On the Hill – A Little Substance, Please

With less than a week to go before Canada’s general election, many voters are waiting for the knockout punch, a clear moment when the tide turns on a particular issue or comment, when a decisive indicator emerges out of the sludge of rhetoric.

Unfortunately, that sludge is often so impenetrable that those knockouts rely on a more visceral factor: the sound bite or photo op gone wrong.

Take, for instance, the recent leaders? debate. For two hours, the party leaders tossed out contradictions. On the economy, the NDP’s Jack Layton pressed Stephen Harper by citing the loss of ?thousands of manufacturing and forestry jobs here in Canada.? Harper countered, claiming that, overall, employment is on the rise, that ?we are creating jobs in this country, even this slow year we’re still creating jobs.?

The Green Party’s Elizabeth May and Liberal Stéphane Dion are promoting the benefits of a green tax; the Conservatives claim it would be disastrous. And when Layton pointed out Harper’s proposed 50 billion in tax cuts to corporations, the prime minister reminded him that the cuts are only one part of a total 200 billion tax cut package, much of it aimed at families and small businesses.

It’s one thing to disagree on a point of policy, another to obfuscate the facts. So, short of being a political analyst or spending hours ploughing through Hansard, how does the average voter get the straight goods on this quagmire of contradictions? They don’t. And the result, too often, is that an awkward moment caught on film or tape ends up being the deciding factor, the image that sticks in voters? minds.

There was Conservative leader Robert Stanfield’s infamous football fumble in 1974, run on the front pages of newspapers across the country; a single, unfortunate frame selected out of many flattering ones, an image some say cost Stanfield the election.

In the 2006 election campaign, much was made of a comment by Liberal aide Scott Reid. In an off-the-cuff remark about the Conservatives? plan to pay parents $100 a month for every child under six, Reid suggested it was a poor alternative to universal daycare because parents would blow the money ?on beer and popcorn.? It wasn’t the deciding factor in a Conservative win, but it rankled with many voters.

Another example comes from the US election race. Palinisms aside, the leaders have held their own in the debates, but two little words may end up costing Senator McCain more than any disagreement on policy ever could: his reference to Senator Obama as ?That one.? The condescension in those two words will echo loudly with voters in the polling booth, policy positions aside.

While impromptu moments can give us an honest glimpse into the candidates? beliefs, they’re also far too easy to use out of context. Focusing on them encourages an atmosphere of style over substance, the last thing we need as world economies tumble and environmental concerns grow more pressing. Instead, how refreshing it would be to see the candidates and media focus less on the attack ads and sound bites and offer voters what they really need: the clear, complete facts on issues, and a lot more substance over style.

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