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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Selection Criteria for Choosing Candidates in Canada’s Next Election

In the next federal election (coming sometime in the next 18 months to a neighbourhood near you), each of us will faced with the task of assessing which party / candidate is most worthy of our vote. Despite the fact that fewer and fewer of us do vote (65% in the last federal election allowing 23% of eligible voters to determine the government), this task remains our primary civic duty. For those that do not see this task as something that is either an automatic choice or a bothersome one, choosing where to place your vote can become confusing, subjective, ad hoc and subject to the momentary winds of the media. My feeling is that if we want to make the ‘best’ choice in the voters’ booth then we have to be objective and dispassionate. Therefore it is now, in this pre-election period, that we should be thinking of how we will make that decision.

Assuming any party could essentially be the recipient of our vote, what criteria should be used to evaluate the various candidates and political parties in the next election?

Here’s a short list of the areas most political parties are likely to campaign on:

  • Lower taxes,
  • More services,
  • Leadership,
  • Past record,
  • Fiscal prudence,
  • Future promises, and
  • Trustability.

These are the most common dimensions that parties like to compete on, although they should not necessarily be the criteria used by voters to evaluate their choices. Why? Because the interests of the political parties are not the same as the interests of voters! The main interest of political parties, for instance, is the attainment and exercise governing power. The main interest of voters is usually to achieve some improvement in their quality of life. Ideally in a democracy these two interests overlap. However, in the dysfunctional type of democracy we have in Canada they overlap only coincidentally, as I have talked about before in my blog.

Let’s take the seven campaign dimensions above, which obviously play out in different ways in different elections. The goal for political parties is to find those dimensions in which they may exhibit a competitive advantage and make the election all about that. What I suggest is that campaigns run on these dimensions are not helpful to voters. They are all about the parties in an extremely narcissistic way and not about voters concerns, problems or issues at all. When Kim Campbell said in 1993 that campaigns are not the time to be talking about serious issues, she was only telling the truth. Yet she and the conservative party were eviscerated in the ensuing election not on the basis of her proposed plans or policies but because her statement was used to fuel Liberal attacks against her leadership and trustability, thus proving her point Q.E.D.

Lower taxes

For instance, most parties (save the NDP) compete on how they will lower the tax burden. But aren’t lower taxes good for voters? Maybe, it depends. My view is, why should a political party be rewarded for something they should be already doing as a matter of course as stewards of the public purse. It’s my money in the first place and I entrust it to government because I believe there is a collective benefit to be reaped from doing so. If the money is not needed then it should automatically be returned to me. They are not doing me a favour by returning it. It is not the government’s money to distribute largesse. They would simply be fulfilling their most basic responsibility as public stewards.

The larger question around lower taxes is what is being done with those taxes. As poll after poll has indicated, most Canadians would rather see improved health care, a better environment, a more vital economy, or a properly equipped military before lowering taxes. However, since the federal government under the leadership of any party seems impotent to address these chronic voter concerns, governments are more than willing to bribe people with their own money. If Canadians are willing to pay, then the question voters should be asking of politicians is why the government or any party is so incompetent to fix problems.

If lower taxes were by themselves a public good, then least taxes, or no government, and no public services or benefits would be best. Most rational people would say some government is needed to coordinate the many, many different interests of Canada’s citizens. But where do you draw the line between enough taxation to fix problems and too much taxation? This is an important social conversation that requires airing but which all parties remain silent on. Have governments taken too much or not? If so, return it thank you very much. If not, then get on with the public’s business. However, it seems much better politically for the parties to continue bribing people with their own money.

New Services

Some parties like to emphasize all the new services you’ll get by voting for them. It goes without saying, though, that rarely will you ever get a realistic tax impact along with these promises. So you want more day care, that’ll be $50 extra on your tax bill, whether you have kids or not. So you want to upgrade Canada’s military equipment, that’ll be $500 extra. But if you want good health care, where you don’t have to wait and every service is covered, that’ll really cost you, maybe $5,000 additional.

Instead, what we get are promises for services as if they were cost free. Health care will be paid by someone – either a private health insurer or a public one. We will pay for it out of one pocket or another. The question to be asked is, where is the best value for money? How can we increase the quality of healthcare without increasing the costs? All evidence points to situations where prevention and the promotion of health take centre stage, where there’s a mix of public and private insurance and services, where the payment model is contractual not “fee for service”, and where the citizen takes responsibility for their own health agenda. Yet what we hear is not a reasoned debate but exhortations about the horrors or wonders of private care (depending on your position), self laudatory expressions of being defenders of the sick and the poor, and ideological bullshit that suggests something like the Health Canada Act was delivered by Moses and is therefore the unchallengeable word of God. So much for discussing big issues!

Without some idea of the tax impact of any new initiative, parties intentionally foster the perception that people can get something for nothing. Free day care, why not? Free security, I’m for that. Free health care, let’s sign up tomorrow for that tummy tuck. So rather than having voters make the kind of informed trade offs they might make in their own household budgets, voters are encouraged to sign up for a smorgasbord of services they might never need. And on top of that, they are told that they’ll get lower taxes to boot (ie won’t cost them anything)! So we can have our expensive healthcare but, since resources are limited, our bridges and roads can collapse from lack of maintenance or climate change can turn the Prairies into a dustbowl. Without some discussion of these trade offs we end up buying at best a “pig-in-a-poke”.

Leadership

Leadership is probably the dimension most often used in a political campaign. He or she has a nice face, has a strong voice, can order people around, knows what they’re doing and can make decisions. The positioning of leadership is show which candidate is best able to be ‘in charge’. Sometimes leadership competitions become quite nasty and mean spirited, with negative campaigns focused on how incapable the other guy is for the job of being ‘in charge’.

But being ‘in charge’ implies that others are not and if someone is ‘in charge’ then I don’t have to be. I can forget about certain things because someone else is looking after them. This is a very comfortable belief among voters because it invites irresponsibility and inaction. It also makes for a convenient target should things not go as planned. However, the idea of someone being ‘in charge’ of any issue of significance to the public these days (if ever) is complete and utter nonsense. Believing someone is ‘in charge’ is like believing those spam emails everyone gets that say you’ve just one the great online lottery if only you provide your bank account and PIN number. We believe it because we want to believe it because life would be so much easier if it were true, just as life would be easier if the online lottery scam was true. The truth is nobody is completely ‘in charge’ – not the PM, not government ministers, not deputy ministers, not the House of Commons, and certainly not the ‘all-knowing’ press.

Any significant issue requires the willing cooperation of many different people and organizations to create a change, often between different levels of government and among the different sectors like government, business, education and civil society. Any one of those actors might be able to prevent a collective effort from being comprehensive or effective. Or, any of them might even mount a campaign of resistance to stop change from happening at all. Therefore, whenever I hear election rhetoric starting to drift to the issue of leadership and who’s the best person to be ‘in charge’ I know that it’s all spin and they’re all whistling out their asses.

By the way, the corollary of nobody in charge is that we all are. How can we all be in charge, you might ask? That I would say is an election issue well worth debating. This is, after all, supposed to be a functioning democracy!

Past Record

With regard to a government’s past record, I would say it is largely unimportant because there isn’t any record. Most governments work very hard so that they can not be called to account for any action or inaction they may have done. As a result initiatives are poorly measured, evaluations are quickly filed away so no one ever knows what happened and if someone ever gets curious and tries to use Access to Information laws, well there’s the automatic one year delay most departments act on such requests these days and the perennial under funding of Access to Information requests such that most people lose interest before any information ever gets released[i].

On the other hand, politicians are rather fond of making announcements (as if the announcement is a fait accompli) and in doing so take credit for other people’s work in the future. This last comment might seem harsh but what else do MPs actually do? It’s the bureaucrats that do most of thinking and policy work. It’s the private and not-for-profit partners that deliver most of the services these days. Wasn’t it Prime Minister Trudeau who remarked that MPs are “nobodies” and that they’re only job was to get elected. When was the last time you heard an MP not take credit for something when all they did was…

I was going to say when all they did was vote on spending somebody else’s money. In fact this would be incorrect. The one real job of MPs over the last several centuries and the one record they could arguably point to is their record of decisions related to their approval of departmental expenditures. However, for over a generation now MPs have abdicated that responsibility through a slight of hand called ‘deeming’. Beyond this, try and find a record of how your elected member of the House of Commons voted on anything. Unless you are extremely persistent and willing to spend a lot of time, there is little chance you’ll discover the voting record of your MP[ii].

Then again records and evidence don’t matter that much anyway, according to the PM. In explaining his approach to crime, for instance, Mr. Harper suggested facts were not important. It is only what you believe that’s important. "Some try to pacify Canadians with statistics. Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem. These apologists remind me of the scene from The Wizard of Oz when the wizard says, 'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.' But Canadians can see behind the curtain. They know there's a problem."[iii] The problem with clear facts is that it is difficult to argue against them. However, if facts don’t matter, then securing support becomes a matter of playing on (or preying on) people’s beliefs and fears.

Fiscal Prudence

What about a party’s fiscal prudence – their ability to manage the money? Some are supposed to be big spenders and others tight wads. But which is which? The largest budget and the largest federal workforce in Canadian history was presided over by (wait for it) – not the NDP, not the Liberals but the current Conservative party.

Then again where is a government’s fiscal prudence when after a certain date in May or June departmental expenditures are just ‘deemed’ to be acceptable to the House until such times as the Auditor General makes a fuss about them. This ‘deeming’ process began in Trudeau’s time when line by line evaluations of departmental budgets became too cumbersome and time consuming for MPs eagerly awaiting their summer recess. Former Treasury Board President Reg Alcock often chafed at this emasculation of MP responsibility, but in the end could do little to reverse it. Certain aspects of the Budget may be held up on political grounds, ie what’s good for a particular party, but rarely would this happen on the basis of what might be good for Canadian citizens. If there is any fiscal prudence it is exercised at the DM level where staffers may be encouraged (or not) to show restraint in keeping within a certainty budgetary target. And if they don’t, who’s going to go back and check all those numbers?

The fact that there is next to no fiscal prudence being exercised means that no one (aside from the periodic pot shots of the Auditor General and she isn’t elected) is asking whether a given expenditure is worth it, let alone cost efficient. It’s how the federal government, for instance, with approximately 320,000 desktop computers for its employees also has approximately 120,000 servers for a ratio of 3:1. For any large multinational that ratio would be 60:1. How can this happen? No one’s paying attention. This isn’t fiscal prudence it’s just plain sloppiness.

Future Promises

One of the best shell games in politics is the one parties make promises about the future (often futures which they can not control) while claiming credit for that future action today. Current and previous Canadian governments, for instance, have claimed huge credit for dealing with the environment and climate change in the future only to do nothing at all. And since there is little in the way of performance measurement, who’s to say? The Chretien government for example, claimed credit for his government’s $3 billion proposal to spend on the environment as part of the Kyoto accord and then when the money wasn’t spent it then claimed credit for fiscal prudence. The Martin government claimed budgetary savings from a new procurement program and actually booked the estimated lifetime savings of the program before any were realized and before the program was even operational. Today’s government is claiming credit for a $30 billion program of retrofitting Canada’s military over the next 20 years[iv]. Nothing like claiming credit today for someone else’s actions in the future. Therefore my view is that anything that’s being promised beyond the government tenure currently being sought should be considered entirely bogus. Any future government can change the plan.

Trustability

A lot of campaign rhetoric and advertising dollars go into trying to convince voters that one party is more trustable than another. What this amounts to is a debate over whether one party’s spin is more credible than the other party’s spin. This is an area of campaigning that is particularly narcissistic and what I consider a perversion of democracy. It presumes that political debate is about politicians. What it fails to show is how elected representatives will actually represent their constituents – all of them, both those that elected them and those that did not. It fails to show how citizen concerns will be addressed in any realistic terms. Like the old purveyors of 'snake oil', what we hear is "just trust us" with the idea that if we hear that message often enough or frequent enough we'll believe it.

It is why increasing numbers of voters have become cynical and disengaged in the political process. It has nothing to do with them. It’s also why trust in politicians and in government as an institution continues to decline. According to a 2008 EKOS Research survey, only 28% of Canadians trust their governments to do the right thing. But rather than using political campaigns to build trust among voters, linking evidence of problems to complex but realistic analysis to potential responses and frameworks of assessing progress, parties tend to continue to stretch the truth[v], while emphasizing simplistic partisan drivel and Newspeak. Trust is built by linking words and actions. Do the words of a candidate suggest they are capable of fostering a solution? Do their words illustrate how they may bring together the people, knowledge and resources to generate a response? If not, they’re just contributing to climate change.

What other criteria could be used?

In the coming months I’ll present ten alternative criteria which might be used. They include dimensions like: transparency, honesty, good behaviour and solid commitment; being a good representative, a good facilitator, a good steward, and a good partner; and not using spin and ‘BS’, or being overly interventionist. And I would like to hear your thoughts as well.



[i] Jack Aubry, “Access program overwhelmed, report says: Department's employees blame inadequate resources, bureaucratic attitudes”, The Ottawa Citizen, Friday, March 28, 2008

[ii] Glen McGregor, “Finding out how your MP voted can be an exercise in futility: Records on individual members buried in confusing parliamentary documents”, The Ottawa Citizen, Friday, March 28, 2008

[iii] Aaron Wherry,A Version Of The Truth: Forget The Hidden Agenda. The Tories Are Getting A Name For Playing With The Facts”, .Macleans Magazine, May 14, 2008

[iv] David Pugliese , “Conservatives won't commit defence strategy to paper”, The Ottawa Citizen, Monday, May 12, 2008

[v] Aaron Wherry,A Version Of The Truth: Forget The Hidden Agenda. The Tories Are Getting A Name For Playing With The Facts”, .Macleans Magazine, May 14, 2008