How-to” books are now all the rage. When I read the book, How to Watch a Movie, it changed the way I did something that I had been doing without much thought for years. Thus I make my modest offering here of how to watch an election in a thoughtful and knowledgeable way.
I’ve heard all the laments about Canadian politics being boring. Okay, we may not have an orange-haired, reality-challenged TV star to entertain us, but in fact there is a great deal going on during an election campaign. It is not only interesting to watch, but it is also very important. We are in the process of making a very important decision that will determine how we are governed for the next four years (more or less). We need to pay attention to the campaign so that we can cast an informed vote. Here are my suggestions about how to prepare yourself to cast that important vote.
Decide what issues you feel are important. You are about to make a decision that will have a great impact on the future of your country, your town, and your own family. The candidates and the media will provide an overwhelming amount of information. The best way to sort through this plethora of information is to decide what parts are important to you. Don’t think about parties or candidates at this point. Think about what issues are most important to you personally and to your family.
You probably have a pretty good idea about how you want your future to unfold. Where do you think that Canada and your region should be going in the future? What needs to happen to help your family realize your dreams? What sorts of things are on the horizon that will thwart your desires? Use this kind of reasoning to determine what issues are important to you.
Look at where each party stands on your issues. The parties have platform documents that are available on the web, in print (probably arriving soon at your front door), and in the media. See what each party has to say about your issue. You should also read between the lines about how committed each party really is to your issue. Is your issue front and centre with the party? Or does the party grudgingly acknowledge something must be done about the issue at some future, unspecified time.
During an election campaign every party and candidate agrees that we need low taxes, high levels of service, no deficits, and sunshine on the first of July
Look at what each party has done in the past with regard to your issue. During an election campaign every party and candidate agrees that we need low taxes, high levels of service, no deficits, and sunshine on the first of July. Listen to what they say, but find out what they have done in the past. This will give you a sense of whether the party is really committed to the issue, or is just mouthing convenient words.
Look to both the short-term and the long-term. I know that this advice sounds contradictory, but it’s important anyway. A prime minister will be confronted by certain pressing issues that must be dealt with immediately. How well do you think each candidate will handle those issues?
However, there are also long-term issues that cannot be ignored. You need some assurance that the candidate will not lose track of these important long-term issues by focussing too much on the short-term. Which party and which candidate will do the best job of balancing long and short term considerations?
Stay focussed on the issues. Sometimes it seems that elections are about a candidate’s charisma or who has the catchiest ads. My fearless prediction is that at some point during the campaign a candidate will make some speaking gaffe, or wear an item of clothing that sparks controversy, or muff a football thrown to him or her, or something equally disastrous. Enjoy the moment, but don’t allow it to define the candidate or the campaign. Stay focussed on where this candidate and her or his party stand on the issues that are important to you.
Get to know your local candidate. Most major decisions about policy issues are made centrally by the party apparatus. Local candidates have a limited role in these decisions. That does not mean that your local candidate is insignificant.
Has your local candidate been active in the community so that he or she understands the major issues that are important in the local community? The successful candidate will have a role in the party caucus in ensuring that the party leaders know what the issues are in your riding. Will your local candidate be able to carry out that role successfully?
Evaluate both the party and the candidate based on their principles and judgment as much as on their stand on specific issues. You are electing a member of Parliament and a party that will possibly serve for four years. We know what the issues are today, but many changes occur over four years. For example, during the previous election campaign, there was no thought of the pandemic that has ruled our lives for the past year and a half.
You need to vote for someone who shares your principles and who exercises good judgment. This offers confidence that they will handle issues that arise unexpectedly competently.
My message at this point is to consider what is important for the future of Canada and for your own wellbeing and to evaluate the parties’ stance in relation to that judgment. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be back to discuss some of the issues. ◆
David Siegel is Brock University emeritus professor of Political Science.