Are you a voter or a consumer? Noted author suggests you are a consumer being manipulated and not served by your government.

By Pepper Parr


January 21, 2014

Good authors, good books and a good interviewer can make for a pleasant evening.  Burlingtonians got some of each last night at the Central Library where Susan Delacourt talked with former Liberal MP Paddy Torsney about her book – Shopping for Votes.

Torsney, who has shopped for the odd vote herself, sat with Delacourt and tossed questions to the author of four books who has been covering the federal political scene for more than 25 years. 

The keeners – those that take notes like crazy and often ask a lot of questions.

She stunned this listener when she said Question Period in the House of Commons wasn’t worth listening to – this at a time when the public is seeing some of the very best opposition questioning of the Prime Minister day after day in a relentless onslaught that has kept the hottest political topic in front of the public for more than six months.  No mean feat in this world of 24 hour news cycles.

Delacourt’s fourth title appears to have struck a chord in those who question the way politics is done in Canada.

Delacourt is however on to something significant when she talks of the way politics has changed from a discussion about vision and direction to one where the political parties treat voters the way a toothpaste company treats its customers and merchandises product to them.

Delacourt believes Canadians’ relationship with their politicians changed with the consumer boom of the 1950s.  The explosion in consumerism resulted in advertising becoming the leading source of information — even in politics.

Frank McKeown, former Chief of Staff to Mayor Rick Goldring asked about how politicians can handle complex issues when voters tend not to be informed and don’t have the background needed to arrive at decisions.

But as she argues in her new book, Shopping for Votes, consumers have wants, while citizens have needs — and that creates a clash between short-term and long-term policies in the bid for votes.

Delacourt told her audience that she has found when she speaks to people about politics and elections she is asked: “Is this all there is to politics?”  It’s not much different than going to the mall she said and then added that her very first visit to a mall was here in Burlington.

The Milton native said she found that “government is done to you instead of being you” and that governing today has followed a consumer approach.  We started with Henry Ford telling us we could have any colour of car we liked as long as it was black.  He made the cars and we went to him to buy them.

That shifted Delacourt pointed out when corporation used advertising to tell people what they had and hoped that you bought it.  We are now at the point said Delacourt where political parties research and poll the public to find out what they want and then make it for them.

A healthy, just under 100 audience, took in the event on one of the colder evenings the city has experienced. An older crowd – the kind that tend to vote. Was there a future first lady for the city in the audience?

Delacourt won a  Canadian Journalism Fellowship at Massey College where she happened upon a course in “material culture”. It was essentially about our relationship to stuff, and it raised a lot of good questions about consumerism.   “I was taking the course” she said “at the same time as the 2008 election was under way, and I suddenly realized that the politics friendliest to consumers (Conservatives) was the winning formula.

Delacourt explained to her audience that the Conservative government doesn’t like data in government but they love it in politics and are relentless in digging out small pockets of support and exploiting each to the fullest.  She gave the example of the snow mobile community for which the party bought a magazine mailing list and began targeting individual households, first with research polling and then  with literature supporting ideas that had come out from the research.  Delacourt explained that the Conservatives were miles ahead of the Liberals on this type of engagement with the public.  She added that the New Democrats are pretty good at target polling as well –  they focus on consumer interest matters.

Book signings are a part of the game for authors. Delacourt, surprisingly tended to write fairly long notes in each book – not just a signature dashed off.

Delacourt brings 25 years of political reporting to her explanation that the public does no always understand that politics and government is not the same thing.

Many people want the government to operate as a business, to bring market discipline to the operation of government services – which is an interesting approach except that the public are not consumers or employees when it comes to government – and you can’t lay off voters when times are tough and revenue targets are not being met.

What the just short of 100 people at the event heard was a journalist who has been at the game for more than 25 years and has followed the current Prime Minister from the day he began to serve as an elected politician.  As an experienced observer she brings a critical eye to what she sees and is quite direct with her observations.

Book sales are what it is really all about. The event, a joint effort by the Public Library and A Different Drummer Books, was part of a series of events.

You can almost feel her ire rise when she talks of the “robo-calling” that took place in Guelph where it was a clear case of voter suppression. “We don’t know who the master mind in that situation was” she said, “ but we certainly know who the players were” and then added that that situation is not done with yet.  Elections Canada have been all over what was done.

According to Delacourt people do not get their information from news anymore – they get their information from advertising where the message is totally controlled.  Andy Frame, a Tory since the beginning of time told the audience that he had listened to Justin Trudeau at an event in Oakville and he was convinced the young man was going to be the “next Prime Minister of the country”.  That perked up Torsney’s ear and brought some comment from Delacourt who said it is too early to tell whether or not Justin is more than a flash in the pan but there is little doubt that there is something going on there.

As people were leaving the library the membership secretary of the Burlington Provincial Liberal Association approached Mr. Frame and asked if he would be interested in purchasing a membership.  Money did not exchange hands.

Is there hope asked one member of the audience?  There is according to Delacourt.  The British are finding that they don’t like being manipulated and the changes that we have seen in the United States where Barak Obama tapped into a deep yearning on the part of the black population to be at the table.

Delacourt explained that in Canada about 60% of the people vote and that 10% of that vote is really the swing vote – people who are not locked into a political party.  Every stripe and flavour of politics works at tying down their core vote and then doing whatever they feel they have to do to get more of than 10% than the other guys.

Paddy Torsney, Delacourt’s “interrogator” during the evening certainly understood what the author was saying when she declared that attack advertising certainly works.  Jacket at Joelle’s if you wanted to know.

What about those attack ads? Delacourt was asked.  “Well the certainly work” she replied.  Dionne and Ignatieff will attest to that.  And they will continue to work as long as the public gets its information from advertising.

The irony of all this for Delacourt is that at a time when there is more information available than ever before, people have less time to read and there is no one giving the public the analysis and background needed to make sense of all the noise and the clutter.

“Is it depressing” asked an audience member?  “No” replied Delacourt, but there didn’t appear to be a lot of confidence or certainty in the response.  Many feel Justin may turn out to be a “celebrity” rather than a sound political leader.

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3 comments to Are you a voter or a consumer? Noted author suggests you are a consumer being manipulated and not served by your government.

  • Eric Howard

    Good, accurate coverage of this event!

  • Colin Best

    Great article. One small correction though. Susan Delacourt is a native of Milton. Her parents store Delacourts is still in business at the corner of Martin & Main.

    • Ken Colombo

      “Frank McKeown, former Chief of Staff to Mayor Rick Goldring asked about how politicians can handle complex issues when voters tend not to be informed and don’t have the background needed to arrive at decisions.”

      I would like to see Mr. McKeown run in my ward for municipal councillor. I spoke to him a couple of times about trees, hydro lines, cable right-of-way and city services. He’s a good listener and Action Man.

      If he does run, I might even hijack a golf cart at the crossover in Ward 1, break the owner’s putter and wedgie, while claiming I’m saving the owner’s ‘bet money.’

      Then I’d become a campaign literature delivery boy … which, when you think of it, is not a bad vocation for an individual who is on the cusp of being too old to be appointed to the Senate.

      Frank McKeown for Council for Ward Four!