rough notes

Election Thoughts

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An Article, followed by my vitriolic, if half-sleepy opinions and wishes. (Mitch is back, iWill. Mitch is Back.]

(Complete article can be viewed here, or in a printer-friendly format here)

BlackBerry fuels brush fireBy CAMPBELL CLARK and STEVEN CHASE and JANE TABER
From Friday’s Globe and Mail, 28 May 2004

Victoria, Montreal and Ottawa

The first call came into the Liberal war room at 9:04 Wednesday night.

The party’s deputy director, Steven MacKinnon, was startled at the news coming out of Toronto, but he didn’t need to tell the Liberals’ public face in the capital. Heidi Bonnell was already responding to e-mails she was receiving on her BlackBerry.

Reporters across the country were demanding a response to NDP Leader Jack Layton’s assertion, made that night in Toronto, that Paul Martin’s policies were responsible for the deaths of homeless people.

The Liberals’ initial response was blunt: “Mr. Layton owes an apology to those people who live in poverty. These kinds of cheap comments cheapen the debate.”

But it was just the first return volley in a 24-hour battle that dominated the federal election campaign yesterday, and may yet come to define the 2004 election, which is already emerging as equal parts instant messenger, Crossfire and Dr. Phil.

The furor over Mr. Layton’s homeless-deaths allegation was an unexpected media sensation for the three major national campaigns, which had to change their agendas to cope with it.

So powerful is the use of digital technology in the election that single comments can spread like wildfire along broadband lines and satellite signals, from war rooms in Ottawa to campaign buses rolling along distant highways in the Maritimes.

The wireless war of 2004 erupted Wednesday night when the NDP Leader went, as political operatives like to say, off message. Mr. Layton has long been known in Toronto politics for his ability to make headlines. Since moving to the federal scene, his preening for television cameras has earned him the nickname “Liveshot Jack.”

But even his own advisers say they were not prepared for his statement that came during a visit to a church in downtown Toronto. To delighted reporters and a crowd of clapping supporters, he said hundreds of homeless deaths had to be blamed on Mr. Martin, who, as finance minister in the 1990s, had drastically cut social funding.The Liberal war room got the comments shortly after they were uttered, and e-mailed a response line to every reporter in its address book. It was, what one Liberal adviser acknowledged, “an opportunity.”

With only a few hours sleep, the Liberal attack squad was back at it by 7 a.m. yesterday, making their daily conference call to Mr. Martin’s advisers, who had risen at 4 a.m. on a campaign swing through British Columbia. They, in turn, had to lay out the day’s options for Mr. Martin at a breakfast briefing in Victoria’s grand old Empress Hotel.

The Liberal Leader was still in disbelief at the Layton comment — “What did you say?” was his first reaction — but he soon argued the best response was to ignore the content of the accusation and attack Mr. Layton for breeding cynicism. He got his opportunity after visiting a veterans’ care facility in Victoria.

“There’ll be many blows in politics, I guess, and some of them are going to be low,” said Mr. Martin, whose team opened the election with a barrage of attack ads against Mr. Harper. “I think that that kind of a statement reflects far more on Mr. Layton than anything else.”

By noon, Pacific time, the Liberals had a new spin, which they sent to reporters on all three national campaigns by e-mail. “This outlandish statement by Mr. Layton once again illustrates his credibility is his greatest liability,” it read. “The truth is it was the Tory government of Brian Mulroney that reduced support for social housing programs steadily from 1983 to 1993.”

By midday, reporters on both coasts were receiving e-mails from all the major parties with claims and counterclaims about the Prime Minister.

Campaigning in the Maritimes, the Conservatives put out a line saying that Mr. Martin was, in fact, responsible for putting far more lives at risk, whether they be ill-equipped soldiers or seniors in hospital waiting lines. The message was sent straight to reporters covering the Liberals.The NDP war room in Ottawa had its own crew firing off e-mails as fast as they could be written, each loaded with new allegations about Liberal failures to save lives. The authors were following their own war room’s motto: “Never leave a shot unanswered.”

As soon as talk TV was on the air, the e-mail flurry was matched by a verbal war, as party mouthpieces went at it. Ms. Bonnell went on Don Newman’s CBC Newsworld war-room panel to say how ridiculous Mr. Layton’s allegation was, saying that the Liberal national homelessness initiative was extended to 2006 and will create more than 8,000 beds this year.

Liberal researchers sent out a “reality check,” dismissing the Layton comment. Later, the Liberals put up Trinity-Spadina MP Tony Ianno on another Newsworld debate. Mr. Ianno is running against Olivia Chow, Mr. Layton’s wife.

All this time Liberal researchers were working overtime, looking for a knock-out response. They figured they found it, discovering that Mr. Layton’s father, former Tory cabinet minister Bob Layton, voted for the 1993 Mulroney government budget in which the Tories reduced funding to social housing.

That tidbit was given to Liberal panelist Mike Robinson, who used it on another Newsworld panel late yesterday afternoon.

The NDP responded with their own candidates. Libby Davies, one of the party’s B.C. stars, shadowed the Liberal entourage, making sure reporters knew her perspective.

Like guerrilla fighters who had managed to draw fire from an immobile tank division, the NDP campaign was thrilled. Their man — once ridiculed as a showboat with no clout — was the new star.

“It refocuses the campaign on an NDP issue,” one official gloated.

Having started the fury, Mr. Layton took his campaign to Montreal last night, but did not slow down. He continued to repeat his line — people died because of Paul Martin — for every camera that showed up. He then bowed his head and appeared to choke back tears when a Globe and Mail reporter asked why he had gone off message the previous evening. “I’ve been to too many memorials . . . for homeless people who have died,” Mr. Layton said before getting into a car and burying his face in his hands, the cameras still rolling.

As for the wild ride of the previous 24 hours, one of his earlier comments said it all — that in the digital age, theatre still matters: “We’re in an election, so we’re going to debate the issues for the next 36 days, and if it means some enthusiastic talk in order to get some of these issues on the platform so that we don’t have to be hearing endlessly about Liberal scandals, then yes, I am prepared to do it.”

Arguments about Layton’s comments aside, who else decries “The Blackberry Style” of elections? Soundbites are horrible. One-sentence policies are horrible. Rhetorical opportunism is horrible. Political posturing stinks.

These press releases, developed for fifteen-second soundbites and two-paragraph quotes, suck all the substance out of policies, parties, and elections. It reduces candidates and their platforms to shadows of leaders’ faces and their hollowed out, fuzzy and meaningless arguments. Worst of all, the instant Press Release to counter the previous makes the political field seem even more insular to the general public unmotived by politics. It becomes a boys’ game played out at recess: a capture the flag with five different teams, whose teammates are united together against Every Other Team, simply because they are Every Other Team. If you’re not liberal red, then you must be Conservative Blue.

I want the return of substance (if there ever really was substance in the first place). I want political parties with platforms based on the values their members passionately agreee with, not choose due to political opportunism. I want candidates who can speak for longer than fifteen seconds at a time. I want leaders to define the values they stand for by the principles and morals they live by, not by what their opponents are against [Binary oppositions, Audra]. And for the love of G-d, don’t attack an attack ad by using the “Moral Highground” method – it not only cheapens the leader’s party, it cheapens the entire political process itself.

(and for what its worth, Jack Layton’s father’s politics should have no bearing on Jack Layton’s politics. Jack was not the one sitting in the Commons voting with the Tories. Christ…)


Written by mitchellirons

May 30, 2004 at 3:55 am

Posted in 499869, Politics, rants

Tagged with ,

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