The Daily Exchange: Does the media pay enough attention to election platforms?
I used to watch the original American Idol – you know, when the judges were Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul. Randy was “Mr. Reasonable,” while Simon was “Mr. Caustic.” Paula was “Ms. Nice,” the one who made all the contestants feel good.
Paula came across as charming and sincere, in part aided by the fact that she is, well, a “she,” and Randy and Simon were “he's.” But what always struck me was what happened when you actually listened to what Paula was saying, rather than how she was saying it, or whether she was wearing orange shoes while saying it. You noticed that surprisingly little of it made sense. Which brings me to this election.
Election platforms matter. They are a party’s principles and ideas, made on paper and ink (or, these days, pixels). They should be grounded in facts, internally consistent, and honestly costed. Every party’s platform should be scrutinized by reporters and the public with the same rigour and, where they are deficient, those deficiencies should be explored.
At the risk of upsetting Jeff, I’ll observe that NDP platforms have historically not received the kind of in-depth probing of the Liberal or PC platforms. This pattern has held true for this election. It is a disservice to the public. The quality of a party’s platform is a measure of its readiness to form (or participate) in government. In my opinion, the NDP’s election platform is weak, platitudinous, and detached from reality. It is not the platform of a party ready or able to govern.
Because my last tour of duty in government was as a senior staff member at the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, I’ll pluck two of their health-related promises to illustrate my point.
The NDP habitually identifies capping hospital (and other broader public sector) salaries at twice the Premier’s salary, or $417,948, as a way to find “big” savings for “reinvestment” in the health system. In fact, if you ask them how they plan to bend the health care cost curve, capping executive salaries is their go-to response. I’m sure it’s very popular. The trouble is, it won’t work.
Capping the salaries of hospital employees would reap a total one-time savings of only $3.7 million, which is two-hundreds of one percent of hospitals’ total annual operating budgets. Moreover, it would slash the pay of many of front-line staff physicians (like those at The Hospital for Sick Children), as well the pay of world-class medical researchers who keep Ontario at the forefront of medical discovery.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not defending the salaries of hospital executives, even though Ontario’s are the best in the country and, in many cases, among the best in the world. What I am doing is pointing out that the NDP’s “silver bullet” in terms of health care cost control would be absolutely and totally ineffective at actually controlling costs and – bonus! – be potentially harmful to the health care system.
On to my second example.
Like Tim Hudak, the NDP has promised to abolish Local Health Integration Networks, or LHINs, and “replace them with effective local decision-making.” What does this mean? They don’t say. However, because NDP MPPs have often introduced private members bills that would see hospital board members (who are legally responsible for hospitals’ operations) directly elected by the public, let’s assume this is their plan.
Why is this a bad idea? Because in such a model, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care would resume control over hospital funding (control currently rests with the LHINs), and would continue with its standard-setting and accountability-enforcing functions. Without the ability to raise revenue (presumably through property tax hikes), the NDP’s elected hospital trustees would have little say about how much money their hospital receives, and little over how it would be spent. In short, there would be precious little for the elected trustees to do – certainly not enough to justify the expense of electing them and paying them.
Now, let’s assume for a moment that the NDP really does intend to give elected hospital trustees the necessary taxation power and control over spending decisions within the hospital. In such a system, local elections would become pitched battles between interest groups, many of whom would have little regard for the actual needs of patients. One can easily imagine certain groups fielding candidates that oppose women’s health services, or candidates promising to create a costly specialty service, regardless of the fact that is already offered nearby. The possibilities are endless and frightening, and would result in a health system none of us would want to use. Again, is this what the NDP really proposes to do? And if so, isn’t it time they told us clearly?
Now here’s my point: the NDP haven’t been clear about any their health care plans, or their economic plans, or their education plans, and it’s kind of a big deal.
At this point in the election, the media and public seem focused on Andrea Horwath’s personality and fresh face. I am sure she is very nice, and very smart, and she is absolutely a great ambassador for her party. And, for some people, her not being either Dalton/Randy or Tim/Simon will be enough. That said, one has to believe that NDP strategists are hoping reporters, and Ontarians, keep looking at her shoes instead of reading about, listening to, or pondering what she’s actually saying.
I, however, think her party and her platform should to receive the same scrutiny that other parties have received. We aren’t electing an Idol, we are electing a Premier.
ADDENDUM: This morning the NDP released a new number associated with hospital CEO salaries - $80 million. Leader Andrea Horwath announced the NDP’s breastfeeding and birthing centre commitment, and said she would pay for it “by capping the salaries of hospital CEOs at $418,000 which will free up about $80 million.” The thing is, the math is not only off, but dangerous. As per my post this morning, at best, the NDP could save $3.7 M from capping the salaries of hospital CEOs.
- Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy
Response from Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper:
That’s an excellent question. Do political platforms receive the scrutiny they deserve, from the news media, from citizens, and even from the other political parties?
Of course not.
If a party is open, honest and transparent about a policy proposal, and the public has full opportunity to review, to consider and to evaluate the proposal before voting (whether or not anyone does), then upon forming a government it’s legitimate for the party to implement the policy. In doing so the party is operating under well-known, commonly accepted rules.
Note that the word I used is “legitimate”: in other words, allowed under the rules of our democracy. That’s not the same as public approval or popular support. (Politicians talk about mandates, forgetting that the original meaning of "mandate" was “order” or “command” and only more recent is the usage, “authority to act.”) For example, by voting Liberal in the last provincial election were voters telling government to eliminate the capital tax? Of course not. Nor were they telling government to keep the tax. Most voters may not even have held an opinion. Nonetheless, the Liberals possessed legitimate authority to fulfill their 2007 election commitment, and they did.
On the one hand, it’s a mistake for a government to take public support of its platform for granted. As the platform is implemented, the governing party must continue to explain, to persuade, and to convince. On the other hand, before elections, the media and public need to pay more attention to political platforms – precisely because the winner will gain authority to implement.
How are the news media doing? Yesterday Andrea Horwath was talking about the agriculture-and-food components of her platform. Instead of covering the substance, the media preferred to talk about the inane web postings of an obscure NDP candidate with no chance of winning. The PC and Liberal leaders also talked about policies. What did the voters learn? That politicians spent the day driving tractors.
Both the media and the public should pay more attention to parties’ platforms. Since it’s the job of the former to convey information to the latter, the news media bear more of the responsibility to make our elections battles over substance.
Response from Jeffrey Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP:
Erika – so far in this campaign, you’ve called the Leader of Ontario’s New Democrats the premier’s unemployed sibling, a nobody, and now Paula Abdul.
If we want to focus on policy, I think we need to stop the name-calling, and start having serious conversations about the province’s future.
Here’s a suggestion for increasing the focus on policy issues. Maybe you've heard it from me before. Let’s have more debates.
Andrea Horwath has invited the two other party leaders to take part in more debates. She's not just talking the talk. She's walking the walk. Tonight, she's taking part in a local riding debate in Hamilton. On Friday, she'll join Tim Hudak in Thunder Bay at a Northern Ontario debate.
I trust you’re already on the phone with Liberal HQ imploring them to have Dalton McGuinty take part in more debates.
Or maybe this isn’t really about wanting more policy debate. Maybe all you really want is for journalists to get tougher on the NDP because the red team is worried about polls showing the NDP’s fortunes are on the rise.
To your point about the importance of policy in election campaigns. I had lunch this weekend with a friend who’s working on the New Democrat campaign. I asked him about the NDP's rising support, about the Liberal attacks that were no doubt on the way, and how New Democrats would react to all the additional scrutiny.
Bring it on.
The less the campaign focuses on name-calling, attacks and fear-mongering, and the more this campaign focuses on the party leaders and their plans, the better it is for voters, and the better it is for New Democrats.
You raised the issue of health care. I’ve read the NDP plan (http://ontariondp.com/en/policy). It’s a thoughtful approach. It aims to tackle the challenges of our ageing population by making smart investments in home care, long-term care and community-based supports. This will help more people stay healthy, in their homes, out of hospital emergency rooms.
Tommy Douglas, the former NDP Leader and public health care pioneer, often spoke of the second stage of Medicare - keeping people healthy, not waiting until they get sick. That’s how the New Democrats have positioned their health care policy.
I have no doubt New Democrats welcome the contrast between their leader and her plan and McGuinty’s health care record of clogged emergency rooms, cuts to healthy baby programs, and long waits for home care and long-term care.
Tell me you can help arrange more leaders’ debates so we can have more policy talk!