Every election is marked by negative campaigning, gaffes and distractions. This one is no exception. But while there are changing threats to manage — misinformation and disinformation are particularly serious concerns — the current outing is not one-dimensional. For example, though Polly — an artificial intelligence pollster run by Advanced Symbolics Inc. — has flagged this election as gloomier than 2015, seeing an uptick in negative messages, the company has also found “more than twice as many Canadians are discussing election-related issues during the start of this year’s campaign compared to 2015.” Issues matter.
Yet the election isn’t “about” a single issue. As part of its “Rebuilding the Public Square” initiative, the Ryerson Leadership Lab asked Canadians what they considered to be a “big problem.” About 52 percent of respondents cited climate change, 48 percent said the gap between rich and poor, and 32 percent said the state of the economy. The Angus Reid Institute asked uncommitted voters — typically coveted by each party — which single issue would be most important to them if they had to choose. Coming in on top, 23 percent said climate change, while 18 percent said health-care access and 15 percent mentioned tax rates.
As the election heats up, there are a few concerns that are getting a lot of attention, and they tend to match what Canadians care about. Affordability is one. Over the weekend, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer announced a universal tax cut, while New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh promised to put a cap on what Canadians pay for cellphone and Internet service. These approaches to addressing affordability are stacked against one another in an early example of the struggle to capture and address the theme.
“Pharmacare,” which is both an affordability and health-care issue, is yet another matter that has come up often and will continue to be discussed plenty ahead of the Oct. 21 vote. The Liberals, New Democrats and Greens all support the idea of a universal or “universal-ish” plan (in the case of the Liberals), though specifics vary. The Conservatives prefer to focus on gaps in existing coverage.
During the election, Canadians will no doubt be distracted by process, drawn in by the negative campaigning they swear they don’t like but consume gleefully. Policy wonks and researchers — myself included — will howl that there should be more focus on substantive exchanges on matters of public interest. But that doesn’t mean substance doesn’t play a role; at the very least, it will have a decisive impact on at least some voters.
Just as there’s no single issue that an election is about, there is no single model of the voter. Some vote on partisan identity or affiliation, while others read party platforms to decide. Some are swayed by attack ads, while others are repulsed by them. Some care about one issue above all, while others consider a range of issues to be important.
Elements of the campaign will be as varied as voters are. What the election is ultimately “about” is which direction the country will take in the years ahead. And that process of deciding who will shape Canada’s trajectory can shift moment to moment. It’s not elegant, it’s not without need for improvement, and it’s not always as substantive as we would like. But it works well enough that we ought to resist overwrought lamentations about Canada’s electoral democracy and use that time to model ourselves as the voters we wish others would be.