Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Leaders Debate - Kitchener Residents Unmoved/Uninterested By Dramatic Narratives

Out of the ten Kitchener Centre voters I asked on the #8 University/Westmount bus this morning, only three had watched any of last night's leaders debate. Of those three, none had significantly changed their opinion of the leaders or their vote intention on Oct 6. Of the other seven, five had answered "maybe/yes" on whether they intended to cast a ballot and four out of five answered yes on whether they definitely knew who they intended to cast it for.

Sure, I'm no pollster, and ten voters certainly don't make up a poll, but these people here in town corresponded with the public mood I've noticed in this election campaign, which is a mix of uncertainty and ambivalence. The complete opposite of the confident and fired-up leaders we watched on TV last night. And maybe the word on the street in Ontario today in response to last night's broadcast is "Turn down the bombast, turn up the substance".

Much of the media reports today are focused on the leaders' performances. Hudak kept his calm, Horwath kept her poise, McGuinty demonstrated passion and excitement to convince those who think he might be spent after eight years that he's got gas in the tank. This is unfortunate. It's really great that the leaders got their delivery and emotions under control but they're not auditioning for roles in a film. The first questions were about specific issues affecting specific demographics: graduate and youth unemployment, seniors being able to afford to keep their homes, students struggling with bills and debt. Predictably, every response amounted to what people wanted to hear: You're getting the shaft, we know this, and we'll actually imporove things for people in your situation if you vote for us. We'll spend more here, give you a tax credit there, and relieve some charges here. McGuinty as an incumbent had some awkward dancing to do here, as his two opponents mocked him for suddenly deciding to create programs and initiatives for an election campaign when many of these issues have been festering for years.


But when Mike from Toronto directly asked the leaders the question so many Ontarians who know about our enormous fiscal challenges are asking: "What sacrifices are you going to require?", they avoided it entirely. A question that for once didn't frame our society as a bunch of dependent children with our hands out asking "What are you going to give/do for us?", but as mature adults asking "What will we have to do, since we are informed enough to see sacrifices will be required?", ultimately went unanswered. I understand the calculation that goes into this - leaders don't want to be on the hook for a statement that they are going to cut something and pay an electoral price so close to the finish line - but it saddens me that we have such a dearth of real leadership.

The rest of the evening revolved around McGuinty engaging in the same kind of rah-rah hubris Canadians used to mock America for: about how we have the best schools, the best jobs, we're creating thousands of jobs, and we're ahead on the curve on Green Energy. In other words, trying to explain to Ontarians why they live in the best darn place on earth. Some may want this from a leader, but others (like me) find it overbearing and embarassing. Hudak, meanwhile, castigated the government's record and seemed to suggest that if we opt for another McGuinty term, we might as well all buy our one-way tickets to Bangladesh right now, because we'd be better off there. He reminded us that sticking with his party would guarantee us all the ultimate cheeze-whiz slogan on record in recent memory, a "Ticket to the middle class", to "buy a home and raise a family." All aboard the Hudak express, with your middle class tickets!

Horwath stuck to what she does best, railing against the two corporate yes-men in suits who have given away billions to corporations in tax cuts and are out of touch with regular people. She related stories of women she talked to across the province feeling the pinch and struggling in 2011. You might choose her if you're disillusioned, or you might think long and hard about what you're being offered in general here.

Because the truth is we're not living in McGuinty's whiz-bang, bullet train, electric cars, "exciting" (his favourite adjective last night) clean energy revolution yet. The roads are clogged with traffic, hospital ERs are backed up into the street, and meaningful employment remains hard to come by for no less than 16.9% of people under age 29. At the same time, Hudak's narrative of dire straits and crushing tax burdens is slightly overstated. All across the GTA, Southern Ontario, and here in Waterloo Region, new developments of townhouses, big box, and McMansions continue to mushroom around the highways and outskirts. Within these, there are usually two fairly new vehicles in every driveway. I think less people need places on his middle class train than he thinks.

Why can't leaders celebrate what we've accomplished as a society, such as nobody starving to death or being turned away for medical care (even if they have to wait hours, weeks, or months) instead of endlessly promising that we'll be bigger and better? And why not admit that the status quo is not working for certain people and explain how to productively address those gaps, instead of pretending the whole population is hurting so bad that it's ripe to storm the legislature tomorrow. I wish the debate featured less exaggeration and hyperbole. If it did, I suspect more Ontarians, and Kitchener residents, might have tuned in.

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