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Election Priorities Project demonstrated new approach to electoral politics

Roy McFarlane — November 1984

OTTAWA — Jamie Scott, coordinator of the Election Priorities Project, said the response from candidates during the recent federal election indicates the trends within the three political parties, particularly the Progressive Conservatives. He said that the Project as a whole offers useful information on the strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian peace movement.

The Project, co-ordinated out of the offices of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, but reliant on grass roots support from across the country, concentrated on interviewing candidates in over 100 ridings prior to the — election. According to the results, while a majority of Progressive Conservative candidates agreed with further testing of the cruise missile, they also supported a nuclear weapons freeze, provided that it was verifiable and that it did not lock either side into a position of superiority.

(On the cruise question, 78 PC candidates favoured continued tests, 6 wanted them cancelled and 20 gave no response. At the same time 89 of the 95 surveyed favoured a nuclear weapons freeze with the above mentioned proviso.) In other questions, the Conservative candidates favoured a global referendum on disarmament 83 to 9, and favoured as well increased overseas development aid 85 to 5.

“Beyond the statistics, what we learned came from the experiences of the riding committees. The Project was implemented by local groups in most areas of the country, explained Scott. “I think that was the key. We empowered people at. the local level.

“We also learned that we can set the agenda (in an election) if we are prepared in advance. That doesn’t mean we set the agenda for the whole election.

“The peace movement is so often a reactor — we react. For instance, someone from the media will phone me up and say ‘Hey, George Bush is coming to town next week. Are you going to have a rally’?’ This happened to me. I’d say, ‘gee, no, we weren’t going to, but maybe we should.” Then we phone everyone up and get 70 people out there. and then the media comes up, shoves a microphone into your face and says, ‘You really must be disappointed with the turnout’? That’s a dramatic example, but the point is that the peace movement often reacts to the situation with too little preparation, too little knowledge, too little money, too little everything.”

Local Strength

CCIC set up Election Priorities eight months before the election was called. During that time, ten workshops were held to familiarize local groups with the strategy, and contacts were made in over one hundred ridings. According to Scott. the strength of the Project came from the local organizing.

“Even though there wasn’t a sense nationally that these were important issues, locally they were,” Scott said. While the project did not receive much national media coverage,

Scott now has a massive clipping file of reports from newspapers in dozens of small communities across the country.

According to Scott, the main failure of the Project was the regional disparity in the involvement of local groups. “We had good response in B.C., and in Alberta (even though a lot of PC candidates refused to answer the questionnaire) — we had a riding committee going in a majority of the ridings. We had an average response in Saskatchewan; we had some activity in Manitoba — in half the ridings, mostly in Winnipeg. We had an excellent response in Ontario, there was something going on in 75 of the 95 ridings. Quebec was a .dismal failure. Part of that was our responsibility, and part was the nature of the peace movement in Quebec. The Maritimes were scattered, like the West. New Brunswick: we had something going in half the ridings. P.E.I. was totally covered. We heard back from two ridings in Nova Scotia, and in Newfoundland we had nothing.”

The major strength of the Project, Scott said, was the empowerment it gave local groups, and the nature of the approach to candidates. “The strategy called for them to make an appointment with their candidate. The face-to-face kind of dialogue was not confrontational, it was educational. It was based on sitting down and overcoming your natural intimidation by power figures. We were not trying to identify friendly candidates and then campaign for them or target non-friendly candidates,” Scott said.

“I know in some cases the riding committee expressed at their meeting a desire for an ongoing dialogue with their candidate (who then became their M P), and that the candidate welcomed that. I’d like to see us make use of that. I’d like to see what we can do.”

CCIC will be hiring a half-time person, when — Scott’s contract expires, to work on disarmament and development issues. The position, in part, will include a follow up to the Election Priorities Project.