Originally published on August 6, 2015 in Ottawa Citizen
By David Mitchell –
If we’re always in an election campaign, do campaigns still matter? They used to provide an opportunity every four years or so to focus on issues, personalities and, perhaps most importantly, the question of confidence: whom do we really trust to represent us?
But what used to be a short burst of persuasion and partisanship has suddenly morphed into an exhausting marathon. To what end?
The “phony war” or unofficial election campaign had been a reality of recent Canadian politics for quite some time. In retrospect, when the 2011 election resulted in a majority Conservative government, it was expected that the constant positioning and re-positioning associated with several years of minority government would settle down into the more traditional routines of governance. Yet the hyper-partisan tension never really let up. The offices of the prime minister and opposition leaders remained in campaign mode, ceaselessly striving for advantage. Nor has the relentless mobilization of political support abated, with parties engaged in perpetual fundraising appeals.
This seeming “Americanization” of Canadian politics has a lot to do with the advent of fixed election dates, now a fixture at the federal level and in most provinces. Originally intended to ensure more fairness and predictability by preventing governing parties from manipulating the timing of elections for their own benefit, fixed election dates have had some unintended consequences. These include:
Parliament: The House of Commons and Senate are now largely an extension of non-stop campaigning. MPs, Senators and political staff have been compelled to maintain their partisan discipline, rarely giving an inch to political opponents. This has had a negative effect on decorum in the House and in committees and made collegiality among elected representatives of different parties a very rare exception to the rule.
The public service: Canada’s professional and non-partisan bureaucracy was never intended to serve a government engaged in non-stop campaigning. The lines between public policy and political messaging can become blurred, which can be discomfiting for career public servants. This also explains the growth in numbers and importance of political staff who are much more inclined to view day-to-day operations through a campaign lens, allowing short-term political expediency to trump longer-term considerations.
The media: With reduced budgets and resources in recent years, the news media have tried to adapt to a permanent election campaign. But now they, too, face even more pressure to focus on the immediate horizon. In a campaign, the goal of many news organizations is to be the first to break a story rather than to advance knowledge on longer-term issues. And the rise of social media feeds into the campaign style of politics, setting the pace on a daily, even hourly, basis that often forces politicians and political parties into a reactive mode.
Since last federal election four years ago, Oct. 19, 2015 has provided a specific focal point and timetable for politicians of all parties to craft their plans and strategies. The common approach appeared to be that no time was too soon to get started – the unofficial election campaign effectively commenced the day after the last one ended.
Of course, as we’ve now seen, governments can still manipulate the duration of the official campaign for possible partisan and financial advantages. Given voters’ historical tendency to turn their attention to ballot box issues only during the month before an election, it’s not clear how the much longer writ period offers any significant benefit to them. In fact, the more serious risk is that voters may become almost as fatigued as the perpetually campaigning politicians and parties themselves.
David Mitchell is a political historian and has served as president & CEO of the Public Policy Forum since 2009.