Day 11: Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie on the art of electioneering, the campaign as a war, and the spoils of victory.
I spent today giving a talk on war, propaganda, and censorship to some bright young military officers who are just a few weeks away from being deployed across the country as Public Affairs Officers, or, in the vernacular, flacks. As I yammered on, carefully maintaining my blood caffeine level and trying not to swear, I realized that, more and more, the language of politics is being framed in the language of war.
We’ve always had “campaigns,” of course. And politicians have always been wounded by barbs. But ideas of war have become very important to politics. We have “heavy artillery” of attack ads. “Foot soldiers” drop off litter in people’s mailboxes. Trolls now operate from “war rooms,” though they deny the fruits of their labor are “propaganda,” even though, by every definition of the word, it is.
Politics should not be war. In a democracy, we should think more about public service. Ideas should be tossed into the marketplace, people should choose the candidate who seems most intelligent and has the best ideas, and the successful politicians should go to Ottawa to serve. (And I find it interesting that most MPs I know really take pride in the idea that they serve the public. It’s what sustains them through the boredom and crap of day-to-day life as an MP, but few articulate that very well, even during elections.)
But this is not some kind of Greek or Roman gentlemen’s republic. This is a regime built on spoils. Think about it. The federal government spends about $250 billion a year. Most of that money goes to salaries, pensions, and transfers to provinces, but a huge amount goes out the door in contracts for everything from mopping floors to designing coats of arms.
Advertising budgets are like honey to the little political bees who work so hard to win campaigns. And lobbyists now infest about 10 blocks of downtown Ottawa the way termites have spread through the old parts of Toronto. They push everything from bad cafeteria food to stealth fighters.
So the winners of a political campaign get a chance to divide the spoils. The elite staffers land jobs as chiefs of staffs to cabinet ministers and communications directors, pulling down about the same salaries as MPs and homing in on a guaranteed soft landing in the public service. Those lower on the food chain end up working as aides to MPs or get a spot on some board or commission, where they spend their term watching the second hand on some clock and marveling at the incredible length of a minute.
The losers get nothing but a lousy election night party and, quite often, a lot of blame.
Elections are now run from war rooms, factory-like operations where lies and half-truths are packaged and shipped out to the media, in hopes that somewhere along the line they’ll become a new version of reality.
I get the war room guff from all of the parties. It’s interesting stuff. The Tory material seems to have been written by juvenile delinquents, mean little brats who mistake snotty for smart. The Liberal material has a certain smugness that brings back bad memories of the 1990s. Both the NDP and the Greens send out press releases that are whiny.
(Note to Elizabeth May: they don’t want you on the debates because you have a voice like a foghorn, you’re not too bright and you can’t speak French any better than I can. Save your lawyers’ fees, get elected, and ask again in four years. And, if you can’t beat Gary Lunn, seek some new opportunities outside politics.)
I doubt we’ll see anyone, even May, fall on a sword in this campaign, though watching a political leader inflict massive damage on their own vital organs would make better TV than anything that will be offered up in this campaign.