In November, Postmedia news columnist Michael Den Tandt summed up early media commentary of the upcoming national election this way: “[it will be] the longest, costliest, nastiest, rootin’ tootin’-est federal campaign ever.” Six months later, pundits are confirming this statement (at least the first three adjectives). And yet, much has changed during these six months. The unpopularity of Bill C-51 has had an impact on how many Canadians feel about the Conservative government. The surprising NDP win in Alberta has captured the nation’s attention, heightening the suspense surrounding what is sure to be a very close race.
At Gnowit, we’ve been watching these events closely. Over the course of the past few months, we’ve tracked some of the biggest stories in government, comparing what’s said on the hill (through automated searches of government transcripts) with what’s said in the media. Of course, the press has covered government legislation exhaustively. But politicians have also used items published in the media to bolster arguments during government proceedings (as when Craig Scott of the NDP used a series of Globe and Mail editorials in his criticism of bill C-23, the fair elections act).
The election won’t officially begin until the writ has dropped, but media chatter has already been rampant. The results of a recent CoreAlerts search for the term “federal election” turned up a plethora of articles from the past two weeks. Many reinforced longstanding ideas about Canadian politics; others were unexpected, offering fresh points of view. Some came from the country’s largest newspapers, though a large number shed light on regional issues that may have a national impact. Many themes stretched across the country, arising again and again in different areas and contexts. I will discuss four of these themes in this post.
The Cult of Personality
Character – or perceived lack thereof – always plays some role in political campaigns. In Canada, we like to think of ourselves as more sensible than our American cousins, less likely to make snap decisions or be or drawn in by sentimental stories. Perhaps this notion stems from the fact that we don’t vote for our prime ministers directly (and are therefore, theoretically, more interested in the party policies than the details of a few candidates’ lives). Whatever the case, this belief is being put to the test this year, as the three major parties engage in an “orgy of spending” on publicity.
The combination of a fixed election date (which enables parties to start campaigning months before official spending caps come into effect) and the unprecedented closeness of the race (due to growing support for the NDP) have lead to a flurry of ads and other public relations maneuvers. A May 26 article printed in the Ottawa Citizen (and reprinted in other publications, such as Saskatoon’s Star Phoenix) describes the first barrage of ads unleashed by all three major parties, which include a Conservative attack on Trudeau’s supposed lack of experience. University of Ottawa Political Studies professor Claude Denis describes the ads as a “miniblitz” being used by politicians to “test their theories”. A number of articles discussed Thomas Mulcair’s forthcoming biography, which is set to hit the shelves just three months before voters go to the polls.
Meanwhile, some of the year’s biggest ongoing stories were framed in terms of their potential impact on the Conservative government. The Mike Duffy trial saw a surge of interest this week due to an increased likelihood that it would overlap with the election. Christie Blatchford at the National Post suggests that Duffy is “salivating” at the opportunity to “drag the house that Stephen Harper built into the muck with him.” Of course, Bill C-51 has also been a hot topic; some commentators suggest it will hurt not only the Conservatives, but the Liberals, who publicly supported it.
Electoral boundaries have been redrawn since the last election, leading to the creation of 30 new ridings. These changes could have a very real impact on results in some parts of the country. CBC journalist Bob Weiers asserts that, had these new boundaries been in place during the last election, 9 ridings would have different representation.
Looking at the results turned up by CoreAlerts, it’s clear that many Canadians are confused, concerned, or happy about the new boundaries. An article in Burnaby Now asserts that an NDP government would win in B.C.’s new Burnaby-North Seymour riding if an election were to take place immediately. The article details the history of the riding, and suggests that pundits and disappointed members of the NDP were wrong in their initial assessment that the new riding would go to the Tories.
Another B.C. article – this one printed in the Nelson Star – includes an interview with the Liberal candidate for the new Kootenay-Columbia riding. Don Johnston discusses the challenges of “making
inroads” when his Conservative counterpart has 57% of the popular vote. The riding has been dominated by Conservative parties for two decades, but an infusion of new voters – including many from areas that lean towards the NDP – could change things.
Other sentiments abound. In the Aggasiz Harrison Observer, MP Mark Strahl laments the split of “cultural and economic ties” in his riding. The Nanaimo Daily News (likely influenced by past voter disorientation in other Canadian ridings) reminds city residents to avoid confusion by registering to vote early. Clearly, B.C has been greatly affected by these changes. But, as Bob Weiers points out, ridings in Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland, Quebec, and Saskatchewan could also be impacted. At the federal level, it’s sure to keep things interesting.
The Rural/Urban Divide
The supposed cultural divide between rural and urban Canada is a common theme in the country’s politics. Many will remember the role it played in Stephen Harper’s argument for destroying the long gun registry. This year, some politicians are exploring the issue in their local newspapers.
The best example comes from Northern Ontario MP Carol Hughes, who wrote an article that was published in the Wawa News on May 25. “It will be announcement season in Canada soon”, says Hughes, “and just in time for the federal election”. The article centers on the Conservative government’s methods of doling out infrastructure funding, methods that (supposedly) give small towns a disadvantage. Late announcements – which lead to tight timelines – are the biggest complaint. “Big cities that employ full-time professionals such as lawyers and engineers won’t just have the inside track,” says Hughes, “they will have the entire track to themselves.”
In an interview with the Nelson Star, Kootenay-Columbia Liberal candidate Don Johnston claims that “rural issues get lost” in an increasingly-urban Canada. He advocates diversifying rural economies, and asserts that “more money needs to be spent on rural infrastructure”.
It makes sense that those representing areas outside of big cities would champion rural issues. But, on the whole, should the NDP and Liberal parties be doing more to court rural voters? Or is the rural/urban split greatly exaggerated, as many claim?
Harper’s recent decision to opt out of debates on Canada’s largest broadcasters has been criticized on many fronts. Its potential impacts on rural viewers (who are more likely to rely on basic cable) is one of them. But several stories – such as this one in the Ottawa citizen – suggest that those who are more likely to watch basic cable don’t care one way or the other.
Public debates about the needs of rural and urban citizens continue, and we’re sure to see plenty more discussion in the media during the run-up to the election.
All Bets are Off
The split of the non-conservative vote has always been a major topic in Canadian politics. This has never been more true than it is now. Due to surges in NDP support and the increased popularity of the Liberals under Trudeau, the numbers suggest a very close three-way split. This election is anyone’s game.
One of the most unsurprising outcomes of this situation is the attention it’s received from the press. In our search for the term “federal election”, we found a slew of articles – from sensational and widely-circulated editorials, to small-town opinion pieces – expounding on recent polls and projections. In some cases – as in this write-up in the Cochrane Eagle – journalists question whether Canada would be wise to adopt America’s two-party system.
In addition to leading some to ask fundamental political questions, the closeness of the race is intensifying the election drama. This drama has been magnified in media outlets across the country. Take a recent article by Stephen Maher. According to Maher, Stephen Harper’s decision to snub traditional debates has “turned a quasi-bureaucratic process into a wild game of no-limit poker”. Expanding on this idea, Maher asserts “[n]obody trusts anybody. Nothing is locked down. Everybody is worried about getting blindsided.”
With news coverage like this, who needs scripted drama?
For more on the media coverage surrounding the federal election (including coverage devoted to individual candidates), check out or blog in the coming weeks!