The art of politics has always depended on stagecraft — and, to a much lesser degree, ideology and delivery of service. Ask those who supported Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives in 1974.
During the 1974 federal election campaign, Stanfield infamously proposed wage and price controls in the face of runaway inflation. The staggering economy was the focal point of the election and Stanfield addressed the problem with an aggressive proposal.
His Liberal opponent, Pierre Trudeau, did not present an alternative proposal. Instead, he mocked Stanfield for his plan and dismissed a freeze as impractical folly.
“Zap! You’re frozen!” he said.
Trudeau defeated Stanfield’s Conservatives (for a third time) and within months, the Liberal prime minister had implemented national wage and price controls — without contrition.
Stanfield was an honest man, careful and thoughtful to a fault. But he was also unassuming, somewhat withdrawn, and certainly not memorable physically — unless it was for pratfalls. A photo of him fumbling a football at a staged event in North Bay, Ont., made headlines across the country. It was one of 36 photos taken by the photographer at the event. In only one did he fumble the ball. But that photo, in all its awkward glory, appeared in newspapers across the country and won a national award for the photographer.
Other missteps haunted Stanfield’s career — physically imposing he was not.
His honesty and integrity were never in doubt, but his image seemed faded and uninspiring when compared to that of Trudeau. That Trudeau was arrogant, brash and mercurial — and prone to grand, even rebellious gestures — endeared him to voters, who opted for style over substance.
Trudeaumania was about charisma. It was also about getting elected. The business of governance was not an issue on the campaign trail.
The media of 1974 was sluggish and unrefined by today’s standards.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and Calgary mayor-elect Naheed Nenshi, who at 38 has done the improbable.
Four weeks ago, polls showed he had about 10 per cent of the popular support.
But on Monday, Nenshi had captured 39 per cent of the vote in a crowded field and defeated all comers, including well-known front-runners Ric McIver (a political veteran with some of Stephen Harper’s team in his camp) and Barb Higgins (a longtime Calgary television personality).
And Nenshi did it by offering up style and substance, engaging voters across a broad age spectrum and from a variety of cultural and socio-economic strata. In all, 53 per cent of eligible Calgarians went to the polls (in Red Deer, by comparison, 25 per cent of electors took part, and that was the best showing in three elections).
In the process, Nenshi has drawn the attention of Canadians of all stripes, for his willingness to talk politics and his methods in delivering his message.
He has 13,000 Facebook friends and he spent the campaign constantly delivering his message through any media available, including Twitter. (When the Advocate conducted a Twitter debate last week with city council candidates, only seven of 18 mayoral and council candidates took part.)
And his message resonated because voters believed it had value — and because it just never went away.
By using every possible form of delivery, and delivering a message of substance, Nenshi has shown what politics can become: a place where ideas are discussed in a fashion that engages the majority of voters.
If politics is still stagecraft, then all the world is now a stage.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.