Opinion-Policy Nexus

A veteran political strategist/organizer of my acquaintance has a blunt caution for candidates who come to him for advice.

Bundle up all your credit cards, he tells them. Bury them in your home freezer. Bury them deep, beneath the frozen peas and broccoli and that mince pie left from Christmas. Do not thaw them out until the campaign is safely over.

This is good advice for politicians in the Oct. 21 election campaign, which will begin for real within a week, whenever Prime Minister Trudeau drops the writ.

It is advice that many candidates in elections and leadership races over the years may wish they had taken.

The heat of combat and the tantalizing prospect (real or delusionary) of victory swamp a candidate’s accustomed prudence. Just a few dollars more, they tell themselves, and the race will be won. An unplanned and unbudgeted chartered flight to a remote town where uncommitted voters or delegates are said to await. Just a few hundred dollars more for additional lawn signs. A few thousand for improved brochures. Perhaps a cocktail party to thank supporters. And don’t forget: a few dozen pizzas for volunteers on election night.

The candidate is seduced by hope. Out comes the credit card, again and again.

Overspending takes its toll. Back in 1989, Mike Harris had to mortgage his home in North Bay to keep his Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership campaign alive. (He won, became premier, and, by some miracle, the debt disappeared.) Stephane Dion won the federal Liberal leadership in 2006, and came out $800,000 in the red. Brian Mulroney did not file the required financial report following the 1976 Conservative convention, when he lost to Joe Clark.  But it was estimated that Mulroney spent $500,000 while raising only $250,000. The debt haunted him for several years.

Then there’s the tale of Tom McInnis in Nova Scotia. He put up $20,000 of his own money – always a bad idea – to launch his campaign for Conservative provincial leadership in 1991. He lost, found he was broke, and had to ask a friend to lend him $10,000. The friend wrote a cheque. It bounced.

If burying credit cards in the freezer is good advice for candidates, would something similar not be good advice for voters with mobile devices? I’m not suggesting the freezer – that’s a bit extreme and potentially damaging to the devices – but locking them away would be a way to protect ourselves and our families from the fake news and disinformation that is already beginning to spew forth across social media.

The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti looked at the menace posed by social media in a column last week. “During an election, social media becomes a hotbed of lunacy, a playground for trolls and meme-makers and politicians with itchy Twitter fingers,” she wrote. “We should all get off it, now – voters and politicians alike. There is no one who has put down her phone after a half-hour on Twitter and said, ‘I feel one step closer to enlightenment! Thanks for that engaging policy debate.’”

She did not mention the harassment that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is experiencing from foul-mothed yahoos on the web. But she did cite the appalling Twitter attack that Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, made on Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist, and the posting by Conservative leader Andrew of a long denied and discredited story about the possibility of a child murderer being granted asylum in Canada.

The Liberals are certainly not innocents in the social media war – a point Renzetti acknowledged.

She was right on the money when she wrote: “At one point, politicians saw social media as a direct line to the voter, a wonderful way to bypass the inconvenient questions of the media. That was before the lying memes and the schoolyard name-calling, the sexist and racist insults. …The controversies that arise online obscure real, substantive policy issues, and the truncated format cuts off dialogue instead of enabling it.”

So let’s put our mobiles away. If not in the freezer, how about a lockbox at the bank?

Posted

Monday, September 9, 2019 - 16:00

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