Fool’s Errand: Finding the Way Forward, and the Right Candidate, in the Ontario Election

This is the final installment in my take on the platforms of the major contenders for Ontario provincial leadership. You can see the first here, the second here, and the third here.

The choices are between a candidate who touts a feel-good plan unsupported by evidence and flawed by faulty calculations, an incumbent so overburdened by the baggage of the previous leader that no message is likely to get through, even if that message were not as questionable as her’s already is, and a candidate who seems to be unsure of which party she is leading into this election, but is sure she doesn’t know how to lead them to victory anyways. After a superficial analysis of the platforms of Tim Hudak, Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath, the only thing that can be concluded with any degree of confidence is that the beleaguered Ontario voter is faced with a decision akin to which kind of poison pill they’d like to die from.

I’ve never believed that refusing to vote is a valid protest of the quality of politics you have to choose from. I won’t say that you don’t have any right to complain if you don’t vote, because I think the right to complain is sacrosanct and unalienable. But, it’s in moments like this, when the choice between candidates is so poor, that a sort of paralysis sets in that makes that impulse to simply abstain from choice understandable. Since I still don’t believe that abstaining from our duties as voters is right, the only thing that we’re left with is a choice between evils, whichever we feel is the least also likely the most likely to win our vote. What is a voter to do? And, what do these candidates seem to want us to do?

Let’s begin by understanding something critical to the entire idea of elections and governments: it’s about maintaining your perception of choice when everything you face is about limiting it. Elections are marketing, plain and simple, and marketing is all about choice limitation. Each candidate will say and do whatever they can in order to make it seem like the only choice you have is to vote for them, rather than the competition. This isn’t, of itself, a bad thing. What’s bad is that the marketing, and choice limitation, drowns out the part of the discussion that’s important: the ideas.

The candidates themselves matter very little. You’re never going to have a beer with them. You’re never going to have them over for dinner with the family. You’re not likely to ever meet them. So, ultimately, who really cares if you like them or not? Does liking the candidate outweigh the quality, consistency and feasibility of the ideas they promote?

Because, the ideas are the things you are going to have to live with once that candidate is elected. If they’re good, and executed well, then your decision will feel like a good one. But, if they’re bad, or sound good but can’t be pulled off, you’ve elected an empty shirt.

Each candidate is there to create a brand narrative that will appeal to you as a voter. Brand narratives are all about what the brand represents, which can either be positively skewed or negatively skewed. For instance, a brand narrative can talk about what the brand is and believes in. Or, a brand narrative can be all about what the brand isn’t, or what the brand is against. In politics, particularly American politics, brand narratives are usually negatively skewed, leaving you to define the identity of the brand by assuming what the brand is by knowing only what the brand isn’t. It’s like saying, “We’re ABC Car Manufacturer. We’re the best, because we’re not Honda.” It doesn’t actually tell you very much, but if you really don’t like the things that the narrative is renouncing. You’ll probably feel pretty comfortable supporting the brand, even though you don’t have enough information to fill in the holes, because you know they don’t support those things you find distasteful.

At the end of the day, whatever is said in defining that brand is less relevant than the things that are done. It’s not the words of an organization (read: marketing) that define the brand, ultimately, it’s the actions. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words. If an organization, whether it be a government or a corporation, truly wants to build a strong brand, it needs to walk the walk more than it talks the talk. Doing so builds confidence in your brand narrative. Failing to do so leaves all your words and marketing empty.

How does this apply to the current election, you ask?

I don’t really pay much attention to things like leader debates and so on. Sure, they’re amusing to watch. It’s kind of the equivalent of a sweater-vest policy-wonk cock fight, which could be the epitome of geekdom if any of the candidates in the debate were actually capable of truly debating policy. They don’t really tell you much, though. They are just an attempt to score popularity points from the public by pitting one personality against another, never really answering a question, in perpetual search for the kill-zinger that will hit the news cycle for a couple days. It’s bare-knuckled marketing, which is totally without substance because it’s all about personality and likability.

And, that’s precisely why it works so well.

My greatest complaint against our system of democracy is that it entrusts responsibility for democratic action into those who are not responsible enough to exercise it properly. People are lazy. People don’t like to think. People want to be told what they should do, and what decisions they should make. People want to be marketed to, and to have their choices subjected to an illusory limitation by someone else. Because, people don’t want to be ultimately responsible for the choices they make. They want to be able to say it isn’t their fault, when their decisions lead to an absolute fountain of feces. And, when things go poorly for them because of a choice that they made, they want to be able to blame it on someone else, some fictive villain.

Dalton McGuinty, enter stage right.

This laziness is exactly why we have the federal government we currently have, and precisely what Tim Hudak is hoping will bring him to power in Ontario. Laziness makes it easy for the marketers to latch onto something that has very little real substance and importance, while distracting from something more important and critical. For the federal Conservatives, Stephen Harper made the election against Paul Martin all about ethics and scandal, even though it was a scandal that had occurred a decade before Paul Martin was in power, and was a scandal Paul Martin was never implicated in. It was guilt by association, and had absolutely nothing to do with the governance of the country at the moment, or the issues that were facing Canada at that time. But, Stephen Harper focused everything he had on government ethics and accountability, and it brought him to power because the voters were willing to listen to the palatable, concise and simple sound bites that it offered.

Change the names a little, and you’ve got the current election, don’t you?

Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath are making this election all about government ethics because of the gas plant scandal Dalton McGuinty is responsible for. Kathleen Wynne is being beseiged by questions she can’t, and shouldn’t, answer, because of the same guilt by association that sunk Paul Martin. None of that really has to do with the issues facing Ontario today, or what our roadmap should be moving forward. But, it’s palatable, concise and simple.

And, irrelevant.

Come on! Anybody who supports a politician thinking that they are paragons of accountability and ethics should be sold prime development property in the everglades. Scandal and corruption is, unfortunately, ubiquitous in politics. The myth of the honest politician is called a myth for a reason! Voting against one candidate because they have been called a liar is a vote for a liar who hasn’t been caught yet. Stepehen Harper, who rode to the rescue of Canada’s ethics over the corpse of Paul Martin, is responsible for how many scandals and questionable actions since? So, don’t vote because the person has been called a liar, because you’re being distracted from what matters.

The ideas.

Am I belabouring this notion of ideas? Yes. Absolutely. And, I’m doing so in the faint, idealistic hope that repetition can break through the wall of apathetic dullness that surrounds the capable mind of the voting public. I’ve been saying that elections are all about marketing and the creation of a brand narrative to manufacture the impression of limited choices, and I’m trying to show that the solution is to way a brave middle finger and cling to the certainty that you have a choice, and that what matters most about the brand you select is what they say they are, not what they aren’t.

This ideas are simple. People want jobs. People want a strong economy. People want security. And, people want social services that work for them.

Tim Hudak is saying he will create 1 Million Jobs in 8 years and build a stronger economy by reducing the size of government and cutting costs. It sounds good, but his million jobs are more than half accounted for simply through population growth and the status quo, and the remainder are doubtful at best. Better yet, it’s come to light that 1 million doesn’t really mean 1 million. Apparently, if you have a job for 8 years, that is the same as saying you’ve had 8 jobs, to Tim Hudak. I’m not great with math, but even I can see how ludicrous and nonsensical that sounds. Couple that with the 100,000 jobs that Tim Hudak will cut in the public sector, that he is now trying to deny he would cut, and you’ve got a plan that doesn’t make sense and almost definitely won’t work. The fallback strategy is to focus on the fact that he’s not Kathleen Wynne, and to focus on tarring her with the McGuinty brush.

Kathleen Wynne has a plan that doesn’t outline cuts, but does seem to outline a lot of spending. She’d make up for all that spending by taxing the rich, for the most part, and by raising taxes on corporations. On the surface, it’s a Robin Hood-esque strategy, but there are a lot of questions underneath it all, such as how she really plans on delivering on a balanced budget in a few years’ time. Importantly, she’s not doling out precise numbers for job creation targets and timelines. I say importantly, because precision in such matters is essentially impossible, which is something Tim Hudak doesn’t want you to think about. Wynne’s plan is overflowing with social programs and support, as well as infrastructure investment that will stimulate the economy. However, the levels of deficit reduction she would need to hit in order to balance the budget, let alone pay for all of these programs, seem improbable, and she’s saddled with the fact that Dalton McGuinty has polluted the pool for the Liberals with his own blunders. Admirably, she’s apologizing for that, even though it isn’t her crime to apologize for, and she’s staying on point with her focus on the issues instead of straying into a battle of personalities. Considering that last statement, I’m pretty convinced she’s going to fail miserably.

Andrea Horwath seems to be selling a Liberal-Light plan while parroting the accusations of the Tim Hudak Progressive Conservatives, a feat of fence-sitting that can only result in an epically sore ass. There are social programs in abundance with in the NDP plan, but a lot of ambiguity surrounding how they would be funded and delivered, as there is around her assertion that, like the Liberals, she’ll balance the budget in three years. She’s also stayed away from the misleading precision that Tim Hudak is exercising in his plan, but it’s equally likely that she’s being imprecise because she simply doesn’t know, as it is that she’s doing it out of ethical realism. Horwath is the one that started this fight, and she’s looking more and more like the kid in the playground that drifts to the edge of the sandbox to watch the chaos they’ve wrought.

Who will I vote for?

I started this series of posts with the assertion that I would try and restrain my bias, and I think I’ve mostly done that. At this point, I don’t mind letting that go. We all have to vote our conscience, and I am no different. I am, so far, siding with the Liberals. This is, in part, because it is my habit. Moreover, after looking at three flawed platforms and watching the strategies of the three candidates, I feel that the lesser evil is the one that doesn’t pretend to be precise where precision is impossible, doesn’t use obviously faulty calculations to create a plan that can’t be delivered and takes credit for someone else’s work, and knows who they are well enough to be able to apologize for mistakes that were made by others that came before them, even if it wasn’t their fault. Will Kathleen Wynne deliver on all of her promises. Not bloody likely. But, they’re not as outlandish and contradictory as the promises being made by Tim Hudak, and they’re at least as good as the promises being made by Andrea Horwath.

I also simply like the fact that Kathleen Wynne has stayed focus on what I think is important here, the ideas. Wynne’s may not all be good, but she seems to at least want to debate their merit, if she could find an opponent to meet her on that level. Unfortunately, everyone seems more interested in scandal and personality than they are in issues that actually matter to Ontarians.

You choose.

How you vote is up to you. Vote your conscience. But, please, also engage your brain. Voters have a the benefit of choice, and choice is about examining the issues and making as informed a decision as you can. Democracy would be better if people put the energy into it necessary to move beyond the marketing and superficial brand narratives, to lift that brave middle finger and refuse to have you choices limited by sound-bites and irrelevant distractions.

You’ve got one. Lift yours.

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