7 News Archive
Politics of Illusion
By Ulli Diemer
Seven News, August 1984

One of the most striking but infrequently commented-on facts about elections is how few people vote. Depending on the type of election, anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of eligible voters don’t turn out. In opinion polls, “undecided” voters – ones obviously not smitten with the appeal of any of the parties of candidates – often outnumber those who express a preference for even the leading party in the polls.

Evidently there is a wide-spread alienation from elections and voting. Yet “free elections” are supposed to be a cornerstone of democracy, and in the not-so-distant past people fought and died for the right to vote.

Today a common attitude is that elections don’t matter; that it won’t make much difference to your own life or to things overall, how, or whether, you vote.

Looking at the present federal campaign, it’s easy to sympathize with that point of view. Neither Mr. Turner nor Mr. Mulroney has been able to point to any significant policy difference between the two parties they lead. Mr. Mulroney accuses Mr. Turner of stealing his ideas, while Mr. Turner charges that Mr. Mulroney is a “pretend Liberal.” Mr. Broadbent complains that the other two parties have no ideas of their own and are just appropriating NDP planks.

The main issue in the campaign, according to Mr. Turner and Mr. Mulroney, is “confidence.” Given almost identical sets of promises, who do you want to trust with the reins of government? Who seems more sincere, more statesmanlike, more the leader?

These are politics consisting almost entirely of media-created images, and actions inspired by those images.

The Conservatives dumped Mr. Clark in favour of Mr. Mulroney last year, not because of any perceived policy differences, but because Mr. Mulroney, with his prominent chin, seemed more like a “winner” – easier to sell as a media commodity. Then this year the Liberals followed suit by selecting the supposedly glamorous Mr. Turner. In doing so, they may have outsmarted themselves. Mr. Turner was chosen not because he waged the best campaign – there is no question that Mr. Chretien ran a better race – nor certainly because he had policies identifiably different from the other leadership candidates, but because he had been effectively portrayed for years as a sure “winner” – an image nurtured by carefully modulated, infrequent appearances, but never backed by any substantial pronouncements or political activity. Now the much-hyped Mr. Turner turns out to have feet of clay.

Certainly he can’t seem to match the smooth acting skills of Mr. Mulroney, who slips effortlessly back and forth between the roles of the Poor Boy from Baie Comeau, The Successful Executive Who Has the Confidence of the Business Elite, The Pious Moralist, The Earthy Ordinary Guy, The Responsible Statesman, and The Oh-So-Humble Servant of the Common People. Mr. Turner has only his nervous staccato, while Mr. Mulroney can be a gravel-voiced street scrapper in the morning and a honey-throated voice of reason in the television studio in the afternoon.

And that ability seems to be what this political game, this game of confidence, is all about. The man who can best act the role of Prime Minister is the man to whom we are supposed to give the job. If against odds Mr. Mulroney comes out the loser on election day, it will be because his performance is so smooth, so glib, so slick, as to be self-defeating. Among a fair number of voters, that does seem to be the reaction to him – that he reminds one of a used-car salesman. He insists so much that he is trustworthy that he arouses an instinctive suspicion of being conned.

In this race dominated by glamour, image and the personalities of the. leaders, the political parties and their policies fade into the background. And to be sure it is notorious that what is promised in an election campaign as likely as not will have little to do with what is actually done later. The Liberals and Conservatives take turns condemning each other’s actions while in opposition, and then implementing the same policies (for example, on wage controls, interest rates, energy policy) when they get to form the government. The NDP is more consistent – although to be fair, it doesn’t have as much opportunity to be seduced by power.

If the issue in this election is indeed confidence or credibility, then your vote will have its work cut out for it on September 4. Which party can credibly offer policies that would lead to decent and meaningful work for Canadians, or clean air and water, or security for the old, or equality for women, or more liberty for us all? If we can be confident of anything, isn’t it that things will likely get worse rather than better as long as the political and economic system stays as it is? Isn’t the real purpose of our vote to minimize the damage, to choose the lesser of evils?

That is the way I see it, at any rate, and that is why I am going to vote NDP. Not because I expect wonderful things from them – the NDP, as they have shown when they have formed provincial governments, are barely distinguishable from the old line parties. Nor do I expect them to win, but that’s all right: what is healthier than a strong opposition? To me, they seem a little more humane, a little more dedicated to the needs of ordinary Canadians.

And at least we know what to expect from them after an election. More or less what they were saying before.

See also: Why Vote?.
See also: Canada’s Distorted Electoral System.


This article was published in Seven News, Volume 15, Number 1, August 1984

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