"What if they called an election and nobody cared?" – Gerald Caplan

“What if they called an election and nobody cared?”

by Gerald Caplan for The Globe and Mail 

Here’s a couple of curious facts from our last federal election three years ago:

First: Compared to the 2006 election before that, the Harper Conservatives won 170,000 fewer votes, the NDP with Jack Layton got 75,000 fewer votes and the Liberals, then led by Stephane Dion, got 700,000 fewer votes.

Everyone and their Aunty Gladys agree that Mr. Dion personally kept that massive horde of Liberals hiding at home on Election Day, 2008. So what happened to a lot of Conservative and NDP voters? No one seems to know. What – who? – turned them off? And how do they get turned back on?

Second: It’s bad enough that fewer than three out of five of us Canadians thought it was worth voting at all. More pointedly, the younger you were, the less likely you were to take the trouble. If you were from 35 to 44, just over half of you bothered to vote. Among the 25 to 34 group, fewer than half could be bothered. And for the 18 to 24-year olds, barely more than a third thought it worth the effort. Insert here the usual dirge about callow youth and all those who fought and died for the right…

Until 11 years ago, no election since Confederation had attracted less than a 63 per cent turnout. Over 70 per cent had been normal, often reaching the 75 pre cent neighborhood, including both of Brian Mulroney’s elections. Look what this means for legitimacy. In 2008, Stephen Harper won the most seats with a mere 37.65 per cent of the vote. But only 58.8 per cent of us voted. So Mr. Harper got less than two fifths of the three fifths of potential votes cast. The math is far too complicated for me and my granddaughter isn’t around to help, but this sure doesn’t look like a whopping vote of confidence. Among young voters you’d need a microscope to find Mr. Harper’s supporters.

Of course the same can be said with even more devastating results for the other parties. None-of-the-above or couldn’t-care-less seem to have been the real winner.

Now the big deal about this week’s debates among the party leaders was the unique opportunity they offered to woo back lost supporters and inspire new ones. Frankly, given that before the debates we had endured a Seinfeld campaign in which nothing happened, I confidently predicted that hardly anyone would tear themselves away from Dancing With the Stars to spend two hours watching four middle-aged men in suits regurgitate pre-digested pithy sound-bites they had been rehearsing until they turned hoarse.

In fact, I seem to have been wrong (again). Apparently – so we are told – almost 4 million people watched the entire debate and over 10 million watched some of it. Ten million means something like one out of every three of us watched, including lots of children. Donne moi un break. This is preposterous, beyond credulity. When Stephen Harper, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe first faced off, in 2004 against Paul Martin, only 10 per cent of Canadians watched the entire show. Now that’s believable. But we’re stuck with these ridiculous figures for a moment. So what impact did the debate have on this vast audience?

We know that at least one prominent source was deeply impacted, even shattered: the much-loved Sun chain of newspapers. The Sun, eternally vigilant, found a genuine gotcha moment. In an editorial that appeared in all their tabloids, they shrewdly noted that the phrase “Let some flowers bloom,” uttered by Mr. Ignatieff during the debate, is not that far from Chairman Mao’s “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” The Chairman, they note accurately enough, was the most prolific mass murderer in the history of mankind, which can only mean – yes, you beat me to it – Mr. Ignatieff is guilty of being a Mao sympathizer, with all the mass murders that implies. But that’s not the end of it; the Sun does not set so quickly. It will now be devoting itself to checking out Mr. Ignatieff’s “little red book – just to see if it is actually the Liberals’ party platform or Mao’s.” That effort will surely be awaited with great anticipation by the Sun’s loyal readers of its editorials. Sounds to me like that Ezra Levant fellow has more influence than ever. Can’t wait for Sun TV to hit its stride.

Occasionally over the half-century of these debates, a small number have proved memorable and a smaller number yet have influenced the outcome. Most were spontaneous responses, not practiced retorts. “You had an option, sir.” That won. “I knew Jack Kennedy and you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Unforgettable, even now. And a loser. But we were not similarly blessed. Just as the narrow, uninspiring campaign itself has largely failed to shift many voters, neither did the debate. In truth, all the leaders did well enough to prevent any surprises or significant upsets. They might have re-invigorated some former supporters, but they’ve offered little motivation to younger Canadians turned off by the Bairdization of the political process in recent years.

So where are we with little more than two unusually short weeks to go? The Liberals will be bitterly disappointed that despite Mr. Ignatieff running a much stronger campaign than I had anticipated (yes, wrong again), the latest polls show them still below 30 per cent. Jack Layton has never been more personally popular in his entire political career and was universally applauded for his debate performances. This has brought NDP support back to where it was in the 2008 election, a little below 20 per cent, still far from the Liberals and with a looming moral victory in Quebec. NDP support remains fragile, some of its voters choosing torture by our Afghan allies rather than risking a Harper majority. This sets up a final pitched battle over strategic voting between the Liberals and New Democrats whose outcome is completely unpredictable.

As for Stephen Harper, despite his frightening record in government, despite a trouble-filled campaign as past transgressions become public, he seems to have become, of all the unlikely things, our Teflon Man. The attacks just roll off him, and his mind-numbing, unvarying message may even have reassured some of those who’ve been wary of giving him a majority. So the question today remains precisely the same as the one that began the campaign: Can anything prevent Stephen Harper from winning a majority government, or is Canada doomed?