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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Sporting Fun Vs. Engaged Democracy: The #ONDebate

If you're bothering to read this, you're probably someone with some skin in the game.

I'm not talking about governance, or even democracy - I'm talking about politics.

Whatever we might tell ourselves, politics is not about governance.  It's about competition, scoring hits, winning and above all, ideology.

Not one of the leaders on the stage last night has a fully comprehensive plan to address Ontario's myriad challenges.  In reality, they can't - our challenges aren't fully home-grown.  Even those that are can't be solved by one policy regimen or another without behaviour change from the top down in every sector private or public.  And that's before even getting to every day citizens and their role.

But back to the debate.

On Twitter last night, in columns this morning and at select water coolers throughout the day, pundits are handicapping the race, discussing knock-out punches and essentially dissecting last night's Leaders Debate like a sporting event. 

Since the game's not over yet, the opinions are fairly easy to predict.

If you were a Libs fan, Wynne clearly held her ground and took Hudak to task.  If you're a Con fan, Hudak was the clear winner, and Wynne the loser.  For the NDP fanbase, Horwath looked like a leader and the other two clearly showed contempt for the system and the people.

From each side, we saw attempts to nudge swing voters: "I'm a liberal," says one fella who donates money to the PCs, "but I gotta say Hudak won this one."  "I'm sensing momentum," says a Horwath supporter, basing their opinion on no poll yet commissioned.  "Wynne showed strong leadership," wrote people on Team Wynne.

It seemed pretty clear the teams prepping their leaders cribbed from sporting event methodology, too. Candidates had their game plans, their key moves and lines to pull out when the opportunity arose.  For avid politics followers, you got a few fun Easter Egg moments: "You had an option," said Horwath, channelling Brian Mulroney.

But what if you aren't a die-hard political enthusiast, or a vested stakeholder group, or a rabid partisan?

I was in downtown Toronto near Union station a few hours before the debate.  The Hudak bus was parked nearby and a Hudakmobile was driving up and down the streets, playing video of Hudak saying something - his words were drowned out by the hopeful music on the soundtrack.  

As the debate was approaching, Twitter was exploding and there was even a partisan ad circling, I started to ask local commuters if they were going to watch the debate and who they thought might win.

The most common answer: "What debate?"

I asked my small sample of busy commuters a range of questions; what Party do you support, which leader to you like best, what plan do you think has the best chance of succeeding.  

The answers made it pretty clear most people didn't know much about the leaders (if they knew of them at all) and even those that had picked their horse couldn't really articulate their plans.  

There were refrains of "cut taxes" and "don't cut services" mixed with "punish for gas plants" and "I'm still mad about Harris' teacher strikes", but that was it.

Oh - and nobody was really going to go out of their way to watch the debate or follow the convo on Twitter.  Only a few people I bugged even knew the name Steve Paikin.

When I prodded a couple folk about issues - "come on, there's got to be some issue you care about" - the tone changed immediately.  People are worried about healthcare, about opportunities for their children (or about jobs, if they were teens or twenty-somethings) and, not surprisingly where I was at the time, traffic congestion.

For the most part, though, people seem not to connect the challenges they face with the policy makers who have the capacity to do something and work with others to do even more to address those challenges.

This really got me thinking, as I headed home.  To what degree to Ontarians in general view politics as a sport they don't watch rather than an unavoidable component of our system of governance and, therefore, critical to their everyday lives?

Or to reverse the question - how much do the political bubble people feel the whole world (that matters) is already in the stadium and closely following the game?

I didn't watch the debate.  As many debate-prep coaches have suggested they find the best way to analyze a debate is to watch it with the volume off, I decided to try deciphering the debate from Twitter alone.

The results were not surprising - there were four distinct interpretations of how the debate was going and who won, neatly aligning with the three political parties represented on the stage and the disaffected/disenchanted/trolls that were dismissive of the whole process.

Even more interesting was the degree of sarcasm dripping from the tweets of journalists.  They really have seen this movie before - again, and again, and again - and seemed to have reach their saturation point for spin.  They were hoping for authenticity, maybe, but didn't get it.

And of course, most of Ontario's voters didn't know there was a debate and wouldn't have bothered to tune in if they did.  We all know what to expect - messaging and attempts to score clear hits.  If we want to watch a boxing match, we prefer to go for the real thing.

The Political Parties know this; most of their efforts have been off-the-radar, through direct emails, phone calls and polling surveys.  With the rise of micro-targeting, but now the Parties have a good understanding of where there vote is and are amping up their GOTV (Get Out The Vote) efforts.  

Particularly given the decrease in volunteers (disaffection, people having too many jobs to work, a cultural shift from civic engagement to laissez-faire capitalist thinking?), these Parties and local campaigns want to push out as many of their identified vote over the Advanced Polling period so they have less to worry about on actual Election Day.

While Parties (but mostly pundits) do care about performance in a debate, there's a deeper understanding that it doesn't really matter - with such low audience engagement, it's less about persuading voters than it is about maintaining brand over the duration of the campaign.

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Which is what Question Period has become, too.

That's the rub - there really isn't debate in our politics any more - just messaging, positioning and attempts to undermine opponents.  Winning by defeating is the goal, not policy.  Not structural solutions.

Think about that for a second - the partisan advisers shaping the direction our province will take are designing policy in a way that mobilizes vote in their support, not to structurally strengthen our province.  

It's a more efficient use of time and resources for them - if the majority of Ontarians don't care and aren't tuning in, there's really no incentive to develop plans that appeal to them, is there?

This is why we should care.  This is why we need more, not less debates and formats that promote discussion rather than encourage sound-bite expression.

We have a system that focuses on political sports teams winning the pennant rather than elected officials serving as conduits for their constituents.  

Last night's performance was not a debate - it was an alarm bell.

Word on the street is that Ontario is ready for a change - but are we open to collaborative change?

If the system and the people can't find ways to engage each other more effectively, more transparently and with a focus on solutions over spin, bad math is going to be the least of our problems.

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