The political actor, his audience and the amateur behavioral scientist
An all candidates meeting for mayoral and council candidates running in the 2005 District of Maple Ridge local elections was held at Whonnock Community Centre on Thursday, November 3rd, 2005 from7:30pm to 10:00pm. This meeting was aimed at providing all the candidates an opportunity to present themselves to the electorate and for the public to ask brief questions on specific issues that concerned them.
This was the first of several all candidates meetings scheduled be held in various areas of Maple Ridge prior to election day on November 19th, 2005. The organizers asked if I would act as the moderator. I explained that I had never done this sort of thing before and as I heard myself speaking these words of modesty I thought to myself hang on, being a virgin moderator makes it all the more exciting. "Sure, let’s have at her," was my final answer.
The role of moderator, albeit in the arena of local Canadian politics, has added new knowledge to my life as a political observer. In the past, as an audience participant and frequent interrogator of the candidates, I found that the subject of my own questions filled my thoughts and it was often hard to concentrate on the questions posed by other participants, let alone follow the answers from the candidates. If one is a newcomer to an area it often becomes hard to follow some of the questions without knowing the history. Maple Ridge, for instance, has a population exceeding 70,000 souls and yet every public gathering is attended by a small band of hard core residents, numbering no more than between 200 and 400 at the most. In one sense, the 70,000 are saying to the few hundred go ahead and mold our future because we are too busy going about our daily affairs, and besides which there is little we can do to influence the affairs of our community, what will be will be. In many other countries this is not the case as seen when thousands not only wish to be heard, but take things into their own hands through mass civil action. Thankfully that is a rare occurrence in Canadian political life, excluding of course job action.
The candidates at an all candidates meeting come mostly prepared for the meeting. Preparation means writing a speech that concisely articulates the key reasons for wishing to be elected. It may also means anticipating certain questions that may be directed at one for historical reasons or perhaps for reasons linked to more contemporary events. In British Columbia we recognize from observation that the meat and potatoes of local government is the determination of land use. Pick any District or City in British Columbia and subject it to time and task study to determine the amount of time devoted to discussion on all matters that could be described as falling under the category of land use and it will come as no surprise to learn that in local politics land is the only issue. All other departments of civic management beat a hasty path to Planning Department in any given district. The reason for this quite simply is that the land provides the cash upon which all other activity is based. Maple Ridge is no different. The entire community relies on property taxes supplemented by hundreds of subsets of income-sources such as all those that fall within fees-for-service. Candidates, knowingly or not, when making their pitch, are first and foremost asking the voter to be allowed to care for or husband and nurture the one asset that keeps a District healthy; land.
There are other many important issues too; community plans, financial plans, transport plans, governance, environmental protection, inter-government relationships, public safety and crime prevention, economic development plans, providing education at every level and all the detail that these major categories imply. Most candidates recognize the need to address each of these issues at some point in their campaign, but will focus on those specific issues that are closest to their personal beliefs (a good idea) or those issues that are most likely to assure them of a successful outcome (a better idea, if getting elected is the goal.)
The difficulty arises when the personal beliefs of the candidate cannot be matched to the issues most likely to win them the required number of votes to win a seat. How does a candidate make himself or herself sound passionate and convincing when speaking publicly about a subject that truthfully is only of passing interest to the speaker? Moreover, how well-equipped are the public in Maple Ridge when it comes to detecting sincerity and conviction? Many of them will provide the answer that they are extremely well-equipped and knowledgeable when it comes to municipal affairs. Certainly the 200 or so participants who attended at Whonnock Community Centre can claim that they know more than most citizens when it come to what's cooking in the Ridge.
The moderator is the one person in the room, along with the timekeeper, who has to follow the words of every question and the words to every answer without loosing focus. For one as distracted as I, this meant an enormous challenge. To the effort of simply following the words one has to add what I can only describe as the RGB-factor. That is to say the red, green blue factor. When speaking, the candidate’s words are coloured much like a photograph, by layers of personal history, external and internal events, time and circumstance, background, upbringing, education, experience, character and personal beliefs. The observer, for his part hears and views of the speaker simultaneously through the lens of his eyes and ears, assembles and analyses the information and responds either inwardly to himself or outwardly through a counter or agreeing statement. It is challenging enough for most of us to focus on a single conversation over short periods. Doing so over a long period deepens the challenge and things get really difficult when we set up public conversations between twenty or thirty people on one side and say 200 or 300 people on the other, as in the case of all candidates meetings.
Another aspect attached to the moderator's lens could be some knowledge of the candidates themselves. This moderator, on this evening in Whonnock, could claim to have some degree of knowledge of each candidate either through private or public discourse. Not wishing to sound in any way corny or patronizing when this moderator looked across at the seated candidates it was with a sense of warmth, brought about perhaps by the knowledge that the candidates for the most part were prepared to offer themselves up for public scrutiny in a quest for bettering our community. The differences of opinion took then and always will, second place to the basic desire to help. So, from the solitary tripod of this lens, what did the moderator see?
Nervousness was tangible in each candidate, moreso in the mayoral candidates than in the council encumbents and hopefuls. It is interesting to observe what passes for outward comaraderie in public and then having to listen to the scuttlebut on the street which paints and entirely different picture of what the candidates think of one another. It is curious too that, once the election has passed, the seven elected ones will be forced to spend three years in civil and polite debate, notwithstanding the drubbing and backstabbing they may have had to endure from another during the campaign. Our capacity for being two-faced and double-dealing is never more evident than in politics. And no, it is not a trait that shows up exclusively on the left, right or down the middle. Duplicity is omnipresent in political life. It also makes the words of politicians hard to follow. And the words of lawyers, journalists, salesmen and so on.
The Maple Ridge 2005 campaign occurs in the same year that the public became engaged in the longest public hearings to ever be devoted to that central and illusive document known as the Official Community Plan ("OCP"). Perhaps more than any other public document the OCP touches the lives of us all and perhaps that is why is has become such a heavily discussed document. Ostensibly the public will have the final word on the OCP and it will go before the new council in 2006 for approval. He who makes sense of the OCP makes sense of Maple Ridge for many years to come.
The candidate speeches could be divided into those that were critical of past actions and those that spoke postively of future actions, normally in the shape of countermands. "I will correct past mistakes." countered by, "What mistakes? Look at all the achievements." The public will decide on November 19 whether mistakes were made and improvements can be found through displacing the existing team with new candidates or perhaps the public will take the view that we are doing OK and lets keep going the way we are. We all know there will be casualites and victories; we just don't know where they will occur.
Through the moderator's lens it seemed that those candidates who personalized their speeches came across less electable than those who simply stuck to the issues. The voter could care less about the travails of the candidate. Oddly, it seems quite often that the voter could less about the triumphs of the candidate. The voter, like the candidate, cares frequently only about himself. You would need a moderator's lens to see this. There is ample evidence however that both the public and the elected officials in this community care greatly for the place where we live. The way we express our care though can be be confusing. Good government should have clarity as its goal. Clear thinking is what this moderator will be looking for over the next two weeks so that a clear decision can be made and a clear future planned.