Let me start by telling you how it’s supposed to work on election night — in fact, how it has worked ever since television networks began providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the results.
There’s a protocol to these things. Everyone understands that, once the election has been called and the winning side proclaimed by the TV decision desks, the party leaders make their way to their respective headquarters to address their supporters. For those leaders who came up short, it’s a chance to thank everyone for a fight well fought — and to speak directly to Canadians and sign-post their mission for the next Parliament.
For the winner, it’s the first opportunity to, yes, do a bit of gloating (let’s be generous and call it celebrating). But, more important, it provides a crucial chance, after what’s usually been a divisive and bitter campaign, to begin to bring the country back together and lay out a roadmap for how that might be done.
It’s not that complicated, and it’s worked reasonably well for decades.
What’s key to this choreography is mutual respect among the leaders and an understanding on the part of their teams that this is a useful tradition designed to enhance our democracy. At the risk of sounding a bit over-the-top, we’re not only showing the rest of the world how fair play works — we’re also (in the case of federal, rather than provincial, elections) rewarding viewers who took the trouble to engage with the election-night tradition by allowing them to see all the leaders make a final, brief pitch to the country. This week, because the final score was in some doubt until the voters in British Columbia spoke, that pitch didn’t come until well after 1 a.m., Eastern time.
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For some reason(s), these clear and easy-to-follow traditions were disregarded by the three major national party leaders on Monday night/Tuesday morning. The result was a pathetic display: the leaders and their teams showed a complete lack of respect for one another and for the voters.
The train began to leave the tracks after NDP leader Jagmeet Singh stepped to the microphone. What started as an appropriate thanking of his wife and team rapidly turned into a bewildering campaign stump speech in which he reiterated everything we’d just heard him talk about for the previous 40 days. The speech was far too long.
As a result, and perhaps understandably, the Conservative operations team in Saskatchewan decided it couldn’t wait any longer and sent leader Andrew Scheer to the podium to begin his remarks. But, then, in an egregious breach of protocol, the Liberal squad sent leader Justin Trudeau into his election-night venue. Literally two minutes into Scheer’s speech, Trudeau began his. Incredibly, Singh was still speaking as well.
The networks used their technical skill to show what a dog’s breakfast this had become by using a “three-shot” of all three leaders speaking simultaneously. There could not have been a better visual metaphor for the failure of today’s political leaders to work together for the common good. It was all there in that shot.
Sadly, this appears to be the new normal in politics. In June 2018, the defeated premier, Kathleen Wynne, was at the microphone offering her final, emotional words to her supporters when suddenly, the incoming premier, Doug Ford, was on the podium at Progressive Conservative headquarters beginning his victory speech. Again, the networks cut away — they are obliged to cover the news, and the news was that Ontario was getting a new government.
Did Ford’s people simply screw up the timing? Or was it a deliberate attempt to disrespect the outgoing premier and our traditions? I’m not sure this was ever definitively resolved (it certainly was in Liberal circles), but it reeked of a lack of generosity.
And that wasn’t the first time we’d seen this. Back in 1995, when Canada ever-so-narrowly defeated the separatist forces in a referendum, the leader of the federalist forces in Quebec, Jean Charest, began his referendum-night speech only to be big-footed by prime minister Jean Chrétien before his speech was over. Chrétien had many fine moments in public life, but that certainly wasn’t one of them.
Lest you think this is some stuffy, old-fashioned custom that only fuddy-duddies worry about: election-night choreography is important because it’s the first opportunity the leaders have to send important signals to one another and to the country as a whole. And, on that count, the three major party leaders blew it.
Not only that: on an evening (and early morning) when Canadians might have been looking for signs that the leaders “got it” — that they understood the message Canadians were sending them through the ballot box — their responses were profoundly tone-deaf. All three experienced deeply disappointing election nights. And, yet, they all claimed victory and gave Canadians every indication that the nasty campaign we’d all just experienced was not, in fact, over, but rather just moving on to its next chapter.
In a word: yeccchhh.
If the three major national party leaders had wanted to convince Canadians that they were capable of working together for the common good, their election-night performance was, as the kids say, hashtag epic fail.