Why politicians have nothing to say on the campaign trail

Conventional wisdom now says elections are not only the wrong time to discuss issues, they’re the wrong time to discuss anything
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau addresses supporters during a campaign stop on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau addresses supporters during a campaign stop on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Remember when Kim Campbell said, “An election is no time to discuss serious issues”? We laughed at this howler, then promptly threw her and 153 of her Conservative colleagues out of office. But now it’s some 20 years later, and we are in the midst of an election where it’s not so much the discussions of serious issues that are missing, it’s the discussions. Period.

Consider the bizarre interview recently given by Conservative communications staffer Meagan Murdoch. The newspaper Burnaby Now had called her to find out why none of the local CPC candidates was attending debates. Or giving interviews. Or even returning calls. Murdoch’s response was to avoid any response; to try to wrap the conversation up in knots with passive-aggressive rejoinders and deflections. It worked. The reporter left with nothing, and the newspaper’s readers still don’t know why their governing party is hiding from them.

And it’s not just Conservatives in the Lower Mainland. Here in Ottawa, the party’s candidates are also avoiding the press, and the public. Reports of local all-candidates’ forums inevitably include the line, “While a name card for the Conservative candidate was on the table, they [sic] did not attend.” A couple of weeks ago, the Ottawa Citizen tried an experiment. It contacted 318 Conservative candidates across the country and requested an interview. Fewer than six per cent agreed.

From the perspective of the party’s communications team, this isn’t a shameful act of cowardice; it’s a great display of “message discipline.” The Conservatives want to run as outsiders, the embattled challengers of the status quo, which is hard to do when you’ve been in power for almost a decade. But if you pretend the media are out to get you, then suddenly, you’re the plucky underdog again.

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This behaviour isn’t limited to the Conservatives. It seems that the longer Tom Mulcair and the NDP stay competitive, the less likely he is to take questions from the press. It threatens the daily “narrative,” the carefully constructed stories and images the party wants to cautiously spoon-feed, mouthful by mouthful, to the voting public. When Mulcair takes off his suit and stands on the deck of a fishing boat with a cod in his hand, his message for Canadians is: “See? I fish. You can trust me.” If he lets a journalist ask him a question about the real cost of his platform, it distracts from the fish. This is not “message discipline.”

Ironically, Mulcair’s Liberal rival, Justin Trudeau, mocked him for not taking questions from journalists, while he himself was at an event where he was not taking questions from journalists. They’re all doing this, because the political caste considers it conventional wisdom that elections are not only the wrong time to discuss serious issues; they’re the wrong time to discuss anything.

Unfortunately, this poisonous attitude has spread into other parts of official Ottawa. David Pugliese, a defence journalist with the PostMedia chain, reported this week on a new policy in the office of Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance, the head of Canada’s military. After an endless string of negative news stories about the chronic mismanagement of the Canadian Forces (including many published in this magazine), Vance has decided to impose some message discipline with what they are clumsily calling the “weaponization of public affairs.”

What this means in practice is that Vance and his team will strategically leak positive news to journalists who are considered “friendly.” And they will systematically target members of the media who are writing critical stories. Public Affairs officers at DND told Pugliese that these “troublemakers” will be attacked by, among other things, calling the journalist’s bosses to undermine their credibility among their peers and the public.

No one in Ottawa is shocked by this revelation, sadly. For years, DND and Defence ministers have responded to bad press by attacking the messengers, not fixing the problems. But if we set aside our world weariness for a moment to consider the basic facts, this is appalling: The head of the Canadian military is “targeting” members of the public he is meant to serve, because they had the audacity to speak out about defence policy. How is this allowed in a democratic system? Why are we not demanding Vance’s resignation?

And why are we not demanding that those who want to represent us in Parliament must attend public forums and speak to journalists? And when their leaders skip debates or refuse to answer questions, where is our outrage? How have we grown so cynical that we allow our politicians act like criminals heading into court, jacket over the head and one hand blocking the camera lens?

For most Canadian citizens, there isn’t much we can do in an election. We can donate some money. We can take a lawn sign. And, on Election Day, we can cast our vote. But there is one more thing all of us can do: Demand that our politicians speak to us, directly or through the press. And if, instead, they continue to pretend that elections are not the time for discussing issues with the public, then together, we can throw them out. In fact, how can we do anything else?

UPDATE: After publishing this column, the Public Affairs branch of DND contacted me to say that Gen. Vance is asking to change how they interact with the media, but when he referred to this as the “weaponization of public affairs” what Vance actually meant was “operationalization”. I was also assured that there is no plan to strategically leak information or to target unfriendly journalists. When I pointed out both of these things have happened in the past, I was told they couldn’t comment on things that might have happened under previous Chiefs of Defence Staff but repeated that this was not their intention now.