Election Fever and Political Malaise
September 1, 1984 -
The hoopla and window-dressing of another federal election campaign are over. Over the past few months we have watched the Canadian political process being staged as a media event: the candidates were "packaged" and "handled," the leadership contest was fought on image, and issues were reduced to 30-second clips on the evening news.
In Canada today the means of communication are instant, sophisticated and available to all. Yet real communicationthat is, the meaningful discussion of ideas, issues and choicesis largely absent. Communication has been replaced by slick advertising campaigns and clever debating tricks. This should profoundly trouble those who know that issues of immense importance are at stake in the political life of our nation.
A close look at the election campaign reveals at least four serious problem areas.
The role of the media
Political campaigns are dominated by and substantially adjusted to the demands of technology and the methodology of the media, particularly television. As a result, political life is seriously distorted and trivialized. Interestingly enough, several prominent media people expressed concern about the media's impact on the last election.
J. D. Creighton, president and publisher of The Toronto Sun, wrote a signed editorial in which he criticized the media, including his own paper, for unfairly presenting the news and blowing one or two issues all out of proportion, especially with respect to the Turner campaign. He concluded: "It's time for cheap-shot journalism to stop. This election is too important to us all" (The Toronto Sun, August 23, 1984).
In a similar vein, Maclean's editor Kevin Doyle took his colleagues to task for abusing their profession. He wrote that television and radio as well as the written media must assume responsibility for having turned Canadian elections into contests that are won or lost on the basis of a 60-second news clip or an eye-catching photo. Due to a lack of confidence in the ability of voters to deal seriously with real policy proposals, "the media tend to reduce national leaders to the status of stand-in actors," wrote Mr. Doyle. He concluded this unusually self-critical editorial: "The press must strive to balance 60-second clip journalism with an examination and discussion of real issues. The nagging concern that it is not doing so in this campaign is proof of the need for journalisticnot politicalreform" (Maclean's, August 20, 1984).
Interest group politics
Another major problem in Canadian election campaigns is the attempt by politicians to cater to the many different interest groups in the hopes of winning maximum popular support. Trying to please everyone, the politicians mouth pious wishes and empty generalities, telling each interest group what it wants to hear. All sorts of unfulfillable promises are made and politics becomes more and more superficial.
Substituting economic issues for politics
A third problem with contemporary politics that becomes particularly obvious at election time is that political issues are being reduced to matters of economic policy. Consequently, the legal, constitutional foundation of political life is ignored, something that will have disastrous consequences for the future of our country.
To win is everything
A fourth problem is that political parties no longer begin with a specific set of principles from which they work out their platform. Rather, they increasingly gear their party's policies to the simple objective of winning at the polls.
At any rate, the 1984 campaign is now history and what was initially forecast to be an easy win for Liberal Prime Minister John Napier Turner evolved into a landslide victory for Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservative Party. Prime Minister Turner made some errors in judgment (especially about the timing of the election), and he fared badly over against Mulroney's crowd-pleasing skills. Turner completely failed to convincingly demonstrate that his "new" government was indeed new. But does it really make much difference whether the Liberals or the Conservatives form the government? Isn't a major problem in Canadian politics the fact that, apart from style, personality and some historical details, there is so little real difference between the two main parties? (This may be one of the few things that the NDP's Ed Broadbent is right about.)
Now that the choice has been made, at least for the next four or five years, what policies will the new government adopt? Will the Conservatives govern responsibly and for the genuine welfare of the Canadian people? Will the Mulroney government have the political will and the courage to make the hard decisions that cannot be put off much longer? And are the Canadian people really prepared to face reality, or will they persist in their desire to live beyond their means?
The federal government has the following main areas of responsibility: a) maintaining a just legal order, b) safeguarding a responsible fiscal-economic structure, including an adequate infrastructure (transportation, communication, education, etc.), c) providing an adequate military defence, and d) providing for an equitable social welfare system (a social safety net).
One feature of contemporary election campaigns is that nearly all the emphasis is placed on economic and social welfare matters. Virtually no attention was paid in this last election to the underlying legal, constitutional basis of a just political order, nor to the requirements of an adequate defenceâapart from several vague references about working for world peace and a nuclear arms freeze. With respect to one of the most significant and morally clear-cut issues, namely, the protection of unborn life, neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives took a clear-cut stand in favour of life. This was no doubt due to each party's desire to win the much talked-about "women's vote." In the so-called women's debate both Turner and Mulroney seemed anxious to please and willing to agree to every feminist demand, no matter how outrageous. As for the NDP, its stand is clear-cut. It has consistently advocated more liberal abortion legislation and has called for Canada's withdrawal from NATO and NORAD.
Thus the election campaign focused mainly on what many understand the government's responsiblity to be, that is, to provide economic prosperity and security for all citizens. This task confronts the government with an impossible dilemma: it must provide an ever more abundant social security net, while simultaneously assuming responsibility for a set of fiscal and monetary policies. It is precisely on this score that both major parties failed. They were ambiguous, inconsistent, and totally unconvincing. Both the Liberals and Conservatives claimed they would increase public spending and reduce the public debt, and their economic platform largely evolved into a numbers game in which the one party accused the other of fooling the electorate. It was not a very edifying spectacle. In that sense, the Liberals got what they deserved, but the question now is whether the Progressive Conservatives did.
One positive element, perhaps the only one, of this change in government is that the Ottawa bureaucracy will be shaken up and a new team will try to govern Canada. For the sake of all of us, we should wish them well. One thing is sure, if government policies will not come to grips with the increasingly intolerable economic and fiscal reality of Canada, the new government will be abdicating its responsibility. No matter what the believers in limitless government interference and bottomless government coffers may say, we as a nation must learn to live within our means or we will continue to undermine the economic stability and health of this so abundantly endowed nation. If we fail, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
Politics, like every other part of life, is an area in which we as image bearers of God are called to responsibility and freedom. Issues of tremendous consequence are at stake and we need the indispensable guidance of God's Word and Spirit. Christians must take seriously their calling to develop and articulate an integrated understanding of politics in the light of biblical revelation. Currently, many Christian individuals and groups are responding to selected moral issues (notably the abortion issue) in a defensive and haphazard manner. As a result, Christians make themselves largely irrelevant to the ongoing development of political lifeat least in terms of a coherent, intelligent and convincing Christian alternative to the secular, pragmatic theories and practices now plaguing our political landscape. It's time for a change.