Running For Public Office
Rem C Westland (email@example.com)
PART 1: OVERVIEW
This overview and the diary that follows will be of interest to a great many people. The book was written most specifically, however, for those who consider running for public office at the federal or provincial level in Canada after having proven themselves in the course of their chosen careers. This is what happened to me.
To prove yourself in any line of work takes at least twenty years of challenges missed and met, risks endured and overcome, failures acknowledged and successes acclaimed. The reader I have foremost in mind is therefore a man or woman who is a novice candidate and is likely to be in the middle years of life.
To be a “novice candidate” means more than being a person who is stepping into the electoral process for the first time. It also means you do not have a family background in politics. You are not following the footsteps of a parent or a grandparent who has, around the dinner table or through family lore, let you know what to expect. You are not networked within the structures of the political party you are about to represent on the public stage. You may even have altogether avoided being identified with one political party or another. To this point in your career you have kept your political leanings private.
The audience for this book is also much larger than this. Political pundits in the print media, television, internet, and blogosphere will find it interesting to compare their own theories about political participation with observations and conclusions grounded on the day-to-day experiences of a first-time candidate who lived the ups and downs of full time participation in Canada’s electoral process for nineteen months. While I personally lived this experience at the federal level I had frequent opportunities to touch base with candidates at the provincial level in Ontario. I learned that our experiences were comparable. Observers of the political scene in Canada’s provinces and territories can therefore take note.
Because our country is held by many theorists and practitioners to be the model of a successful democracy, what is said here about the condition of democracy in Canada will serve as a caution to observers in other countries as well.
The audience includes teachers and professors who want to give their students a realistic understanding of what happens on the ground in a democratic country that has perhaps grown too sure of itself. Elected governments in Canada are still among the most successful in the world. That we are running out a string which began to be woven and gathered many generations ago should be a matter of concern in our universities, colleges, and high schools.
This overview draws from the diary of one person’s 600 days of engagement in the nitty-gritty world of volunteers, political staffers, sitting politicians, and aspirants for public office. Folk such as these the land together constitute the life’s blood of democracy in Canada.
In every federal and provincial election there are hundreds of people who step into the political world for the first time. Every one of them has a story to tell. Candidates’ stories about the electoral process in Canada unfortunately – when told at all – are told by those who win. This is unfortunate because the perspectives of the winners are coloured by a human need to ascribe real meaning to results which often have almost nothing to do with individual candidates’ efforts. The perspective of the candidates who lost, who outnumber the winners by a factor of five and more, are silenced by a lack of interest in what they have to say. To the victors go the spoils, along with all the intellectual attention we humans can muster.
Candidates and potential candidates who are the primary target of the observations and advice in this book are much more likely to lose than to win. The unsuccessful novice is silenced not only by the collective disinterest which immediately follows the reporting of election results but also by the imperative to get back to work. There is a whole lot of money for the novice to recover. The novice must also recover with professional colleagues, friends, and family the personal time that had had to be set aside.
If it were physically possible to gather the stories of everyone who is active in the political process it would be instructive to draw out the common themes. Those common themes could then be linked to the theories espoused by experts who spend their lives wrestling with the issues involved. The ideal would be to achieve a resonance in the thinking and emotions of millions of citizens who – whether they know it or not – have reason to care about what is happening in the political space all around them.
This account is written as well, therefore, for the countless individuals who wonder from time to time what happens when their governments undergo the scrutiny and renewal that elections are meant to provide. Does it really matter who the candidates are in any particular electoral district? When during an election you meet at the door a person who says “hello to you, please vote for me” what were the machinations which propelled that person from his or her private life onto your doorstep? If that person is standing for one of the established political parties whose policies and programs are being bombarded at you every hour of every day, why does he or she appear to believe that thirty seconds of your time together is important rather than simply irritating?
This overview and the diary together provide insights which help readers to answer such questions. My own answers include a few conclusions and recommendations. But remember: the conclusions and recommendations offered here emerge from a single set of experiences. Readers are invited to infuse their own practical experiences and to find their own ways to contribute to a political dialogue that, in my view, has to get kick-started among us.
The success of this book will lie in the extent to which readers who have themselves been candidates for public office say: “that happened to me too!” Its success will grow when observers of Canadian democracy see reasons to revisit what they have already learned from other sources. Citizens who want to know what motivates that stranger who knocks on their door during an election will, if the book is successful, better appreciate the candidate’s efforts. Thirty seconds at your door is enough time for a smile and a word or two of encouragement.
Kindness at the door is always appreciated by novice candidates, especially by those who know very well that their chances of winning are slim. Such was the situation in my case. I ran for the Conservative Party of Canada in the Liberal stronghold of Ottawa-Vanier.
Ottawa-Vanier is a riding within the city limits of Canada’s capital city. There are approximately 100,000 residents in the riding, 60,000 of whom are eligible to vote. A great many other details about the riding are provided in the diary but the key point is that the riding has been represented in the federal Parliament by the Liberal Party of Canada since the riding was created. Ottawa-Vanier is one of the safest seats for Liberals in all of Canada. The experiences which inform this book are those of a novice candidate who many said had no chance at all.
You will see that this overview and diary are not important as a political polemic. Conservative perspectives are provided in the diary upon various riding issues but the importance lies in what was learned about the electoral process. What I say about the issues is set out in the diary to be easily distinguished from observations on human interactions. My commentary on riding issues can therefore be skipped without missing the point.
The lessons summarized in the book were learned by a novice candidate whose political orientation is most definitely conservative but my roots in the Conservative party go back to when that party was dominated by folk who called themselves “progressive”. The back story of greatest significance is the diary entry which documents my thirty year career. My career began as a lieutenant and then captain in the Canadian military and ended as associate vice president with one of the largest real estate consulting firms in the province of Ontario. Along the way there were four years in graduate school at Carleton University, a short period on Parliament Hill as executive assistant to a Liberal minister, and senior level contributions to public and private infrastructure development which had me be elected as the founding president of the Real Estate Institute of Canada. Mine was decidedly not a political partisan career.
When commentators in the media, in academia, and on city streets lament that “good people do not go into politics” the absence of the people they lament are surely people like me. My run for public office is recorded in the diary at part 2 of this book. The diary provides the grist from which the contents of this overview are drawn.
A RARE BIRD
One of the first things you must realize is that the novice is a rare bird in this business.
Though it is often denied in their personal narratives, most candidates running for public office for the first time can fairly be called “politicos”. They are people who began to devote their lives to social and political activism at an early age. It is not unusual to see featured in the curriculum vitae of a sitting politician whether at the municipal, provincial, or federal levels that he or she became active in some notable way while still a student at university, if not high school. Though the average age of elected politicians is fifty two, many have had no significant experience outside of politics at all and their number is growing.
In your case the priority when coming out of high school or university was to secure a place in the work-a-day world upon which a reputation and a career could begin to be built. You did not want your reputation to be associated with the brand of a political party; you did not want your developing career or business to be placed at risk every four years when elections come around. While you may have taken an interest in politics while a young man or woman, perhaps even an intense interest, you were apolitical in how you conducted your day to day affairs. Your social and political activism was mostly behind the scenes. You most likely limited your political engagement to financial contributions to the political party of your choice. Your decision to stand will be a surprise to all who know you, beginning with your family.
The fact you are seriously contemplating an unexpected opportunity to run in an upcoming election confirms that you have long harboured in the back of your mind the possibility that this might happen. Your business or public sector career has run you up against the policies and programs of elected legislators often enough. It has been over twenty years since you left academia behind but along the way you promised yourself that if ever you get a chance to step forward and become an elected legislator yourself you will seize that chance. The chance is now right there in front of you. You are still young enough and fit enough to take it up. Your career and your family have grown to a point where a run at public office has become feasible. Now is the time to honour the promise that you have made to yourself. When I was in this position my words to myself were: “If not now, then when?”
There are a great many characteristics associated with other first-time candidates for public office, however, that you do not share. Remember: most of those others “got the bug” and committed themselves to a strong interplay of social and political activism when they were the ages of your teenage children. When they step up to the plate for the first time, either by choice or by "concession" to others, it is not a surprise to anyone.
Because you have already built an independent business or private sector or public sector career (perhaps even all three) you are already in your middle years. One of the first things you will notice when you meet other first-time candidates is that they are quite a bit younger. The winner in a federal or provincial election will sit among the legislators who vote our legal and regulatory regimes into place. It is an awesome responsibility. Yet it is not at all unusual for first-time candidates to be under thirty years of age. When you compare notes with those others you will learn that while their professional background is unimpressive – if it exists at all – their experience with electoral politics is much more extensive than yours.
The youngest ones likely began their political careers in the office of an elected politician. From there they moved into political party hierarchies at the federal or provincial levels. For a few years they then moved back and forth from job to job “on the Hill” at the federal level, or they took up support positions in provincial legislative assemblies, and then they went back again to the political party they call “home”.
Those others, those first-time candidates who are not at all like you, certainly want to win in the next election but for them winning does not matter very much at an individual level. What really matters is for their party to win. If their party wins then the ability of their network of friends and associates to help them secure post-election jobs will be very great. To have run for their party will be a badge of honour. It will have confirmed a deep commitment to their party’s fortunes. It will have earned a reasonable reward.
The first-time politicos, among whom one can include those whose family backgrounds have primed them for a run at elected office since they were little, are building their reputations by stepping forward. Your own reputation on the other hand will not be built upon by what you are about to do. Your great hope is that your reputation among those who watched you earn your spurs will not be undone. There is a good chance that you will be returning to that fold after this run for public office is over.
Indeed unless you have been called upon to step into what is called a “safe seat”, meaning that your success in the upcoming election is virtually assured, the novice candidate is most likely to lose. The truth (brace yourself) is that you are almost certain to be returning to the world from which you have come. The reasons for this are set out elsewhere in the overview.
What this means is that, after the election is over, you must expect to resume the professional and family life you had before your journey into politics began. Most novices know this at the outset. But you are very likely to forget this simple fact, as I did, while you diligently apply yourself to your new set of tasks. Your neighbours on the other hand are pretty sure you will be back. They won’t forget this as they watch you run through your paces as a novice candidate. Your business associates know this, your friends all know this, and your family members know this. Almost everyone who knows this will therefore say: “Please don’t do it.”
After you have stepped forward, after you have run, and after you have lost in the next election it will be impossible to keep much of a distance between what your party stands for in the years ahead and what you may personally believe. If the riding you are running in has been of one political “colour” long enough for that colour to have become an indelible part of the local culture your having stood for one of the other political parties will mark you as an outsider. It will affect you for as long as you stay in the neighbourhood. It will affect every member of your family. It risks alienating friends. If you are a consultant for a firm which contracts with governments, after you lose the next election it will cause potential clients to wonder if your impartiality can ever again be trusted.
To this point in your business or public sector career it has been important for you to be apolitical in the public sphere. To stand for public office is to cross a line, whether you win or lose. If your affiliation with a political party has heretofore been private your affiliation will henceforth be public. Everyone will know. If the party of your choice is not popular among friends, family and neighbours, folk will begin looking for signs – after you have lost the election and returned to normal – that you are slowly regaining your sanity. You will be expected in the course of a discussion about public policy to denounce the leadership and the policies of the party you once stood for.
To this point in your life you have proven yourself, again and again. You have earned the respect of your colleagues in the work place. You have held a position of high regard among friends and neighbours. You have basked in the love of your family. You deserve to be included among the “good people” who are untainted professionally or politically and whom everyone hopes will take a run for public office if the opportunity arises. This is why, when it was confirmed in the backrooms of your party that you are likely to become their candidate in your home riding in the next election you were pleased to share this news with everyone you know.
Yet your friends and neighbours all answered: “why the heck are you doing it?” Your family pleaded: “please don’t do this to us.” Your supervisors in your place of work or colleague senior executives in your firm said: “take a leave of absence and good luck.” For the novice candidate who hears the call and steps into electoral politics in Canada a sense of foreboding begins to build, right from the start. At first you will feel euphoria because you have honoured a promise to yourself that was first made decades ago. The euphoria will quickly pass. And then you will fear that perhaps you have fucked up royally.
If you are determined to seize this chance to run for public office anyway you should begin by shoring up your relationship with family, friends, and business associates. Start with your spouse or partner and then sit down separately with each of your adult children to explain your perspective on politics and why saying “no” to this opportunity is not an option. Acknowledge to your family that for the duration of your candidacy a whole lot of what you will be doing will be all about you. Your time to attend to the needs and the hurts of others will be compromised not only by the press of political business but also by the buffeting that your ego is about to endure.
Tensions which have become normal in interpersonal relationships among family members will be exacerbated. If you have been helping to keep a lid on things among family members in the past, for the duration of your candidacy you will fall down on this job. In my case it took almost two years to repair the damage done among us.
With friends and colleagues who matter to you, and before your public commitment becomes widely known, reach out to explain what you are about to do and why. If you are not generally associated by others with the political brand that is about to be stamped onto your forehead and your reputation, find a way to elaborate on how your taking this step fits into the scheme of your life. If the party you are about to be branded by is known for policies and political leanings that are offensive to a person you care about remind them who you are, who you have always been, and tell them you will undertake – if elected – to prod your party into adjusting its policy position on the issues which are troubling.
Within your firm and with business associates just be honest. You dare to make this move because you believe your need to take an apolitical stance in all things professional can come to an end. If your firm does a lot of business with public governments it is a simple fact that your being allied publicly with a particular party means you and your firm might draw fire when future contracts are pursued. If a particularly lucrative contract is won your firm’s competitors will charge “unfair competition”. If it is lost your own colleagues may believe: “we lost because of your political stripe”. If you or your firm judge yourself unable to redirect your professional contribution away from the public sector you should think again about stepping into the public eye.
The politico first-timers, by the way, will have none of those worries. The young ones and the older ones alike will have families, friends, and colleagues around them who have either become inured to the travails of a life in politics or are prepared to cope.
EXCHANGING STRENGTH FOR WEAKNESS
Remember those dreams where you find yourself in a public or business setting and you realize you are naked? That is what it is like when you step out of your private sphere and into the public world of politics. You worked hard to cover yourself with confidence and compliments during your successful career. Your covers are about to be pulled away.
If you have accepted to become a representative of one Canada’s established political parties at the federal level your first mistake will be to assume that the Electoral District Association (EDA) that helped to usher you away from your private life is strong. You are likely even more wrong if the party you will be aligned with is at the provincial level. However badly I felt about my association being unable to protect me from the harsh political winds of federal politics I felt even worse on behalf of the provincial candidates I came to know.
Electoral District Associations appear from the outside to be the solid base upon which participatory democracy operates. As a novice candidate your expectation is that the board members and executive of your EDA will always be there to hold your hand. They will teach you where teaching is necessary. They will backstop you with the talent and the financing you need. When an election is called the members of the EDA will become the ones who constitute your campaign team. They will help you get to the other end of this venture in good order. If you lose the upcoming election they will welcome you back into the ranks of the EDA as a contributing member of the party. You will have the lifelong association with politics that you had so often thought about when you were out there making a good living.
But EDAs are not strong at all and that is really too bad. Because the intended role of EDAs is complex.
In principle democracy in this country is not a phenomenon that finds its expression only in the “one person, one vote” activity that is featured on the day of the election. The democratic process is one in which the political space of a successful democracy is filled on a daily basis by discussion of political issues within families and among friends and neighbours, and within places of work. After all, legislation on the individual and collective rights of us all surely matters. Policies on how our country relates to other countries around the globe on trade issues, security issues and social issues matter as well. Programs launched and funded to respond to the needs of Aboriginal people are important. Programs that deal with the care of children and of older citizens are important.
Electoral District Associations are groups of citizens who get together to keep politics alive and vibrant in between elections. On the day that an election is called EDA executive officers are legally required to step aside, but only to pass the baton of Canada’s democracy over to the temporary structures which are the candidates’ campaign teams. Campaign teams take over for the duration of the election and return the baton to their EDAs when the election is done.
One of the reasons EDAs are weak is because of the people who constitute the membership. Let’s take a quick look at who they are. When we do so, however, let’s always remember that what those people do is profoundly important for democracy in this country. To be critical of them is not to be dismissive. My own hope is that EDA memberships across the country will grow over the years to come and will gain the wide range of competencies which reflect the capacities of individual Canadians everywhere in the country.
The problem is that most of us are busy. We are busy with our families and our jobs. We have enough to do on a daily basis. Even those with a notion that we might run for public office if the circumstances were right are unlikely to find the time to be active in the EDA that represents our party of choice in the riding where we live. The members of our riding EDAs, therefore, are mostly those who have the time. They are the unemployed or the underemployed. They are the retirees. The few on our EDAs who have full time jobs miss most of the association’s board and executive meetings. They do not have the time to make much of a difference.
Those who get actively involved in the work of EDAs, furthermore, often have ulterior motives. The few who appear successful in their work are seeking opportunity through political connections to do better still. Those who have experienced pain in their lives such as the loss of a loved one to avoidable accidents or violent crime want, in the case of my party, to influence politicians to get hard on crime. Those who smoke marijuana in their basements want to have politicians tell the police to back off. There are also those whose views are too radical, on the left or on the right of our political spectrum, for friends and colleagues to listen very long to what they need to say. Those folk want to vent their spleens in the company of others whom they believe to be like-minded.
Whereas the novice candidate expects his or her association will provide the comfort and strength a neophyte requires, ordinary members will be looking to the candidate to bring comfort and strength into their unhappy ranks. All their different interests have likely not been managed very well by the association’s executive. Ordinary members will look to you as their new leader.
The board and especially the executive of your association, on the other hand, will welcome you with a wary eye. They will not want the new guy or gal on the block to upset their own political or personal agendas. They took on the added burden of board responsibilities and executive office, after all, in order to advance those agendas. They know that novice candidates are just passing through. After the next election, which the novice almost always loses, it will be back to business as usual.
You will find that your EDA, even if the number of its active members has dwindled down to a paltry dozen, is riveted by internecine struggles. The members of the board will, each and every one, have a different reason for being there. The members of the executive will greatly value their exposure to sitting members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies, perhaps even to ministers. They will not want you to get in the way. The EDA’s ordinary members have been chafing under the desultory directions coming from their board and executive for a long time and will be counting on you to step in and throw the bums out.
It will surprise you (but you will get used to it) that the members of your EDA are much less interested in your success as a fledgling politician than you had believed would be the case. Their future, you see, is not dependent upon your future. You are a novice candidate for a reason. The odds are that your party has not been much of a contender in your riding for quite some time. If being a candidate in your riding provided a reasonable chance to get elected you would have been bowled over in the nomination process by politicos who judged their opportunity to be a competitive one. Politicos are always hovering about. Novice candidates come and go.
When you are looking hither and yon for the funding you will need to be an effective candidate you will learn that your EDA board and executive members are the least likely to invest in your cause. In fact when fundraisers are set up on your behalf, often by you and your partner or spouse because everyone else lacks the energy or is too busy, you will find that your EDA executive members expect to attend for free. Remember: most of them are retired, unemployed, or in part time jobs. They do not have half the income you began to build when your career was launched so long ago. One of the reasons you were interesting to your EDA is because it appears from what you do and where you live that you will be able to underwrite your own campaign.
As you navigate through the personal struggles and traumas that underlie the motivation of the EDA members you get closest to, your forbearance with regard to their individual weaknesses will begin to fall off. You have your reputation to protect after all. When your forbearance falls off to rejection and anger you will be reminded that your future as a candidate depends more upon the good will of your EDA than upon your own proven capabilities. You can be dropped in a flash. When you conclude you have no choice but to begin planning and managing your own way forward you will be told by the national office of your party that the candidate who expects to plan and manage his or her own campaign is a fool.
MORE ABOUT THE EDA
Let’s now take a closer look at the structures, functions, and normal operations of this creature called an Electoral District Association.
Electoral District Associations are legally enabled organizations which empower Canada’s recognized political parties to maintain and build their support base between elections. The EDAs are entitled to receive and spend contributions provided by citizens who want to support the political process financially.
The EDAs are therefore registered with oversight bodies such as Elections Canada at the federal level. They must annually submit their financial statements to the federal or provincial governments (depends on the political level at which they operate). In short, they must conduct themselves in an honest and transparent way as befits all organizations and associations in Canada which pay their way with public funds. The money received and expended by EDAs are public funds because of how Canada’s income tax regime works. At the federal level, for example, a person can contribute up to $1,500 to the political process and receive in return a 75% tax credit on that amount.
The structure of an EDA, therefore, must include a president and a finance officer. Between them they account for the performance and the funding of the EDA for which they, on a voluntary basis, have assumed responsibility. EDAs also typically have one or more vice presidents, a secretary, an officer position responsible for fundraising, another person focused upon membership, and so on. These are the executive members. They are chosen by a vote among board members after the annual general meeting at which board members themselves have been chosen (often self selected) and voted upon by all the ordinary members who attend the annual meeting.
During the period between elections the EDAs are mandated to champion the policies of their respective political parties; to reach out to voters in the riding and solicit new members; and, to convene meetings among residents where information sharing, having fun, and fundraising are the objectives. In the short hand of electoral politics the slogan for the work of EDAs between elections has become: “Promote the Brand”. For the political party which happens to be in power in Ottawa or in the capital city of a province it is important to note that their EDAs are not agents of the government. Not that it would make any difference in the Canada of today. Our EDAs are much too weak to make much of a difference.
In the case of the Conservative Party of Canada there is an aspect of the fundraising activity that is noteworthy. I suspect what is true for the Conservative party at the federal level is true across the board, federally and provincially.
If a contribution is sent to the national office of the Conservative Party of Canada the association in which the contributing citizen resides will eventually receive a 10% share. If that same citizen contributes directly to the EDA, the association keeps 100% of the amount. So it would appear that EDAs and the national offices of their parties are in competition for the extremely scarce resource of voluntary contributions. Under 4% of tax paying citizens in our democratic country are regular contributors to the political process.
Very few of the citizens who make political contributions understand the difference between their party at the national level and their association at the riding level. In the case of my riding, even the executive was wrong about how the contributions from residents tracked their way into party and EDA coffers. It also happens that in my riding – and I am sure in most others – the amount of money that residents contribute to the national level is far greater than what is contributed locally. My association was almost totally dependent on the 10% flow-through when I came on board. Local fundraising usually raised enough money to cover the fundraising events themselves but that was about all.
In addition to the 10% flow-through amount the other main source of revenue for most EDAs is the membership fee of $10 or so. The membership cost varies from one association to the other. In Ottawa-Vanier the Conservatives had about 500 members on its scrolls, making for annual revenues of $5000.
Electoral District Associations raise money not just to cover their own activities. They also try to build and maintain a net balance in their bank accounts which can be transferred to their candidate after an election is called. The candidate then has something to work with at the start of his or her campaign. The amount a candidate for public office can spend during an election is determined in large part by the number of voters. In Ottawa-Vanier we candidates were allowed to spend in the vicinity of $87,000.
The pressure on EDAs to spend their money between elections is growing. This is because a “science” of electoral politics has entered into the picture. The science of electoral politics is nothing more than a few “programs” which aim to base the electoral strategy of political parties and their candidates upon hard numbers. Rigour has entered into the system. At least…that must be pretended by everyone who wants to be taken seriously these days.
The programs in question have become familiar to Canadians in recent years. Between elections political parties are increasingly oriented towards Direct Voter Contact (DVC). One of the driving purposes of DVC is to obtain information from residents with regard to their voting habits and intentions. In the Conservative Party of Canada we used “walk sheets” which identified homes and home owners in all corners of the riding. When we knocked on doors or placed telephone calls we were supposed to ask if the resident intended to vote Conservative in the next election. The alternative answers were “most definitely”, “unsure” or “definitely not”. These data were then entered into a central information system known as the Constituent Information Management System (CIMS).
In my riding the Liberal Party of Canada develops and maintains similar records on voters. In a court case launched against their sitting Member of Parliament for allegedly making his Liberal list available to a friend running at the municipal level the value of the Liberal list was said to be well over a municipal candidate’s allowed maximum expenditure.
The idea behind these data is that, as voting day approaches during an election period, candidates and their offices will work the telephones to get out the vote (GOTV). If it takes 20,000 votes to win an election, as was the case in my riding, and if the CIMS data inputted by my EDA was accurate for as many as half of these, we could in principle increase our chances of winning if we made direct voter contact during the election and helped to deliver a minimum of 10,000 known supporters to the polls on voting day. On the other hand, it could also mean that we piss people off if our data are wrong or we call folk who have changed their minds. We could then lose quite badly.
The truth is this stuff is mostly nonsense. It is nonsense to see the media expend such an inordinate amount of time and ink writing about it. It is nonsense to see the courts take robocalls so seriously. It is nonsense to press federal and provincial governments to develop legislation to apply limits to it. By taking the nonsense so seriously we are giving legitimacy to programs that are not scientific at all and are of very little effect. Those programs are symptoms of something bad that is happening to electoral politics in Canada. We are overly focused upon the symptoms.
It is physically impossible to obtain and maintain accurate data on the scale that would be required to make the data meaningful. To make telephone calls or to visit the 100,000 residents in Ottawa-Vanier would require a well oiled EDA to make DVC a regular and disciplined activity. To knock on doors and record information on the residents of even 100 houses, if you allow for ten minutes per house, would take three five-hour days for one person. To turn this into 1000 homes would increase the draw in human resources by a factor of ten. In my riding you would need to increase the requirement by an additional factor of sixty or so. And then you move into the high rises.
Electoral District Associations operate mostly on the edge of solvency. They can cover their costs but many must struggle in order to keep a net balance so that their candidate can start a campaign with money in the bank. Their dependable manpower is counted in the tens, not in hundreds of volunteers. The dedication required to create truly effective information banks far, far exceeds the capacity of most – if not all – EDAs in the country.
This is one reason why party workers stoop to cheating. Everyone knows what the target is (all questions honestly answered, for each house on each walk sheet). Everyone knows what the standard is (accurate answers, for all residents in each house of voting age). Everyone knows the achievement of the target and the meeting of the standard is impossible. Not a single resident, in not a single home in my riding, had either the will or the patience to answer more than one of the questions when we knocked on doors. Under such conditions, people cheat.
One way to cheat is to run through neighbourhoods as quickly as one can and then make up the data. In my case what I learned on my rounds when knocking on doors hardly ever matched the paltry bits of information in our CIMS. I could not even trust the data well enough to wish the best to a Mister or Miss X. Once bitten, twice shy. After learning that a person whose views had allegedly been solicited the week before had been dead for many years I stopped using the data altogether.
Another way to cheat is to set aside one’s own DVC data, claim to represent one of the other political parties, and place random robocalls to people not on our own lists. The goal is to discourage people from voting.
The most terrible cheat is therefore upon the political process itself. The logic of the DVC programs lends itself to a presumption – even a will – for low voter turnout. If one party believes it has accurate data on 10,000 supporters, for example, a highly desired outcome on voting day is for that party’s supporters to be driven to the polls (figuratively and sometimes literally) and for everyone else to stay home. For a disciplined political party whose EDAs have done their jobs between elections the wet dream is that voter turn out will be so low that their own GOTV program can make all the difference. Even if this takes misdirecting a few voters in hostile areas of town so that they give up and return home, so be it. Cheating is a direct consequence of impossible logic, impossible targets and impossible standards.
The “science” of electoral politics, in any event, usually makes little difference in the overall result on voting day. Senior people in my party have observed that these programs can be influential only in ridings where the election is extremely close, so that a few dozen votes can determine the outcome. These programs do, however, have a number of nefarious consequences for democracy.
First, the intended work of EDAs – already compromised by limited funds and the capacities of its members – is distorted. Because EDAs cannot possibly do what the DVC programs expect of them EDAs do almost nothing instead. They are not encouraged to promote alternative activities such as the hosting of public discussions and debate. Second, the drive for hard numbers has reduced the interest in dialogue to almost nothing. Third, because the targets and standards of DVC programs are ridiculously impossible to meet, party workers do what humans do under such circumstances: they cheat. After they have quietly given up on the idea that their support base can become known “scientifically” some party workers focus instead upon discouraging others. A fourth unhappy consequence is that one finds among EDA volunteers and even in the ranks of successful politicians a large and growing number of people who admit to being cynical about the political process even if they have been handsomely rewarded by the outcome of it.
Before shifting my focus from the EDA to the candidate I will add one more nefarious consequence of the science of politics: candidates are no longer seen as being very relevant. When the primary purpose for direct voter contact becomes the gathering of information about political orientation and when the driving objective during a campaign is to get out the vote – but only of those who you know for sure will vote for your own party – the role of the candidate greatly changes. The talent of persuasion, one that the novice candidate developed to high degree in his or her business or public sector career, in totally out of vogue.
The candidate still says: “vote for me”. There are a lot of things the candidate still does that are the vestiges of campaigns decades ago. But the candidate has become a high energy tool to be used by EDAs between elections and by campaign managers during elections to update data banks, rather like a census taker. Though the data banks will always be woefully inadequate in ridings such as Ottawa-Vanier and though it is an insult to think of candidates as of bone headed tools, the science of politics wants to avoid the distortion that sets in when the proclivity of a novice candidate to talk politics risks polluting “scientific” methods and results.
It is not a science at all. It is more like crowd sourcing for votes. The gap between the appeal for votes and the voting itself is filled with slogans and jargon rather than persuasion.
MORE ABOUT THE CANDIDATE
After you have decided to run in a nomination convention your association – the people who first made contact with you – will tell you to get the endorsement of a few dozen party members. They will say you must do this on your own. They will say the association is not allowed to make its list of association members available to you.
This will set you immediately back upon your heels. Because you are a novice in this business you are highly unlikely to know who among your friends and neighbours belong to the party. Your EDA contacts must have suspected this would be the case when they asked you – a stranger to them all – to step up to the plate. Now, however, they will look at you as if you are crazy. As I was walking away from the candidate selection committee with one of the committee members he looked askance at me and said: “You are a person without a network among us. You do not have a chance to win the nomination.”
In order to run in a nomination convention you will be required by your party – and also by Elections Canada or its equivalent at the provincial level – to have a support team that at a minimum includes a campaign manager and a finance officer. You will be expected to raise money to make a payment of at least $1000.00 to party headquarters in order to prove your bona fides. There is still a strong possibility that you will not be nominated.
You will have to reveal your intentions to at least a couple of people even though your private gambit may never succeed. Members of your family or your closest friends will be your only option. You will have to beg their indulgence as you begin to beg for their money and their time and their efforts. Those who agree to join you will all be first-timers too, of course. They will not know how to proceed. You will have to read all the material your association has given to you; you will have to teach the friends and family members who have agreed to join you; and, for a while, you will have to lead and manage them. If the party you will be representing is one that your family and friends do not personally like, as was the case with me, your challenge will be a little greater. In my case there was no Conservative among them.
Reaching back into your EDA for help is not an option. Its members will not have the energy to take on the tasks and the work you need to have done. Additionally, though you may have thought you were approached because you seemed uniquely qualified, you will learn that your EDA approached a number of other potential candidates – all of them politicos – as well. Electoral District Associations across the country see candidate nomination conventions as an opportunity to bring in new energy, new members, and new money. As a novice candidate you will not have the network among family, friends and business associates to do any of this very well.
After you have stressed your way through the nomination convention and been selected by the EDA membership in a vote, the EDA’s next step is to propose your candidacy to the headquarters of your party. Since your background is what it is, it is highly unlikely that you will know any of the staffers who work there. Within days of your being nominated, but after you have obtained confirmation from your local police that you do not have a record of concern to law enforcement agencies, the folk in headquarters will have done whatever research they do when the names of strangers are forwarded to their office. Then it is time for a meeting or a telephone call.
Unless your party was quietly preparing someone else to step into the role you are about to take on the greatest likelihood is that you will be endorsed by the headquarters of your party. You will be formally designated as candidate for your EDA and your riding. The next rounds can begin. You have become a politician without an office, rather like being a writer without any published material.
You can expect to be reminded, however, that your status as designated candidate can be changed at any point prior to the day after the next election is called. Designated candidates are officially confirmed in their roles by party leaders in the first day or two of the election period. It means you will have to keep your nose clean. It also means that if someone better comes along between now and when an election is called your role as candidate can be terminated at short notice. Given what a surprise this turn in your life is going to be for just about everyone who knows you, the fragility of your situation will unhinge you from time to time. Your surprise could end with you retreating with your tail between your legs before the next election ever happens.
OK, so you are off and running. An election may not be called for many months but surely it is time to get going. Your EDA may not be ready and may not agree. Your EDA and your party may believe you should pound the pavement and make telephone calls to build up data on the voting intentions of residents. You, on the other hand, want to get out there and meet people. Given your background, sitting idle and doing nothing is not acceptable. You would rather get going entirely on your own if that is what it takes. The block that sits between an impossible science and an out-of-vogue human experience is you.
In my case I nevertheless gave a very serious effort to working with those members of my EDA who seemed interested in helping me along. In a short speech at an EDA board meeting shortly after becoming my party’s designated candidate for Ottawa-Vanier I said that I hoped to draw my entire campaign team from the ranks of those who were then sitting at the executive table or elsewhere in the room. I truly meant that. In parallel, of course, I was not about to let go of the few friends and family members who had helped me get through the nomination process. I was beginning to build a shadow team among those people just in case.
EDAs and campaign teams are different creatures. They differ in their purpose, their legal status, and their focus. EDA energies are focused long term. Campaign team energies are focused on the immediate term. But campaign teams have no standing between elections. These differences are a cause for considerable confusion and tension that will be elaborated upon later. If you do not make both structures work in parallel you risk sitting exposed and unprepared on voting day.
All the way along you will therefore have to manage issues of overlap and transition between the EDA and campaign team structures. The latter will ultimately be the most important for you, but until an election is called the former – the electoral district association – is the only structure that legally exists. If you are a candidate for an extended period you will constantly have to run your shadow team on the one hand, and respond as best you can to the performance of your EDA executive and board members on the other. You are almost certain to feel duplicitous towards individuals and sometimes even disloyal. It will not be easy.
I found myself being drawn to the message in the poem Invictus written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley. I wanted, desperately, to continue being the master of my fate. I often felt as if my party and the EDA wanted to the captain of my soul. There is a lot about your life over the next many months that will resonate with what is expressed in the bleakness of that poem.
And now a few words about finances.
Successive governments in Canada, at all levels, have turned their minds to the affordability of public life. I was frequently asked during my own run for public office: “is this costing you a lot?” My answer at the outset was usually “no”. My answer now is a definite “yes”.
I said “no” because the tax regime in Canada greatly reduces the financial burden on citizens who make contributions to the cause of candidates such as you and me. It is a part of our job as candidates to impress upon residents in our ridings the importance of paying for a membership and participating in fund-raising events. The maximum contribution allowed in a calendar year is now $1500.00. It is our job to have our costs shared among as many people as possible. To take on the opportunity to run for public office, to my mind, includes meeting the challenge to raise the money required. To have answered “yes” to the question about finances would have been to declare failure.
The truth, nevertheless, is “yes”.
For starters, there are costs in the pre-nomination phase that must be borne before tax regulations even apply. It begins with lunches and dinners to which you invite family and friends so that your explaining and – if need be – your apologizing can begin. To these expenses are added the receptions at your home where you begin to speak publicly about your intentions and your plans. To register as a candidate in a nomination convention costs at least $1000.00, often more, and while you may get some or all of that amount back from your party headquarters one day it is simply out of pocket when the amount must first be paid.
Once you begin to move into the public sphere as a candidate your expenses begin to grow. A candidate who hopes for votes from a business you are visiting can hardly leave without buying something. You cannot stop by an organization which promotes important social causes without making a donation. You cannot go to a community event which raises money for the homeless without money in your pocket. The hits come in amounts from $20 to $200 and the hits keep coming.
The more you get into this, the more you commiserate with others. Municipal candidates need money and provincial candidates need money, and candidates at all levels build staffs and supporters whose assistance and whose votes might one day make a great difference in your own campaign. So you contribute to the efforts of those who impress you as individuals (regardless of party) and also of those whose politics are closest to your own. In this domain of giving the amounts that make a difference are in the order of hundreds of dollars.
Most of those other candidates, of course, will be politicos. They have been in the business of politics for most of their short lives as staffers in political office. Many appear to be just out of their teens. They have no money. You, the novice with a solid background and a bank account to match, will not be getting anything back in return for the contributions and donations you make to their campaigns.
Another important cost, of course, is opportunity cost. By this I mean the opportunity you will no longer have to earn a salary or to make money through your business. You will learn that you must devote yourself full time to being a candidate if you want to live up to your own expectations from yourself. In my case I was dependably earning revenues as a consultant in the order of $10,000 a month, usually more. After nineteen months, for me the cost in this financial category had moved into the order of $190,000.
During the election itself, as you will see soon enough, a financial regime comes into play which includes subsidies from the public purse. The subsidies, however, only come after the campaign is long over and then only if a candidate has obtained a certain percent of the vote. The problem is that money must begin to be spent as soon as the election is called. It does no good to finally have the cash needed for advertisements, lawn signs, publicity material, and so on only at the end of a campaign. If you wait for your fundraising to succeed before your campaign buys anything it will be too late. So a candidate needs to prepare for the additional financial hit of a personal loan to the campaign. The loan will be needed on the very first day of the election. This is an amount that may or may not be recovered, depending upon the success of fundraising activities and upon your qualifying for the subsidy. In my case the amount of the personal loan my wife and I provided to the campaign was $20,000.
As an aside, I deeply empathize with politicians who have taken a run for the leadership of their respective parties. In recent times this has included each of the four national parties (if I include the Bloc Quebecois). Those folk too have had to make a deposit – often as high as $10,000 each – before they could make an accurate assessment of their chances. That is why we read about personal loans, sometimes in the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars, that unsuccessful candidates become saddled with.
Politics is an expensive business. If you are reading this book before throwing your name into the ring take the time to review your financial position. Ensure your spouse or partner is on side. You are certain to take a major hit on your pocket book.
For the politico in your situation, of course, the situation is not nearly as bad. Those people have not had the kind of career where picking up the tab has become a habit. Earning one’s welcome at charity and fund raising events by making a meaningful donation is a burden they do not feel. The opportunity cost in a run for public office when your alternative income is non-existent or low does not amount to very much anyway. Running for public office is an expensive business for people like me and you. For the politico, not so much.
That is another reason why novice candidates, those with a long and successful track record, are already rare in electoral politics. We will become more rare as time goes on.
Oh, and try not to get angry about the privileged position your sitting member of Parliament or Legislative Assembly is in. Those sitting members have spent the last four years – in my case the last sixteen years – making themselves known to voters in the riding. They have done this from the vantage point of the offices, paid for by taxpayers, in capital city legislatures and in home ridings. They have been able to maintain a team of office staff and EDA volunteers who when the time comes are happy to devote the five weeks it will take to run another successful campaign. Novice candidates and their teams are like amateurs running against professionals.
LOCAL POLITICS MATTER (PRE-WRIT)
In literature prepared by political parties for their candidates and electoral district associations it is said that elections are won or lost by what is achieved between the periods of the writ. This may be true centrally, at national or provincial levels.
At the riding level, unfortunately, politics between elections are dead. When the sitting federal Member of Parliament in my riding sent notices around between elections for residents to join him for a discussion over coffee he was lucky to have a dozen people attend. At a couple of his events half of those attending were from his own office, three more were regular attendees who press for the resolution of immigration and visa issues, and the last three were from my fledgling campaign team. I had sent my team members in order to learn what my main rival does to retain his position in every election.
When my representatives, who were not known to anyone else in the room, raised policy issues for discussion or debate there was a collective shushing. “Don’t politicize this meeting,” was the angry caution. I heard that angry caution myself at almost every community meeting or public gathering I went to during the pre-election period.
While interest in talking about politics at the local level is almost zero the intensity of feeling about politics is nevertheless very high. When you knock on doors, when you stop by local businesses, or when you collar people in public areas like malls and restaurants you will find that most people would rather you leave them alone. If you press on, you are much more likely to be told “I hate your party” or “I hate those other guys as much as you do” than to find yourself engaged in meaningful discussion or debate. People would rather you had left them alone than cause their blood pressure to rise so quickly.
Politicos are quite happy about this. For them the time limited to a self introduction is good enough to stroke their own egos. The negativity they encounter if they press on with a potential voter is nothing compared to what is said in the federal House of Commons and in legislative assemblies. The novice who hopes that epithets can be spun off into serious discussion is naive. Though you have been primed by your background to talk seriously about the issues you will have to adjust to being brushed off or insulted.
The fact is that, along with political financing, the messaging in politics has become centralized. The focus of residents is upon what is said and done in Ottawa or in provincial capital cities. Riding candidates when elected mostly sit on the backbenches anyway. People who are running for election are simply party representatives who hope to replace the person in a local riding who has been keeping the bench warm.
Electoral District Associations have become like franchise operations. Political party headquarters can be compared to the central offices of operations like Harvey’s and McDonald’s. Franchisees are expected to set themselves up in accordance with dictates of the centre. Electoral District Association messaging is akin to the making of hamburgers and hotdogs: each and every time the same. Fried or boiled according to formulae issued by the boss.
Programs based upon the so-called science of politics reinforce the message that persuasion, customized to the needs and understanding of community members, is no longer on the menu. Indeed, just as Harvey’s and McDonald’s have built up their own client base over the years, the EDAs of political parties believe they know who their customers are. Candidates are told not to waste time soliciting votes from the client base of another party. “Go for the low hanging fruit,” is the battle cry. Get your own people out to vote and hope that the others stay home.
Getting ready for an eventual election can be a discouraging business for the novice in this kind of environment. The longer the novice is in business before the sprint towards an election begins – when the writ is dropped – the greater the discouragement.
Those words “the writ is dropped” beg a short digression. When the leader of a government in Canada determines that the time has come to test the will of the people in a general election the leader advises the Governor General (federal level) or the Lieutenant Governor (provincial level) and a legal paper is issued (the “writ”) which is handed to election agencies and their officials. To say “when the writ has dropped”, therefore, is to say that an election is underway. The usual period for an election is five or six weeks. Among EDAs the term “pre-writ” has come to mean the period before “the period of the writ” when an election is underway. Immediately after an election the writ is returned to the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor. The period that follows is sometimes referred to in political shorthand as “post-writ”.
Between elections, as observed above, EDAs can reach out to the public to raise money, increase their memberships, and promote their party’s brand. The candidate designated by the EDA and its party to run in the next election can be used to help achieve those goals. The candidate cannot, however, actively campaign for election. Active campaigning can only happen, and money for that express purpose can only be raised and spent, during the election itself.
For the novice candidate who devotes a lot of his or her time to the electoral process during the pre-writ period this limitation appears unfair. The elected representative for your riding, while you are in knocking on the doors of residents who are manifestly disinclined to engage in politics (“I did not know there was an election going on?”) can do whatever it takes to retain his or her seat. You will find that sitting members get more and more active with their newsletters and public appearances as the rumoured date of an election call gets closer and closer. You will find yourself sitting on your hands or endlessly planning while the person you want to replace is legitimately out there securing his or her place on the bench simply by doing the job of an incumbent.
It does not help if your EDA has become convinced that DVC, Voter ID, and GOTV are the way to go. In the olden days (how long ago?) there was a notion that every person a candidate spoke to in the pre-writ period would spread the word and increase the effect of those moments of personal contact by a factor of twenty or more. If you are at the door begging information for Voter ID however (“Are you planning to vote Conservative in the next election?” “How many other voters live in this house?” “Can you tell me what their voting intentions are?” “Could I interest you in buying a party membership?” “Oh, and it would help if you give us the ages of your spouse and your adult children…”) you rarely get past the first question before the door slams in your face. If the factor of twenty applies at all it will surely multiply on the negative side with those folk who ordered you to get lost.
It does not help either that your EDA and your party will want you to repeat again and again, from one door and one human contact after another, the “three big ideas” that your party wants to be known for centrally. In my case it was “tough on crime”, “good for the economy”, and “strong support for the military”. In my case those slogans did not help nearly as much as what the Liberal and NDP candidates shouted in their turn: “don’t trust the Conservatives.”
As a novice candidate, one whose background had prepared me to engage in substantive exchanges, the slogans were an embarrassment. I never used them. When asked about “tough on crime”, a slogan that was being repeated daily from party leaders on Parliament Hill anyway, I would use the question to open a discussion on actual crime rates in various parts of our riding and I would ask what additional preventative and intervention steps a resident would like to see governments take. I did not want, after my thirty years in the military, the public sector, and as a consultant to close out my career as one given to sloganeering. Often enough doors would be opened by people I had met professionally or personally at some stage in my life. Novices such as I knock on doors because we believe we have something to offer. We do not want to be remembered as people who have lost our minds.
In that small percent of time with potential voters when our interaction included discourse about politics I am convinced that my capacity to engage in informed debate made a difference. I am convinced that the multiplier effect, that factor of twenty, went into high gear after I moved onto the next house, the next apartment door, or the next local business. My ability to persuade people impressed EDA members and the students who had been recruited by party headquarters to help our EDA deliver its silly programs. But, again and again, my EDA and party representatives tried to shut me down.
“Remember,” I would be told, “your chance of being elected in this riding has very little to do with who you are.” By now I was reading widely in the literature on electoral politics and already knew that the results obtained by a candidate in a federal or provincial election these days are explained over 95% by central party messaging and under 5% by the candidate. The influence from the centre can even be as much as 100%. This was the case for just about all candidates elected in Quebec who represented Canada’s “grassroots” New Democratic Party in the 2011 federal election.
If I had been taken on board by the EDA and the national party in my riding only weeks or days prior to the dropping of the writ I may well have given myself over to the imperative in these numbers: submit yourself to the programs and the discipline of the party. Do as you are told. My background, however, like yours, had primed me to function very differently. I suppose I did “old style” politics in an age where image and distance are safer bets than substance and personal contact. I believe all novice candidates, if on the election trail for longer than the short period of the writ, will want to behave as I did. This is likely another reason why novice candidates will become more rare in the years to come. The politico submits himself or herself readily and even enthusiastically to the directions from on high. They have nothing to lose.
By being so willingly malleable in the hands of party and EDA executive members the politico earns the trust of his or her political establishment. If elected to the House of Commons they will be team players for the political party of their choice. The novice who insists upon standing on his or her own record and integrity has the potential to become very influential within a political party but if and only if – against growing odds – the novice prevails in an election. The greater likelihood, however, is that the novice will be removed as the party’s designated candidate before the election even takes place.
If anyone reading this book is in a party headquarters and is a committed fan of DVC, Voter ID, and GOTV by the way, I would advise the following. Make it an imperative for your EDAs to implement those programs religiously each and every day during the years between elections and provide the resources (people and money) to make it happen. Right now the programs may be strongly advocated by your party headquarters and the programs may even make intuitive sense. But the ideal of those programs is left hanging in the air. Even the best of efforts on the part of your broken EDAs cannot come close to achieving the ideal. The result is the propagation of an ideal which has almost no meaning on the ground but which nonetheless undercuts the energy and ability of high quality candidates to make much difference at a personal level.
My own preference is that election legislation in Canada be amended to make it illegal for political parties to gather and maintain information on the voting intentions of citizens in this country. I would rather we nip the fledgling “science” of electioneering in the bud. We know when power centres in failing democracies require citizens to divulge their voting intentions that it is a dangerous way to go.
PREPARING FOR THE ELECTION
The day the election is called (the day “the writ drops”) and throughout the period of the election the situation for the novice candidate becomes very different. You will only have a couple of days to sort everything out. You must be ready.
To be legal as a candidate running for public office you will need to table with elections officials (Elections Canada in my case) the names of your official agent (your finance officer) and your official auditor. If you are representing a recognized federal or provincial party you will also need to have the leader of your party confirm your status to those same elections officials. Your party will want to know who your campaign manager is going to be because political staffers at headquarters will not want to deal with you directly. They will work on the assumption that your campaign manager is totally in charge.
If you have been successful in bringing a shadow team increasingly into the picture while your EDA still ruled the day, now is the time for your own team to step forward. The EDA will beat a retreat over the five weeks of the campaign. If your EDA is in a capital city and its members include staffers who work for sitting politicians most of them will leave town. If they had been trusted by you to tidy everything up before handing things over to your campaign team you must expect that they will drop the ball. Their new priority is to work on the campaigns of their respective political bosses. The EDA essentially dissolves for the duration of the campaign. You must expect the dissolution to begin in the week before the writ is actually dropped.
To get quickly out of the gate when the writ drops you need money. You need to get those signs up which have your name on them (Vote For Me!). During the weeks when election fever is starting to build in earnest, therefore, you will need to have set up a campaign bank account (most banks have a branch officer who is familiar with how this done). In their dwindling enthusiasm your EDA will have had to sign the contracts which produce four hundred lawn signs and a hundred arterial signs. Arterial signs are the ones that stand along the main streets in town and along the highways.
Your designated official agent will be the person who is most likely to help you get your EDA to deliver on the lawn signs. The EDA must also be the body that signs the lease for your campaign office. To leave the location of an office and the leasing transactions involved to the first hours of the period of the wit will land you in the worst possible available space. The transactions involved include setting up telephones, renting office equipment, and acquiring basic office necessities. Prior to the writ being dropped only the EDA is legally positioned to do any of this. The draw on the EDA bank account for these items (signs, office lease, and office equipment and supplies) will be about twenty thousand dollars. If your EDA has only thirty thousand dollars in the bank, as mine did, it means only ten thousand dollars in cash will be transferred to you when the EDA’s accounts are temporarily closed.
You official agent will be the person most concerned (aside from you) about finding where your EDA finance officer has run off to when the writ drops. You have to get any left-over EDA funds (after money for the signs and office lease have either been paid or set aside) into your campaign team bank account. Indeed, your official agent will be the most important person in your life for a couple of months. You do not want to be seen flopping about like a fish in the days immediately after the writ drops.
Unless you are happy to run desperately from pillar to post starting day one of the election period you will also want to have a few other items ready to go in advance. Given your background and your need to keep your reputation intact I am sure you will have given as much thought to these items as I did.
You will need to have campaign literature ready, in the order of a thousand copies of each flyer and brochure. Prepare for a cost of five hundred dollars for each item and prepare for the hope that many more thousands of copies will be needed because – in principle – every residence in your riding should get one of each. In my case I did not trust that my team of supporters would be numerous enough to make much of a dent in a riding of sixty thousand residences so I also prepared in advance for a “direct mail” by Canada Post of sixty thousand one-page “door knockers”. The cost for this was just under twelve thousand dollars.
In order to create a serious impression upon readers of local newspapers, which included the Ottawa Citizen in my case, you should have advertisements ready to roll which will get your name, face, and key messages into the public eye at least once each week of the campaign. Assuming there are three regional and local papers in your area which are read by people in their homes or places of work, twelve advertisements (in French and English in the Ottawa area) will cost your campaign another six thousand dollars.
Your colleague first-time candidates, the ones I call the politicos, are highly unlikely to have prepared themselves as fully as you have. They will play catch-up with the imperatives of an election campaign as the campaign unfolds. Their campaign literature will be obtained by buying into templates that are developed by the national or provincial party they represent. They will allow their campaigns to build up debt (likely owed to themselves or their families) in the hope that public subsidies at the end of the campaign will be adequate to cover those debts. Politicos are basically along for the ride. They may hope – as you do – that they will be elected but, as I have said before, their futures do not depend on it. Their reputations are enhanced by the mere fact of having put themselves into the ring. Your reputation, on the other hand, is at high risk of being diminished.
When you review the items and the costs just set out you will see that a bare-bones campaign will require at least fifty thousand dollars. This is the amount that has to be committed, if not physically paid, by the time the first week of the campaign is over. Since your official agent cannot commit to any expenditure without knowing that the funds required will be available it means, almost without doubt, that you or your family will have to make a personal loan to the campaign. The room for doubt lies in the amount of cash your EDA was able to transfer to the campaign team bank account. In my case it was under ten thousand dollars (after the cost of signs and office requirements were met). In my case as I have said the personal loan had to be close to twenty thousand dollars.
You are now running not only to keep your reputation intact, but also to rebuild your bank account.
Canada’s electoral regimes include a subsidy for the cost of electoral campaigns subject to a number of criteria. In my case, at the federal level, I could count upon a subsidy up to 60% of allowable expenses as long as I obtained at least ten percent of the vote. My goal from the outset, therefore, was to manage our affairs – between my official agent and me – so that Elections Canada could be counted upon to return at least twenty thousand dollars net of all other costs (the amount of my loan) at the end of the campaign. I wanted a clean campaign, well documented on all counts, so that the repayment could happen as soon as possible after the writ was returned by the Returning Officer to the government. I wanted my money back.
The phase shift that happens to you on the day the writ drops (but only after your party leader has confirmed your status with the party) is that your EDA is no longer in business as a champion of the brand. You and your official agent are together in business as champions for your own cause, which is to get elected. You will continue to champion the brand of course. But the very best you can do for your party on this concluding round is to get yourself elected…without damaging the chances of any other party candidate by what you may say or do.
By the end of the first week of the campaign you will find that a much larger campaign team has begun to assemble around you than you had ever expected. There are party supporters in your riding who want to have nothing to do with your EDA but who enjoy becoming active during the short weeks of a campaign. Believe it or not – and it’s hard to believe given how tough it was to get help prior to the election call – people will stop by your office on the very first day it is open and ask what they can do to help. Your campaign manager (I called mine a campaign coordinator for reasons that are explained in the diary) will have his or her hands full directing volunteers to the various functions that need to be performed. Your campaign team leaders need to keep everyone happy during the weeks ahead.
A typical campaign team within a week of the election call will have added to its ranks a volunteers coordinator, a public relations manager, an office administration group, community outreach people, and so on. Whereas you would have been lucky to see more than a dozen people at a meeting of your shadow team prior to the writ being dropped, a campaign team meeting at the start of week two of your campaign will need space for at least fifty people. It is best to hold such meetings over a lunch hour or supper because many of those folk enjoy the sandwiches, pizzas, and the discussions which flow easily over pop during the day or beers in the evening. By the end of the campaign the care and feeding of your team will have added another five thousand dollars to your costs.
Your party and the politicos running in ridings which border your own will know that all the activity begins to happen, almost regardless of pre-writ preparations, in the days immediately after the writ drops. This is one of the reasons why you were a curiosity for your EDA and your party when you kept pressing for results during those long and lonely months before the writ was dropped.
Any number of things can go wrong in the first two weeks of your campaign. By now you will have reworked your campaign plan dozens of times. The structure, financing, and early days of campaign operations have been rendered in fine detail. Be very sure that the core group of your shadow team understands that the script must be respected. Not many on your team will have your professional background. Not many will appreciate the importance of discipline when people run enthusiastically out of a gate.
Many of those who step forward and become volunteers during weeks one and two will want your campaign to conform to the standard operating procedures they became familiar with in previous campaigns. You will need the help of your core team to keep these new folk under control. The preponderant position of your official agent will be key. Your official agent must approve every document that moves into the public. Your official agent controls the money. Nothing can be done without the official agent’s approval or without the money.
The greatest worry I had in the first week of my campaign was being able to move ahead with all the pre-writ preparations I, with the help of a few in the core group, had made ready in advance. Remember: you cannot move forward on your own until after the leader of the party you represent has confirmed your status to elections officials.
The confirming role of the party leader is the one thing you will not be able to control. I learned that this confirmation is provided by the party leader in the form of a cross-Canada or cross-province list. It is easy to imagine party staffers hovering over the list and having last minute debates about who is in and who should be dropped. I was so primed to move forward. I despaired at the thought that the confirmation might not come through.
One of the driving reasons for my desperation was that, as one’s confirmation meanders down one stream from the mountain top, down another stream will soon come directions from party officials. Party officials expect that candidates, through their campaign managers, will do exactly what the party directs.
Your party is certain to instruct that all intended communications and planned activities must be cleared in advance through a designated authority. If that dictum gets to your office before you are officially confirmed, given the business ethics you have developed over the years, you just know you will do as you are told. I know I would have. If you don’t, and if there is still time to remove you from the official list of candidates, you are almost certain to be dropped.
If I had done what I was told (the dicta from party headquarters began to arrive on day three of our campaign) I would have had to set aside all of my prepared advertisements, my flyers, my brochures, the direct mail of a fun one-page “door knocker”, and more. I would have had to set aside approximately $30,000 of prepared work, including the push-button contracts I had set up which would unleash all of that material. If I had received the direction to buy into party approved material I would have been in a financial bind. But I would have done it.
Fortunately in my case, as I hope would be the case in yours, the confirmation of my status as a candidate representing the Conservative Party of Canada came on day one of the campaign and the party's central command was set up on day two. My buttons, consisting of emails and telephone calls, were all pushed before the end of day one.
The instruction from party headquarters to clear all material and plans through a newly established coordination office in Ottawa and to use approved templates for campaign literature was issued on the morning of day three of the campaign. I told my campaign manager to email back to headquarters that my campaign was already operational. It was too late to pull back initiatives we had already launched. Sixty thousand copies of my door knocker were mailed via Canada post to each residence in our riding before the end of the first week.
If you have determined upon an approach in your campaign that suits your personal style rather than mimics what all of the politicos will be doing you must be prepared for tensions throughout the election period. Those tensions will mostly come between core team members and the volunteers who showed up unexpectedly. Those volunteers will include a number of experienced politicos who will listen more to party headquarters than to you.
Again, the surest way to control what actually happens on the ground is to control the money. Your official agent, by denying funds to any and every planned publication or activity that does not fit into your campaign plan can shut down initiatives such as the acquisition of two dozen telephones, to be staffed by four dozen volunteers, to place calls to the thousands of names in your party’s information management system. Your official agent can deny the funds needed, in advance, to buy into flyers and brochures built upon official party templates in which you will see all kinds of messaging that makes no sense in your riding. You will also see, if you look very closely at those templates, that your picture is supposed to appear somewhere below that of your party leaders and of any politicians in your area who already hold seats in the legislature.
Your official agent will become greatly disliked. Your campaign manager, who is being bombarded on one side by party headquarters staff, will have a hell of a time controlling the urge of newly recruited volunteers to do what they have always done before. Your communications team will become frustrated because they have precious little to do. Your material is already out there. Calling back the advertisements that are pre-set to run in weeks three, four, and five of the campaign is not an option.
By the end of week two however, if you have stayed the course, your team will begin to hum. It takes about fourteen days for your army of new volunteers to be pruned of those who would rather work on the standard model. The ones who stay will begin to appreciate working on the basis of a plan that is customized to the riding they are in. You will see reconfirmed what you always learned in your business environment before politics. Almost everyone enjoys the satisfaction of results intended and results achieved. Almost everyone appreciates a professional approach. Most people in your new army will love working on an “old style” campaign where the focus is upon meeting people, talking substance, being honest and on topic. Dispensing with the meaningless busy work in the “science” of electoral politics is as good for their souls as it was for your own.
Not a single volunteer, unless the pizza and beer are of very high quality, enjoys sitting with others behind a bank of telephones and computers to make cold calls or send bulk messages that upset the recipients 100% of the time. No one really enjoys the science part of it very much.
Your party, by the way, will try very hard to get your campaign manager to devote as much volunteer time to the data gathering exercise as possible. National and provincial parties have totally accepted that success in elections depends upon what is done centrally rather than locally. Party headquarters have fully embraced the finding that you as a candidate can not make more than 5% of difference in the final tally of votes. If they had to choose, party headquarters would rather you use the period of the election to build up data on Voter ID than spend your time vying for votes on the streets, in the homes, and in the businesses of your riding. Voter ID is a very expensive program in volunteers, time and money. If your campaign team uses most of its time and most of its money to improve party records the resulting improvement will be subsidized – up to 60% of costs – when the campaign is over. The aficionados of Voter ID in party headquarters would be grateful for this outcome. They expect you to lose anyway so why not build towards a better future?
If it is possible to imagine having accurate data on the voting intention of all residents (names, telephone numbers, email addresses) and if those data identify 33% of the residents in a riding such as Ottawa-Vanier to be supporters, the GOTV program could be implemented one day out of a central office. The party could have a real chance of winning no matter who the candidate happens to be or what he or she does. But what kind of future is that? What does it say about democracy in Canada that this kind of future is not entirely a fantasy?
One of the activities that remained high on my preferred list throughout the period of the election was participation in public debates. I was very confident in my ability to do a good job. You will find, however, that your party does not like activities of this kind. There are at least two reasons for this, the validity of them both being a matter that should also be of growing concern to us all.
The first reason is that a growing number of first-time candidates for public office are politicos. Their professional backgrounds are weak if existing at all. They learned as young aspirants to limit what they say to slogans. In public debate most candidates therefore do not impress very much. In their gathered number on public stages and media channels across the land their performance and their antics dumb-down the political process. Party elites are aware intuitively that their hold on power depends upon the political system remaining in high enough repute to ensure wide regard for the powers they wield. Party leaders and their staffs do not like seeing the reality of politics – that it has become a world of politicos – displayed too openly.
Another reason why more and more candidates are being told by their party headquarters to absent themselves from public forums is that, for the most part, the people who make up the audience are already committed to one candidate or another. Public forums at one time, and perhaps still at the municipal level, could or can make a difference. A high enough proportion of people may once have walked out of those events with their sights newly set. These days most people are not in the audience to learn anything (it’s mostly about slogans anyway) but to direct embarrassing questions or hurl slanders at the representatives of the parties they do not support. These days there is more to be gained in the headline that you did not attend (name recognition means everything) than in spending time to strengthen views that are already deeply rooted. Public debates give each candidate an opportunity to preach to the converted.
A relatively new phenomenon is the mass communications option of internet tools like Twitter. Facebook is already losing lustre but is nonetheless still on the list, as is YouTube. These tools are mostly one-way messaging techniques that make the sender feel good. The sender believes that he or she is being listened to. It is no longer possible to be a candidate for public office without participating in this kind of one-way communication. I devoted quite a bit of time and energy getting my perspectives and related images onto Facebook and YouTube (I am still there on Google - check me out!) and my team used all of the other internet tools available. You never know. Once in a while a particular spot goes viral. Getting elected, for novices, is rather like winning a lottery. You have to buy as many tickets as you can.
The hallmarks of old style campaigning are attendance at public events, participation in debates on the issues, and of course door knocking.
The door knocking you did during your months as candidate-designate before the writ dropped pales in comparison to the kilometres you will be walking over the five weeks of the election. On this round you will always be surrounded by volunteers, often in the dozens. Whereas most residents did not want to be bothered with you before the election was called, on your rounds during the election you will at least be expected. At a number of doors you may still not be welcomed but you will not be told “I did not know an election was going on.”
Since you will persist in believing that a respectful discourse should allow for at least ten minutes of give and take, and since in only one highrise you might expect to knock on as many as two hundred doors, you should do the math. During the five weeks of an election campaign you cannot possibly make personal contact with everyone in your riding. Politicos say all the time that they do this. If you use the figures just set out and if you allow that in a ten hour day you want to devote a couple of hours to eating and doing other things, it would take about four days to deal honourably with a resident at each door in a medium sized highrise. If you have ten such buildings in your riding this means that, before you can turn your attention away from your ten highrises and to the tens of thousands of private homes, the election will already be over. Door knocking, as a way to make personal contact with the voters in a riding, is a crock. Politicos and party officials continue to laud door knocking because it is the quintessential activity that legitimizes the political system in a democracy. But it is a crock. If democracy truly depends upon voters knowing who their candidates are then democracy has become impossible in most electoral districts across Canada.
When I ran through (literally) a small number of the many highrises in my riding, always accompanied by volunteers, I learned that the system used by politicos is to hop from alternate floor to alternate floor (working with two teams) then hope like crazy that residents are not home. That way literature can be dropped on the floor and the next door be knocked upon with a minimum of delay. When doors open the door knocking teams are in trouble. Having to say something meaningful is not in the script. There was particular concern if I happened to be on the floor because I would go to that opened door and begin to talk. This would delay getting through the highrise by an additional ten minutes each time.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Many people will tell you that running for politics is a noble enterprise.
Those people are right.
Those people are right because your run for public office will likely be the only time in your life that you will force yourself to think deeply about the full range of social, economic, and political issues that matter in your riding. Especially during the election itself, but also before, you will be thinking every minute of every day about what might make things better for the people you see on your streets, at their front doors, and sometimes even inside their homes over coffee. For an intense period of five weeks you will be subject to a barrage of questions and challenges which tune your mind and ramp up your emotional and intellectual energy because you, especially you the novice candidate, will want to acquit yourself well.
Your fellow candidates, the politicos, will be dragging and bragging themselves through the same processes that you must run through. It is a kind of gauntlet, at the end of which you will feel beaten and perhaps hurt a little bit. But you will have learned a lot not only about your neighbourhoods and the people who make them up, but also about yourself. Running the gauntlet is to run between two lines of people who each have a stick to whip you with as you pass by.
Because you will be surrounded by core team members and literally hundreds of volunteers who support you personally or support the party you represent you will hear each and every hour of every day that you are doing very well. You just might win. Because of your professional background the odds that your local and regional papers will endorse you as being the best candidate are high. As your support appears to grow and as the endorsements come in, to say nothing of the optimism that grows when you see those hundreds of signs with your name emblazoned upon them, your pride will begin to swell. Your determination to not let people down will harden to steel.
But the numbers were mostly right from the outset. Notwithstanding the best of your efforts you could not possibly make personal contact with more than 10% of the voting public during a campaign. Those in your circle of supporters number at most in the high hundreds. You need 20,000 votes to win. If your party is not well liked in your riding, meaning that your party typically draws about 25% of the vote, the best you can do is influence five of those percentage points. Your pride has swollen and your determination to be a really good elected representative is solidly in place. On election night you will be eager, somewhat anxious, but also relieved because you have done the best you can in a venture that you had not foreseen. Notwithstanding the odds you faced when you were first appointed by now you will find yourself hoping to win.
A win no longer seems impossible for a number of reasons. First, you have been endorsed as the best candidate in most of the local and regional media. Your background had marked you as one of the “good people” whom the pundits are all looking for. Second, because your circle of supporters (campaign team, volunteers, friends and family of same) numbers a couple of hundred you will have been assured dozens of times every day that you are doing a good job. Third, if your party typically achieves 25% of the vote and if most of the riding residents you meet are at least polite, one in four potential voters will loudly say you can count on their vote and the politeness of two more will be interpreted by your team as being either undecided or a potential “yes”.
The odds, however, will remain what they were when you began. As a novice candidate, unless you were lucky enough to run in a riding that is safe for your party, you are most likely to lose. The night of the election is when your unexpected opportunity, which was followed by your determination and then by your dream, will come to its end. The beginning of the end happens at the gathering in your campaign office on election night.
One of the things you will notice is that, aside from family, those gathering together are only the few core team members who were with you from the beginning. Your hundreds of volunteers have been through all this before. They have once again gone the extra measure for their party of choice and their jobs are done until next time. They are not neophytes in this business. They know the odds against your winning will not have changed because of how well your campaign was waged.
Another thing you will notice is that the media people who stop by at the start of the evening will number in the twos and threes. In the course of the campaign you met with dozens of them. Those folk can sniff out what is going to happen. If you drop into the evening’s gathering in the office of the sitting member of Parliament or legislature whom you were competing against you are likely to see most of the reporters and pundits you have come to know.
It will be necessary to place a call to the other candidates before the night is over. You must offer your congratulations to the winner and your condolences to the losers. This is a test of character. Your call may stimulate the politicos among them to place a call or two of their own. They will have been surprised to receive your call because conduct of this kind is not known to experienced politicos and to younger people whose whole professional lives have been spent in pursuit of political rewards.
The moment your loss is confirmed, by the way, your profile comes to an immediate stop. Period. It is over. It is tough.
In your long career when you moved from one office to another or from one line of work to another you stayed engaged with the same set of professional associates and usually had a track record with many of the folk in your new place of work. There was a continuity in your life which you could count upon to give reassurance, even comfort. As a defeated candidate, a novice who had arrived unexpectedly on the political scene, you will not have built up any relationships which outlast the period of the election.
The day after the election begins a period of adjustment that may last for months. You must be ready to experience a breakdown that can be likened to post traumatic stress disorder. You will dream regularly, for a very long time, that the election is still on and that there is one bit of campaigning that you still need to do. In your dreams you may even know that the election is over and that you lost, but you will be asked by elections officials to rebuild your team because there were irregularities and the election must be run all over again. In my case the dreams began to fade after four months.
In the days immediately following the campaign there is still work to do. Your volunteer team will be entirely gone. A few core members of your campaign team may still respond to your emails and phone calls but their availability for work will likely have come to an end as well. Their lives returned immediately to normal. There is almost no one around to help you take down those hundreds of lawn signs and arterial street signs. City by-laws will require you to remove within a week.
In my case, for the first day anyway, I had the help of one of my sons, a close friend, and one volunteer who had a truck. For the two days that followed there was only me and my jeep. For all three of the days it was raining, sometimes very hard, and it was unusually cold. Prepare yourself to be miserable while this labour intensive job consumes five or six hours of your time. You must do your work alongside public streets. You must walk onto the yards of private homes to remove all those signs – once so glorious – which declared your intention to become the next elected member of the federal Parliament or the provincial Legislative Assembly. It is backbreaking and it is humbling. The metal rods you and your team had driven deeply into the ground to hold the larger arterial signs are especially difficult to haul out of the ground. You will need the love of your partner or spouse to help get you through it.
The most important person on your team when the campaign began, your official agent, is now the only person aside from your partner or spouse who stays in regular contact. That is because he or she took on a set of legal undertakings that did not end with the election. Your official agent is the person who took custody of your office lease and your office furniture. He or she has a legal duty to oversee the closing down of the lease and the return of rented furniture and effects. The official agent is also legally responsible to close down the books on your campaign. Because of your background and your careful preparations your books, like mine, will be in good order. In my case my official agent was able to put a wrap on all things financial and get a signoff from our official auditor within four months.
For four months, therefore, I was legally defined as the “candidate of record” for my party in the riding of Ottawa-Vanier. For four months I and my official agent were held to account for any irregularities in our books (there were none) and for any charges or allegations that might be filed against my campaign. Again, there were none. For four months the communication between me and my official agent continued and I was very happy for that. She was the only one still interested in our having coffees together to compare notes on our respective intentions and to reflect on the nineteen months we lived together with so many others.
I was somewhat surprised to learn that my EDA, which got legally back into business the day after an election, remained out of touch for all of those four months. When my campaign books were officially closed (with a word of congratulations from elections officials and from our official auditor) my campaign was able to return almost thirty thousand dollars to the EDA because of the subsidy paid by Elections Canada. The EDA also received all of the used signs and metal supporting rods. Though valued at around $20,000 in the course of the campaign I expect their value is less than zero. I will not be running again. The signs must be destroyed.
Nevertheless, our EDA was better off financially after the campaign than it had been at the start. I expected to warmly receive words of congratulations from the EDA executive.
As a novice candidate, one who had not had the time or inclination to build up a network of colleagues within your party prior to your becoming a candidate, be prepared for the immediate end of all contact between you and your electoral district association. Be prepared as well for total quiet from staffers in the headquarters of the political party you stood for. Your journey together began as a surprise to everyone. In the course of your journey you demonstrated again and again that your priority was to stay true to your own professional and personal ethics. The young men and women who worried that you were out of control and might cause a problem on a regional and even national scale are pleased to now outlive you in the political realm. With your party you are done.
I gave one last stab at staying politically active. After the municipal election that took place during my nineteen months you will see in my diary that I contacted those who lost. Over lunch or coffee I proposed that we candidates for public office, especially those who lose, should form loose-knit groups that gather between elections from time to time to discuss what is happening on the political scene. I made the same proposal to people who had run for provincial office and I reached back to former Conservative candidates who had lost in Ottawa-Vanier. After the federal election I made the same proposal to rival candidates who had also lost. I had some very interesting discussions and email exchanges. The follow up was zero.
Being done in the political sphere means that, when you can safely leave the whole experience behind you (because your legal status with elections officials and agencies has ended), you can return to the career you had set aside for the duration. In my case I was unable to do this. I gave it a try for a while. My nineteen months as a candidate had so broken my stride as associate vice president and senior consultant with my consulting firm that I was unable temperamentally to get back to business as usual. I was at a point in my career where full retirement had become a valid option. I have taken that option.
OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS
In an overview and a diary that together reflect what I, as a novice candidate, encountered in electoral politics in Canada it is important to begin with strong and positive words. I am not a poet but I want to use an unusual structure of words to get the emphasis right:
In order for democracies to work effectively
it is of profound importance
that the men and women who vote upon legislation which impacts their fellow citizens
be people who regularly and personally
experience the travails of a fair electoral process.
The drift in democratic politics away from the willingness of “good people” to spend the time, money, and personal capital (family, friends, professional colleagues) to engage as novice candidates in the electoral process will not stop. The welcome of novice candidates among the politicos will not increase. But the gauntlet of peoples’ expectations, hopes and demands that a candidate must run through during the period of an election will always be a wake up call for politicos. Elections will always include the risk of electoral upsets because of how political winds may blow. The gauntlet that must be run includes slights and insults. It includes personal trials which engage friends and family. The candidate, whether a novice or a long-time (even if still very young) politico, will always emerge at the other end somewhat chastened. Somewhat humbled. Somewhat ennobled by the intensity of the effort.
The personal tests that an election imposes are meaningful. This is true notwithstanding that the citizens who line up along both sides of the gauntlet represent only a small percentage of the number who will vote.
The more populous our ridings become in the future the fewer will be the chances for a resident to discuss political issues with a candidate. In future years residents will vote for a “favoured” candidate knowing even less than today about who that candidate is. The vote for a local candidate will increasingly be a response to what is communicated from party headquarters. The communication will be in slogans and vague promises that have little meaning on the ground. The difference a candidate can make on his or her own chances are today held to explain under 5% of the overall result. That percent will go down in future years, not up. From a numbers perspective (whether a political party wins or loses) the characteristics of individual candidates will become redundant.
I think this growing redundancy is regrettable but I no longer believe things would get better if large numbers of “good people” – as described in this overview – get involved. Would Canada’s foreign policy in recent times have fared better under a clone of Lester Pearson than it did under the lifelong politico John Baird? Were the Canadian Forces better managed by the former general, Gordon O’Connor, than by the lifelong politico Peter MacKay? I think the record shows that politicos are just about as trainable once elected to Parliament as are the novices who came into electoral politics with a well rounded background. Politicos may also be preferable to “star” candidates who, having achieved all they can in their business or professional careers, hope to use the powers of the state to further personal goals.
What bothers me much more is pretence. There was a joke going around when I was a kid which will help me make my point.
There is this guy, see, who stands on a corner of two busy streets in Toronto. He is energetically flapping his hands. His hands have been left limp at the wrists so the impression is quite a foolish one. When asked what he is doing his answer is: “I am keeping the elephants away.” The return of course is: “There are no elephants around here.” The response from the idiot, as a look of achievement spreads on his face, is: “You see, it’s working!”
In the electoral process in Canada’s democratic system there is a whole lot of hand flapping going on. It is done during every election to ensure that the image of Canada’s democracy stays vibrant and strong. Because Canada’s governments at all three levels (municipal, provincial, federal) are among the most successful in the world it is seems to almost everyone that the flapping of hands is working.
To see candidates running from door to door and place to place – literally running, with staff holding papers and satchels chasing behind – is to see hands flapping. Candidates, especially winning candidates, will affirm at the end of the activity that they have personally met with thousands of residents. At best they will have met with 10% of the voting public. Their boasts are akin to the useless flapping of the idiots hands.
To see candidates nod and grimace at residents who open their doors for a three second verbal salute and to hear candidates say that they have gauged the attitudes of the voting public through discussion and listening is to see hands flapping. If a meaningful exchange takes at least ten minutes, the great likelihood is that the percent of the voting public for whom an oral exchange was meaningful is extremely low.
To see candidates throw literature onto the door steps of private homes and of businesses and to hear campaign teams say that they have spread the word on what their candidates stand for is to see hands flapping. The content of that literature is mostly bumph. The content in most cases is a lock-step uptake of exactly the same messages as are being bombarded through media of all kinds upon the public by central headquarters of each political party. The uptake of the material by residents appears to be 99% but this is because most people do not like to leave garbage on their door steps. Almost no one reads the contents as they carry the stuff to their recycle bins.
To see candidates participate in debate with other candidates on public stages or on private television and internet networks is to see hands flapping. It is rare to draw more than one hundred people to a public debate. In most ridings you need 20,000 votes to win. It is rare to hear that the audience watching the television or internet channels is more than a couple of thousand. You need 20,000 votes to win.
To spend a whole lot of campaign money to build up data on who your party’s supporters are (Voter ID) during an election and to say that this exercise will help you to win the election is to flap your hands like the idiot in the joke. You need about 20,000 votes to win. To make telephone calls or seek return information via email in a riding of 60,000 voters takes much more time and resources (people and money) than can be raised and expended during the five weeks of a campaign. It amounts to busy work. It can – at best – result in improved data on 5,000 or so voters. Those data will not be reliable by the time of the next election. Very little, if anything, will be done between elections to keep those data up to date. If, in a riding such as mine, our data had been stunningly accurate and our demon dailers had helped to ensure all 14,000 Conservative party supporters got out to the polls I would have known for certain that I would lose. We would have pissed off everyone else and I needed 20,000 votes to win.
To devote a team of supporters, cars, pizzas and beers to a strong Get Out the Vote (GOTV) drive on election day is to flap your hands wildly about. At best you will be able to ferry a few hundred people to the polls. Half of these will be supporters of competing parties who are pleased to accept the services you have provided for free.
It is amusing, but really kind of sad, to watch political parties, political scientists, pundits, columnists, elections agencies and even courts get wrapped around the axle about tangential issues like robocalls. It is amusing because the impact of these irritating telephone calls by cynical campaign team members will influence such a small percentage of the vote. It is sad because, by focusing upon unethical practices that impact the vote in ones and the twos, the people and the institutions who should be worried about the state of democracy in Canada are allowing the fundamentals to fall apart without comment.
As the hands flap during our elections the crowds gather around the idiot candidates and ask what they can do to help. Everyone is satisfied that the elephants are being kept at bay. There will never be the need for an “Arab Spring” in Canada. No way.
I want to take a poke at those in the crowd who dance around the idiot and cry: “what we need is proportional representation!” The only meaningful impact of the hand flapping, and it is of profound importance, is upon the bodies, minds and spirits of the candidates themselves. Those hands are like the sticks that were once wielded when gauntlets had to be run by miscreants who were undergoing punishment or youth who were being tested.
To change Canada’s “first past the post” elections approach to one where a significant number of aspirants for public office no longer have to run the gauntlet would be to create a system where the one piece that still ennobles participants in the process is removed. Proportional representation, where it means that people high enough on a party’s list do not have to run at all, would be wrong. In my view all those who ultimately sit in places where laws and regulations are voted upon must have had the courage to run the gauntlet which has public office waiting on the other end for the few who win.
There is a kind of “hunger games” echo in an electoral approach (proportional representation) which allows a small number of party elite to watch party representatives run electoral races in order to build up the points which will bring the elites themselves into power. If it proves ultimately impossible to hold back the growing momentum in favour of proportional representation (all party elites will jump onto this bandwagon one day) my recommendation is that a person cannot stay on the preferred list of a political party unless that person has personally run somewhere and has obtained at least 20% of the vote in the political jurisdiction where he or she ran.
Sure, elections are akin to lotteries. Look at what happened in Canada’s province of Quebec when the New Democratic Party leader, just days before a federal election, impressed television viewers with a joie de vivre, a good French, and courage in the face of cancer. Across the province and in ridings across Canada candidates running for the NDP moved up from third and last place to first and second place rankings overnight. You could win in Quebec if you were NDP even if you never lived in a riding and did not speak the French language.
All candidates however, whether politicos (the NDP place holders in Quebec were all young party activists) or novices with impressive credentials, recognize in each other the daring it takes to stand publicly for something and the courage it takes to run the gauntlet of the electoral process. The public at large, while perhaps disdainful of the political system overall and of politicians in particular, have an intuitive awareness that the people who end up in the House of Commons (federal) or Legislative Assemblies (provincial) are people who have sacrificed something in order to get there.
Citizens in a democracy are more likely to respect the authority of its institutions and its leaders if they know that somewhere in the process the electorate – even if in relatively small numbers – can impose upon their leaders the eating of humble pie. The leaders of failing and failed democracies make sure, after winning their first election, that humble pie is served to others but never again to themselves.
This includes the stress that electoral district associations can impose upon their candidates. Members of those associations, notwithstanding what I have said about their professional competencies (public or private sectors), generally insist upon the privileges that come with membership. Chief amongst these is the power to vote in favour or against the person who proposes to be their candidate in the next election. At the association level candidates are personally known by those whose vote they seek. The political record in Canada is replete with examples of candidates, including sitting members of Parliament or of provincial assemblies, who have upset their association members and have paid a price for that.
Running for public office is too hectic an activity to enhance a person’s understanding of political theory. I came into this activity with a background that includes doctoral studies in political science and two years as a lecturer of political theory. I am not much wiser about the democratic process now than I was before. My heavy dose of practice, however, prompts a couple of practical considerations.
First, it would help if the competition among candidates was more fair on the ground. I have observed that the sitting member of Parliament or of a Legislative Assembly is like a professional competing with amateurs. This can be changed by spreading the money now provided to sitting members around to the EDAs of all registered parties in a riding.
If this change were to come along with legislation which makes it illegal for political parties to maintain information on how citizens vote, then EDAs will find ways to spend that money which do not include those troublesome and destructive Voter ID programs.
Second, a person elected to public office should be limited by legislation to a maximum of two successful elections, or eight consecutive years, in public office representing the same riding. It means that successful politicos have a harder time whipping their EDAs into submission. Sitting politicians will have to worry about finding jobs outside of the realm of politics and pension costs will go down. There would be new faces in electoral competitions on a fairly regular basis and EDAs – the bulwark of electoral participation in Canada – would become more consequential.
First-timers, including novices, will have a more reasonable chance. If an elected politician is particularly good (party leaders, premiers, prime ministers) the alternative to that person stepping away from office will be to find another riding after eight consecutive years. People whom political parties want to keep in public office should be good not only for the party but also for more than one riding in the country.
CONDOLENCES AND GOOD LUCK
This last section is for novices only. It is for those who have had satisfying careers in the public or private sectors and who now are contemplating a run for public office. You are likely to be between forty and sixty years of age. Your energy level is good. Your health is good. Your finances are in good enough shape to tolerate a hit in the order of $200,000 by the time your run for public office is over. When it is over you will either step into the well paid job of an elected politician or return to your career or business. One way or the other you will have to begin recovering the money you have lost.
For starters, take a while to rethink why you believe yourself ready to take up the opportunity which has come to you. It takes courage to step into the electoral process. It takes tremendous stamina to stay with it if an election does not happen for months and months. You will be tempted to quit many times.
It is extremely important at the front end to understand where things stand with your partner or spouse, your adult children, your extended families, your friends, your neighbours, and your professional colleagues. For the whole time that you are preparing for an eventual election and then even more so during the election itself you will have to devote your intelligence and your wit – to say nothing about your patience and your health – to your own situation. If you have been counted upon by those closest to you to help keep a lid on internecine family tensions and feuding, know that during your period as a candidate you will fall down in this role.
Ask yourself if you are ready to become identified by one and all with the party you will step out publicly for. No matter how solid your reputation has become over your years as a private citizen in your community. No matter how carefully you have guarded your private thoughts among close friends and within your own family. To step out into the public eye with the brand of a political party on your forehead is to be typecast for the duration of your candidacy and, in the eyes of many, forever.
If you are taking this step without the enthusiastic support of your partner or spouse you should sit with him or her and be honest about what lies ahead. You may not be able to build up his or her enthusiasm but it will be imperative to build up understanding. It would help, for example, to share this book.
Your running for public office will separate you from almost all of your professional colleagues and most certainly from the professional standards that you have lived by for decades. You will be stepping into a highly amateurish and disorganized world of systems and structures. Notwithstanding the pathetic weakness of those systems and structures the people who lead them will retain the option to spit you out, the brand on your forehead deeply in place but your reputation in tatters, even on the day after the eventual election gets underway. Your partner or spouse must understand the personal risks (including the over $200,000 of expenses and foregone revenues).
A risk that has been alluded to in this account and is revealed in my diary is the one which attends all humans who feel themselves to be alone and vulnerable. As a novice candidate, especially if your partner or spouse falls down from time to time in the role of primary support person, you are certain to have these feelings. You will sometimes feel an intense draw to politicos or politicians you meet because they know exactly what you are going through. If they offer the hug that you so desperately need you will be tempted to take it. Politics can be extremely hard on the personal relationships of a novice such as you, and also for your partner. Politicos and their extended families know what to expect. Even if hugs turn into embarrassing episodes of intimacy political families have learned to stay the course.
If, notwithstanding why a “good person” should think twice about stepping into the ring, you decide to run anyway…be prepared to lose. You are almost certain to lose.
I offer this caution not just because I lost myself. You will see in my diary that I began thinking I might win when half way through my nineteen months as a candidate. The lessons in this handbook are drawn from the diary not of one who expected to lose but of one who began to think he might win. I offer the caution that you be prepared to lose because novices like we most typically lose.
If the riding where you have the opportunity to run is open to a novice candidate it means that all the well connected politicos have declined. Only novices who are publicly known are offered safe seats, and even they mostly lose. In your case all well-connected politicos have declined because their gut tells them that a victory is impossible. The politicos will mostly be right about this kind of thing.
After you have lost the election the mark that branded you will remain. You will find that for many years to come, if you continue to live where you now live and you continue to hang out with the same set of professional and personal colleagues, observations on the performance of the party you represented will come your way. If you assert that you dislike what you are seeing and hearing, people who are opposed to the brand on your forehead will stop looking at it for a while. But the unease about what you once stood for will always be there.
For my part I have learned to ignore what people say or, even better, to try and understand what my party and its leaders are doing. I then explain party intentions better than the sitting politicians do. I stand up proudly as my party’s representative. By standing proud, even though I may be of two minds privately, the questions and the disapproving looks are most likely to stop but my reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative continues to grow.
After you lose the election remember that a period akin to post traumatic stress will almost certainly follow. A crescendo begins to build as an election approaches. It builds even more during the election itself and, on the morning that the polls open, you will expect your determination and your pride to take you over the top. Almost everyone who has joined your team will tell you that you are certain to do much better than anyone expects. You prepare for the reward that, in a professional context, goes to those who have planned expertly and done their work diligently. But when you lose it will all be over, instantly, and only your spouse or partner will be there to help you recover your pride. A former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada wrote an entire book in which he tries to reconcile his damaged ego to its fate after his lost election.
There are so many reasons why “good people do not go into politics”.
If you have been at the precipice for a while and are wondering whether to make the jump I bet the contents of this book will not make your decision any easier. If you remain poised however…my advice is “Go ahead. Do it!” It seems like counselling the suicide to leap off a building or a bridge.
I say “do it” because if people like you and I do not have the courage to step into this process and learn from it, what hope is there for our democracy over the long term? Even though the damage to us personally and financially may be considerable the lessons we learn and the lessons we teach by our examples will spread wider if we jump than if we do not. I say “do it” because there are a number of important causes we humans can serve in our societies. Running for public office in a democracy is one of the greatest of them.
The electoral process itself is ennobling. It really is. While you may not have the energy to stay with the business of politics after you lose you will have gained something in the effort that provides grist for stories you will tell again and again, and write about. Your listeners and your readers will know those stories to be important. Democracy is important. You sacrificed something in order to learn what you will have earned the right to talk about and to write about. Jump. And, after you recover, do not keep silent.
RUNNING FOR THE PEOPLE?
The Overview you have just read and the Diary that follows are linked together in a book with this title. The sub-title of the book is "How Canadian Elections Favour the Career Politician".
The answer to the sub-title is that politicos score much higher than novices on a simple quiz that tests a person's mettle for running the gauntlet of tests encountered by all serious candidates. The quiz can be self administered. It invites readers who are poised to launch their candidacy to rate themselves from zero to ten on each of the following questions.
The test of privacy
1. Do members of your immediate and extended family already associate you with the political party you hope to represent?
2. Do your friends and neighbours already associate you with the political party you hope to represent?
3. Will your personal relationships be enhanced by your standing publicly for the political party you have chosen?
4. Will your professional relationships be enhanced by your standing publicly for the political party you have chosen?
The test of values
5. Are you comfortable saying what your five core values are to the journalist who interviews you or when you stand on a public stage?
6. Are you comfortable saying which of your core values line up most closely with the values associated with the political party you expect to represent? Core values include belief in a god, belief that family is the root structure for a society, transparency and consistency, honesty regardless of consequences, commitment to fitness in mind and body, belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings and perhaps even of all living things, and so on.
7. Are you prepared to keep quiet, when asked, about which of the values associated with your party you do not yourself subscribe too?
The test of commitment
8. Have you and your partner agreed that you are able to set aside income earning opportunities throughout the time of your candidacy?
9. Are you able to count upon at least ten family members or close friends to provide the help you will need during the five weeks of an election?
10. Do you have experience asking for money from family and friends?
11. Are you comfortable asking associates and strangers for money, from a low of $20 to a high of $1500?
12. Do you have a track record of bringing associates and strangers together in a pursuit that, in the end, will benefit - if you are successful - to a far greater extent than any of them?
The test of leadership
13. Would you say that you are widely known in your riding for your ability to command and lead?
14. Are you prepared to cede all claims to leadership over your campaign to a campaign manager and to your central party headquarters?
The test of isolation
15. In your record of achievement to date, have you had to change your network of professional associates along the way?
16. In your record of achievement to date, have you had to change your network of friends along the way?
17. How strong is the interest of your family and friends in being a part of your future in politics?
The test of endurance
18. Do you agree that rights of passage in social or professional settings are a useful way to test and demonstrate character and attitude?
19. Do you agree that the highs of a personal or professional experience are almost always worth the lows?
20. Do you agree that quitting a pursuit, once you have committed yourself to it, is hardly ever an option?
21. Do you agree that completing a task in which others around you have a stake can be more important than health itself?
The test of completion
22. Do you agree with the slogan: "anything that is worth doing is worth doing well"?
23. When projects you initiated in your professional life were completed, was it important for you to be on hand to close the deals?
24. In the last mile of a marathon should a runner stick to the game plan no matter what?
A perfect score on this quiz would be 240 points. A politico, as described in my overview and in the book, would easily score above 200 points.
I would have rated myself at 57, scoring zero's in the categories of privacy, values, and commitment. I would have scored highest on endurance and completion.
Unfortunately, as I observe in the book, political parties prefer to keep the test of endurance to a minimum by appointing candidates as close to the day of an election call as possible. When candidates are designated earlier they are kept under tight controls to avoid the risk of embarrassment, of self or of party.
The test of completion is engaged only when the writ drops, after a candidate's designation becomes official. This last test, too, does not matter very much because it is almost impossible to bow out at this stage. A person who scores high on the questions in this test will be more likely to acquit himself or herself well through the five weeks of the election. This last test mostly reflects back onto the candidate: it asks what kind of person he or she will continue to be if successful on the day the votes are cast.
In my case, if I had self-administered a quiz such as this, I should have stepped away. I should not have run.
My diary on Nineteen Months a Candidate has been vetted to remove comments which appear unnecessarily hurtful to others. Most names have been changed, not to disguise those who were a part of my journey but to make it less likely that simple internet searches will link people to an experience they would rather not be drawn back into. The adjusted diary can be accessed via the link below.