A gloomy refrain following the recent election is that all the party leaders came out looking worse. Not much different was the 2019 election, which also produced a minority. The leaders at that time were battered as well.
Canadians have returned minorities in five of the past seven elections. The winning vote percentages in the past two have been in the low 30s. “What’s the matter with the leaders of today?” sounds the disgruntled chorus – why can’t we produce governments we’re proud of, who command majority support and the confidence of the people?
But are minority governments so bad? They provide checks and balances that majorities do not, and they often rack up a worthy number of legislative accomplishments.
And here’s another question: Are today’s leaders to blame for the low support levels and the degree of cynicism in our politics? Or are they badly disadvantaged by changed conditions – that is, a more hostile political environment that makes popularity much harder to attain?
Critical to gaining broad support is the degree to which a leader can control the message, shape the debate and persuade the people – to “fight your corner,” to borrow an expression from Downton Abbey.
In Canada today, though, government message control is probably harder than it’s ever been, given – among other developments – extensive changes to the communications infrastructure that have allowed antagonistic forces to command the playing field.
Where the mainstream media was once the only major critic and scrutineer of governments, now alternative media and big tech monopolies hold great sway.
With the advent of what should be called anti-social media providing soapboxes to anyone no matter their expertise, the number of critics, many of them malevolent, has multiplied like locusts. Leaders and their programs are pilloried, insulted and diminished like never before.
Today’s venom-spreaders don’t even have to identify themselves. They hide behind phony e-mail addresses or Twitter accounts, unleashing their bile with impunity. Traditional media outlets have contributed to the debasing of the national dialogue by lowering their standards to accommodate these cowards on their comment boards. In the past, publishing such attacks without verifying the sender would have been unheard of.
In combination with anti-social media, the vast power of tech giants has enabled the spread of misinformation and disinformation at heretofore unseen levels. And of course, by contrast to the old days of just one or two nightly newscasts, politicians are now subject to minute-by-minute scrutiny brought on by the advent of cable and the 24-hour news cycle. Air time needs to be filled. Minor controversies become outsized.
It all serves to increase division, polarization and disrespect. Case in point: Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole now faces pressure to resign after only a year in the job, even though party leaders are typically given several years to prove themselves.
The polarization decreases the chances that a leader can find favour by fashioning a national consensus on any given issue. That task has never been easy in this vast country, but it’s even harder now. In Western provinces, hard-edged conservative attitudes have become more and more embedded. There are precious few initiatives that any prime minister from central Canada can put forward that do not trigger ire there, and vice versa for Western leaders.
Despite the handwringing over our leaders winning elections with such low vote totals, this has more to do with the multiparty nature of the system than with the shortcomings of the victors. Before 1991, there was no Bloc Québécois, which now saps about 7 per cent of the federal vote despite having a provincial mandate. The NDP is pretty much guaranteed about 15 per cent of the popular vote. While the Greens lost ground, the new People’s Party grabbed an additional 5 per cent of the voting share.
All of the foregoing is not to say that our more recent national leaders haven’t deserved criticism – they do indeed.
But given the expansion of adversarial forces in the system, expectations for any leader gaining broad acclaim and respect need to be lowered. The construct is now more conducive to rancour. And that is not about to change.
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