Charisma vs. Accountability

Trudeau is polling strong, but will his charms be enough in 2015
April 10, 2013 11:25 pm Last Updated: April 10, 2013 11:25 pm

PARLIAMENT HILL—Justin Trudeau is set to claim the leadership of the Liberal party and hopes are high among the Grits that the dashing young statesman will lead them to renewed glory.

To do so, he would need to dominate the fractured political left and outmanoeuvre a strong federal NDP and a Green Party that has punched above its weight with single MP and leader Elizabeth May. And then there is Stephen Harper’s well-oiled Conservative machine.

Each party has its strengths and weaknesses, but for the Liberals much rides on Trudeau. The party has yet to go through the rebuilding process that would see it reignite grassroots support and with the Conservatives and NDP moving towards the centre, the Grits can no longer make easy claim on the middle ground of the political spectrum.

Gaining the Public Trust

But beyond the fight against other parties and a lacklustre performance within his own, Trudeau will face an ever-shrinking pool of voters, and that is partly due to the success Canada has had at uncovering corruption and opening the secret workings of government to the public eye, says one expert.

Duff Conacher, founder and board member of Democracy Watch, believes that with each successive piece of legislation that better held the government to account came scandals that eroded some of the public trust.

Transparency created through access to information laws, a strong Auditor General, a Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, a Commissioner of Lobbying, and a Parliamentary Budget Officer have all served to keep the government accountable, showing the public what their government is doing wrong.

That transparency has given some voters the impression that politics has become more unscrupulous, but that is not the case, said Conacher.

Add to that the media’s voracious appetite for scandal and wrongdoing, with relatively little coverage of what the government is doing right, and the overall impression is that government is an ugly business.

Paul Kershaw, a University of British Columbia professor and founder of Generation Squeeze, has done research that finds Canadians now trust their elected officials less than used car salesmen.

He believes that distrust is the result in part of a never-ending stream of broken promises. But it’s not all the politicians’ fault, however.

“Politicians right now are in a very difficult spot,” he said. “Canadians want something that is near impossible a lot of the time.

That includes lower taxes, more spending, and a balanced budget to boot.

Campaigning on Accountability

While the Liberals hope Trudeau’s suavity and political pedigree will be enough to get voters to the polls, Trudeau and all other parties would do well to tap the growing pool of non-voters.

Conacher thinks the way to do that is through campaigning on accountability.

Boxing victories and good looks aside, Trudeau and the Liberal party will be in for a rude awakening if another party makes cleaning up government a central plank of its platform, he said.

“If the Liberals think that it is enough just to have a new leader, they will be proven wrong if another party makes strong promises in this area,” he said.

Conacher backs up that statement with a long list of examples; provincial and federal parties that increased their seat count through campaigns emphasizing accountability in the most recent elections.

Wildrose did better in Alberta, the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec both did better in Quebec, and the Progressive Conservatives unseated the Liberals after a single term, a first in New Brunswick’s history. Jean Chretien pledged reforms in 1993, introducing some of them on his way out of office in 2003 including a ban on corporate donations to political parties.

The key to winning votes is making promises, tough promises—not iron-clad but titanium—promises to clean up politics.

That’s what the Conservatives did in 2006 when Harper pledged that the Federal Accountability Act would be his first piece of legislation and included specific measures.

Any party that has made accountability and cleaning up government a central plank in their platform in the last 20 years has seen voters shift towards them, said Conacher.

“What is amazing to me is how few opposition parties recognize this,” he said.

When Epoch Times asked Paul Dewar, the NDP’s foreign affairs critic, if there was one key issue his party could take to Canadians and win the next election on, he mentioned governance. While he emphasized the role of government in addressing issues ranging from the economy to the environment, he hinted at the underlying role of accountability.

“It’s about competent government to begin with,” said Dewar.

“We want to have open government, we want to have, obviously, accessible government. And the idea that government is working for people and not the other way around.”

In the Black

The Conservatives have staked their claim to govern on being responsible economic managers, and will tout, if all goes according to plan, their return to balanced budgets in the 2015 election.

It’s a strong core competency to campaign on, but Kershaw doubts it’ll bring non-voters to the ballot box

To do that, parties need to put something on the table for younger Canadians. He notes that major social programs, like healthcare and pensions, were introduced generations ago and primarily benefit older Canadians.

He disagrees that accountability is the key and looks at such campaigns as a subtle form of negative campaigning.

“By saying ‘I’m going to bring accountability to government’ you are saying that those who are in government are not accountable,” he said.

Trudeau might draw some non-voters among youth simply because he fits their demographic, said Kershaw, but programs like childcare or education spending would likely do more.

Conacher thinks even with better platforms to choose from, Canadians might leave their ballot uncast because they don’t believe those promises will be fulfilled.

“In order to shift the voters, you have to promise you will do politics differently,” said Conacher.

That goes for incumbents too, he said.