Ontario’s election campaign has officially begun and those poor souls who have decided to put their names on the ballot are about to start one of the most intense periods of their lives: The equivalent of being asked to write a final exam, play the star forward in a championship game, and shine on a first date — all at the same time.
I’ve got the emotional scars to prove it.
As someone who ran in three elections, and helped out in countless others, I can tell you that one of the most stressful moments in the entire 28-day mad dash for votes involves all-candidates debates: Those public question-and-answer sessions held in church basements, community centres or on local TV and radio. Although these meetings tend to be long, nasty, personal and full of topics that you know nothing about, they seem to be growing in popularity.
For many candidates, they become an obsession, distracting them for days in advance and — if they go badly — destroying their morale for days after. I have met former candidates who, years later, still bear the shame of being unable to articulate their party’s response to the doctors’ shortage. I got a hint of how badly I did right after my first all-candidates’ meeting. No one from my campaign would make eye contact, and my suggestion that we all go for a celebratory beer was greeted with prolonged silence and lots of shoe gazing.
In my experience, candidates generally adopt three strategies at these gatherings.
Some actually try to learn all the policies, often literally staying up all night. They create huge briefing binders or cue cards and read directly from them when responding, usually in trembling voices, to each probing question.
Others, who are more knowledgeable about the issues, take a different approach. Wanting to show off their supposed intellectual superiority, they spend the entire meeting trying to overwhelm their opponents with facts and statistics. In their mind, the goal of an all-candidates’ meeting is to berate opponents until they scream uncle; be declared the winner; and then be carried out on the shoulders of an appreciative audience (it never happens).
Then there are the candidates who literally know nothing about the operations of government or their party’s policies and make it up as they go along. Yes, long before Donald Trump or Doug Ford, there have been candidates who liked to tell us how easy it will be to fix the current government’s mess, even if they had no clue what they were talking about. I remember an all-candidates’ meeting where one of my opponents gravely announced that the government had eliminated supports for the unemployed (not true) but he would work to see them reinstated if elected. It was very impressive.
There are obviously variations on these three approaches, but the bottom line is that they are all wrong. People don’t actually care that much about specific policies or who knows the facts and figures the best. In most cases, they are simply trying to determine who leaves them with the most positive impression.
So if you are a candidate, relax – literally.
Drop the cue cards and briefing books and simply become familiar with the overall thrust of your party’s policies. Don’t worry about percentages and statistics. Instead, use words like “more” as in: “we will invest more in healthcare.” Or if you really want to wow the crowd, “significantly more.”
At the same time, develop some stock responses to the inevitable attacks against your gang. If you are a Liberal, you need to be able to quickly dismiss charges of profligate spending (investments in the future) and scandals (long time ago). If you are a PC, you need to explain where Ford is going to find all the money he keeps promising (efficiencies). And if you are an NDP candidate, you need to explain who your leader is (Andrea Horwath).
And if you don’t know the answer to a question, admit the fact and tell the questioner that you will follow-up with them later. Don’t make it up! Just as dogs can sense fear, voters can sense a candidate who is talking through their hat.
The best advice I ever received before going into a meeting was to smile and that a little bit of humour, particularly the self-deprecating kind, can go a long way. I also learned that despite their names, this not truly a debate. Instead you are auditioning for the role of MPP. As a result, the most important thing you can do is appear approachable, genuine and most of all, ready to listen. That, more than anything, is more important than knowing the specific amount of additional dollars your party will put into health care.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy. A version of this column was originally published in the online publication QP Briefing.