5 Lessons Learned on the Campaign Trail
Three weeks post-election and reflection has started to transition to focus on new projects, so I suppose it is time to get some of my thoughts down on “paper” before the rose coloured glasses start to distort. Here are a few of the many lessons I learned in my recent role as the Ontario Liberal Party candidate in the riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills (for the second time):
It is really a blessing to have the opportunity to run for elected office. It is challenging and frustrating at times, but for a brief turn of time a candidate has the opportunity to share his or her vision and at least a few people take note. You have a chance to change minds and be a catalyst for change.
A candidate gets to give a voice to people in his or her community who otherwise don’t have a voice – it is both inspiring and terrifying that individuals and groups turn to you to share their stories. A candidate gets to meet extraordinary people: this is both a blessing and a curse. A candidate finds new champions and learns what it means to be truly held to account for their positions and beliefs.
A candidate is also blessed to find themselves surrounded by supporters: family, friends and complete strangers, all of whom support your cause. There is really no explanation why so many give up their free time to assist on campaigns – countless hours were spent calling supporters, raising funds, knocking on doors, handing out flyers and driving signs into the ground. There are no words to express how grateful I am for all the hours which so many dedicated to my campaign.
Politics has the potential to bring out the worst in people. I met some truly miserable people: most of whom I believe are likely good people turned rabid for a moment by politics. I think of the posse who followed us around to debates, quoting whatever CFRA phone-in issue had been hot that morning and heckling me from the moment I started to speak at debates. It is no wonder at all that decorum has completely disappeared in the House and Legislature and that general public attitudes towards politics is souring when debate and discussion is dominated by this type of behaviour during elections.
At our final debate of the campaign this particular posse had surrounded the United Church which we were debating in with signs a la protesters on Parliament Hill and my fan club was apparently telling people to watch out for me hiding in the bushes after the debate. One candidate’s spouse was so overcome with hysteria that she kept jumping up during the debate and hollering at me and wagging her finger at me. There was the debate-regular who was so incensed to see me out canvassing in her neighbourhood that she put out a series of signs on her lawn and then raced out of her house, pretending to take photos of me. Then there was the man in Stittsville who screamed at his three year old daughter to “Slam the door in her face: slam it harder than you’ve ever slammed anything in your life”. There were slashed signs and stolen signs – far too many to have been simply teenaged pranks.
The stories abound, and most of the time it was easy to shake my head in amazement. At the end of the day though, the call for good people in public office can get drowned out by this type of behaviour.
No politician will ever come close to accomplishing the community building which volunteers passionately undertake each and every day. I met with countless organizations and groups during the campaign: some of which I didn’t even know existed prior to the campaign. They quietly work away, supporting the vulnerable in our community; promoting the sustainability of our community; making our community great. It’s the seniors organizations, the community centres, the youth centres, the food banks, the Chambers of Commerce, professional organizations, church groups, parent volunteers, community associations and sports teams. These people are the backbone of our society much more so than our elected leaders. If you haven’t thanked a volunteer lately – DO SO!
It takes great courage to be the voice of dissent.
As many of you reading this are aware, a number of Conservatives in my riding supported me in this campaign. Last fall, when the Conservative Riding Association in Carleton-Mississippi Mills was in the throes of a contested nomination for a seat held for 34 years by veteran politician Norm Sterling, I was approached informally by a number of Conservative party members urging me to run a second time for the Ontario Liberal Party and pledging their support to me if Mr. MacLaren was successful. As time progressed, the willingness of those people to declare support for me publically waned and they largely “closed ranks” so to speak. Early in the campaign I was asked by someone in the media to provide a source to support my contention that there were Conservatives supporting me and I asked former Conservative Party executive Matt Muirhead if he was willing to be public with his support of me. He agreed and what followed was, I think, a shameful display of partisan politics.
Matt’s statement was that he believed that I was the stronger candidate: that he had known me through community work over the past 4 years and knew that I was dedicated to the community. He felt we shared a vision for our community. The response was swift and vicious: Matt was vilified in Conservative circles and in Conservative media. It was suggested that Matt had ulterior motives for being public about his support for me: Matt has previously sought a Municipal seat in Kanata North. I can’t imagine why anyone would think that there was political strategy in, as it turned out, severing all the networks he had built through his work in the Conservative Party. Instead, I suggest that those complaining the loudest about Matt’s public position are some of the people most delighted that he has removed himself from the running in future Conservative nominations in our riding, thus leaving the way more clear for those individuals.
Matt dared to say that he felt the individual candidate mattered and was given a resounding message that no questions should be asked of the individual candidate and that Party allegiance trumps all. This may in fact be the case, in many voters’ minds, but what a disappointing turn in politics that we will not hold our local representatives to account for their plans for the riding or their accomplishments. In my opinion, that sets the bar far too low.
While I thank each and every one of the over 19,000 people in our riding who ultimately supported me on election day and the hundreds of people who volunteered on my campaign, I am especially grateful to have counted as one of my supporters someone who showed such courage in supporting me and took such personal attack to do so. Matt and I do share many of the same visions for our community and I hope, for the sake of our community, that he stays involved in community work.
Now to get back on my soapbox: Campaigns seem to be a time when few want to talk about actual policy and new ideas. I think it is a real shame that the following issues did not get discussed during the election campaign:
- Education: How can we better use our tax dollars to further improve what I believe is truly one of the best education systems in the world? Despite the gains that have been made in high school graduation rates, smaller class sizes in the lower grades, curriculum and higher test scores and of course full day learning, there are still important changes to be made (including smaller class sizes in the upper grades and greater educational supports for exceptional needs) and huge demands on facility space in growth areas in the Province. I believe that there are savings to be found and efficiencies to be realized by having the various school boards share facilities and perhaps some administrative functions. If one Board in a community has capacity at it’s schools and another is over capacity, I believe both as a tax payer and as a parent that we have the right to better utilization of our public spaces. If another community has need for a new school or in fact cannot support several individual schools, Boards should be required to share facility space in that community if it makes sense to do so. At the very least, we need to have a fulsome discussion about the various school boards in this Province and how we can find ways to be more efficient with our public resources.
- Health Care: Again, I believe that we have seen huge gains in health care in the face of growing demand for services. I believe in the localization of both health care decision making (i.e. LHINs) as well as the localization of care delivery. I believe that we can continue to improve access to health care in a more efficient manner by furthering the movement towards service delivery by non-physician medical professionals whenever possible. However, one issue was perfectly clear to me during this past campaign: many nurses are unhappy. Nurses bear the brunt of rising patient expectations, budget restrictions and policy changes more than any other professional in our medical system. Nurses also are the heart of our medical system: anyone who spends any amount of time in a hospital knows this to be true. Nurses understand better than anyone else in our medical system what patients need and how to most efficiently deliver that service. So here’s my suggestion: turn the medical system over the nurses for 5 years. Empower the nurses over the bureaucrats to run the system for a while and let them identify the efficiencies that can be found. I’m not an expert on health policy and I fully acknowledge that this is a simplistic answer, but I suggest that we would likely be amazed at the results the nurses would render.
- Taxes vs. Spending: There is nothing like an election campaign to highlight the problem with the expectations which most of us have: “please tax me less and also spend more money on me”. I knocked on literally thousands of doors over the course of 3 months and that was the most familiar refrain. Add in the “AND, I want all taxpayers to subsidize the heck out of my hydro so that I can use as much as I want without being responsible for the true cost of it, and we are in a difficult predicament in politics today. As citizens we have developed the expectation that we deserve every service money can buy but as taxpayers we reject the concept of paying for those services.
Along with most newly employed university graduates, I was horrified when I first learned how much of my paycheques I lost to taxes. I quickly revised my position that university tuition should be free and, as a low consumer of public services (at that time) I also determined that we spent far too much money. But life is more complicated than that. I can’t deliver my own baby, operate on my own hip, house every person needing safe and affordable housing under my own roof, provide support to every at risk youth in our community, build the roads I drive on or drive the bus I commute on. We need government services and we need to live in a community which supports all citizens at a humane level.
For example, I believe that no political party, at any level of government, has taken the correct approach to fairly funding the broad range of child care choices which are available to parents. As a society we need to encourage Canadians to have children because we need to maintain our tax base and we need to create future innovators (plus, kids are cute!). Raising children is so expensive these days, however, that many parents make choices to not have as many children as they might otherwise have, for financial reasons. Add in that there is complete inequality in tax incentives for differnet child care choices and families are frustrated. I believe that we need national strategy which allows for some amount of income splitting during the child care years (rather than the Ontario PC Party promise to income split for any couple which was not attached to a policy rationale at all but was just a vote-getter and would have cost tax payers millions of dollars). The strategy then needs to allow for the full deductability of child care expenses (or at least a more realistic amount than the current $7,000 per child) and there also needs to be much greater funding of subsidized child care for low income parents. We need to find a way to recognize the value which extended family looking after children adds. This all costs money though, particularly in lost tax revenue. If, as a society, we accept that we need to have a more fair approach to supporting child care choices we need to decide how we are going to pay for this.
We have to create a public discourse which allows for a rational discussion of the services we expect, the cost of providing those services and who should pay for them. One of my opponents had a line in his opening speech, after he detailed the list of spending promises in his Party’s platform where he said “We’ll talk about who will pay for all that, but I’ll give you a hint, it wont be you!”. As charming as it is to make those sorts of promises, they add nothing to the public discourse.
Those are 5 of the many lessons I learned over the course of the election campaign. It truly was an honour to run, to meet so many fascinating people and to start a movement for change in our community. There are a great many people in our community who are working to make small or great changes and I’m thrilled to start working with them. Watch this blog for news about great projects in our community!