Did Election 2015 Prove Kim Campbell Wrong?

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Political News Monday, November 30, 2015 View Count = 3711

Did Election 2015 Prove Kim Campbell Wrong?

Kim Campbell
Election 360 Logo 3“Did Election 2015 Prove Kim Campbell Wrong?” is written by Jennifer Robson from Carleton University. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Jennifer Robson and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell is commonly believed to have said during the 1993 federal election what many politicos, pundits, and students of modern politics may privately believe—that campaigns are rarely, if ever, opportunities to have a serious debate over the policy questions facing new legislators and the core executive.

It is true that campaign promises are not subject to the same scrutiny as policy options for a government in power. There is little, if any, public attention to which policy is more efficient, which is more equitable, and what, if any, legal or constitutional constraints may apply. In lieu of dispassionate, objective policy analysis, it seems that voters must learn and make choices instead by looking at one parties’ promises in relation to comparable options from competing parties.

The marathon length of the 2015 federal election might have, if only to fill the airtime, created more chances to discuss and debate substantive policy issues. There were far more debates organized amongst the leaders, including two single-themed debates on the economy and foreign policy, though these often lacked the structure to permit an exchange of substantive points.

The parties, as is now ritual in campaigns, issued their own election platform documents, replete with lists of policies they would enact (or cancel, or prevent) if elected, along with favourable estimates of the costs involved. Many of those commitments were announced well in advance of the start of the campaign, offering opportunity for supporters and critics alike to digest and dissect them. But parties will, as is their prerogative, use their own systems for categorizing and costing their platforms, often frustrating efforts by some observers to do much comparative analysis. For voters seeking even ad hoc summaries of platform promises, third-party web based services hosted by Pollenize and VoteCompass by Vox Pop Labs, among others in the mainstream media, were more plentiful this time than in previous federal elections.

Finally, the longer campaign increased the demands on leaders’ tours to offer not just 37 days of tightly scripted announcements and messaging, but 78 days’ worth. This should, mathematically at least, increase the chances of two or more parties speaking on comparable policy commitments in a given campaign day and being forced, by circumstance, to offer some response or contrast to one another.

But this was also the campaign of over two dozen resignations of candidates from all parties for various transgressions. Most were captured on social media and some were bizarre. This was also the campaign that featured a sitting Prime Minister engaging repeatedly in a frolicsome interactive stump speech, which may have made him seem more similar to a game show host than a candidate for national office.

It was the campaign that debated the place of the niqab in Canadian citizenship ceremonies and in the latter weeks of the campaign, in federal institutions like the federal public service. It was also the campaign in which the scripted leaders’ tours were all interrupted, at least briefly, by the heartbreaking image of the tiny remains of Alan Kurdi, lying facedown on a Turkish beach, lapped by the waves of an Aegean sea that was supposed to take him closer to a country like Canada. Were these last two examples mere “distractions” from serious issues?

There is a lens through which the social media gaffes, the niqab, and even a wrenching image of a Syrian youngster would appear to have been distractions from more substantive “issues” of the campaign. By this frame of reference, observable communications or issues management is used to explain party behaviour as purely self-interested during a permanent campaign. These shocks (whether exogenous or created by a campaign itself) to the campaign message are seen as distractions from real substantive policy debates. Furthermore, their very occurrence is used to justify the proposition advanced at the start of this entry—that, in campaigns, platforms matter little to outcomes and are never properly debated. But there is a selective and possibly circular quality to that logic.

The debate over the limits to a woman’s right to religious expression and to reasonable accommodation is a question of the limits of the state over individual rights. Likewise the competing ideas on the resettlement of Syrian refugees revealed different preferences in prioritizing security, humanitarian goals, and different conceptions of the public interest in Canada. Even more, the Syrian refugee debate was one example where public engagement, perhaps accelerated by the election campaign, appears to have had a measurable impact on the policy direction of the caretaker government. These were, in truth, debates of substantive policy questions, not mere distractions.

These are questions of the values that underlie and motivate choices among policy options and choices about which policy problems to prioritize. All parties should take heed.


Jennifer RobsonJennifer Robson teaches courses in political management, public policy, and policy research. Her active research projects address tax policy, wealth inequality, financial literacy, and political management. She is a periodic contributor to Macleans, Canada2020, and the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Prior to joining Carleton, Jennifer worked in the federal public service, the voluntary sector, and as a political staffer

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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