Last week’s skeptical — some might call it cynical — column about the provincial election leaders’ debate prompted a number of more thoughtful-than-I-deserved responses.

Richard Starr, for example, agreed with my point there were “ideas buried in the [leaders’] talking points that are worthy of debate.” But, he continued…

I assume you mean informed debate and in that regard the news media have a responsibility to do some digging. Otherwise, the talking points just keep coming and people accept stuff like the PC pay cheque guarantee, the notion that our economy is on the “right track,” that rent controls will stop development, or that we can solve the mental health crisis by giving everybody $1,000 worth of coverage for a private practitioner. So far, the mainstream media haven’t been doing much of a job of digging.

Fair point.

Brian Gifford also noted “some value in hearing the ‘talking points’ since they show some real differences in policy that viewers/listeners may not know if the debate is their main source of information. There was at least some opportunity to expose the flaws in some of them.”

But again…

There would be a lot to be gained by digging deeper, exposing the unexamined flaws and weaknesses behind the talking points.

I’m curious how you would recommend the debate be structured better, Stephen?

Uh oh…

Reader Wayne Fiander was less gentle, more direct:

Mr. Kimber, I think that your media report is as predictable as the political talking points! Is this all you have to offer?

Okay…. I have my assignment.

Where to begin? Not with the debates themselves. The debates seem to me to be just one more symptom of a broken-down electoral system.

Let’s start with fixed election dates. We are the only jurisdiction in the country where the leader of the party in power gets to choose the timing of the next election based entirely on partisan self-interest. Can you offer another better explanation for the fact we are trooping to the polls this month, deep in the heat and heart of BBQ and vacation season?

That’s not to suggest fixed election dates would be a cure-all for what ails our body politic. Otherwise, all those other fixed-election-date jurisdictions would have better governments.

But it would be a start, and an opportunity to re-think how we think about how we do election campaigns.

What if political parties that wanted to participate in the electoral process were required to make public their full platforms a month in advance of the start of that fixed-date campaign?

The purpose of this time delay would be to allow an independent body — a sort of parliamentary budget office for elections — to analyze and cost out each party’s package of promises and economic assumptions. The office wouldn’t make value judgments about which party’s platforms make the best fiscal, political, and social sense. It would be up to the party leaders to make the case for their own approach and priorities, and for us to decide. But we, as voters, would at least have a common understanding of the price tag for each platform.

Does Iain Rankin’s promise to keep all the many and various promises he’s made while balancing the budget in four years make sense? Is Tim Houston really a smart accountant, or does he just play one in Tory TV ads? And what about Gary Burrill’s oft-repeated warning that the Liberals’ other pre-election promise — to cut $209 million in programs and services next year — will “cause harm to communities, to hospitals, schools?” True or false?

It’s almost impossible for reporters in mostly under-staffed newsrooms — all desperately trying to keep up with the daily campaign firehose of new promises, re-packaged old promises, and inevitable off-the-campaign-trail-cuff promises to fix this local road or build that bridge — to have time to circle back in the midst of a 30-day campaign to see how all the promise-pieces fit together.

Some journalists do try. Brian Flinn, for example, allnovascotia.com’s veteran legislative reporter, recently fact-checked Burrill’s argument that Liberal plans to chop that $209 million next year will lead to cuts in services, and Rankin’s counter-claim that it won’t.

Given Flinn’s clear-headed analysis of recent government spending and its own spring fiscal plan, his perhaps too cautious, fair-reporter conclusion was that Rankin’s we-can-do-this-and-have-that promise “won’t be easy” to keep.

But that raises the next problem.

When Flinn put his fact-checked points to Rankin, the Liberal leader did his best slither, suggesting he couldn’t really comment on the potential impact of his election promises on his fiscal plan until the government publishes its next fiscal update — after the election!

Really? That used to be the traditional bait-and-switch argument employed only by new governments.

Soon after Darrell Dexter’s New Democrats won the 2009 provincial election, for example, they pronounced themselves shocked and appalled to discover the Tories had left the cupboards barer than bare, meaning they could no longer keep their no new taxes/no program cuts promise. Sorry about that. As if they couldn’t have guessed the province’s awful financial situation before they got the keys to the premier’s washroom.

Now, we have the spectacle of the premier of a party in power for eight years essentially making the same claim that he can’t know the real fiscal state of the government he leads, setting the table for him to renege on his promises as soon as the voters have left their voting booths.

No wonder voters are cynical.

Providing all parties and the public with a pre-election snapshot of the province’s current fiscal state should be another key job for that new independent legislative budget office I mentioned.

With the current fiscal state thus stated and the party platforms already public, the campaign itself could focus on key issues, perhaps as determined by public opinion polling: healthcare, the economic recovery, the environment, affordable housing, education…

Each week, there could be a debate that would centre on one of those designated issues. That would make a fuller discussion of each possible, and allow voters to compare and contrast the parties’ positions on key issues.

The last week of the campaign could then be a free-for-all, allowing for some much-needed serendipity and surprise.

Since we ultimately choose leaders who have to make decisions about issues we can’t anticipate — can you say pandemic? — I’d also supplement those current-issue-centric debates with probing personal televised interview-conversations with each individual leader to get a better gauge of who they are and the values they would bring to the job. (An election campaign, after all, is ultimately a leader’s job interview.)

Finally, in my rose-tinted electoral world, the eventual electoral results would be calculated based on some form of proportional representation, meaning all our votes would matter in ways they don’t in the current first-past-the-post system.

Pie in the sky? Of course. More complicated than this column suggests? Absolutely. (For starters, we would need to find ways to accommodate the minority governments proportional representation would likely create to a system with fixed election dates.)

But no one — certainly not me — is suggesting this should end the discussion. What would you do to make our electoral system fairer, more responsive, more meaningful?

If an election campaign isn’t a time to discuss serious issues, perhaps it is exactly the right time to discuss elections. Let the non-candidates’ debate begin.


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Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Thanks to Wayne MacKay for picking up the gauntlet of electoral reform and doing a great job! I truly did not expect you to take a deep dive. So, it’s time for me to anti-up.
    Colin May asks a great question about actual campaign activities. Most people have not been a member of a party, donated to a party or worked for any political party or candidate. While 60%of us make it to the polls less than one half of one percent really get involved and make our election process work.
    Carla Taylor has a great point about the candidates own view of the voting district issues and opportunities. Unfortunately modern professional politics snuffs out that flame as any variance from the provincial campaign is seen as a “gotcha” moments to be exploited by the opposing parties election backroom folks and the media; which only repeats what they are fed by the campaigns.
    Wayne MacKay rightly points out the substantially reduced media ranks and almost zero investigative reporting.
    While our elections have evolved they seem to be following the same old tune. I agree that the fixed dates for the actual vote is a must and that spending announcements be frozen at some point before the vote- (90 days?). The debate ideas are all good. Before we vote though, we must open a few doors and windows to let more light and fresh air in the modern world of elections and government.

    I think we have to change the operation of the House of Assembly at the same time. So, a new government would not chair the Public Accounts Committee for example. A government that knows it will be seriously challenged will produce better legislation and budgets. Right now, a sitting government can run the table with only one eye open and one hand tied behind it’s back.

    Financial reporting would be monthly not three to six months after the quarter or year end. Once a budget is passed, any overage in operating or capital spending would require assent from the Legislature. Public accountability for each government department would be shared by the Minister for policy and the Deputy Minister for implementation. Right now the civil service is not as accountable as it needs to be in order for the public to regain trust in the institutions that are in place to serve the public.

    Voters must also change and rather than just vote every four years; they must get more involved with their own representatives at all three levels of government. Civics and public policy is better when more voices, not just interest and lobby groups are doing all the talking. Politicians respond to voters because they actually vote and are engaged.
    That’s my two cents worth. Be careful of throwing too much spaghetti on the wall or nothing will be accomplished. For disclosure, I served in the Premier’s Office for 5 years under Cameron and MacDonald, worked in many elections for 35 years, have voted PC and Liberal and ran for the PC’s in 2006.

  2. Thanks for making the excellent suggestions for improving the whole electoral process Stephen. I don’t have a lot to add. I agree proportional representation is needed. This may work against a fixed election date, but some of your other ideas could be put in place whether or not the election date is fixed.

    I really like your ideas of a fiscal update requirement and each party publishing their full platform early, allowing for independent analysis. There could be a requirement of a fiscal update no more than 2 months before an election call and a requirement that elections be at least 90 days long with all parties required to submit their full platforms within 30 days of the call, with an independent office offering independent analysis of the platforms within another 30 days.

    I also really like the idea of debates among party leaders on each of the top 3 or 4 issues, one topic in each debate. An independent election debate commission could organize them. The topics could be determined by some combination of opinion polls and topics agreed on by the commission and the parties to allow consideration of topics with long term consequences that aren’t necessarily in the top 3 such as equity issues/human rights, poverty and climate change. The questions could range from ‘what’s your policy” to more probing questions like “what do you say about this critique of your policy”.

    Public funding announcements should be banned within 120 days of an election to prevent the use of public funding announcements for political gain just before an election.

    I don’t agree with other commenters that the governing party should only be judged on their record. That should be part of what they are judged on but surely it’s also important to know what they propose for the future.

    Thanks again.

  3. About 8100 Liberals chose our Premier. There are about 8000 Nova Scotians in a Face Book group opposing the lack of consultation on Owl’s Head, and about 30,000 signatures on a similar petition. It seems that Nova Scotians should have more say in whose voice speaks from the highest platform in the Province. District voting often is not indicative of the, unfortunately, silent majority. Districts should find ways to get voters interested and involved, which, of course, costs money that many candidates cannot raise, and, as S says, individual candidates need better platforms than our doorsteps, and should put constituents before party. Mr. Kimber has started a good dialogue here. Hope it continues.

  4. Drove around parts of Dartmouth this afternoon and very few signs on lawns.
    The public has little interest in fixed election dates.
    Elections will only be fairer when FOI is fixed in favour of the applicant/s and not the government entity.
    Being a councillor in HRM is better than being an MLA, the pay is better and the accountability is much less.
    Premier Rankin knows the state of the provincial finances because the audited statements are in the possession of the Minister of Finance and he has not tabled the documents in the legislature.
    I predict a narrow Tory majority and I look forward to the end of the province handing HRM $4.5 million a year for policing – I will have more to say about policing after the election.
    One last thought, thank goodness the stadium was nixed. If Savage had won the argument for a stadium HRM would now be on the hook for a massive construction bill.

  5. The party in power should be required to run on their track record, not on promises. How can we believe the liberals, for example, as having new-found concern for the environment and accountability based on their record? Owl’s Head is the test case for both issues.

    1. This is a great idea.
      We can judge by the track record, but it would be clouded by all kinds of promises, just as it is now.

  6. I would like to see more emphasis placed on individual M LA as opposed to leaders. Especially given a chance to independent candidate who are not bound to a single party platform I can remember the removal of the Nova Scotia film credit and how some MLA were convinced by the people in their writing to say they would not approve it and then were cowed by their party leader to approve it

    The candidates in Dartmouth south will be having a local David at the same day and time as the examiner housing round table. I am very disappointed to have to miss the examIner’s round table, and hope they’ll be another one, however I do feel is most important to put questions directly to the candidate as they are missing my apartment building in there campaigning.