No, I haven't quit blogging. I'm just juggling work, life and end-of-book deadlines. As soon as things settle down a bit, I will return to this space, and apologize for the prolonged absence.
In the meantime, I do keep up a presence on Twitter.
No, I haven't quit blogging. I'm just juggling work, life and end-of-book deadlines. As soon as things settle down a bit, I will return to this space, and apologize for the prolonged absence.
In the meantime, I do keep up a presence on Twitter.
While most of Ottawa was seized Thursday with the budget and/or the testimony of the Chief Electoral Officer, Parliament did get a brand new MP. Craig Scott, the New Democratic winner of the Toronto-Danforth by-election on March 19, offically took the seat that has been vacant since Jack Layton died last summer.
Perhaps you're wondering how he was welcomed to the Commons. Here's a brief timeline of his first hour in the chamber. (Warning: You might not want to read this if you or someone you care about is considering a run for office, believing it to be a grown-up job.)
2 p.m.: Scott is escorted into the House by new leader Thomas Mulcair; many smiles all around.
2:10 p.m. (roughly): Eve Adams, Conservative MP for Mississauga-Brampton South, rises to make a member's statement (known as S.O. 31s in MP shorthand.)
Mr. Speaker, shockingly, the member for Toronto-Danforth has decried sitting judges for having an anti-criminal bias. Unlike that member, I think most Canadians would agree that an anti-criminal bias is a very good thing. Canadians gave our government a strong mandate to keep our streets and communities safe, and that is exactly what we are doing. I call on the new leader of the NDP to discipline the new member for his radical soft on crime comments. After all, his party has disciplined rural MPs for much less.Canadians are concerned about crime and they swiftly rejected the opposition's soft on crime agenda in the last election. Perhaps the NDP's new leader and that new member for Toronto-Danforthcan learn from that.
2:45ish: Scott rises to ask his first question in the Commons. It's about the CBC, which was about to take a 10 per cent whack in the budget released later Thursday.
Mr. Speaker, Canadians are proud of the CBC. On the radio, on television and online, the CBC informs, entertains and inspires us, but the Conservatives could not care less. Once again, they are going to cut our public broadcaster's budget. To bad for Canadian culture; too bad for our heritage. When will this government provide adequate funding for that institution, which is a source of pride for Canadians?
2:46ish: Heritage Minister James Moore offers an answer (of sorts) and a sincere welcome.
Mr. Speaker, first of all, regarding the substance of the question, the member will have to wait until 4 p.m. for the budget. As this is the member's first question in the House of Commons, on behalf of all members of the House, I welcome him to the House as the new member for Toronto-Danforth.
2:47ish: Scott asks a supplementary question:
Mr. Speaker, I thank the minister for his welcome. Throughout the life of the CBC and the government, actions do speak louder than words and the government is trying to cripple the CBC with budget cuts, as we will see. Many artists, actors, composers and independent producers depend on the CBC to develop unique content which the CBC then showcases. Many regions of the country depend on the CBC for local content. Will the Conservatives finally support Canadian culture rather than undermine it and support the CBC?
2:48ish: Minister Moore offers a fuller reply:
Mr. Speaker, with regard to the budget item, he will have to wait until 4 o'clock to see the budget. With regard to his broader question about supporting Canadian culture, this government is the only government in the G20 that made a decision as part of our economic action plan not to cut, not to maintain, but to increase funding for arts and culture. We have created two new national museums. We have created the Canada media fund. We have increased our support to the Canada Council for the Arts by 20% to their record level. Our government has delivered for arts and culture in a way that no other government in the world can say that it has.
3:05 p.m.: Mr. Scott rises on a point of order.
Mr. Speaker, I regret that I have to rise on my first day as a sitting member of this House on a point of order arising from statements by members. I have been here for an hour and I already appear to know more about the rules of order of the House than the member from Mississauga.... In the time provided for statements under Standing Order 31, the member levelled a personal attack against me.Mr. Speaker, you would know that your predecessor, Speaker Milliken, in his rulings of June 14, 2010, and December 14, 2010, with respect to statements, expressed his concern with the “unsettling trend towards using members' statements as a vehicle to criticize other members”.According to the book that Ms. O'Brien gave me this morning at my swearing in, statements are meant to cover “virtually any matter of international, national, provincial or local concern”. The intent of the passage, I submit, is not for one member to raise concerns over another member's character or integrity. The book also states that personal attacks, insults and obscenities are not in order.I believe that all members of this Parliament would benefit from a heightened level of order and decorum, particularly in relation to statements by members. As has been accurately pointed out by O'Brien and Bosc in this book, the proceedings of the House are based on a long-standing tradition of respect for the integrity of its members.However, mostly I am disappointed. I have been so inspired by the words, the message and the example of my predecessor, the hon. Jack Layton--
3:10: Ms. Adams replies.
Mr. Speaker, through you, first allow me to welcome the member on his very first day on the job. Happy first day. Certainly there was no smear intended in my S. O. 31. If the hon. member somehow is trying to run from his comments or no longer feels as though he can abide by those comments, perhaps he should stand and apologize. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using an S. O. 31 to highlight his party's hug-a-thug attitude towards criminals and our....
And with that, the Speaker called for order, and Mr. Scott's first hour in the Commons came to a close. We wish him many more happy hours on the job.
Canada's public service is expected to be one of the largest victims of the budget, which increasingly is looking like the product of an extended grudge match against Ottawa. This probably shouldn't surprise us -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government came to power as the anti-Ottawa-establishment party and has continued to wear that mantle, even as it became the Ottawa establishment.
What's it like to work in this environment? We're going to get some more glimpses in the days and weeks ahead, I'm thinking, as newly unemployed public servants, unmuzzled, are freer to speak.
Before then, though, we've been offered this picture, by the late, great Canadian political scientist Peter Aucoin (who sadly died last summer) and the posthumous publication of this paper on "the New Political Governance (NPG)." It's a scathing indictment of the hyper-partisan, communication-obsessed world of public service today. And if nothing else, it shows that perhaps, somewhere down the road, the laid-off bureaucrats may be a bit relieved to have escaped this workplace.
You can click on the link above to read the whole paper, but I've put some snippets here (bold parts are my emphasis):
In contrast to legitimate democratic control of the public service by ministers, NPG constitutes a corrupt form of politicization to the extent that governments seek to use and misuse, even abuse, the public service in the administration of public resources and the conduct of public business to better secure their partisan advantage over their competitors (Campbell 2007). At best, this politicization constitutes sleazy governance; at worst, it is a form of political corruption that cannot but undermine impartiality and, thereby, also management performance to the extent that it assumes management based on nonpartisan criteria.
The obvious temptation for governments is to treat media that are not on side politically as hostile forces to be managed with tactics that emulate the worst of the fourth estate themselves: gross misrepresentation, outright untruths, and the suppression of government information that should be publicly accessible according to the law. Not surprisingly, the Australian, British, and Canadian governments have become both highly centralized and highly politicized in their media management, an obsession of ministers and their political staff. As a result, the public service is under pressure to engage in media management, including government advertising, in ways that support the government and thus, at a minimum, put their impartiality, including the public's perception of their impartiality, at serious risk.
The major risk to impartiality from this group of pressures (freedom of information) is the temptation of public servants to commit less to paper, to fail to keep appropriate records, and to participate in efforts to restrict what is made public. Experience confirms that a diminished adherence to formal procedures constitutes the space for unrecorded political interference, primarily by political staff, in what should be impartial processes of public policy implementation.
It is one thing to impartially outline and explain a government's policy. It is quite another to function as a government's agent in promoting its agenda. To the extent that the public service is expected to communicate the government's message in ways that advance or defend its merits, impartiality is undermined. Not surprisingly, the communications function of government has become the black hole of public service impartiality.
The risk with political staff operating as a separate force in government is not primarily unaccountable behavior or too great an influence on ministers. Rather, it is that in promoting and protecting the government as the governing party, they all too easily regard the values of a nonpartisan public service and the distinct spheres of authority assigned to public servants as obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of effective political management. The continuous trashing of traditional public service values and structures in numerous quarters simply reinforces the perceptions of political managers that public servants will invariably stand in the way of a government implementing its agenda unless they can be co-opted as allies.
There's lots more there, but you kind of get the picture. And I'll leave you with this thought, which I've made before in this space: In the private sector, it's definitely not OK to demonize your employees or lay them off as the product of a grudge. It constantly surprises me how willing we are to tolerate, even expect this to happen with the public service, not to mention the CBC, in the wake of this budget.
Tom Mulcair, the new leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, is yet more vivid proof that we are living in post-partisan times in Canada.
As you can't help but notice, we now have a former Quebec Liberal heading up the federal New Democrats, and a former NDP premier heading up the federal Liberals. The Conservative party is trying already to present Mulcair as an opportunist, because he shopped around a bit before landing in the NDP.
But let's not forget: the Prime Minister is a man who started his life as a Toronto Liberal, then became a progressive conservative, then a founding member of the Reform Party, then leader of the Canadian Alliance, then leader of the modern Conservative party. And as some suggest -- most recently in a powerful reproach by columnist Andrew Coyne -- it's not clear that Harper is all that conservative these days either.
Shopping around for a political party is what politicians seem to do these days -- not to mention the voters. It's what makes the Canadian political landscape "volatile," as the analysts like to say. In some pockets of Toronto, I'm reliably told, there are people who have voted in the past 18 months for Rob Ford, Jack Layton and Dalton McGuinty -- and probably see no contradiction between those choices. Voters just aren't all that into political parties these days: witness the fact that the main opposition party in a country of 34 million or so people could only roust 60,000 hardy souls to choose a new leader.
It's just speculation, but I think the blurry partisan lines explain a lot about the nasty tone of politics in Canada these days.
* First, when ideological/policy differences get fuzzy, the personal differences get sharper. It's easier to attack your opponent's personality than his/her complex, ever-evolving views.
* Second, because the public doesn't seem to be all that ideological, you can't capture their attention with appeals on that front. Far better to present your rival as a cartoon character: a bully/dictator/weakling/whatever.
* Third, because there are so few people actually involved in politics, the parties themselves become small tribes, filled with people who harbour memories and grudges of battles past. That's part of the back story, it seems to me, behind those odd new attack ads against Bob Rae, highlighting his record of 17 years ago in Ontario. Not only are the Conservatives still ticked about those years, they're trying to remind Liberals that he used to be their enemy and remind New Democrats that he turned his back on them.
I suspect that Conservatives are going to try the same thing with Mulcair for a while, playing up his record as a former Quebec Liberal -- which is led by a former leader of the old Progressive Conservative party in Canada, let's remember. Wait: Conservatives and Liberals, cats and dogs, living together? It's also happening in British Columbia right now as well, where B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark is (somewhat infamously) amassing former Harper advisers on her team.
It all means we shouldn't take it all that seriously when politicians try to present their partisan divides as sharp ones. They're all shopping around, just like we are.
The real and polarizing divisions in Canada are regional, linguistic and, most worryingly of late, income-based. It would be good to hear the politicians talking about bridging those differences.
Two topics were almost certain to prompt conversation in the corridors of this weekend's Manning Centre conference in Ottawa: robocalls and the media. And the questions were the same: good or bad? Do they do more harm than help for the conservative movement?
Much has been written about how robocalls figured into the weekend proceedings, including a previous post in this space and Preston Manning's pointed remarks about ethics. Now, though, before the weekend fades from Ottawa politics' notoriously short memory, a few notes about how the media figured into the conservative conversations.
* First, I was surprised by the relatively sparse media presence overall. For political junkies, this was a signature event in the capital -- all events were open, cabinet ministers and other, senior Conservatives were relaxed, walking around and chatting freely. It was an ideal opportunity to meet people who are either inaccessible or normally far back in the shadows. And bonus, it was fun and interesting. So I was a bit baffled to see so few journalists there and some media outlets (I won't name them) completely absent. Only CPAC and SunMedia were doing any kind of live broadcasting.
* Unrelated (I hope) to that previous post, yes, it was true that slamming the "media elite" was a popular sport in panel discussions. It was a guaranteed applause line for some of the audiences, filled with people who built the conservative movement with an us-against-them mentality. I won't speak for the other reporters there, but I didn't take any of it personally or too seriously. Out in the corridor at one point, I was chatting pleasantly with Nick Kouvalis about a variety of non-robocall subjects -- RIM's marketing direction, mutual acquaintances from Windsor, etc. -- and my colleague Tonda MacCharles wandered by. Smiling, she noted she'd been present at the recent session where Nick had unloaded a lot of vitriol against the media. He smiled too and shrugged: "Hey, that's my brand."
* Some media people did get plaudits from the crowd. One of the vendors at the event was giving out buttons featuring SunMedia personalities as "pillars" of the movement. On the opening day, a slide flashed up on the big screen featuring the SunMedia logo and the TV channel was praised "for all it was doing" to advance the conservative cause. The audience burst into approving applause. I noticed some people were scandalized by this on Twitter and I will say that I'd cringe if the Toronto Star was presented similarly at a Liberal convention. But it's also worth noting that "preserving/saving the CBC" was a similar applause line at the recent Liberal convention in Ottawa.
* On that same point, SunMedia commentators were frequent panelists at the convention, but so too was Andrew Coyne of Postmedia. Coyne arrived on Saturday morning with a sharply worded lecture to these conservatives, about how they'd deserted their old principles. You can see part of his remarks here. Was he booed or ushered from the room? No he was not. Coyne got laughs, applause and a healthy conversation with his fellow panelists and the audience. Mark up a point for intelligent political conversation in Canadian conservatism.
* Late on Saturday night, there were reports of an "incident," involving the ejection of Postmedia columnist Stephen Maher from the Manning Centre's official social event. Early reports, via folks on the scene, said Maher's ouster was a result of his reporting on the robocall controversy. I am told, however, that the person who did the ejecting did not know who Maher was, and Maher himself is now saying that it was all a misunderstanding. The hyperbole on both sides of this scuffle, I'd say, is probably a bit of fallout from the us-against-them syndrome mentioned above -- not a lot of trust in good motives on either side. I'd like to say that will end sometime soon, but that's just dreaming. Hey, it's a brand.
* On Friday, I made a little joking reference on Twitter that was only partly a joke. I noticed that most of the women journalists at the event were working, reporting on things, while the male journalists were there to be on panels. There were exceptions on both sides, of course, but this was by and large the pattern. I'm sure it wasn't deliberately planned, but let's just note anthropologically that this was a very male event in Ottawa, and you didn't have to do a head count to prove the point. The audiences and the panels were overwhelmingly made up of men -- a few of us put the ratio at about 80:20 -- and the only place where women outnumbered men was in the media-filing room.
* A final point: I have a long-standing objection to reporters who whine about their care and feeding at political events, and worse, the ones who make connections between logistics and fitness to govern. ("We didn't get fed on time! How do these people expect to run a government?) But if I was that kind of reporter, I'd say that the Manning Centre is entirely fit for office. The people who were there to handle the media and the volunteers were unfailingly kind, courteous and helpful with everything from speech texts to interview requests. If any of them are reading this blog, my sincere thanks.
Campaign Research, the firm that's taken a bit of a pummelling in the robocalls controversy, is very much present at the Manning Centre conference in Ottawa this weekend. Nick Kouvalis and Richard Ciano have been on panels and in the corridors, making a forceful defence of their trade -- and their reputation.
Given that some of their defence has included shots at the "media filter," perhaps it's best to dispense with the filter here and just give you the text of Mr. Ciano's remarks on a panel this morning. Here you go:
Richard Ciano - Remarks to Manning Center Networking Conference, Ottawa – March 10, 2012
Right now, as we are here in this room, there are forces conspiring to try and take our ability to effectively communicate our message away, so it's especially important to me that I'm being asked to speak to you on the topic of how to effectively communicate a conservative message. And it's my hope that you'll see my remarks not as an interesting convention speech but as an urgent warning to not only defend our ability as a movement to communicate our message, but also to defend free speech itself and the vigorous, competitive and relevant elections that we have come to expect and demand in Canada.
First of all, let me start off with a tautologically true statement that might seem obvious but bears repeating anyway - that to effectively communicate a conservative message you need first to have a conservative message. I'm a student of the Tom Long school that says that the best way for conservatives to win is to run on conservative principles. In all honesty I'm not sure if Tom Long really came up with this idea, I've just heard him repeat it the most often. Perhaps I'll learn the lesson from that observation and from now on, I'll call it the Richard Ciano school.
While it may seem obvious, I can't even recount the number of times I've been on a campaign with so called 'conservatives' where they have seriously considered the possibility of running as a liberal, and at least in one case, an NDPer. If you are to run as a conservative in an election at any level, spend some time crafting an actual conservative agenda for the post you are seeking.
But with all the great conservative philosophers at this gathering, I'm not going to talk at length on that. I'm a mechanic. So I'm going to stick to mechanics now.
So once we move past that point, and we assume we have a conservative message to communicate, the sum total of my campaign experience in the federal, provincial and municipal campaign arenas have taught me one main lesson: that when we communicate a conservative message effectively to a vast audience of potential conservative supporters, we win.
For conservatives to win we need to communicate our message directly to voters, without the filter of the mainstream media. I agree with Guy Giorno who observes that the mainstream media doesn't overwhelmingly have a left wing perspective, the mainstream media has an elite perspective. I have observed that over and over.
I saw it on the national stage, when after the 2004 federal election, the consensus media/elite view was that Stephen Harper would never become prime minister, because he didn't have 'charisma'. I saw it in Toronto when the media elites watched, dumbfounded, the ascendency of Rob Ford. How could a candidate who sometimes had trouble pronouncing the word “unsustainable”, possibly achieve high office in Toronto? And finally, I'm seeing it right now, while the media continues to dismiss Tim Hudak and the Ontario PC Party's unrelenting march towards government.
Victories only become possible when we master the mechanisms of communicating directly to the vast pool of potential voters. Whether it is direct mail and television ads that the Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper has become so effective at creating, or the telephone townhalls that Rob Ford used to great effect, direct unfiltered dialogue was crucial to making a
connection with voters that led to victory. And in time we'll unveil the new approach that Tim Hudak will take to speak directly to voters.
So it should come as no surprise when the Liberals and NDP seize on an opportunity to create hysteria about entire forms of direct voter contact as they have been recently.
Let me be perfectly clear and echo the comments of Preston Manning that any deliberate attempt to frustrate a voter's desire to cast a ballot with fraud or misdirection is completely deplorable. I join him and others in wishing Elections Canada investigators and the police godspeed in finding and bringing to justice the culprit(s).
But I also observe that the Liberal and NDP’s systematic undermining of confidence in Canada's electoral process, and fear mongering about virtually all forms of live or automated telephone calls to voters, is equally cynical and self- serving.
Elections Canada received 119 complaints regarding misleading and abusive telephone and “robocalls” made to constituents during the 2011 general election, as of September 28, 2011. Of these, only 30 complaints referred to false information regarding changes to poll locations.
After the Liberal/NDP week-long hysteria campaign there were 31,000. Did 31,000 voters suddenly remember, nine months later, that they got a suspicious robocall last election? No - they are simply being manipulated by a cynical opposition campaign designed specifically to scare voters, discredit the
conservative majority in the last election, and cast doubt about all election telephone calls.
Why do the Liberals and NDP want to remove direct contact from Canadian elections? Because put it bluntly: they suck at it.
Since the 1990's when Customer Relationship Management (CRM) approaches became widespread, conservative parties have moved quickly to implement this essential business process into electioneering. And for the last 15 years we have amassed a considerable lead on the Liberals and NDP in this area, as evidenced by the numbers on our direct response fundraising programs. Why? Is it because we had people with more technical savvy? Is it because the Liberals were stupid? Or lazy? Personally I prefer stupidity as an explanation, but it's immaterial. The fact that they Liberals and NDP couldn't get their act together on CRM approaches and direct contact is not our fault. It's theirs.
So rather than pull up their sleeves and get to work to eliminate our advantage they want to take the typical socialist/big government approach to their problem - create a public crisis of confidence in telephone contact so that they can ban it at the next possible opportunity. It's a tempting approach to take, when winning is more important to you than free speech. I remember going to meetings hosted by the Chief Electoral Officer with representatives from all parties in Ontario on behalf of the Ontario PC Party. The fringe parties that had no money or support used to advocate a Soviet style election process, in which an election would consist of flyers put in an envelope mailed by elections Canada and debates hosted by the media. Now the Liberals and NDP have come to this.
If you think it unthinkable, think again. Television political ads are banned in Britain and voter databases are almost unheard of in Europe. Let's not let Liberal and NDP insecurity and weakness bring Canada to that. Never apologize for the lawful use of telephone or other forms of direct contact. The conservative movement would be worse off, Canada would be worse off and freedom would be worse off.
If the robocalls scandal does turn out to be a large-scale subversion of basic democratic rights in Canada, no one should be feeling very smug. It happened in part because we -- and I mean we as citizens -- helped create the conditions for a cynical stunt like this to work.
In the past few days, I've stood back a bit to see where the issue of robocalls fits in the context of the book I'm writing (which is about how we've turned into consumer-citizens with regard to our politics here in Canada.) Here's where my thinking is at, at the end of a very weird week or two.
The less you know about politics, the more important your vote may be on election day.
This blunt truth of modern-day Canadian politics has guided the federal Conservatives for several elections now in this country.
Patrick Muttart, the savvy communications strategist behind many of the Conservative party’s past successes, lays it out in a new, academic text on the art of political marketing in Canada.
“Close campaigns are decided by the least informed, least engaged voters,” Muttart told political-marketing expert Jennifer Lees-Marshment, one of the editors of Political Marketing in Canada, newly released by the University of British Columbia Press.
“These voters do not go looking for political news and information. This necessitates brutally simple communication with clear choices that hits the voter whether they like it or not. Journalists and editorialists often complain about the simplicity of political communication, but marketers must respond to the reality that undecided voters are often not as informed or interested as the political and media class are.”
Romantics and idealists may blanche at this stark analysis of the Canadian political landscape. But it’s crucial to understanding why all political parties are so dependent on the massive voter-identification databases and robo-calling operations that are dominating the headlines these days.
It works this way: politicians have had to learn more about their voters precisely because their voters care less about politics and the daily debate of the Ottawa “bubble.” If Canadians have tuned out politics, the people working to grab their vote need to know what it is that they do care about, to lure the apathetic voters to the ballot box.
And that’s where the political marketers come in, using the same methods of persuasion that merchants and commercial people employ to capture consumers. Just as the big-box stores and loyalty-card companies are gathering up and recording your purchase preferences in their databases, so are the political parties. The Conservatives have CIMS, the Liberals have “Liberalist” and the New Democrats have “NDP Vote.”
Voting has become more like shopping in modern Canada with each decade since the Second World War. And robo-calls are the hard sell in a political marketplace where it’s difficult to get people buying anything -- or even to enter the store, to continue the metaphor.
In the last election, for instance, Ipsos polling showed that 42 per cent of Canadians admitted that they weren’t paying attention to the campaign. And even when people do claim to be interested in politics, it pays to take that with a grain of salt, apparently.
Muttart, who was essentially the marketing chief for the Conservatives from 2004 to 2008 -- the person who crafted the party’s appeal to “Tim Horton’s voters” -- is now in Chicago doing private-sector marketing. He wasn’t a strategist or even in Canada in last year’s election. (Correction: He was a part-time strategist, who famously departed mid-campaign.) But his approach to politics is widely shared by the governing Conservatives.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former communications director, Dimitri Soudas, did a presentation on “branding” political parties in Ottawa this past week, in which he demonstrated that voters often exaggerate their level of engagement in current affairs. Quoting from StatsCan figures, Soudas said that while 92 per cent of Canadians claimed to watch TV news and 70 per cent claimed to read newspapers, in fact the real figures are around 50 per cent for both.
This is why, Soudas explained, Conservatives concentrated their advertising buys on more popular, non-news TV shows. It’s also why the Conservatives pay close attention to giving citizens the same clear, strong imagery that Canadians are accustomed to seeing in their consumer brands.
“The Conservative brand has had a net positive impact on the consumer, or as he or she is called in this domain, the ‘voter,’” Soudas told his audience of PR professionals.
But just as the Conservatives aren’t the only ones with robocalls and databases, it isn’t just Conservatives who have mastered the voter-as-shopper approach in Canada. This has actually been decades in the making -- and it goes hand-in-hand with voters’ increasing disengagement with political parties.
Hard as it may to believe now, most Canadians used to know how they were going to vote by the time elections were called. Political parties had stable bases of support; loyalties forged sometimes over generations. The proportion of “floating voters” -- people trying to make up their minds during the campaign -- accounted for only a fraction of the electorate in elections in the 1970s, for instance.
In a 1971 interview with the Canadian Press, pollster Martin Goldfarb said that his art -- still new to this country then -- was useful only for appealing to the 10 per cent of the electorate who had the power to move the fortunes of the parties either way.
“I think our research could be enough in a close election to win or lose. If it’s tight, we make that much difference,” said Goldfarb, who went on to become the Liberals’ official party pollster for the next two decades.
Nowadays, the political dynamics are far more volatile. The people who describe themselves as undecided, all the way up to voting day, has hovered as high as 30 or even 40 per cent during many of our recent elections. If Muttart is correct, these people may be not so much undecided as simply uninterested -- making it all the more difficult to motivate them toward the ballot box.
And of course, the corollary is that it’s all the easier to keep them away from the voting booths too. The slightest inconvenience -- a changed polling location -- may be enough to suppress the vote.
That’s the subtext under all these allegations of fraudulent phone calls, misdirecting voters away from legitimate polling places. Someone (or many people) cynically calculated that it wouldn’t take a whole lot of effort to suppress unwelcome votes for their political rivals. That’s as much a comment on the disengaged electorate as it is on the plotters behind the scheme.
The massive Elections Canada investigation now under way will perhaps prove whether this calculation was correct -- that driving voters away from the ballot box may have changed some candidates’ fortunes on May 2, 2011.
That would also prove, in turn, that Muttart is correct: that in the post-partisan, consumer-citizen nation that defines Canada today, elections are decided by the people who aren’t paying attention to politics. The people who aren't reading this blog, for instance.
Postscript: I notice today that the government is announcing measures to help the consumer-citizens of Canada. That is, at least in part, a reflection of where we think people's priorities are these days: Never mind all the democracy talk -- there's shopping to be done!
What if they made a movie about the robocalls scandal? On this premise, more comedy was born on Twitter last night, with a flood of suggested titles (and the response turning #robocallmovies into a top trending topic for a while.) Here is just a small collection. Click here for more.
Watergate is getting tossed around a lot in the swirling controversy over robocalls in the last election. It may be fun to find the similarities -- tapes! dirty tricks! -- but the differences are far more interesting.
First of all, as one of the actual Watergate operatives points out in a story today, the level of dirty tricks being alleged here are on a totally different scale. In effect, this is worse. On CBC Radio's The Current this morning, former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley also makes the point that the magnitude of the charges here goes far beyond run-of-the-mill pranks and dirty tricks between political rivals.
** Update ** As I was writing this, the Commissioner of Elections Canada sent out a press release notifying us that: "More than 31,000 contacts have been iniitated with Elections Canada by Canadians. (And) Elections Canada is reviewing these..."
Second, Watergate was broken with the help of anonymous sources. It's been interesting to see the absence of them in this story. Oh, Conservatives are talking off the record (and by the way, the serious ones are very concerned, not huffing and puffing about conspiracies and victimhood) but no one is feeding any details to the media, as far as I can tell. Frankly, I think that may change when the people behind the fraud calls -- and we should stress, no one knows for sure whether they're actual Conservatives -- really do realize they could be facing jail time. My instincts tell me that whoever is behind this thought it was a fun prank, on the same all-in-good-fun spirit as defacing lawn signs, disrupting rallies or calling people outrageous names to get a rise out of them.
Third, the Watergate scandal took place in the 1970s, when tape recorders were still new to journalists and politicians. (Fun, I'm-old fact -- when I started in political journalism in the late 1980s, the use of tape recorders was frowned upon, believing it made us lazy note-takers, and if we wanted them, we had to pay for them ourselves.)
It's actually the technology, unheard-of in the 1970s, that makes this whole robo-call controversy possible. Just have a look at this search warrant to see the technical complexity of this investigation.
Moreover, the reporting of this tale is heavily reliant on tools of the Internet and social media, which means it's unfolding in real time.
This has made some Conservatives quite annoyed/vexed -- what kind of reporting relies on Twitter tips and Internet registries of suspicious calls? My answer is that this is just old-fashioned reporting -- tips are kind of important to journalists -- conducted in the open. Twitter has turned journalism into kind of an ant farm, where you can sit and stare for hours through the glass, watching reporters do their jobs (complete with all the smart remarks and irreverent jokes made during the sitting-around-waiting-and-watching bit that consumes a lot of our days.)
The Watergate reporters built their stories away from the glare of the public. They took tips, pursued them, proved them, and then published. Right now, in the robocalls controversy, you're simply seeing that process in the open. Transparency! One of the Conservative talking points in the last few days, for instance, is that all we have here are allegations, no evidence. Actually we have bits and pieces of both. I asked some lawyers on Twitter this morning about the distinction between allegations and evidence. Here's my favourite answer (sent in by a fellow I've known since he was legal counsel to my student newspaper at Western and the student council there.)
@Tony5083: Allegations are bald assertions: "The light was red." Evidence goes to proof of an assertion: "I saw a red light."
So these recordings that are now turning up? Or the Internet registries? Are they allegations? Or evidence? I lean toward the latter, actually. They're evidence being accumulated to back up the allegations.
At any rate, I'd venture to say that what we're seeing here isn't Watergate, but Canada's first digital political scandal, made possible -- and reported -- through technology that wasn't available to Nixon or Woodward and Bernstein. It would actually be fun to imagine how Watergate would have happened with these tools. First, I guess, Nixon wouldn't have needed a physical break-in; all he'd have to have is a good computer hacker, or a Pierre Poutine with a cellphone.
Curious about what a party database looks like? My colleague Tonda MacCharles has written a very useful primer about the Conservatives' system.
If you click on this link here Download CIMS you can see a PowerPoint presentation someone sent me a while back. I'm told it's an antique version of CIMS -- that the current system is far snazzier. But it'll give you an idea of how it works.
And by the way, the Liberals and the NDP have impressive, similar machinery too, though I hear they lack the scope and data of what the Conservatives have accumulated. Happy to post more information on their systems too, if anyone has it in web-postable state.