As the Ontario campaign ads finally fall silent and much of the political rhetoric takes a pause, there is now time, on all sides of the political aisle, for some thoughtful introspection. I hope each of us reflects on the corrosive influence divisive partisanship, hyperbole and ambush politics have had on our collective confidence in our precious system.
Reflection is important because this behaviour is not benign. The proof? More Ontarians than ever stayed home on election night. This month’s provincial election had a record low turnout of 43 per cent. Looking to point a finger for that result? Well, there is more than enough blame to go around: pundits, reporters, media (conventional, new and social), partisan political actors, and the citizens themselves all played a role.
Long-term trust in our system has been actively traded away for a need to achieve short-term wins. Just as many lament the cost of short-termism on Bay Street, so do I lament its toll on our public life.
Unofficial election results indicated that, compared to the 2018 election, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and the NDP respectively received approximately 413,000 and 818,000 fewer votes this time.
Now all parties are guilty of less-than-stellar behaviour, to be sure. How many times have you heard someone say, “If I conducted myself like that in my workplace, I’d be sacked by lunchtime,” when speaking of behaviour in the legislature?
Many will recall the PC government’s overzealous use of clapping staffers; Steven Del Duca’s focus on phoney PC scandals during the writ period, which culminated with their embarrassing “gravy train” announcement; and Andrea Horwath’s promotion of misinformation about OHIP delisting, which came on the heels of her decision to break agreed-upon COVID-19 protocols in the Ontario legislature in an attempt to vote down government legislation.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that these are the kinds of dodgy political tricks that turn voters off politics.
Now, there is a structural answer to where all this comes from. In political offices, at all orders of government right across the country, you will find the same thing. More opposition researchers and proverbial spin doctors than policy wonks. More people working on the taxpayers’ dime to play silly buggers than to responsibly develop and advance new policy ideas.
Parliaments — founded as deliberative and thoughtful assemblies, places for civil debate and the exchange of ideas — have become circus tents with political theatre, half-truths and personal political attacks in the centre ring.
Like a misplaced gamble on a unicorn stock, the cost of this buffoonery has been the legitimacy and relevance of our democratic systems.
Too often, our elected officials are now forced to focus their efforts on protecting themselves from political punches, rather than talking about the issues that matter most — the cost of living, health care, and housing affordability. Not to mention jobs and the economy. In short, the very issues that got them into power.
So, what to do? For starters, we could professionalize the “political staffer class.” The province’s integrity commissioner, for example, found that political staffers are undertrained and desperate for help.
Not to knock political aides — they are some of the hardest-working people in the country — but our politicians would be better served by staff with experience not just inside politics, but from outside as well.
That’s only the beginning. Politicians need to learn to resist what is currently an insatiable urge to knock their opponents down whenever they can, and think instead about their role in protecting the health of our system for the long run. They need to realize that partisan political blinders really are damaging. That they have, as elected officials, a higher duty.
After all, politics not only can be better — it needs to be better. For all of us.