Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My short, but educational political adventure

This is another post that gives away my age.  When I was 20 and not eligible to vote I was swept up with Trudeaumania.  He had just been declared party leader and called a national election for the summer of 1968.  I was in university and my room mate amongst others was very excited.

Looking back after many years I would reassess one factor. Trudeau was noted as always having a quick answer.  Robert Stanfield, the Conservative candidate was noted for not having the quick answer, but would take some time before responding.  I now think a quick response is a poor way to evaluate anyone.  However I still thought Trudeau was the deeper thinker.

I was between semesters without a job and got my parents to accept that I would look for a job in Oshawa (we lived in Haliburton about a two hour drive away) and live with my Grandmother Coakwell.  Really I just wanted to be with my friends.  I volunteered for the local Liberal association and at first they had me stuffing envelopes.  Then they paired me up with another fellow and we put up lawn signs.

There were three main candidates.  Michael Starr was the incumbent Conservative who had been the first Ukrainian cabinet minister and was well regarded.  Our Liberal candidate was Des Newman who was the mayor of Whitby and president of the Canadian Mayor Association.  The third candidate was Ed Broadbent for the NDP who had a lot of union support.

After a week or so of this my father decided if I didn't have a paying job I should come home.  I explained this to the organizers and shortly they offered to pay me.  Well this was welcome news; making some money and enjoying myself.  I put in several hours each day helping with signs and at night often attended rallies.

My work partner was about two or three years older than me and we had a lot of interesting conversations.  One project he came up with was to use campaign signs on a hillside between Oshawa and Whitby that drew a lot of traffic.  We spelled out TRUDEAU in big letters.  Apparently it made television news.  My partner then realized that voters in our riding were not going to vote for Trudeau so we re-configured the signs to spell out NEWMAN.

I often talked about the election to my Grandmother as well as her sister, my Aunt Flo.  They had probably voted Conservative all their lives and greatly admired Michael Starr.  At one point she said she had never heard of Desmond Newman.  I had been reading a newspaper from Edmonton and had noticed one of their campaign ads that said  "You should know this man."  That hit a nerve.  Whitby was only a small fraction of the Oshawa population, so naturally people in Oshawa felt little awareness or loyalty to the Whitby mayor.  I went to the campaign manager, Ted Curl who used to host a tv show I had watched aimed at teenagers.  He dismissed my idea at first, but later came to use the idea which probably helped close the gap in awareness.

I thought as an intelligent university student I could reason with voters, but there was a limit to that.  This was the beginning of my disillusionment with voters.  Very seldom could one engage in serious discussion of the issues.  Some women thought Ed Broadbent was handsome, others voted along ethnic lines with Michael Starr getting the Ukrainian vote, and some elderly women at a picnic said they were disgusted that Trudeau had invited a young women to swim with him in a hotel pool.  At another time the local Liberals decided to hold a three riding rally at the Oshawa Shopping Centre with Trudeau making a campaign speech.  This was so popular that it created traffic problems which was given as another reason for rejecting Trudeau.

My work partner was experienced with campaigns and explained to me the effects of signs.  In one sense it was just like the soap ad effect.  When people see a lot of signs they want to hop on the bandwagon of the winner and their thinking is swayed.  On the actual voting day it is beneficial for voters to see the signs as they work their way to the ballot box.  We not only put signs up by request, but looked for public spots to boost our candidate's awareness.  Many people feel obligated to vote, but don't have the time or interest to study the issues.

The local paper had a column where readers could send in questions for the candidates who would all answer the same question.  The answers almost always fell along party lines and were careful not to offend anyone.  On one occasion our campaign manager got upset at the amount of time Des Newman took to answer a question of an elderly lady who complained she didn't have enough income to live on.  Des did a lot of research and found that there were several programs in existence to help extend her income.  The problem was that the research time cut into the hand shaking time that wins a few votes each run through.

We don't really have endless election campaigns in Canada and election day arrived.  I was not eligible to vote and asked what I could do to help.  I was told about scrutineering, for the first time.  I asked to be taken to a place where the Liberals were out numbered and they found one in what might be described as a union neighborhood.  The rules have changed, but as I recall we were able to see the names checked off for those who voted.  The vote is anonymous which afterwards I reflected on--you really couldn't tell who voted for who, except when a driver obviously affiliated with a particular party brought in some voters.  At least you thought you knew the connection. Tallying up the votes was a lengthy process, with several minor problems resolved with a consensus of opinions involving the polling staff and all of us scrutineers.

It was a momentous election.  Pierre Trudeau won a majority government with breakthroughs all over the country.  I was disappointed that Des Newman who I had come to admire personally finished third.  I didn't appreciate  the significance for several years.  Ed Broadbent became the first NDP candidate to win the riding, but beat Michael Starr by only 15 votes (there was a recount).  My impact was not all that great, but I did get both my grandmother and aunt to switch their vote away from the Conservatives to the Liberals.  I would like to think all the sign work, my ad idea and the few serious discussions I had helped make the difference between the top two candidates.  Ed Broadbent went on to become the head of the Canadian federal NDP party and had a lot of illustrious accomplishments many of which I admired.  Des Newman finished about 310 votes further behind making this the closest 3 way race in Canada.  He made a gracious speech.

I attended the party afterwards and it was a downer.  I didn't feel as bad as some; after all Trudeau did get in and I didn't live in this riding. The next day I helped take down the signs.

Back at university I received a letter inviting me to join the youth wing of the Liberals and to some event.  My decision was not to get involved in a political party.  Although I was pleased the Liberals were in power I did not want to tie myself to a long list of policies that I wouldn't necessarily agree with.  My thinking was shaped by my sociology and philosophy professors at the University of Guelph and I don't regret that at all.

That was over 45 years ago and I look back at it as an educational experience.  I have retained an interest in politics, but have tried to separate myself from the mechanical aspects of getting elected to actual government policies.  Politics is a dirty business--getting elected and re-elected.

I now live in a riding that includes Hamilton downtown.  From my municipal ward we have sent the current head of the Ontario NDP party, Andrea Horvath to Queen's Park and the current mayor of Hamilton, Bob Bratina.  My daughter, Heather years ago persuaded us to support one councilor candidate with a lawn sign and we quite willingly voted for her.  On another municipal election we supported the winning mayoral candidate with another sign.  Since then we have decided not to display political signs.

I have volunteered as a poll clerk for a few elections.  The money was significant and I can appreciate the job is important for our country.  I was very impressed at how the Ontario government was trying to make it easier to vote.  They advised us volunteers how to deal with language problems, physical handicaps and even mental/emotional handicaps.  Quite a contrast to the attempts of Republican governments to restrict voting.  When voting is restricted it diminishes the credibility of the government.

Lately my preference is for the Green Party after some discussions with my son Michael.  One of their problems is that under our current system they don't have much opportunity to make an impact.  I remember at one time the NDP was considered the conscience of our Parliament and from that platform accomplished lots of good things including our current health care system.  The federal Liberals had a system where each party would get $2.50 per vote after an election.  It wasn't much, but it gave the less powerful (really all) parties some independence.  The Conservatives took that away which is one of their many decisions I deplore.

My biggest concern is over the election process.  The biggest underlying problem is the uneducated voter.  None of us can understand the complexities of issues that affect our lives and so we end up trusting a big part of our lives to people we really don't know.  The education starts in school and should be strictly factual as far as how our government works.  Logic is often abused in campaigns so needs to be understood better.  Science and history are also important.  Beyond school I think the media has a responsibility which has been subverted.   The press (all media) needs to be free, but it also needs to be factual or at least transparent.

Another part of my concern is the first past the post system.  I attended one general meeting when Ontario was considering offering a proportional system to be voted upon.  One fellow got up and said that we only wanted to change the system because "our guy" didn't get in.  For myself he is at least partly right, but more than that the whole process is tainted.  Many people wrestle with their vote and end up voting for their second choice, because they fear a third party might win.  Others are so discouraged by their prospects they don't bother.  And of course many don't bother to study the issues.

Proportional voting has a few variations, but the basic idea is that every vote counts.  Under the present system there are only a very few votes that actually count--the one that puts one candidate into the leader spot.  The others might have psychological impact.  If you voted for the winner and they won by more than one vote, your vote wasn't needed.  If you voted for the loser, well you lost.  It is a  complicated issue, but basically everyone should realize their vote does make a difference and take the time to study the issues.  When the voter has real power the politicians will listen more carefully.  Dalton McGuinty mocked the results of the proportional option, during one election while he personally got something less than 40% of actual votes (and even less of eligible voters).  It only shows how ignorance can be manipulated.

Over the years I have voted for at least three different parties at the provincial and federal elections and have admired politicians from different parties.  I follow American and international politics with great interest.  I accept that nobody gets into power without a lot of effort and not all that effort is completely ideal. 

No comments:

Post a Comment