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Defining the issue: Ballot box questions going way of dodo bird

This Canadian federal election has not had any defining issues because there’s no cohesive media consumed by citizens.
John Penner Montreal, QC

Every election, commentators, political operatives and arm-chair analysts obsess over the “ballot box question.” What is the question that will drive people to the polls to cast their vote? The ballot box question is a way for commentators to explain the election in a nice little package and put a bow on top. Unfortunately, the explanatory power of the “ballot box question hypothesis” is weakening – people don’t vote on one issue, especially when there really isn’t a big issue separating the parties.

Grand decisions used to be made in Canadian politics, such as the 1988 election war over whether Canada should join NAFTA. Compared to today’s election, you’d be hard-pressed to identify a single policy in detail, let alone the policy that defined the election.

With social and digital media diffusing the debate away from channels of traditional authority, the ballot box question hypothesis could also be in for a rude awakening this election. To drive an election to a single overarching question or theme requires a source that has enough sway to define that question.

The media will have a challenge setting that narrative. Almost 50% of people under 30 don’t have cable, while over 30% between 30 – 40 have also abandoned our large television providers. Even if you have cable, the ratings for news services continue to drop. Newspapers continue to face a crisis in subscribers that resulted in a $600M government assistance program to keep them afloat.

Traditional media – broadcast especially – has been relegated to the play-by-play announcer of the cut-and-thrust of mini-scandals and gaffs that are strategically leaked by the different parties. This type of inside-baseball is exciting for people who follow politics closely, but less so for an unengaged Canadian.

Political parties have the advantage over the media in setting a ballot box question with their ability to go cross-platform and build a common narrative across all sources. The Liberal Democrats in Australia were able to snatch victory from almost certain defeat by defining the campaign around affordability and a carbon tax. This was a large gamble, though, and neither Canadian party in contention seems courageous enough to stake their political fortune on a policy dispute when they can focus on more sensational fare.

The problem for political parties in defining the issue of the day is their credibility gap – unless you’re a party faithful, you probably won’t believe much coming out of a politician’s mouth. Third parties in what can be broadly defined as ‘new’ media, can help define the issues of the day. Yet, these platforms are in their relative infancy and are used less as a means of defining the issues, and more as amplifying chambers for political messages.

This is set to change in the next decade. The new mediascape is in its relative infancy, and how it will develop and mature will define the next generation of politics. As these sources become more mature, this dynamic will more than likely change drastically in future elections. The rise of broadcast media and before that the rise of newspapers both had the same impact on the political conversation – it just took a few decades to mature before people realized the full impact. No amount of government subsidy to legacy media will stop it.

Until these historical trends are sorted out, the diffusion of sources of information has meant the ballot box question is a fractured mess that has as much explanatory power as a chimp with a dartboard.

Commentators will guess what propelled voters – but the truth may be a trade secret for the campaign teams who jealously guard their digital metrics and strategies. And their theories may be no more sound than those of you and I.

Welcome to our brave new world of uncertainty.

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John Penner
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