I heard a story on the CBC last week about an all-candidates’ meeting in one of the city council wards, that took me back to when I first covered civic (civic, not civil — but I digress) politics back in Woodstock and Ingersoll and Stratford and LondonOnt in the 70s and 80s.
The story was about one of six candidates who showed up despite — her side of the story — not being invited. The organizers said she’d never responded to their invitation. And that was the story, her showing up and maybe she was being feisty and not taking any guff, or maybe she was at fault. Or maybe someone in her camp had engineered her defiant entrance, so she’d appear to be a crusading outsider that the establishment was trying to stifle.
The point is, I learned nothing about this candidate, or indeed about any of the other five candidates who had shown up that night, by listening to The People’s Network.
We used to cover all-candidates’ meetings a lot more frequently in southwestern Ontario 35 years ago, and they could be a royal pain that too often got hijacked and didn’t really add to an informed electorate. I wrote way too many stories similar to the one I heard last week.
Too often they used to be about who didn’t show up. I had mayoral and council and school board candidates back then tell me that they’d be far better off spending the evening knocking on doors than going to yet another all-candidates’ meeting (ACM).
At times I couldn’t disagree with them, if the idea was to reach voters. Quite often such meetings were stacked with supporters of the candidates, and it was sometimes difficult to figure out if there were any actual unaligned civilians in the crowd. But, of course, the candidate who didn’t show was labelled as afraid to face the people.
Stacked audiences could nevertheless provide a decent story for our papers back then. Not the softabll questions a supporter, feigning independence, would lob up for the candidate to smash out of the park.....it was the hardball questions put to opponents that could be very worthwile, to pin down candidates on specific issues and see where she or he stood. But that’s making it worthwhile for me to be there, not justifying an evening for candidates giving up hours of face-to-face campaigning.
Among the many flaws of ACM, one of the most egregious was allowing the audience to address only one candidate, to set the question on a tee or to nail someone, without allowing, or forcing, all to answer.
Then there were the ACM that didn’t invite all the candidates. The organizers would claim there were too many candidates, and that having them all would be unwieldy, so they’d limit the debaters to those candidates they arbitrarily considered serious contenders, or whom they judged to be serious candidates. That happened more frequently back when mayoral races attracted far more space cadets just entered in the race to have a hoot, but it could also happen at the council level....and then, it goes without saying, the guest list became the story.
I remember one council ACM in LondonOnt, for one of the city wards. The organizers allowed two minutes for each question and answer, but didn’t restrict speechifying. So up would get someone in the audience, rant for a minute and 55 seconds, the candidate would get up at last and clear his throat, and be told that time was up, next question.
I’ve only ever once had the fun of going to an ACM as a civilian. I was covering Queen’s Park for the LondonOnt Freeps and renting in Riverdale, east of downtown Toronto, and went to my ward ACM for a council seat. I asked the N-Dipper candidate, if I had a pothole in front of my place, if he’d have to convene the metro labour council to decide on fixing it. And the right wing incumbent was boasting about approving the Eaton Centre, so I asked him about all the vacant storefronts on Queen and Dundas and Gerrard and The Danforth, and asked if he could identify how many small businesses had been closed because he’d enabled sucking the market out of the neighbourhood and into the multinational chain stores on Yonge Street. And they were all going nuts, trying to figure out which camp I was fronting for surreptitiously.
A few school board elections ago, Winnipeg School Division candidates had a major ACM in each of the three wards, this being back when you got about a dozen candidates for each of the three-seat wards, and I went to cover all three sessions. I remember one candidate whose literature looked as though she was pretty capable, but she begged off the ACD, saying she had something else on that night. There were better than 100 people there, and some genuinely seemed like civilians — and even candidates’ supporters had two other votes to cast, and there’s always word-of-mouth among parents who are the likeliest to vote. She was the only one who skipped, and finished fourth by a few dozen votes.
Anyway, having covered umpteen bases above and probably having contradicted myself several times — on the one hand, there’s no point, but on the other hand, there’s a point — I’m chairing the ACM on Thursday for the River Heights council candidates. This is the third election I’ve been invited to Grant Park High School, by one of child the elder’s former teachers, and I really enjoy it. Students put their questions to the candidates, without speechifying from the floor, both candidates answer, rotating going first and second from one question to the next, me controlling the clock and enforcing civility in fanatically authoritarian fashion. Open to the media, of course, and open to the general public, up to the fire marshall’s limits. And, we’ll hope, the students will learn about how to become informed voters.