Race to the personal

12Sep09

If there is a federal election this fall, how likely is it that it will be one of the nastiest in recent memory? Of course, they’re always nasty. But it seems to me that every election can be placed somewhere on a spectrum that answers the question: Who or what was this election about?

On one end are parties, policies and people (meaning “ordinary Canadians”) in one big group. On the other end are leaders and, more specifically, their personalities.

During the 2004 election, the Tories targeted the Liberal brand (“crooks”) and the Liberals targeted the hidden agenda of Stephen Harper and his party. So there was a mix of party and personality, but it seemed that personalities were always secondary to parties’ credibility.

During the 2006 election, the Tories again targeted the Liberal brand (“still crooks”) and Prime Minister Paul Martin himself (“Mr. Dithers”). The Liberals again targeted the hidden agenda of Stephen Harper’s party. Although it’s obviously difficult to quantify how much opposition criticism was directed at the leaders and how much was directed at their parties, there was at least some debate during the 2006 election about parties — both the Liberal record and Conservative plans for the country, were they to be elected.

During the 2008 election, the Tories almost exclusively targeted the weak leadership of StĂ©phane Dion. They also attacked Liberal policy — the flasgship Green Shift, most notably. But that plank was framed as a Dion invention, not a Liberal one. For the Tories, it was all about the Liberal leader.

In 2008, the Liberals targeted the Conservative Party more broadly than at any point since 2004, now that the Tories had a record in government open to attack. But the Liberals also continued to attack Harper as an individual.

Liberal and Conservative strategies, taken together, made personality quite important in that election. (Even Jack Layton’s slogan — “I’m running for prime minister” — took the attention away from the rest of his party.)

This year’s pre-election antics suggest that a fall election, if it happens, will almost serve as referendums on each party’s leadership. The Tories have for months attacked Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, and the Liberals are now directing their rhetoric squarely at Harper. There is little talk about policy, although employment insurance seems to be the issue that footnotes the bulk of party press releases.

What does a steadily increased focus on personality, if it exists, mean for the health of our democracy and the people who govern it? Does it even matter?

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