Jackson Doughart
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In the upcoming provincial elections, keep an eye out for character

The Cadre, 26 September 2011

During election campaigns, one frequently encounters appeals from politicians who want to discuss issues instead of personalities as a means of deflecting attention from disenchanting aspects of their own character. For good reasons, many voters are impressed by the idea of setting aside the politicians themselves and instead electing a government based on specific policy commitments.

While these are doubtless important considerations, the character question should still be a part of oneís decision on voting day, and since the provincial election campaign is intensifying, this seems an especially good time to discuss the issue of political character.

By this, I mean the personal qualities of politicians that most of us look for in both our work and personal relationships. Things like trustworthiness, consistency and intentions are invaluable when judging prospective candidates for public office, since these are the qualities that will inevitably show themselves in times of crisis.
While many lay people do take an active interest in the day-to-day affairs of government, most of what goes on is not within the average personís control. Even the information to which we do have access is difficult for most people to follow, including the well-educated parts of the population. We entrust a lot to our public officials, especially considering the pervasiveness of government in both the economy and in the lives of citizens, and while we like to think that our views on specific policies are important, the reality is that public opinion is only one of many factors that influence politicians once they get into office.

There is also no guarantee that the issues brought forward during an election campaign will form any central aspects of a partyís agenda should it be elected. Many of the recurring themes of these campaigns involve problems that are largely insoluble by government in the short term, such as medical services and the health of the economy. This leads politicians to build their candidacies upon untenable promises in the hope that they can woo undecided voters. In doing so, some politicians can succeed in avoiding questions about their character, so long as they have championed an issue with which they can be identified. The problem is that once elected, the same politicians can change their priorities instantly, while the one thing that cannot be changed Ė their character Ė may have been ignored by voters to everyoneís detriment.

While we should certainly pay attention to what our candidates say about the set of electoral issues, we should also be willing to look outside of this when evaluating them. In addition to reviewing the employment and education records of our politicians, we should also consider their more general political views about social justice, the role of the state in the economy, political identity, and social issues. All of this helps to present a clear picture of the people vying for office and the principles which will guide their decisions.

Thankfully, most people can judge character with their own instincts much more effectively than they can consider proposed solutions to complex economic problems, even if they are not politically savvy. Having an acute sense of what one looks for in a leader can also help to clarify oneís stances on the various issues of contention.

Additionally, the established political parties on P.E.I. have no foundational differences that transcend the issues of the day, which renders any claim of ideological superiority to be both opportunistic and dubious. This truth only reinforces the importance of evaluating politicians on both their policy stances and their personal credibility.

In the current race, neither of the main parties are led by very impressive politicians. While Mr. Ghiz has earned a reputation as a passionate young leader, he clearly owes much of his success to his father, whose premiership bequeathed to him a sort of quasi-monarchical authority that is observable in other parent-child democratic successions. On the other hand, Mrs. Crane is fantastically inarticulate and remarkably uncharismatic, yet is the sole candidate for her party with much experience.

So perhaps this is a toss-up from the beginning. But pay attention to the character question as the campaign unfolds. Itís the only thing that voters can make a truly informed decision about, and itís the one thing that the politicians canít change.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com