30 September 2013

Values and Ideas #nlpoli

“Don’t question my values,” Cathy Bennett warned one her fellow candidates in the Liberal leadership, “and I won’t question yours.”

The other candidate in that part of the debate wasn’t questioning her values.  He just asked, as many have wondered, about the time over the past decade when she was giving money to the ruling Conservatives and holding an appointment only given to the most trusted associates of the current Premier and her predecessor.

On the face of it, that record doesn’t jive with Bennett’s talking point that she has always been a Liberal.  So the other candidates kept bringing the issue up.  Bennett’s usual response has been to recite the obviously suspect claim  - I have always been a Liberal, even when I was a Tory - that brings you back to the perpetually unanswered question. 

When she isn;t doing that, Bennett has tossed out the sort of aggressive reply like the one about values that doesn’t fit either.  Not only was the question about facts not values, but you’d think that as a rule a political leadership candidate would welcome the chance to talk about her values.  It’s a soft pitch to knock out of the park. Yet Bennett clearly didn’t want to get into any discussion about facts or values.

It’s not like Bennett doesn’t mention values in some of her stump speeches.  For example, the word “value” turned up four times in her campaign launch speech. Only the fourth mention, though, is about  principles or standards of behaviour and even then the reference isn’t doesn’t much about what values Bennett is on about:

My involvement with these activities has enable me to action my values – values that are who I am and who I have always been.

Okay, so maybe some of you are saying the speech just isn’t well structured or well written. 


Let’s look somewhere else.

Where to look?

Websites Light on Content

This is a campaign where the candidates need to reach lots of people.  They’ve had three months for the first phase when they want people to sign up for the vote in November.  At least three of the candidates are looking to drop upwards of $100,000 or more before it’s all over, so money isn’t a really big issue.  Even the candidates who might have smaller budgets can use a simple website as the way to push lots of information out there so that voters can get what they want, when they want it.

So let’s look at Cathy Bennett’s website. There are  some quotes where people talk about Bennett’s values.  But that’s it.  Keep looking and you’ll find much the same thing  on the websites or new stories about all the candidates.

Indeed, the candidate websites are really pretty thin things.  After almost three months of active campaigning, most of them have only a small amount of information that wasn’t there when they launched them.

That’s basically part of the same weirdness as the absence of talk about values.

Every political campaign is about describing the candidate in ways that allow voters to find out about the candidate. There is only one winner so it’s not like you get a prize for coming in second. Votes count in an election and you want all of them   If you are looking for votes, you want people to know about your ideas, your values, your background, and a host of other things that will make them choose you over one of the schmucks…err… other outstanding candidates running against you.

What the campaign team will often do is tie everything together so that the candidate can easily remind people of specific values and how they tie to specific elements of the campaign.  Whether it is in a speech, an interview or a debate, candidates usually have a way of describing themselves that makes a coherent picture.

Campaigns will often unveil the different elements of the campaign messages in such a way that they build up over time. That sort of approach can build anticipation that helps to draw more attention to the campaign as things roll along.   Even when they pop the whole campaign platform out there at the beginning,  campaigns will often structure media events to highlight specific elements of the platform.

The New York Democrat Example

You can see how this sort of things works by checking out the website for Bill de Blasio, the leading candidate for the Democrat nomination for mayor of New York. He issued a news release attacking Republicans for what de Blasio says will restrict free speech.  The release refers to “progressive values” in a  way his likely voters will understand  without elaboration.  The release itself, of course, is evidence of De Blasio acting on his belief in the value of free speech by defending it.  The whole thing is a tight package of beliefs (values) and the actions that back it up.

You can see another aspect of de Blasio’s campaign, oddly enough, in the New York Times’ documentary on Christine Quinn’s campaign for the Democratic nomination.  She lost badly. Part way through the documentary, you will find some discussion of de Blasio's opposition to the New York Police Department policy of stop and frisk.  As a Democrat, de Blasio could easily talk about the issue in terms of civil rights because those are values that will resonate with Democratic voters.

The Liberal Contrast

Now think about how infrequently the Liberal leadership candidates have done the same sort of thing, that is, connecting issues with values in a way that defines the individual candidate and sets him or her apart from the others. 

That doesn’t mean the candidates have been  completely silent on some topics. Look at the debates, for example, and you will find that all the candidates dislike Bill 29.  Of course, that’s so unpopular only fools and provincial Conservatives still talk positively about it.  If you want to talk about the principles of openness and transparency apart from Bill 29, though go back and look at Cathy Bennett’s lack of frankness on her political past or any of the candidates on their campaign finances. 

Not one of them actually made that an issue during the campaign.  Indeed, if you scan down the candidates’ websites you will have a hard time finding platforms at all.  Jim Bennett has five topics on his site, but they are pretty vague and general.  Danny Dumaresque has some very general statements about seniors and the like.

At the debates, the candidates have all been pretty vague.  They all think education is important.  Cathy Bennett wants all day kindergarten, as do a couple of others. When they showed at Memorial University most of the candidates fell over each other to promise free everything to students.  No one dared talk about how they might pay for any of it, given the state of the provincial government’s finances.

All candidates all agree the provincial government needs to spend public money more  [insert adverb of choice here]. Details are harder to find.  Danny Dumaresque and Jim Bennett have tossed out a couple of specific ideas about childhood obesity and managing public sector pension plans.  But beyond all of the generalities, platitudes, and clich├ęd sloganeering, you are really going to struggle to find more than that.

How many will they sign up?

When the sign-up period ends on Monday evening, it will be interesting to see how many people the candidates have signed up to vote in November.  If the numbers are much lower than people might expect (less than 10,000), then you can probably put a good chunk of it down to the rather weak campaigns the candidates have run.  In relative terms, the five leadership candidates are generally as poorly defined in the minds of most voters as the crowd who dragged up the back end of the “at large” ticket in the St. John’s municipal elections.

The campaigns seem to have followed an informal policy of avoiding any sort of serious campaigning. Maybe they were afraid of open conflict.  That would certainly explain why they spent a lot of time in the debates trying to show how much they all agreed on everything.

Even if that was the case on major issues, there was still lots of room to make people aware of the candidates themselves.  Yet even there, the candidates were largely silent. That is, with the exception of Paul Antle’s modest youtube videos, the campaigns have done very little to tell people about who the candidates are, what they stand for, and where they came from.

When they have ventured to talk about something, the candidates give very little detail about the small number of subjects they will talk about.  A good example is Cathy Bennett and her “plan” to sort out the Liberal Party itself.  Take a look at it, and you will see a list of objectives. That’s not a plan. After all, a plan is a description of how you will get to a destination, not just a list of places you want to go.

Voters know where they want to go on most subjects.  What they are looking for is someone to take the helm who knows how to get there in a way the voters like.   If the candidates don’t fill in that sort of detail – the values and ideas -  that will define the journey, it’s hard to know why people would sign up for a trip, let alone decide on one driver over another.