This election, journalists in Canada got distracted. Political spinmeisters set the agenda, and many journalists followed. Covering polls and PR stunts, we often missed election-worthy stories, alienating some voters.
The biggest issue — why a third of adults don’t vote — remains a mystery. Why did 78 per cent or more vote in Ottawa-Centre and Saskatoon-Grasswood, but only 55 percent in Calgary-Forest Lawn and Windsor West?
In 1958, 1962 and 1963, Canada’s population was half of today’s 35 million; our voter turnout was above 79 percent, according to Elections Canada. Voting is mandatory in 23 countries including Australia, where 94 percent voted last time. In Canada it’s voluntary.
Yes, we got 68 per cent of voters out, up seven from last time. Yet we didn’t find out why 8 million adults abstained. These non-voters are the single biggest “party” in Canada, trouncing the Liberals (6.9 million votes), Conservatives (5.6 million), NDP (3.4 million) and Greens (606,000). Are these 8 million abstainers too confused, alienated, overworked or traumatized to vote? Who are they? Shouldn’t we help them?
Reporting The Agenda, Not The Facts
Maybe we’re disconnecting potential voters. They might have high rents or mortgages, insecure employment or worrying personal debt, but we focussed on the national debt. Instead of discussing foreign ownership of Vancouver homes or Alberta oil fields, we opined about “old stock Canadians” and a traditional Islamic headscarf. Remember the recent hubbub over temporary foreign workers? Somehow they disappeared from headlines — while continuing to work and pay taxes, with no voting rights.
I suspect the abstainers don’t trust us. Why should they, when we have also lost faith in our owners and managers? Postmedia has devalued journalism by running front-page ads or unbalanced hit pieces in their papers. Is ad revenue worth the loss of respect and credibility, as well as subscribers? Truth is our stock in trade. If we can’t get this right, why should anybody pay for our work?
Globe and Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley’s illogical editorial, urging us to vote for the Conservatives but not Harper, spawned ridicule on Twitter and at least 858 Facebook comments. For fun, try reading his acrobatic sentences aloud with a Monty Python accent.
TV networks annoyed us by running obnoxious ads that blatantly smear candidates like “Just-Not-Ready” Justin Trudeau, twice-elected MP for Papineau. Networks don’t allow tobacco companies to tell viewers that smoking is healthy. They should also reject attempts to misrepresent opponents. They can still earn revenue by allowing “sunny ways” ads.
We should transcend the notion that our reporting is somehow “balanced” by propagating lies from all sides. We didn’t have to play along with Harper’s “ka-ching, ka-ching” Price-is-Right gimmick, which misrepresented Trudeau’s platform. If we show videos that distort perceptions, we should also run subtitles citing the other side’s actual policies. Without reality checks, voters get confused and misled. No wonder 8 million people didn’t vote.
We also shouldn’t report polls as facts. Pollsters suggested the NDP, then the Tories, then the Liberals, would likely form minority governments. Only one polling company, Forum, predicted a Liberal majority. NDPers claim that a poll-addicted media built up a false narrative of the NDP as front-runners who then lost momentum. Conservatives feel likewise. We need to focus on problems and solutions, not horse races.
Forgetting The Expats
How many abstainers work overseas? The “foreign affairs” debate omitted a crucial issue: how the government treats veterans, expats and travelers. The Globe‘s Mark MacKinnon reported 1.4 million expats lost voting rights. Donald Sutherland’s rant generated more than 1,000 comments. But it wasn’t a campaign issue.
Al-Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, jailed in Egypt, said Harper didn’t help him. In her Globe piece about journalist Dave Walker’s suspicious death in Cambodia, Leah McLaren wrote that Ottawa isn’t legally bound to help us overseas. Diplomats have privately told me they lack authority or funding to help Canadians wrongly jailed, expelled, robbed or murdered.
Instead of delving into the China slowdown or global asset bubble, the debate focused on Syria, as if Canada is a superpower that can sway Assad, Putin and Arabian royalty. Citing Department of National Defense figures, the Ottawa Citizen reported that we bombed Syria only four times — 0.15 percent of the Allied total.
Excluding Women’s Issues From The Conversation
How many abstainers are women? Canadian women rank among the world’s greatest athletes, musicians, executives and aid workers. Yet the Globe, which employs some of the world’s best female journalists, excluded Elizabeth May from their debate, infuriating at least 600,000 Greens and others.
Somehow, women’s clothing upstaged poverty, day-care centers, health care and some 1,200 missing or dead Aboriginal women. No wonder only 88 women won seats, ranking us about 50th in the world in the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments behind Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Bolivia and Burundi.
The Long Campaign
Were abstainers just bored of the long campaign? Maybe, and so were many journalists. Should we shelve democracy because it’s not click-bait? As leaders flocked to the Vancouver battleground, Canadian Press in British Columbia moved stories about “superhuman bodies” and “imposter snow helmets.” Did anybody follow-up on Ian Young’s SCMP Hong Kong story about a Chinese fugitive’s dealings with BC Liberals?
Fear of Fraud
Maybe abstainers suspect it’s all a sham anyway. Electoral fraud? That only happens in Africa or Russia, right? We didn’t call the “home renovations” scheme or “infrastructure spending” promises what they are: vote buying. We didn’t chastise the Greens, like the NDP in Quebec in 2011, for parachuting candidates into unfamiliar ridings. Worshipping democracy, we treat Elections Canada like omniscient priests and don’t demand they crackdown on crooked attempts to redraw ridings or bribe us with our own cash.
Who are these officials, anyway? Are they actually discouraging us from voting?
The Tyee reported nearly 100,000 ballots in 2011 were rejected in an election marred by “robo-calls”. This year, ballots ran out in six First Nations communities. Tyee writer David Ball said he saw ballots with “printing errors“, one of at least eight cases nationwide. The Globe‘s Doug Saunders tweeted that officials sent him home twice to fetch “better” ID with his middle initial. (I suggested he present his middle finger). The Fair Elections Act is unfair and we should demand its overhaul.
The new Canada Fair Elections act has forced me — a fully registered voter — to walk home twice to produce sufficient ID to vote
— Doug Saunders (@DougSaunders) October 19, 2015
Lack of Local Candidate Coverage
Perhaps abstainers don’t vote because they don’t know who to vote for, and we aren’t helping them. We focus on Steve, Tom or Justin but tell voters little about the local candidates whose names appear on ballots. Did local issues get much coverage? I’m not sure. I got distracted.
The whole system needs a rewrite. Canadians demanded political change and they want media change, too.
Canadian journalist and author Christopher Johnson has traveled in more than 100 countries and recently covered Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, Thailand, Philippines and Japan for CTV and many others. The CAJ nominated his site Globalite Magazine for Best Online Media in 2014.