A Fixed Election Date: A Change that’s Working?

By: Sandford BorinsThe rationale for a fixed election date is that it provides a more level playing field between the Government and the Opposition. It's well known that when the Government chooses the date, it does so for maximum political advantage.For example, in our co-authored book, Political Management in Canada, former Saskatchewan NDP premier Allan Blakeney was forthright about his calling an election in 1978, the third year of a mandate, to avoid going to the polls at the same time as a federal election in 1979, which he expected the Conservatives to win.One way the Ontario's Elections Finances Act tried in the past to level the field was to prohibit advertising in the first week of the election campaign, so the Opposition parties would have time to prepare their media campaigns to counter the Government's – which was already set to run. In the 2003 campaign, this prohibition was extended to party Web sites, with the bizarre result that their content was frozen for the first week.With a fixed election date, this prohibition was unnecessary. All parties were gearing up their advertising and their Web sites over the summer. Their campaigns were well under way in the weeks before the official start of the campaign on September 10. I consider these additional weeks of campaigning prior to the official 31-day campaign to be a good thing. Choosing a government for the next four years is important, and a longer campaign provides time for more reflection and for a wider range of issues to be discussed. So, yes, I would say a fixed election date is a change that's working.With the start of the campaign, we have seen some significant changes in the party Web sites. The NDP's finally became a campaign Web site with the targeted theme: “A fair deal for today's working people.” The Liberal site went from black and white to Kodachrome and the theme, “Change that's working.” The Conservatives had their campaign site up-and-running in July, so haven't needed to change much, but have played downthe previous theme of, “I Want a Better Ontario,” and put their emphasis on “leadership matters.”Tactically, I think the Conservatives had the right idea. The essence of marketing is repetition and by having the campaign site up early, they were establishing their message. A danger in revamping the site as the formal campaign begins is that it will inevitably have lots of bugs. That was certainly the case for the first few days of the Liberals' campaign site. Better to debug in July, when fewer eyes are watching.Finally, the interesting thing about both “Change that's working” and “leadership matters,” as narratives, is that they are contestable. Are the Liberals' changes actually working? If leadership matters, then who is the best leader? Is McGuinty sincere and effective – the Liberals' narrative – or hypocritical, dishonest, and corrupt – the Opposition's counter-narrative? Is Tory prudent, business-like, and efficient – the PC Party's narrative – or divisive and accident-prone – the Liberal and NDP counter-narrative?Early next week I'll blog about the referendum and next Friday – the morning after the leaders' debate – about how the party Web sites were used to spin their performances.

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