Desperately Seeking Ideas

Politics has been reduced to a guessing game about what voters want. Here’s a thought: how about an election fought on real issues

Illustration by Leif Parsons
Illustration by Leif Parsons

While even the most jaded cynics associate spring with hope and renewal, Canadian voters—given the early 2005 political calendar—may be forgiven if they failed to share the optimism of the season. At 7:02 p.m. on April 21, Prime Minister Paul Martin delivered a short, pre-recorded address to the nation. Beyond the sponsorship scandal, Canadians could only guess what the substance of the speech would be, and many were fearful. We watched in large numbers, and then breathed a collective sigh of relief. The prime minister had not used this most “presidential” example of political opportunism to close Parliament, and worse, call an election. For the moment, barbecue season was secure. Over the proceeding weeks, the public grew more sanguine about exercising its franchise, but the question remains: why have we become so doubtful about our democracy, and so cynical about government?

In March, the Liberals and Conservatives gathered for what ended up being inconsequential policy conventions. In the first week of April, the country was reeling from the incendiary testimony of former Groupaction advertising executive Jean Brault at the Gomery commission into the sponsorship scandal, with its allegations of kickbacks, fraud, and a chain of command leading from the Prime Minister’s Office to Montreal-based advertising agencies. Suddenly, everyone was talking election—according to certain political quarters, one that the country needed, but that most of its citizens, having just been through the exercise, did not want.

On cue and for media consumption, the leaderships and delegates emerged from both conventions declaring great success and expecting a bounce in the polls. Party conventions, now held irregularly and for political rather than policy purposes, are supposed to allow members to debate future agendas. Regrettably, in both instances, potentially raucous and engaging deliberations were pre-empted. The Liberals avoided divisions by announcing before the convention that Canada would not participate in the United States Missile Defense System. With that issue safely out of the way and party unity assured, the Liberals drove home their message with Orwellian chants of “Promise Made, Promise Kept.” Outside the convention hall, few were buying.

The Conservatives, in an effort to appear mainstream, were even more calculated. By taking off the table motions on official bilingualism and various social-conservative initiatives (including anti-abortion measures), the party simply endorsed the preferred policy course its leadership had chosen in the previous months. The result, from the party of “grassroots” membership, was that the Conservatives appeared to be just as vague as the “big tent” Liberals. Few could be certain what, exactly, either party stood for.

The one clan with a clear agenda, the Bloc Québécois, did not have to gather to discuss its smug position as a separatist party holding the balance of power in the federal parliament. In the wake of the Gomery inquiry testimony, it threatened, prodded, and hit all its newly indignant buttons. So did the Conservatives and the New Democratic Party, both playing to their constituencies, both hoping for a bounce in the polls. Early on, they got their wishes: the Conservatives by launching a vitriolic attack against Liberal corruption, the ndp by saying essentially nothing. And maybe this is just the point. In this political climate, attacking is safe, while saying or doing something unequivocal and substantial is highly risky. Follow the trail….

The big news coming out of the conventions concerned policies not adopted , illustrating a victory of political pragmatism over principled public policy. The faint and brief discussions of issues that will actually shape the country’s future—e.g., continentalism, the offshore oil deals with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, charges of fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces—were quickly overshadowed by Jean Brault’s testimony before Judge Gomery. The lack of clear policy direction from the conventions, followed almost immediately by “adscam”—with headlines screaming “smoking gun” and articles evoking images of envelopes stuffed with cash for big-cufflinked admen who made financial contributions to the Liberal Party of Canada—added to the prevailing view that politicians are inept, corrupt, and that the system is “fixed.”

Brault’s allegations were followed, predictably, by a torrent of media polls suggesting voter outrage, and showing a steep decline in Liberal fortunes. With government malfeasance, voter cynicism, and polling results neatly aligned, the nuance of subsequent testimony before Judge Gomery was lost to rampant media speculation over the timing of an election. Once again, the pollsters hijacked the news and seemed to direct the actions of our elected political leaders, while the substance of the matter, and solutions that needed to be discussed, were relegated to the back pages.

Since the shockingly low voter turnout in the June 2004 federal election—at 60 percent, the lowest in Canada’s history and a drop of 15 percent since the November 1988 election—many have lamented the decline in civic engagement with the political process. Indeed, even in the charged atmosphere of this past March and April, one constant emerged from the polls: Canadians did not want an election. The fact that a mere eight months had passed since the last call to vote doesn’t fully explain the apparent apathy . In 1980, nearly 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the election that ousted Joe Clark’s minority government after only nine months in office.

Recalling this and considering the events of this spring has left me with a sinking feeling. What if the many laments bemoaning civic disengagement—my own included—have completely missed the point? What if this trend comes not from a disaffected and cynical electorate, but is instead a rational response to a political process that has run out of ideas? Could it be that most Canadians have been persuaded that politics isn’t worth the bother because they see no integrity, and precious few inspirational initiatives, emanating from the political process?

In the view of many Canadians, political parties—the “grand aggregators” according to the parliamentary theorist Walter Bagehot, and the “crucibles of consensus” as the former Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield so eloquently described them—seem to have devolved from dynamic entities spawning innovations like medicare, deux nations, and the Just Society, into politically paralyzed stewards of the status quo. Polling, my chosen profession, now strikes me as a primary cause of the decline. Hence, the sinking feeling.

Ably assisted by the media, the ubiquitous use of polls has significantly altered the public-policy landscape—and not for the better. When George Gallup brought political polling to the world in 1936, he heralded it as taking the “pulse of democracy.” By polling representative samples of the US population, Gallup was able to statistically predict the public will, and held out the possibility of forging a more meaningful link between the elected and the governed. The handmaiden of the pollster was to be newspapers. Publishing polling results through the mass media would, Gallup believed, induce governments to be more responsive to their constituents and, as citizens came to understand and share a unified outlook on the world, a stronger civic bond would be created between them.

In recent years, however, the proliferation of published polls has had an effect Gallup could never have predicted. Far from fostering a more dynamic interchange between politicians and the electorate, and engendering a clear understanding of the role and responsibility of government, the omnipresence of polls appears to be dulling our capacity to think critically about current affairs, contributing to cynicism regarding public life, and relegating political leadership and instinct to the back burner.

While it is entirely appropriate that political parties take the pulse of the people, democracy itself is threatened when an elected politician’s ideas or actions are suddenly rendered unacceptable by poll results. Today, taking a stand that runs counter to popular opinion risks being labelled “off strategy.” At the same time, policy initiatives that correspond to majority views are dismissed as “poll-driven,” reinforcing the notion that politicians lack a moral compass or clear set of principles. In short, polling has become the highly flawed but authoritative source for defining good and bad politics, good and bad public policy.

Not long ago, policy initiatives were floated, even as trial balloons, over the political landscape, and pollsters were contracted to gauge responses. The relationship between the politician, as the representative of the people, and the pollster, as the private contractor, was kept at arm’s length. Then, to increase the ability of political parties to measure the public will, polling was brought in-house. Ever since, inside pollsters have occupied semi-permanent positions at policy head-tables, where they often define the parameters of debate, and just as often kill ideas “which have no traction.”

According to Elections Canada, in the 2004 general election nearly $2.5 million was spent on “election surveys or other surveys or research.” (Topping the Elections Canada list was the ndp, which spent $1.36 million.) Tailoring policies to public-opinion research is producing a politics of half-measures (on health care, foreign aid, the military), of equivocations (not strictly reducing carbon emissions to meet the Kyoto target, but rather buying credits), of flip-flops (on fiscal imbalance and Ontario’s “right” to a better deal). A wary and weary public wants instead that strong, principled positions be taken, and for the policies to spill directly from those positions.

During election campaigns, next to the leader himself, there are few more influential voices than that of the inside pollster, the gun for hire. Elections should see people in the streets demonstrating, or in village squares mediating their differences; instead, they are locked in their homes, on the phone, being surveyed.

Compounding the situation, the near-instantaneous ability to gauge and report on the public’s reaction to current events shapes the media’s coverage of the news, and crowds out more thorough and nuanced explanations of what is happening in the world. The spate of polls beginning in early April served as both headline and explanation as to “why” certain events were unfolding as they were. On April 15, the Toronto Star reported, “The polls have made Harper alternatively aggressive and coy about when he might join with the other opposition parties and defeat the minority government.” Stephen Harper, it appears, is neither coy nor aggressive himself, but the polls have made him so.

As the current debate over health-care reform illustrates, thinking that runs contrary to poll results is political suicide. For over five years, public-opinion polls have revealed that Canadians are most concerned about the deteriorating quality of health care. The polls further indicate majority support for a publicly funded, universally accessible health-care system, and that Canada’s national identity is tied to such a system. In sum, polls show that the quality and manner in which health care is delivered is a source of national pride, provides a point of differentiation from the US, and gives Canadians a unique sense of themselves.

Proposing radical alterations to this sacred trust is therefore taboo. Even the relatively benign suggestion of delivering certain services through the private sector is attacked as opening the door to a two-tier system. And yet, politicians, the press, and the medical profession itself all know that many services—prescription drugs, dentistry, chiropractics, etc.—are not paid for out of the public purse, and already constitute a second tier. Furthermore, were it not for the intellectual dishonesty surrounding the issue, they would also acknowledge that private delivery of health care is the cornerstone of the system. Doctors, after all, are not civil servants, but small-business people contracting to provide health services for their own profit.

The unwillingness to tackle this issue with anything other than proposals for incremental tinkering has led to a decision-making paralysis that contributes to the deterioration of Canada’s health-care system. Meanwhile, press reports of escalating costs, combined with increased waiting times for surgery, a shortage of qualified nurses and doctors, etc., proves that government is unable to effect meaningful change—resulting in more cynicism towards politicians and the political process.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman documents how, because of the pervasiveness of television, politics has become show business. In his foreword, he cites Aldous Huxley’s fear “that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance [and]… we would become a trivial culture.” In a media age when the cult of personality is ever-present, there is no possibility, Postman observed, of a fat man becoming president, of a man of ideas besting a salesman or sound-bite expert capable of delivering a knockout blow. Twenty years later, an updated version of Amusing Ourselves to Death might well include the public-opinion survey in a list of phenomena that reduce our understanding of current events.

As we prepare for an election, it is instructive to look at media coverage of past leaders’ debates in this context. Invariably, after one of these events, the news the next day is not about what actually transpired during the exchanges. Most day-after commentary focuses on two things: who “won,” and how each candidate scored points or prevented his or her opponent from scoring them. It is sport. Or, it is politics-as-entertainment. One imagines fast-forwarding to Belinda Stronach, resplendent, sashaying across the podium as the new face of conservatism.

While providing scant information on actual policy initiatives, the day-after-a-debate reporting exhibits considerable certainty vis-à-vis the winners and losers for the simple reason that polling has already been done to substantiate the point of view being offered. Without supporting poll results, the commentary would be relegated to “opinion” and not considered fair comment within the normal standards of news reporting.

Canadians largely agree on the problems facing the country, and politicians who slavishly follow polls garner media attention when they dwell on these problems rather than risk offering solutions. This, combined with fixating on their opponent’s shortcomings, means that the tenor of political discourse is invariably negative. The media, which report on the same polling results, in turn analyze party platforms and policies not on their merits, but on the impact such policies are likely to have on the next set of polling results—or, ultimately, on the number of votes lost or gained.

The primary problem is that public-opinion surveys are not only driving the agenda, but are making themselves the news story. Were it not for the simple fact that electorates typically achieve consensus around problems (e.g., health care, the environment, relations with the US), but rarely around solutions, such surveys would be useful and newsworthy. But the contract that citizens have with their political representatives is a simple one: we know the problems; your job is to find creative and feasible solutions to them (and be judged accordingly). The breakdown that is occurring is due to poll-saturated politicians parroting problems—and problems only—back to an electorate that has already identified them.

On April 12, 2005, Conservative leader Stephen Harper told reporters, “One thing that’s become increasingly obvious in this parliament is that [Prime Minister Paul Martin] has no agenda for the country and Canadians will be, in my view, looking for one…. We’ll make sure we articulate that in a campaign.” That night, editors at the Toronto Sun agreed on the banner headline “No One Wants An Election” to lead the following day’s op-ed page. Two-thirds of the way down the Sun’s opinion piece, the following was written: “But what all three polls also show is that the public is massively against a June election. Depending on how the question is worded, opposition ranges from 54 percent to 87 percent.”

Depending on how the question is worded….

My suspicion is that Harper is right about Canadians wanting a real agenda. Furthermore, were the various poll questions worded in the positive lights of participatory democracy and a chance for renewal, I believe Canadians would embrace this election like few others in recent memory. The cynicism so often discussed is perhaps more accurately described as the frustration of a highly intelligent electorate, one that realizes that the problems we face as a nation are new, complex, and multi-layered, and demand leadership, risk, and bold ideas.

Historically, the test of leadership was rarely restricted to a politician’s ability to gauge the public mood. Rather, it was the ability to create a consensus where none existed, and to generate collective political will out of incoherent and disparate views. Whether it was Gandhi organizing the salt marches to end imperial rule in India, Franklin D. Roosevelt leading Americans out of the Depression with the New Deal, or Churchill’s exhortations to continue the war effort as the Blitz devastated London, such actions provide the yardsticks for gauging leadership.

Canada is not without its own examples of leaders who paddled against the tide of public opinion. Robert Borden boldly took a colonial and submissive Canada into the First World War and gave the country its first real sense of nationhood. Lester Pearson shook the nation out of its insularity and turned Canada into one of the world’s great middle powers. Pierre Trudeau’s Just Society laid the seeds for the pluralistic, multicultural, and tolerant culture that now shapes the foundation of our national identity. Brian Mulroney’s free-trade initiative was extremely contentious, but is now largely accepted as part of the political landscape. Even Paul Martin’s efforts as finance minister to wrestle down the deficit and Jean Chrétien’s attempt to deflate separatist sentiment with his Clarity Bill represented leadership that produced grudging admiration, once the howls of outrage had subsided.

In each case, these leaders knew they were on the wrong side of public opinion and/or faced powerful and organized opposition, but they forged ahead anyway, and were ultimately rewarded by the electorate. Through such actions, these leaders and their parties defined their roles, rather than letting themselves be defined by poll results. Today, under excessively poll-conscious Martin, Harper, and Layton, the role of our leaders and their parties has been brought into question.

By the mid-1980s, the protective armour of the social-welfare state was beginning to show cracks. Government deficits ballooned while individual progress stalled. Investigative journalists went after the political elites, exposing the shortcomings of elected leaders. In the US, George Bush, Sr.’s “thousand points of light” rang hollow, and in Canada celebrations over “bringing the Constitution home” could not withstand the crushing effects of an economic recession. Despite junk-bond salesmen being dragged into court and other examples speaking to the need for regulated markets, an increasingly well-educated electorate came to believe that private need was more pressing than the public good, and that individuals, not government, were best suited to advance their interests. Governments responded to these lower expectations with privatization, program cuts, and retrenchment. In short, governments took the temperature of the people and decided that less is more. So successful was this approach that Jean Chrétien engineered three majority election victories even though half of Canadian voters could not cite one accomplishment that warranted such a reward.

Since 2000, market forces no longer look quite so triumphant. Corporate scandal, anemic stock markets, an unravelling social safety net, and global terrorism have caused voters to reconsider the credo that “the government that governs best, governs least.” This conclusion notwithstanding, there is little appetite for a return to the deficit-inflating bad old days when government served as both arbitrator and overarching provider of the public good. At the same time, the libertarian notion that government’s role should be radically reduced has not been embraced. Moderate Canadians, having discounted both the ham-handed interventionist tendencies of the 1970s and the “invisible hand” of the 1990s, are unsure what role they now desire for government. They are looking for leadership, and are frustrated by its absence.

There is no question that we are witnessing more activism from the Martin government, but it is merely doing more of—or at least spending more on—exactly what it had been doing before. And, regarding the role of government, Canadians, I believe, are yearning for innovation not only in health care, but in other areas as well. Monetary and fiscal policy, for example, is currently guided by government-collected financial data, the most fundamental of which are measurements of our gross domestic product. While gdp calculations place the industries around breast cancer and oil spills on the positive side of the ledger, they do not include the economic benefits of homemaking or volunteering at the local community soup kitchen. Do such exclusions reflect the values of Canadians and the kind of society we want to live in?

Immigration is another area in which past policy approaches have become obsolete. In the 1990s, Canada welcomed twice as many immigrants as it had averaged in the two previous decades. And whereas thirty years ago, 70 percent of new arrivals came from Europe, now fewer than 20 percent do. Instead, most new immigrants come from developing and Third World countries. Canada has become a destination for visible-minority immigrants, who enrich our multicultural fabric but also introduce completely different political and social traditions. The implications for Canadian multiculturalism, respected around the world, are immense, but because our policies have lagged far behind current realities, we are in danger of failing to provide what is most needed: measures to help new immigrants integrate more fully into the host culture.

While many Canadians cringe at the word “constitution,” the need for constitutional renewal is also a pressing issue. When the Fathers of Confederation framed the British North America Act, 80 percent of Canada was rural. Today, 80 percent of Canadians live in urban centres, and over 70 percent of all new immigrants settle in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Landmark research, such as that conducted by the Ontario Task Force on Competitiveness and Prosperity and Michael Porter at Harvard Business School, clearly demonstrates that “regional clusters,” with cities at their centre, are the engines of economic growth. And yet, Canadian cities remain creatures of the provinces, dependent on paltry property-tax revenues while being asked to repair crumbling infrastructures, house the homeless, run mass-transit systems, and provide the wide array of social services that make cities livable. The notion that a gasoline surtax of five cents a litre will solve this fiscal imbalance would be laughable if our cities were not in such peril.

We bridle at the cliché of Canadians as hewers of wood and drawers of water, but natural-resource wealth is the historic basis of our prosperity. Meanwhile, as grade-school children are being taught that Canadian fossil fuels are non-renewable, and soon to be exhausted, the lonely windmill on Toronto’s lakeshore stands as testimony to our timorous attempts to address the problem. With energy consumption scheduled to outstrip available North American supply by 2020, those same grade-school children must be puzzled by the entire lack of urgency surrounding this issue, and about why alternative energy is still considered “alternative.”

Finally, Canada’s role on the world stage is a long-neglected policy area. It has been almost half a century since Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize and Canada became recognized as a “middle power.” With one hegemonic power left in the world, the honest broker idea is now moribund. And yet, in Canadian political circles, the idea (and the language) persists, despite a more honest assessment of our capabilities in the recently released foreign-policy paper. The moral authority Canada once had has significantly diminished as we have become a reactive, minor player internationally. Canada’s (stalled) initiative to provide aids drugs to Africa and Paul Martin’s crusade to establish the Leaders 20 (l-20) as a forum for global governance provide a hint of what role we might play in the future but, for the time being, this picture is fragmented.

Canadians’ growing detachment from politics, politicians, and governments might be stopped by a vigorous debate around new and innovative approaches to public policy, but who will conduct it? Where are our future leaders to come from, when those who value excellence most are the least likely to allow their reputations to be sacrificed on the altar of public cynicism?

Yet for all the derision we cast upon our current leaders, it strikes me that it is neither naive nor utopian to believe that any one of them could create a consensus around the difficult issues facing Canada today. Imagine if one or more of Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, or Jack Layton pledged to make Canada “The Environment Nation” or “The Peacekeeping Nation” or “The Cities Nation;” if they were unwavering and steadfast in these commitments; and if they transparently marshalled support for these causes—polls be damned—outlining not only the benefits, but also the pain that would accompany their quest? And what if the media dedicated their full reach, and investigative and analytical prowess, to informing their audiences of the implications of these aspirations? Would the public turn off or cynically sneer that they would prefer partisan sniping, innuendo, and posturing? I doubt it.

For all the neglect of ideas over the last two decades, there are signs that the next election will have to be fought on substantive political platforms. Our political masters may have no other choice. With voters disgusted at patronage appointments and unseemly contracts, the Liberals will be unable to scare votes back into their camp by demonizing the Conservatives and their supposed hidden agenda. Conservatives, on the other hand, have finally realized that they will never form a national government without being straight. They also know that a single event—the Gomery commission and its findings—will lose traction as time passes, and that the only defence against the frustration and doubt expressed by Canadians about the current political establishment will be real policies and ideas. Good. For an election fought on principles, we’ll be there.

Allan Gregg
Leif Parsons
Leif Parsons has contributed to the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Atlantic.