With all the elections going on around us, it is political junkie nirvana. But instead of good solid journalism, unfortunately we are getting a steady diet of pundits, prognosticators, and pollsters.
It is too easy to sit down and forecast who will win or recommend who should win. The coverage borders on a horse-race mentality of poll results or watching for gaffes. Gazing into a crystal ball to predict the outcome is a waste of time for the readers or viewers.
Let’s take the current municipal elections in Northumberland. There are some phenomenal dynamics at work across the county. With the amalgamations, numerous experienced politicians are facing off. In Campbellford, Cathy Redden is going up against George McCleary. Both are dedicated, hardworking people with loads of knowledge to offer voters. Brighton is no different with a bitter battle between Bill Pettingill and Lou Rinaldi for mayor. Howard Sheppard begged off a direct battle with Bill Findley in Alnwick/Haldimand. Port Hope is wide open since Hope Township Reeve Ian Angus and Port Hope Mayor Ron Smith both decided to pack it in. Cobourg’s mayoralty race has two longtime politicos going head to head with Peter Delanty and Joan Chalovich. Both have strong political machines with some pretty formidable backroom campaign workers hammering away.
But with all of that said, so what? When it comes time to mark the ballot, who should voters pick?
It is tough to get an idea who to vote for. Watching the debates of the past few weeks is discouraging. It is hard to walk away with a solid knowledge of the candidates. The various groups who sponsor the debates are well intentioned and are not to blame. The candidates also mean well.
The format is weak. Speeches are short. Answers to questions are shorter. When there is a long line-up of candidates, it seems to take forever to get an answer to one general question. Certainly having questions from the floor is good. It gives us the impression the democratic process is at work. But, in fact, questions are often vague or poorly crafted and there is no chance to follow up for clarification. When questions are gathered, they become diluted or rewritten, giving the candidates oversimplified general questions. What we get is mush for answers most of the time.
Take the recent chamber of commerce debates in Port Hope and Cobourg for example. These are a great service to the community and are well organized and well run. But some of the answers were pathetic. When asked about economic development, some candidates started off with “This is a very important issue” and moved on to “we have to bring more industry (jobs) to our area” or “We need to market our area” or “We need to help the downtown”. Well, no kidding. You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. And it is what everyone else has been doing in the past. Without details these generalizations are meaningless and insulting.
All this is to say, what we need from candidates are blueprints for their term in office. Specifics are good. And, as voters, you need to be asking for details. Think back to the debates and ask yourself who gave concrete answers about what they would do. Who spent their time giving their resume or past record and not a vision? Who repeated answers or agreed with everyone else when a question was asked or did they give a distinct reply.
When these candidates come to your door, stop and take a few moments to question them. Don’t let their frenzied door knocking stop you.
Candidates should be fully informed about issues. If not, why run for office. All the information they need is public and accessible.
Make them give you an action plan about what they intend to do about radioactive waste. It is insulting for a candidate to say he has a four-inch thick report that is waiting to be read. Nor should anyone be waiting for further studies. It has been studied to death. What are candidates going to do?
It is easy to stand on a stage and agree with Wal-Mart coming to town. Nobody on stage (except for the incumbents) was speaking out at the public meetings in Victoria Hall. And it shouldn’t have taken a election campaign to knock on doors to discover a majority residents wanted big box stores. Remember that the decision was defended by supporters on council saying Wal-Mart followed the planning process. Nobody mentioned overwhelming public support before this. And to demonize opponents (minority or not) is divisive, not inclusive.
Instead of catchy one-liners in advertisements, challenge candidates to print detailed policy statements or action plans. American Democratic candidate Al Gore produced a massive plan with all kinds of specifics. It can be done. Ask the candidates to make some promises and keep them. Look at Premier Mike Harris. Most candidates that are serious about wanting to serve us will do this.
Voters often feel disconnected in elections. But the truth is, the community has all the power. It is too easy to not make promises or fudge answers or make generalized statements. We just need to assert ourselves.
The late Fred Friendly, a respected American television journalist, said the job of a reporter is to ask questions that make politicians think. It is also a good idea for voters.
First published: Nov. 8, 2000