
As far back as our parliamentary traditions in Canada goes, there has been name-calling, accusations of candidates being liars, frauds, dilettantes even. From early elections to the Legislative Assembly in Upper Canada, the post-Confederation battles between Sir John A. Macdonald and Alexander Mackenzie, all the way to the modern debates between Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair. Local candidates argued, ran each other into the ground, and the voters watched, participated and piled on, throwing the odd salvo in too.
Voters look back at past campaigns and forget about a lot of the negativity, the cheap shots and insults, and compare to this campaign and shake their heads. The reason for that? Because something good came out of those past elections which makes it easier to forget the negativity. A higher ideal that elevated above the din of insults and taunting.
Look at the 1988 Election for example. Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent slugged it out over the Free Trade Agreement. Partisans on all sides devolved into a hopeless pile of monkeys hurling political feces at each other. In the end, one side was re-elected and like it or not, the Free Trade Agreement was put into force. That agreement changed the nature of trade between Canada and the United States. 27 years later, few remember the one-liners, the booing at all-candidates meetings.
Countless other elections had this same political smear. The 1891 election saw the insults of traitor and drunkard respectively hurled between the Conservatives under Sir John A. Macdonald and the Liberals with new party leader Wilfred Laurier. The 1935 election of William Lyon Mackenzie-King and his Liberals over R.B. Bennett and the Conservatives was filled rancor from hurling insults to burning epitaphs of Prime Minister Bennett’s inaction during the Great Depression. There was no decorum and minimal civility.
What makes people forget the negativity over time are the big ideas. In most elections, there has been a big idea that one party or the other has fought over. That idea is then implemented. There were fierce debates over the creation of a national Medicare system, over conscription during World War One. The debates over price controls in the 1930’s and Free Trade/NAFTA in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Each of these debates advanced the country and made a real and substantial change to Canada. Why we remember more of the negativity of the last 10 years of politics, is there have been no big ideas.
Two consecutive minority governments under Stephen Harper showed no big ideas to get excited about. A campaign that is endless, constantly working on the next battleground with the electorate, has no chance to come up with a vision, or does not wish to risk having such ideas. Even after attaining a majority government, big ideas were not there. With no big ideas, no big initiative to implement, the bad taste of politics has remained.
Compare the platforms of the four main political parties, nothing jumps out as a big vision. Harper continues on with “steady leadership”, Trudeau plans infrastructure spending, hope, and “real-change”. Mulcair, a little of one and a little of the other. Campaigning on spending, and feelings doesn’t grab people’s attention, just as tax cuts and singling out one group over another doesn’t. The only remotely interesting stance taken by any of the political leaders was Thomas Mulcair’s stance on Canadian’s individual rights that came out over the niqab debate. This means that no matter who is elected on October 19th, this election will be remembered as one of the most negative elections, even when the leaders state they have run a positive campaign.
As we descend into potential minority government territory after this election, brace yourself for more negativity and lack of decorum. More cat-calls and insults from all sides of the political spectrum. You will remember them, for right now in Canadian politics, there is nothing around to truly distract or fade your memory of them. That will only take vision and big ideas. For the current political leadership, that is also just a myth.