An experiment in speed candi-dating: Nelson’s 2011 municipal election

Speed-candidating

Nelson, BC’s 2011 municipal election campaign started out as your typical campaign, with signs sprouting up on front lawns, candidate profiles being published by local media and numerous public forums planned. It all felt a little bit formulaic and uninspired, especially in the absence of any notable election issues.

To shake things up a bit and add an element of experimentation, I decided to add one more event to the campaign calendar: “Speed Candi-dating” 

While Nelson benefits from above average voter turnout, fewer than six in ten eligible voters choosing to mark a ballot in the 2008 municipal election, it was clear that more can and should be done to excite and encourage citizens to fulfill their civic duty. My hope was that this event might contribute towards that end.

Council candidate Candace Batycki first suggested this sort of event as a way to reach out to voters here in Nelson, and I leapt on the opportunity to try to make it happen (note that this is an independent and equal opportunity event for allcandidates). A spin-off of speed dating, Speed Candi-dating is a novel approach that connects citizens and candidates running for political office and  has been used throughout North America (including in Calgary’s 2010 mayoral race). Fun, fast and effective, citizens were provided an opportunity to spend 3 minutes one-on-one with candidates asking questions, raising issues, and connecting personally. The aim, of course, was to help citizens make a “municipal match” and inform their decision on election day.

The event was a big success – all candidates for mayor and council positions participated, the event was fully subscribed (there was never an empty chair) and the feedback from candidates and participants alike was positive. The novelty and personal connection was appreciated on both sides of the table, and while everybody agreed that more time might be desirable, even three minutes of one-on-one contact was more than they might otherwise experience in a typical campaign of door-knocking and public fora.

All that said, voter turnout in the 2011 declined precipitously to just 33.3 percent. Dismal. While local editorialists excused citizens who didn’t vote by suggesting that it was “hardly an inspiring campaign,” I don’t think such a low turnout should be so readily excused and the issue dismissed. In the 18 months that have passed since the election there has been no shortage of editorials, letters to the editor, and general grumbling about this issue and that issue, and I’m left wondering how many of the grumblers bothered to cast a vote.

Citizen disengagement from the electoral may be understandable, but it shouldn’t be excusable and we all have a role to play in trying to reinvigorate our electoral process and democratic institutions. Otherwise they can’t help but wither away.

Remembering Canada’s Jack of Hearts

As Canada’s newspapers, airwaves and cyberspace swell with memories of Jack Layton it’s striking the sheer number of individuals – from all walks of life – who had a very personal experience with him. And I have my own, too.

My first encounter with Jack was at a retreat for environmental organizations working on a myriad of issues that intersected with the need to conserve Canada’s boreal forest. Jack was the keynote speaker and he did what he did best, he engaged and electrified his audience. It wasn’t just a canned speech, nor was it phony or simply catering to what he thought we wanted to hear. With his tie off and shirtsleeves rolled up he spoke for over an hour without notes, speaking passionately about his own personal experience paddling the Nahanni River and the politics of environmental conservation. Following his speech he milled about with us. But he wasn’t “working the room,” he was genuinely engaging with as many of us as he could, genuinely wanting to know who we were and what we did. As the night wore on his chief of staff had to literally drag him away.

My second encounter was much less direct but no less influential in shaping my perception of Jack. It occurred on an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Toronto and Jack was sitting behind me. Apart from a courteous greeting as we boarded I wasn’t able to chat with him, but I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation he had with his seatmate over the duration of the flight. Their conversation covered a wide range of topics and it was clear that while they agreed on some issues, they disagreed on others. I was struck by the extent to which Jack sought to understand his seatmate’s perspective, the depth of his knowledge on the issues and how he thought they could be solved, and the grace with which he accepted a contrary opinion. In both encounters Jack’s approach was personal, persuasive and principled – characteristics that are all too lacking in Canadian politics and political leadership. Without doubt he was a fierce partisan and a pragmatic political strategist, but he had a grounding in personal principles that kept things in check.

There is an abundance of fitting stories paying tribute to Jack Layton, but the following is a shortlist from my daily reading list of writers and pundits:

Layton’s impact on NDP will be deep and lasting – Chantal Hébert

Layton’s predecessors recall an energetic, generous leader – Stephen Lewis, Ed Broadbent & Bob Rae (compiled by Gloria Galloway & Jane Taber)

On the passing of a politician – Aaron Wherry

Remembering Jack Layton – Keith Boag on CBC’s The National

Jack Layton eschewed attacks in pursuit of greater good – Michael Valpy

Jack Layton ennobled politics – Globe editorial

I haven’t always agreed with his policies or, at times, his political strategy. And he and the NDP haven’t always won my vote. But throughout I have always had the utmost respect for Jack as a politician, leader and human. His family has asked that in lieu of flowers Canadians might consider making a donation to the emergent Broadbent Institute. My family will be doing just that in celebration of his commitment and success in making Canada a kinder, more caring country.

Re-reading John Allemang’s profile of Jack Layton from just a few short weeks after the 41st election is both a saddening and inspiring reminder of all that Jack was and, now in past tense, all that he could have become. Perhaps NDP MP Pat Martin summed it up best: Jack Layton may just be “the best prime minister Canada never had.”

The Brigette DePape flap

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

I confess to being surprised at the amount of attention that Brigette DePape’s act of dissent has garnered in the days following the Speech from the Throne. While the initial attention was predictable (it did add some pizazz to an otherwise predictable throne speech), it is the volume of coverage from the commentariat and its predominantly vitriolic nature that caught me by surprise.

The Calgary Herald editorial board’s take on the matter was laughable in its exclamation that “DePape’s unprecedented move was disrespectful to our grand history and to Parliament itself” given their recent endorsement of a Conservative majority government led by a Prime Minister who has demonstrated more disrespect and contempt for Parliament then any other politician in Canada’s grand history.

But this isn’t to say that I don’t agree with some of the criticisms being leveled at DePape. For example, I’m sympathetic to the arguments put forward by the likes of the esteemed Ned Franks, but I think he missed the opportunity to link this incident to his own extensive observations on the decline of civility and respect for Parliament and Canada’s democratic institutions, exemplified by our so-called political leaders in recent years. Fortunately, Aaron Wherry astutely made this link in an amusing tweet:

Remember kids: If you want to grandstand, disrespect our institutions and say ridic things, you 1st need to get elected.

For all the criticism leveled at DePape, I think we owe it to ourselves to reflect upon the extent to which her behavior (or contempt, as some have described her actions) simply mirrors the decline of our politics and politicians. Rather than dismissing her outright, our political leaders would be well served by taking some time to contemplate whether her antics are a reflection of their own. As the father of a three-year old, some of my most significant lessons in parenting have come from observing my daughter mirroring my actions, and not liking what I see.

Of all the commentary on the DePape flap, I think that Jian Ghomeshi’s brilliant essay stands as the most holistic, optimistic and appropriate last word on the matter. Listen to it here.

The perils of strategic voting

As Canada’s 41st federal election campaign winds down to voting day one thing is abundantly clear: there are way more ridings in play than anybody predicted when the writ dropped. The Globe identified 50 ridings to watch, while the Conservative Party narrowed it further, targeting just 30 ridings.

Looking at the polls and the range of seat projections, it’s clear that more than 50 ridings could see incumbents lose as a result of the NDP’s “orange wave,” vote-splitting and concerted “strategic voting” efforts.

Quite unexpectedly, we now have Harper suggesting that Liberal voters should strategically vote Conservative to stop the NDP:

“It’s coming down the tube, it’s going to be a Conservative government or it’s going to be an NDP government…A vote for the Liberals is a vote for an NDP government.”

- Stephen Harper

Meanwhile, Ignatieff continues to argue that a vote for the Bloc or the NDP is a vote for a Conservative minority:

“The question is who can actually get rid of the Stephen Harper regime,and we’re saying, if you vote for Mr. Layton, you’re going to get a Harper minority government. If you vote for Mr. Duceppe, you’re going to get a Harper minority government.”

- Michael Ignatieff

Jack Layton, on the other hand, has “scoffed” at the notion of strategic voting.

So what to make of these calls for strategic voting (or not)?

Strategic voting has been defined as:

“a vote for a party (candidate) that is not the preferred one, motivated by the intention to affect the outcome of the election.”

According to political scientist Bruce Hicks, about three percent of Canadians vote strategically, with that number rising as high to as 12 percent in elections when voters are united in opposing a specific party.

In the 2008 federal election, Newfoundland & Labrador Premier Danny Williams ran an effective, top-down “Anything But Conservative” (ABC) campaign against Harper that shut the Conservatives out of the province. The election also featured numerous online, citizen-driven strategic voting campaigns whose impact was hard to discern.

In the 2011 election there is no top-down strategic voting campaign, but since 2008 there has been a proliferation of bottom-up efforts.

A quick scan finds a number of active campaigns: Project Democracy, Catch 22, Vote Pair, and Stop the Split.

In the past I have been a supporter of strategic voting due to the significant shortcomings of our first-past-the-post electoral system. Frankly, it also feels like a legitimate way to fight back against the trend towards micro-targeting campaigns that have replaced anything resembling a national campaign (It’s also worth noting that this micro-targeting has contributed significantly to the devolution of party platforms, which no longer articulate a national vision but now tend to offer a smorgasbord of regionally and demographically targeted promises).

But there are numerous compelling arguments against strategic voting, such as those eloquently put forward by Alice Funke (of www.punditsguide.ca), UBC political science professor Michael Byers, and Vancouver-based poll analyst Brian Breguet. Both philosophically and analytically these are robust and principled arguments that I think anybody considering strategic voting should read and reflect upon.

As a bit of an experiment I decided to choose a riding and then check in with the different strategic voting websites to see what they suggested. I chose the riding of Esquimault-Juan de Fuca on Vancouver Island, the riding held by retiring MP Keith Martin (Liberal). It seemed like an interesting riding for a number of reasons:

  • Since 1988 it has been held by the NDP, Reform/Canadian Alliance and the Liberals.
  • Keith Martin crossed the floor from the Canadian Alliance to the Liberals and then managed to hold onto the seat – barely – in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections, with his popular support declining somewhat in each election.
  • It has been identified as a target riding by the Conservatives, and a riding to watch by the Globe, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, and the various strategic voting campaigns.
  • The Globe has noted that the outcome in 2011 is “too close to call” while Brian Breguet of Tooclosetocall.ca projects the riding will go Conservative.

So I checked in with the various campaigns to see what they suggest is the “strategic vote” to cast in 2011, with interesting results:

The polls continue to bounce around (both party support and leader support), the art and science of strategic voting remains imperfect, and depending on the province anywhere from four to 17 percent of the electorate remains “undecided.” These facts, coupled with my little experiment, make me relatively uncomfortable with the prospect of a successful strategic vote.

The CBC’s Alison Crawford wrote a nice little piece on strategic voting that summed things up nicely:

“[a]…former Green supporter favours a Liberal government but if that doesn’t work out, would like an NDP opposition. And that readers, encapsulates why strategic voting, with its very personal and unique set of goals is kind of like herding cats.”

So what’s a voter to do?

Obviously it’s up to each Canadian voter to make up their mind about whether and how to vote. For me, it’s a given that Canadians should vote – it is our civic responsibility (although I look forward to reading this book to challenge my belief).

As for how to vote, I’ll be voting for the candidate and party that I believe reflects the Canadian I want to be, and the Canada I want to see in the world.

Whatever you do, make sure you vote.

Voter Suppression vs. Vote Mobs

Twitter has been all a-flutter about “voter suppression” in light of the rather bizarre incident in which the Conservative Party reportedly intervened in a special ballot at the University of Guelph – both physically and legally – claiming that the polling station was illegal and that there were various contraventions of the Elections Act.

What makes the story particularly interesting is the fact that it occurred at a university where students (a demographic known for its less than stellar electoral participation) were lining up for hours to vote in the midst of final exams. Of course, the University of Guelph was also the scene of a rather inspired vote mob.

And it’s worth bearing in mind just how different things would be in Canada if the composition of our Parliament was determined by our youth, and in particular the implications for the Conservative Party’s fortunes.

But is this really an example of an attempt at voter suppression?

In short, voter suppression relies upon a range of tactics, some of which explicitly discourage voters from voting while others implicitly encourage apathy or cause confusion amongst would-be voters.  As I’ve previously written, Canadians are increasingly disengaging from politics as a result of equal parts mistrust and disgust. A strategy of voter suppression is, in effect, deliberately attempting to achieve these ends for partisan political gain and is waged by those political parties who are confident in the commitment of their base.

In a recent column the Globe’s John Ibbitson questioned whether voter suppression had, in fact, arrived in Canada. He made note of the virtual carpet-bombing of Conservative attack ads, and wondered whether there’s an ulterior motive behind their coalition bogeyman, but ultimately concluded (perhaps prematurely) that:

“This may be a conspiracy too far. In all likelihood, no party is engaged in an overt campaign to depress voter turnout. But both the Liberals and the Conservatives may be hoping that, if they can mobilize their vote while discouraging voters who incline to their opponent, that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Call it passive voter suppression–a very Canadian way to play a nasty game.”

In discussing the concept of voter suppression and Ibbitson’s conclusion, a particularly sage friend noted:

“…he’s missing the point: it’s not an overt conspiracy, with an omniscient mastermind… There really never is. Yet there’s this very insidious way in which “enlightened” self-interest legitimizes itself.”

Perhaps Conservative Party campaign chair Guy Giorno will pull a “Tom Flanagan” one day and we’ll all know whether or to what extent voter suppression was a deliberate campaign strategy, but until then we’re left to sift through what evidence we have.

The Conservatives certainly don’t have an overt strategy of voter suppression, but they are at minimum complicit in exacerbating voter cynicism and disengagement – and they are no doubt aware of it. It isn’t hard to quickly recall a shortlist of actions by the Conservative Party that are undoubtedly turning voters off:

It’s fair to say that throughout all of the above Harper and the Conservative party were quite comfortable in their disregard for the implications this political behaviour would have on voter cynicism (as further evidenced by their tepid support for any fundamental democratic reforms that might reverse current trends).

Then there are the explicit dirty tricks, which haven’t been attributed to the Conservatives but certainly help their electoral efforts, like the phantom robo-dialer encouraging NDP voters to get out and vote for a Saanich-Gulf Islands candidate who was no longer on the ballot in the 2008 election, or the call campaign targeting Liberal Joe Volpe in 2007 and again in 2011.

So has voter suppression arrived in Canada? Maybe not in a cohesive, conspiratorial way with an omniscient mastermind, but the ugly tactics that underpin this strategy are here. And if recent voter turnout is any indication their cumulative impact is being felt already.

Fortunately, some Canadians – most notably our youth – are fighting back. It’s voter suppression versus vote mobs. Game on.

Is debating the debates just a distraction?

There is a healthy amount of debate going on about the federal election leaders’ debates, and not just about whether Elizabeth May and the Green Party should be included (Yes, this is about the 2011 election debates, not an outdated post from the 2008 election. Groundhog Day indeed.). The Broadcast Consortium’s decisions to exclude Elizabeth May from the debate and rule out a one-on-one duel between Harper and Ignatieff have sparked a much broader and very productive debate that spans whether to have leaders’ debates, the format and number of debates, elements for an entertaining debate, and who should call the shots on the debates.

But is all this debate about debates just a distraction from the election campaign itself? Case in point, I’m writing about the debate about debates instead of parsing the parties’ policy proposals or delving into other topics that might prove more salient at the ballot box.

I can’t help but think that this debate should have occurred, and more importantly led to some formal resolution of the issues at play, well before the writ dropped for Canada’s 41st federal election. After all, we went through this in 2008, right? The lack of progress is not the result of inadequate effort on the part of individuals like Taylor Owen and Rudyard Griffiths, who used the April 2010 UK election as a platform to once again profile the shortcomings in Canadian leaders’ debates (see here and here).

 

So here we are, a majority of Canadians think May should be in the leaders’ debate. And today she’s off to Federal Court to try to force her way into the debate. It remains to be seen, regardless of the legal verdict, whether the Broadcast Consortium (whose name, I might add, conjurs memories of The Sopranos) will flip-flop and let her participate.

If May gets in, and this remains a big if, some unsolicited advice: extract a commitment from the other party leaders to abandon the self-serving, secretive, approach to negotiating the leaders’ debate with the Broadcast Consortium, and replace it with a consistent, standardized, and transparent approach that serves the interests of Canadian voters.

UPDATE #1: A federal court judge has decided not to expedite Elizabeth May’s case before next Tuesday’s leaders’ debate, effectively closing off the legal avenue to force her inclusion. While she may hold out some hope that a populist surge will compel the Broadcast Consortium to change course, it seems rather improbable. In which case the debate on debates is likely to wind down over the next few days.

UPDATE #2: Now, May has urged the other leaders to boycott the debates. Ever the realist, she concedes that “The more likely route to a democratic debate lies in public outrage and the overwhelming levels of public support for me being in the debates.” I now have the distinct feeling this won’t be the last update to this post.


On coalitions and enlightened vs. self-serving flip-flopping

What got me thinking about this topic is the vehemence with which Stephen Harper is denouncing the prospect of a coalition government in Canada (ad nauseum), despite his own history toying with the concept. What’s at the root of his flip-flop?

Accusations of political “flip-flopping” have become commonplace in Canadian elections. Wikipedia defines the political flip-flop as:

“…a sudden real or apparent change of policy or opinion by a public official, sometimes while trying to claim that both positions are consistent with each other. Often it will occur during the period prior to or following an election in order to maximize the candidate’s popularity.”

Accusing your opponent of flip-flopping is an easy sound bite and an effective way to implicitly suggest that the positions they take are pragmatically self-serving. All too often we accept the accusation, and its implication, by failing to really contemplate whether there may be a legitimate and substantive reason why a politician has changed his/her mind.

Does it really make sense to hold somebody to a position no matter how circumstances have changed? Of course not.

As Jim Geraghty, an American conservative activist and pundit, wrote in 2008:

“I actually think that a candidate can even change his position in response to a changing political environment, as long as they’re honest about it. “The votes just aren’t there, public support isn’t there, so I have to put this proposal on the back burner for a while,” is a perfectly legitimate response to a difficult position.”

Seems defensible enough to me so long as clear and deliberate acknowledgment of a changed position is provided. Even more acceptable, and in fact laudable, is the politician who changes his/her mind as a result of greater knowledge and understanding of an issue.

For the purpose of trying to assess whether Harper’s current take on coalitions, which I would argue has certainly evolved, is enlightened or simply self-serving, let’s take a wander down memory lane.

Way back  in 1997 Harper noted in a TVO interview that:

“…I think you’re going to face, someday, a minority parliament, with the Liberals maybe having the largest number of seats, and what will be the test is whether there’s then any party in opposition that’s able to form a coalition or working alliance with the others. And I think we have a political system that’s going to continue to have three or four different parties, or five different parties, and so I think parties that want to form government are going to eventually have to learn to work together.” (h/t to Aaron Wherry for digging this up)

In September 2004, Stephen Harper, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton wrote a letter to the Governor General which stated:

“We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority.”

At the associated press conference all three leaders downplayed the prospect of forming government (you can listen to the audio here), without explaining what alternative options the GG might consider.

By 2008, facing the prospect of a Liberal-NDP coalition (supported by the Bloc), Harper’s perspective shifted significantly as he painted the option of a coalition as illegitimate and even undemocratic.

Aaron Wherry, of Maclean’s magazine, sums this history up succinctly:

“In 1997, as a private citizen, Mr. Harper predicted such a scenario. In 2004, as leader of the opposition, he dismissed it as hypothetical. Now, with Mr. Harper as prime minister, it is apparently undemocratic.

All of which brings us to Harper’s ongoing efforts today to exploit the prospect of a Liberal-led coalition as undemocratic while simultaneously trying to distance himself from his own exploits in 2004. Faced with the prospect of either accepting his own apparent hypocrisy or making the case for why he has changed his views on the legitimacy of coalitions, Harper attempted to sidestep the issue, stating:

“As opposition leader, I was seeking to put pressure on the government to influence its agenda without bringing it down — without defeating it and replacing it.”

But soon after he made these comments a story broke in the National Post quoting former Harper chief of staff Tom Flanagan:

“I can’t see what other point there would have been in writing the letter except to remind everybody that it was possible to change the government in that set of circumstances without an election.”

UNB Prof. Don Desserud, an expert on Canada’s parliamentary system, suggested to John Geddes at Maclean’s that Harper “an odd (!) understanding of the GG’s role and what would have happened,” leading Geddes to conclude:

“That leaves two possibilities. Either Harper was poorly advised in 2004 on his real tactical options, or he did envision, as Layton and Duceppe claim, the possibility of forming a government with their support without an intervening election.”

All of which brings me back to the question at hand, what’s at the root of Harper’s apparent flip-flop? Is it enlightenment or simply self-serving?

The prominence of coalition governments elsewhere in the world (many of whom are allies whose leaders would not take kindly to being called undemocratic or illegitimate), and the views of constitutional and Parliamentary experts that a Canadian coalition government would be perfectly legitimate,” suggest that an enlightened view on the matter runs contrary to that held by Stephen Harper. His only refuge, going back to American conservative activist Jim Geraghty’s take on flip-flopping, might be the lack of public support. After all, a QMI poll found 53% of Canadians disapprove of an opposition-led coalition. But given such a slim majority, far from a landslide, presenting this as sufficient political rationale is skating on thin ice.

As things stand today, and they might change tomorrow, I find it hard not to conclude that Stephen Harper’s exploitation of the coalition issue (in 2008 and today) is little more than a politically convenient, self-serving example of a political flip-flop. I can’t help but agree with Tuesday’s Globe & Mail editorial, which questions Stephen Harper’s curious attack on majority rulebefore moving beyond the question of coalitions to conclude:

“Mr. Harper said many times as Prime Minister that the number-one issue is the economy. Why not, then, focus the election on the economy? Let’s confront the real issues facing the country.”

To the credit of the Conservative campaign strategists, this coalition craze effectively changed the channel from the matter of Parliamentary contempt – although I can’t imagine the coalition issue played out exactly as they had hoped. Looking ahead, it’s questionable whether either Mr. Harper or Mr. Ignatieff can get a clear win on the coalition issue, muddled and tiresome as it has become. Hopefully they’ll realize this and begin engaging Canadian voters on more substantive and tangible issues, of which there is no shortage.

 

As trust goes, so goes voter turnout.

Aristotle wrote the book on politics, literally, so as Canadians are thrust into the political process of choosing our government, perhaps it is appropriate to reflect upon an Aristotelian quote:

“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.”

It is the latter part of this quote that strikes me as relevant given the trend in voter turnout in Canada’s federal elections. Far from sharing in government to the utmost, a growing number of Canadians are opting out of the political process altogether. As John Ibbitson observed in Saturday’s Globe & Mail:

“Canadians seem more distanced from their federal government than at any time in living memory.”

The numbers are stark: in 1963 79.2 percent of Canadians cast a ballot, by 2008 turnout had dropped to its lowest ever, 58.8 percent. In my opinion, this trend reflects a diminished, and diminishing, state of Canadian democracy.

In his column Ibbitson presents, in some detail, “The five reasons Ottawa is turning you off,” in short;

1. Ottawa’s irrelevant
2. Ottawa is old, white and male
3. Parliament ignores the big cities
4. Nothing gets done
5. Hyperpartisanship turns people off

At a high level, I think the reasons are reasonably accurate, if not predictable. His solution? Vote. A nice sentiment, but what would it actually take to make this happen?  And what are the odds of this happening?

From my perspective the chances of an about face on the part of the Candian electorate are low. I tend to agree with Andrew Coyne, national editor at Maclean’s and a regular on CBC’s At Issue panel, who has emphatically (some might say morbidly) summed things up:

“Politics in this country – federal politics, at least – is in a kind of death spiral, whose terminus is not dictatorship but irrelevance. It exudes a sense of anomie, a corrosive cynicism that is not just indifferent to principle but hostile to it.”

Coyne’s response to this predicament is the formation of a new party, a “coalition of the serious.” A party that would be “…sufficiently free from interest-group obligations (those will come), as to be able to say what everybody knows to be true, to put on the table the policy choices the legacy parties would prefer to ignore, and force them to respond.”

Alas, that was almost three weeks ago when Coyne remained squarely in the Election 2012 camp and, even then, acknowledged that such a fresh start would likely have to wait until after the next election.

Fortunately, Coyne hasn’t simply buggered off to Britain to observe the machinations of a somewhat more functional Parliament (a coalition government, to boot), but has continued to provide clear-eyed prescriptions for what ails. Last Friday, he tackled the question of what a productive election might be about, immediately dismissing the prospect that it could be fought over the Conservative’s failed “…thin pamphlet of a budget.” Instead, he posits that the election should be about restoring our democracy, and rattles off a package of initiatives, from empowering MPs to cleaning up nomination races, that would get the ball rolling towards that goal.

But he ends with a caveat that brings us back to square one:

“And before we do any of that, let’s find some way to persuade the voters that the party that promises these things will actually do any of them.”

And this is, I think, the fundamental problem. Canadians have grown accustomed to being lied to by our political leaders. More troubling still is that their ability to lie is seen, at least by some, as a political asset. On Friday, after Ignatieff danced around but couldn’t shake Terry Milewski’s “coalition monkey off his back (recall this was prior to Saturday morning’s clarification), CP’s Joan Bryden filed a story on the subject of coalitions that ended with a real kicker:

“Unlike more seasoned politicians, MacIvor [University of Windsor political scientist Heather MacIvor] said Ignatieff has not mastered the art of saying something convincingly that he knows is not true.”

There it is. A politician isn’t “seasoned” until (s)he can lie with a straight face. Little wonder Canadians are tuning out from our democratic processes.

While decreasing voter turnout and the erosion of our democracy is oft-discussed amongst the politerati, Canadians remain largely unaware or uncaring. We have seen glimmers of hope, like the protests in response to Prime Minister Harper’s 2009 prorogation of Parliament, but these glimmers have yet to come together into a beam of sunshine (sunshine being the best disinfectant).

It’s just past midnight now, so we’re already into Day 2 of Election 2011. No sign yet that things will change, but these are early days. Fingers crossed.