In the past week, I’ve seen Liberal leader Justin Trudeau in blackface and in a canoe. I’ve seen NDP leader Jagmeet Singh drive a tractor and wear a hard hat. I watched Conservative leader Andrew Scheer pick apples.
Elections today often see party leaders engaging in all manner of lame stunts to get attention – and, most important, to appeal to a certain demographic.
When Trudeau paddled aimlessly around a bay on Lake Laurentian on Sept. 26 — as local and national reporters waited for him to finish, struggling to keep their eye-rolling in check — it was just another in a long line of press conference stunts from Canadian politicians.
Frankly, paddlin’ Trudeau called to mind former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day’s arrival at a press conference in 2000, zooming across Lake Okanagan on a Sea Doo in a tight-fitting wet suit. He was widely panned for it.
Trudeau, probably unjustifiably, got more of a gentle ribbing.
Either way, the press conference stunt is a tried and true political tactic. And frankly, I’m sick of it.
I’m tired of politicians playing dress up as a way of getting attention. I don’t want to see politicians in 10-gallon Stetsons and cowboy boots. I don’t want to see politicians pretending to stock shelves or plow rows or pick vegetables.
Politics today is a game of inches. Parties know they win elections on slim percentages — a percentage of this demographic here, a percentage of that sector there — and it all adds up, they hope, to victory at the polls.
In 2019, policies themselves are too often political in nature – rather than sincere platforms, they are craven attempts to buy votes by reading the demographic data, and turning them to a candidate’s advantage.
Former Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s campaigns were famous for this. Promise something for everyone, don’t worry about the cost, and figure out the rest later.
Years ago, I read former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s book “The Assault on Reason.” Gore talks about campaigning and how, as his political career unfolded, campaigns became less about ideas and more about data — if I espouse this belief, I can pull this many voters from this demographic; if I criticize this notion, I can steal this many voters from my opponents.
Campaigns and governing have become about hedging, about voting blocks, demographics, positioning statements, messaging. Press conference stunts are part and parcel of this system, and hokey as they are, they won’t go away.
Look at Trudeau’s recent visit to Sudbury. He spent 15 or 20 minutes aimlessly paddling a canoe so the media could get those all-important footage and photos, and then spent another 20 minutes answering questions by not answering questions, sticking to the talking points.
I’m not singling out Trudeau. He’s no better and no worse than anyone else. He’s just the latest example that springs to mind.
In a perfect world, it would be par for the course that a politician for a major political party presents a concrete set of ideas and stands by them. It would be common for a politician to answer questions without sticking to talking points, positioning statements and messaging.
This isn’t an endorsement of either, but in this election, only Green Leader Elizabeth May and People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier are doing that, perhaps because neither have much chance of winning. Perhaps that fact is the source of their candour. Either way, I find that candour refreshing.
Since we’re not going to see an end to the political campaign Tickle Trunk of costumed politicians trying to be all things to all people, I encourage you to enjoy campaign press conferences for what they are: distractions, sometimes amusing, sometimes infuriating, sometimes embarrassing.
But if you want help deciding where to cast your ballot, go to the source: read the platforms of the parties and see what it is they plan to do exactly. And meet your local candidate, read what they have to say and decide if you think that person has the chops to fight for you and for your riding.
In the end, that’s all that really counts.
Mark Gentili is the editor of Sudbury.com and Northern Life.