There’s an oft-repeated line credited to Kim Campbell when she was running as Conservative leader in 1993: “An election is no time to discuss serious issues.” She was savaged for it, but politicos from all parties repeat it because they think it’s true.
Shauna Sylvester doesn’t think it’s true. From August 22 on, she released platform statements, one a day for a week, hoping for a boost in profile. For her effort, she got praise from Charlie Smith at the Straight, but not much coverage elsewhere. (The Sun, not realizing it’s 2018, didn’t even run her pic in a line-up with the male mayoral candidates.)
But unless policy has shock value (“I’ll tear out bike lanes! I’ll triple the tax on McMansions!), policy per se won’t get you profile. It does do other helpful things. It will show you have some depth: you’re a serious candidate. It will earn you points with interest groups: you’ve thought about their concerns. It will give you an opening line of attack on your opponents: you have a way of going negative without getting personal. That last one is key.
Most candidates say they wish to avoid gratuitous ad hominen attacks. But in a heated campaign, negativity becomes increasingly attractive as a way to gain profile and to motivate supporters with a fear of the other. Given the number of unknown independents in this unique campaign, with its very short timeframe, restricted funding and public apathy (or confusion), expect negativity to increase proportional to desperation, of which there will be a lot.
Sylvester maintains she has ruled out negativity as a strategy. So has Ken Sim. So did NDP leader Adrian Dix in the provincial 2013 campaign. (Ask him how that worked out.)
Frontrunners may have the option of keeping their pronouncements bland and their persona positive (it’s one of the ways you can tell how they think they’re doing), but it won’t work for low-profile aspirants, in a tight race or as a defensive strategy when one is under attack from the candidates who do go negative. If Sylvester’s, Sim’s or any no-neg candidate’s strategy is to work, then they will need to weaponize their policies and frame them as an attack on their opponent’s position, or lack of one. It will, however, be very difficult to distinguish the difference between an attack on the personal from disagreement on policy. That’s kind of the point.
So to answer the question in the headline, yes, policies can be good politics when used strategically. But candidates have to find a way around Kim Campbell’s admonition in order to avoid Adrian Dix’s fate.
To keep track of the commitments being made by the myriad candidates for mayor, Global is running a helpful feature by Richard Zussman: