BC Liberals tapping the fear factor in the electoral reform debate

Fear is an accomplished, even admired weapon of politics.

It stirs our fight-or-flight instincts and moves people more swiftly than anything to support or oppose.

Much as we would like to think that reflective, dispassionate discussion on an issue is going to lead us to the right place, it is negative messages that sow worry, anger or doubt and generally turn the trick.

Look below the border, of course, at how fear has driven the recent political discourse.

And it is intriguing that, in determining how they can best communicate messages on a complex issue facing British Columbians, the BC Liberals have chosen as early themes those involving fear.

An electronic version of the basic brown envelope arrived last week with the party’s pending message to its faithful about the soon-to-erupt campaign involving electoral reform in B.C.

There is no particular secrecy or immense surprise in the PowerPoint deck that is being shared within the party about how to approach the complex issue. It is far less about trying to explain the details of proportional representation than about triggering fears as to what they might be.

The messaging in the deck is stark: extremist and fringe groups will gain undue power, backroom party brokers will secretly constitute governments, we will be represented by people who don’t live in our ridings, minority governments are notoriously unstable and prone to short-term thinking and poor decision-making and there will be ridings the size of some European countries.

One slide in the deck is quite the push. It notes that proportional representation elected 92 members of a far-right party in Germany and that the unelected deputy prime minister in New Zealand is anti-immigration.

The presentation argues the vote has “unfair rules” created in secrecy by the BC NDP and BC Green Party to make it easy for proportional representation to pass. And because it’s a referendum seeking only 50% plus one to be considered a Yes vote, it notes that the Lower Mainland could decide the electoral fate of the province.

“Why? To lock the NDP and Greens into power,” it says, and to deny Liberals a majority government ever again.

Our resident pollster at Glacier Media, Mario Canseco of
Research Co., noted in recent days that the timing of the referendum on electoral reform offers challenges. We are amid another campaign at the moment for the October 20 municipal elections; the electoral referendum voting starts two days later and ends November 30. That means about five weeks to find focus on the issues.

Not surprisingly, the Liberals don’t believe this is time to penetrate the fog of the proposal for us; instead, it’s more effective to lob some firecrackers into the crowd.

Shrewdly, Liberals appear to be focusing their campaign on what Canseco notes is a fear of electing those with “toxic ideologies.” This is particularly effective with older residents, who are more avid and consistent voters typically, who do not celebrate turmoil in their lives, and who are more likely to be familiar in this case with a mail-in ballot than would a smartphone-savvy millennial.

The Liberal message to note how non-residents might represent ridings in the legislature is also a smart fire to stoke, because Canseco’s most recent survey concluded that the issue of identity is a key concern.

Now, it’s fair to conclude that the process of electoral reform is proceeding too quickly, mainly because it is proceeding too confusingly. A move with such profound consequence deserves a campaign of greater length, of greater distance from other campaigns and of much greater clarity.

Clarity? If someone can give me a coherent elevator pitch on the two untested options of the three proposed, I’ll try not to get off at an earlier floor.

But, much as I wish we could civilly examine the complexity of what we might face, I cannot fault the Liberals for deciding that the buttons to press are nuclear. They have assessed that the battle will not be won along rational lines, but along emotional ones.

And guess which emotion, apart from love, works best? •

Kirk LaPointe is the editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.