Yukon’s election campaign draws to a merciful end over the weekend and while formally it’s only been going for a month or so, the reality is that the parties have been campaigning since the summer, if not earlier.
We’ve spent a lot of time trying to parse the reams of baloney issued by the three parties during this campaign: the Yukon Party’s delusional insistence it can save us from a federal carbon tax, the NDP’s preposterous semantic bun-toss over the difference between banning fracking or implementing a moratorium against it; the Liberals’ vague promises and Sandy Silver’s refusal to talk about allegations his candidate in Whitehorse Centre improperly used proxy ballots.
None of this is too out of the ordinary for an election campaign. Most of the baloney has been about policy. There’s actually been relatively little in the way of personal attacks, at least from the candidates themselves. There has been a discernible uptick in the number of poorly-spelled attempts to post in the comment section of our website, generally insinuating that the election of party x or y will result in the Yukon being reduced to the blasted plain of a post-nuclear hellscape. Moderate enough of these comments and you begin to wish it were true.
Meanwhile, if you have a Facebook account, your timeline will likely have been inundated with bullet-pointed, sloganeering images. If you’re on Twitter, you may have seen the ugly spectacle of party hacks spinning 140-character zingers in real time.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with political parties moving into the digital spaces in which we spend more and more of our time. Parties need to go where the ears and eyeballs are.
The problem is that these media make it easier for parties to engage in the hyper-partisan, focus-group echo chambers, where policy detail and nuance are “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) and messages can be microtargeted to whichever demographic sliver seems most receptive to whatever it is you’re selling. And you must sow enough doubt that your opponents will ruin everything, that their policies will doom you and your children to misery. The trick in modern politics isn’t to build a coalition of disparate interests together to back a sweeping platform. It’s to get your team riled up to beat the other guys, who are mostly made up of people who possess values you despise.
“Speeches aren’t made to educate or inform the audience, but to serve up marketing slogans,” writes Susan Delacourt in her vital book Shopping for Votes. “Political parties become ‘brands’ and political announcements become product launches.”
Even at last night’s CBC-hosted debate at the Yukon Inn, this largely held true. The three main party leaders rarely missed a chance to throw in their custom-crafted one-liners.
Darrell Pasloski: “We’re the only party standing up against the carbon tax.”
Liz Hanson: The NDP offers “something to vote for, not just to vote against.”
Sandy Silver: “We are the change that Yukoners need.”
Pretty thin gruel. And yet, last night’s debate offered voters something more reassuring than the childish bickering that online campaigning often seems reduced to. The questions, all of which came from the public, covered a dizzying array of ground, from PTSD to carbon pricing to funding for animal shelters. And while the party leaders often fell back on their sales lines, they also had to have a command of policy.
Pasloski came across as serious and in command of his party’s track record. Hanson is probably the smartest of the four leaders. Silver’s political moderation seems earnest and genuine. And Green Leader Frank de Jong, free from the pressure of trying to win, was charming and did a better job selling carbon pricing than either the Liberals or the NDP.
It’s almost as if, in a room full of normal people, politicians are forced to talk like normal people.
Yukoners are relative latecomers to partisan politics, and I think many of us still show some discomfort with the in-built oppositional defiance that parties inevitably create. We’re still a small place, and the town hall nature of the debates (or “forums”) has been when this campaign has been at its best.
There’s a lesson in this for the parties: Fire your spin doctors, throw your message tracks in the trash, and talk to us like citizens, not consumers.