Election 2011: It comes down to trust

Just before leading her party to its worst electoral defeat in history, former Conservative leader Kim Campbell remarked that a 47-day election campaign was no time for a serious discussion about policy.

Just before leading her party to its worst electoral defeat in history, former Conservative leader Kim Campbell remarked that a 47-day election campaign was no time for a serious discussion about policy. The remark outraged both pundits and voters and probably played a significant role in the downfall of what had recently been Brian Mulroney’s unstoppable blue machine. But was it wrong?

Today, every party has a web site where voters can go to read their platforms and compare policies, but it doesn’t appear that many do. Given the speed with which opinion polls can swing it seems more likely that the majority react to a general, fuzzy, sense of party policy generated by sound bites, gaffes, and gotcha moments. This may not be as bad as it sounds.

Canada is a representative democracy. Because it’s impossible for the country to vote as a whole on every issue, we elect representatives to make decisions for us. They make certain campaign promises in order to clarify their policies, so that we can decide if they share our general views on how a country should be run, but how realistic is it to expect them to follow those policies to the letter for five years in an ever-changing world?

For instance, when Jim Flaherty brought out his November 2008 economic statement offering to do absolutely nothing in response to the global economic crisis, he was sticking with his party’s policy outline. Lower taxes, reduced debt, smaller government, tighter spending on social policy; anyone who was paying attention during the previous election knew that this was Conservative policy.

However, the opposition parties recognized that under the circumstances it was a recipe for massive unemployment which could have led to a downward economic spiral. In the end, Flaherty and Harper bowed to pressure and came up with a stimulus package that went against all their stated principles. They entered the current election bragging about the stability that this policy shift produced.

Elections are not so much about platforms as they are about trust. Voters favour parties they trust to represent their views. Beyond that they’re about confidence – you’re not as likely to vote for a party that has little hope of winning seats. Observe the federal New Democrats. Opinion polls consistently show that most Canadians share their views on policy, but that crucial combination of trust and confidence has eluded them. If the opinion polls are anything to go by, they’ve just found it.

To return to Kim Campbell, the collapse of her campaign may have begun with an ill-considered remark, but it really gained momentum after the release of an attack ad on Liberal leader Jean Chretien. Attack ads generally work because they are about trust, or more accurately, mistrust. Policy is tricky, but casting slurs on an opponent’s trustworthiness is easy as pie. Where the Campbell team went wrong was in appearing to criticize Liberal leader Jean Chretien for the partial paralysis that gives his face its characteristic look.

It wasn’t just the underhandedness of the attack that turned voters away from the Conservatives in that election, it was also the fact that it looked desperate. It damaged voters’ trust, and it damaged their confidence; the Conservatives began to look not only sleazy, but unelectable. In the end they won just two seats, neither of them Campbell’s own.

At this writing, the 2011 election looks like it could go the same way. With days left till E-Day, the NDP is soaring in the polls while all the other parties are sinking. Now the knives are out. If they can damage the trust voters are showing in Jack Layton, the Conservatives may yet pull this election out of the fire. Taking a look at their latest round of ads though, I wouldn’t bet on it.

As the NDP approaches a possible victory the Tories are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Jack Layton. Watching the latest ads it’s almost impossible to tell if they are real election ads or spoofs. The Conservatives could hardly look more desperate if they tried. With days left for the ads to kick in they could yet trigger the Kim Campbell Effect.

Hold onto your hats, in the wild ride that this election has become, the Harper Conservatives may climb back to their earlier status as the uncontested frontrunners, or they may be about to plunge off a cliff. They won’t suffer the worst defeat in Conservative history – Campbell’s record is just too tough to beat – but with any luck, they might make number two. Because when trust is the issue, Harper has nothing to offer.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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