The problem with short election campaigns

There were 31 days between the dropping of the writ and the Yukon’s 2016 general election. For many of the people involved with the campaign and their families that was plenty long enough.

There were 31 days between the dropping of the writ and the Yukon’s 2016 general election.

For many of the people involved with the campaign and their families that was plenty long enough. Elections are a lot of work and demand many evenings and weekends of door knocking, phone calling, and sign placing for people who have day jobs they still need to go to.

But for so-called policy wonks — those who are more interested in the finer details of political promises than the broad themes and personalities that tend to dominate most political discussion — our four-week election cycles aren’t nearly long enough.

Unfortunately the parties chose to keep their powder relatively dry throughout the year, telling us very little about what they intended to do if they won the election everyone knew was around the corner.

But readers will recall that within days of the campaign getting underway we were deluged with promises.

Some of those promises were complex with potentially significant social and economic impacts and deserved far more thought and analysis than anyone was capable of giving them within such a short campaign period.

Take the NDP’s promise of a $15 per hour minimum wage as just one example. It is unfathomable how anyone could survive in our territory on the current minimum wage of $11.07 per hour. So the idea of an increase seems reasonable and badly needed.

But dozens of questions spring to mind: how many people would actually be impacted by the increase? Would a higher minimum wage cause local businesses to hire less, thus negating whatever good the increase might accomplish? Should the increase apply to everyone or only adults supporting households and not teenagers after a little spending money? And why $15? Why not $19.02 — the number the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition says is a “living wage” in the territory? What did the other parties think of this idea? How could they defend the status quo? Are there any better policy tools available to tackle the underlying problem of poverty than an increase in the minimum wage — like a guaranteed annual income for example?

We as a democratic society don’t properly vet promises made in election campaigns. Things are said in the heat of the campaign designed to bring out the base or to appeal to swing voters. Then, when a party forms government, a hard reality sets in. Bureaucrats sit down with neophyte politicians and have the “well it is not quite that simple” talk with their new political masters. Advocates come out of the wordwork to tell them everything that is wrong about the idea. Then politicians push forward with a bad idea or reverse course to cries of promise breaking and a general loss of faith by voters.

It isn’t my intention to pick on the NDP or suggest that the increased minimum wage promise was a bad one (in fact it’s a poilcy I agree with). The point is that with dozens of promises like this being made we don’t really have enough time to talk about them in a four-week election cycle.

I think that’s why the discussion of child care programs in the last federal election was probably as ideal as we can reasonably expect. Rather than wait until the writ dropped, each of the three main parties rolled out their plans to tackle rising child care costs months before the election was called. The discussion of each was comparatively extensive with commentators and experts weighing in on the various pros and cons of each of the party’s policy.

The then-governing Conservatives had introduced a universal benefit providing each family with a fixed amount of money for each child. The Liberals were promising a cash benefit as well, but theirs was tied to income with those earning less receiving more than they were receiving under the Conservatives, while the more affluent received little or nothing. The NDP promised to socialize the provision of child care altogether with the government providing the service for an amount far less than its cost. How to assist people with high child care expenses is a complex problem and each idea had its own merits and downsides.

There are a few caveats that bear mentioning.

A longer campaign is certainly no guarantee that the discussion will be more geared towards policy. The recent U.S. election campaign which dragged on for months was almost completely devoid of any substantive discussions of policy. The focus being largely on personalities and scandals.

It is also true that policy discussions don’t necessarily change the fact that voters have only a limited number of places to park their vote. I could pick a number of promises I liked from each of the parties during the past territorial campaign and a handful that I thought were poorly thought out. There were still only three choices on my ballot.

And finally there is no guarantee that parties themselves would participate in the discussion. It was no secret that we were having an election this fall but the parties waited (probably for strategic reasons) not to tell us what they were proposing until the election had been called.

But trying to cram so much discussion into such a short time period isn’t ideal for those who care about the nitty gritty of policy. And while I’m not necessarily suggesting that we need longer formal election campaigns, it would have been better if we had more time to evaluate what each party was proposing. They did not do our democracy any favours by being coy.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.