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In politics, it’s all about the image – especially in 2021 – The Globe and Mail

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Signs outside of an advance polling station in Burnaby, B.C., on Sept. 10.

JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

J.R. McConvey is a writer based in Toronto.

One thing is certain about elections: they bring out the signs. Lawns and roadsides across the country are cluttered with red, blue, orange and the occasional green. An already busy visual landscape is surrendered to the will of the politically solicitous.

One of politics’ more durable lies is that policy and governance take priority over image management. Contemporary politics is a visual medium. Conducted through signage, carefully orchestrated public appearances, television and social media, political narratives play out as screen content, designed to compete with – and borrow tactics from the creative and commercial content with which they jockey for clicks.

With the pandemic making it harder to court voters in person, screens must convey more of the candidates’ personalities. Hence, in campaign materials for the front-runners, we see a new taste for casual haberdashery. In August, the Conservative Party of Canada launched its platform with a GQ-style mock magazine cover featuring leader Erin O’Toole in a black T-shirt, arms crossed for maximum flex. It evoked a “thirst trap,” slang for a type of selfie intended to elicit praise or desire. Days later, a Liberal ad pictured Justin Trudeau in a similar black tee. In the age of remote work, it’s no longer enough to roll up your sleeves; to connect with the pyjama-clad masses, you must dress down.

The sartorial relaxation aligns with a general trend away from formality in political imagery. It’s telling that when the CPC had to pull an attack ad featuring Mr. Trudeau’s head superimposed on the body of Veruca Salt – the selfish, petulant child from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory the terminal issue was copyright infringement, rather than the use of sloppy internet troll aesthetics to frame the Liberal Leader as a garish caricature.

Some images aren’t so easily expunged from record. The most recent politician haunted by a revenant from their virtual past is Lisa Robinson. The former CPC candidate in the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York suspended her campaign after Liberal incumbent Nate Erskine-Smith dug up screenshots of posts she allegedly made in 2017, telling Muslims to “go home.” Ms. Robinson claims the posts are fake. Either way, the image has spoken: Mr. O’Toole, striving to project positivity, cannot be associated with hateful tweets, no matter their veracity.

If the discourse is more about the candidates’ social content than their platforms, there’s good reason for that. This is Mr. Trudeau’s arena. With his staged photo-ops and rakish pandemic beard, he set the terms by which others must play. When sunny ways and feely optics are at odds with concrete policy, it doesn’t merely entrench cynicism; it pushes the political conversation deeper into the visual realm. A lesson we should learn from the Trudeau government is that it matters less how Canada’s cabinet looks than how its members represent the communities that voted for them. Keeping the Canadian flag at half-mast might remind us that the Trudeau government feels bad about residential schools, but symbolism without policy to support it is merely theatre.

At present, the tendency is to analyze political iconography in the context of colonialism, fascism and white supremacy. While these are animating factors, they’re all subservient to the only category that matters in today’s media landscape: attention. In his 2016 book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, media theorist Tim Wu analyzes what he calls “the attention industry.” In exchange for our attention, Mr. Wu argues, “we have accepted a life experience that is in all of its dimensions – economic, political, social, any way you can think of – mediated as never before in human history.” He locates the maturation of the attention industry in 20th-century war propaganda, but claims – writing before the presidency of Donald Trump – that propaganda’s use by tyrants made it unappealing to modern Western governments.

Those days are gone. The visual grammar of Western democracy is now shaped by strategists such as Brad Parscale and Nick Kouvalis, whose work straddles politics and marketing. To call it propaganda feels outdated. But a phenomenon such as Ford Nation, with its slogans and bespoke PR channels, has echoes of the 20th century’s outsized personality cults. Doug Ford is an enthusiastic practitioner of visual politics, filtering every communication through a would-be working-class aesthetic based on sensible conservative blue, with nods to the bold, brash style prevalent in American cable news. Mr. Ford’s brand is so strong that he didn’t need a platform to get elected premier. Meanwhile, many of his greatest misses in office are design gaffes: recall the blue licence plate, the gas-pump sticker, the fundraising flyer designed as an invoice. Whether or not they work – whether the stickers stick or the licence plate is visible at night – they’re pieces in a larger narrative that places attention capture through visual media at the centre of the political project.

The result of this rewiring plays out as we speak, in conflicts over the latest politicized fashion statement: wearing a mask. In a climate where everything is a symbol, a functional piece of equipment designed to protect people from disease has become a statement – of conformity, solidarity or repression, depending on who you ask.

Herein lies the danger of a predominantly visual politics: we are not fully conscious of the ways in which visual information works on our brain – or of how sophisticated the techniques being used to control those functions are. Much as we have done with the intentionally addictive mechanics of smartphones and social media, we proceed without alarm, as though seismic changes in technology and intent do not ripple through our political discourse, our very psychology.

If politics is to continue being waged on screens – and surely that is where most hearts and votes are now won – we must factor aesthetics and design into the discussion. Otherwise, we fail to see what’s right in front of us.

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Politics This Morning: Final pieces of 2021 vote puzzle expected today – The Hill Times

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‘These are big shoes,’ Yasir Naqvi said of previous MPs who represented Ottawa Centre, Ont.
As of press deadline on Sept. 21, the Liberals had won or were leading in 156 ridings, the Conservatives 121, the Bloc Québécois 32, the NDP 27, and the Green Party in two.
Difficulties with voting captured the attention of Canadians on Twitter, as many complained of long lines, being turned away at polls and issues with Elections Canada’s website.

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Politics Briefing: Meet the new Parliament, same as the old Parliament – The Globe and Mail

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Hello,

With remarkable precision, Canadian voters are sending MPs back to Ottawa in virtually identical numbers to the party standings in August when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau triggered a snap federal election campaign.

Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals were re-elected Monday for a third time and a second consecutive minority government.

As of Tuesday morning, the Liberals were leading or elected in 158 seats, followed by 119 seats for the Conservatives, 34 for the Bloc Québécois, 25 for the NDP and two for the Greens. The People’s Party of Canada did not win any seats and PPC leader Maxime Bernier finished a distant second to the Conservatives in the Quebec riding of Beauce.

The Liberal gain of one will likely change as the 158 seats includes Kevin Vuong in Spadina–Fort York, who currently has a narrow lead over the NDP candidate. The Liberals disassociated themselves from him late in the campaign after a dropped sexual assault charge was revealed. Should Mr. Vuong win, he will likely sit as an independent, but the Liberal Party did not immediately comment on the situation when asked Tuesday morning.

The most dramatic statistics in Monday’s results are the projected seat changes compared to party standings in the House of Commons before the election. As of Tuesday morning, the Liberals are up one seat (including Mr. Vuong), the Conservatives are down two, the Bloc is up two, the NDP is up one and the Greens are down one.

Those statistics do mask the fact that parties saw some incumbents defeated, but made up for that with gains elsewhere.

For instance, two Liberal cabinet ministers were defeated: Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan lost to the Conservatives in the Nova Scotia riding of South Shore-St. Margarets, and Women and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef lost to the Conservatives in Peterborough-Kawartha.

Yet the Liberals may have made two notable gains in Alberta, where it had been shut out entirely in 2019. Liberal candidate George Chahal won the riding of Calgary Skyview, while Liberal Randy Boissonnault currently has a very narrow lead in Edmonton Centre.

Given the need for regional representation, at least one of the two Liberals from Alberta would be promoted to cabinet. This would create challenges, however, for Mr. Trudeau’s efforts to have a gender-balanced cabinet.

Unlike past elections, it will take a few more days until final results are known. Elections Canada received more than one million mail-in ballots this year, which is far higher than normal. The option was promoted as an alternative for Canadians who did not wish to vote in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elections Canada spokesperson Matthew McKenna said the counting of those mail-in ballots will begin Tuesday.

“We expect the vast majority to be counted and posted by tomorrow (Wednesday), but there may be further delays in some ridings,” he said in an e-mail.

This is the daily Politics Briefing newsletter, written by Ian Bailey. Filling in today is Bill Curry. It is available exclusively to our digital subscribers. If you’re reading this on the web, subscribers can sign up for the Politics newsletter and more than 20 others on our newsletter signup page. Have any feedback? Let us know what you think.

TODAY’S HEADLINES

Canada federal election results: Justin Trudeau’s Liberals win third consecutive election, fall short of a majority: Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won a third straight election on Monday, but fell short of the majority they sought in the snap vote and will return to government with what will effectively be a status quo Parliament.

The Liberal victory left Erin O’Toole’s leadership of the Conservative Party in jeopardy. The Tory leader rose to the helm of the party last year promising to deliver in seat-rich Ontario but he struggled in the campaign with questions on how he would handle the pandemic and wavered on key platform pledges.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have a minority again. What now? The new(ish) Parliament explained: After Sept. 20′s election, the balance of power in the House of Commons is largely unchanged between the Liberals, Conservatives, Bloc, NDP and Greens. Here’s what the results show and what leaders say they’ll do next.

After failing to secure majority, Trudeau will face questions within his caucus: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took a risky political gamble, triggering a snap election during the fourth wave of the pandemic in pursuit of a new majority mandate. He ended winning another minority mandate instead.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s ideology shift was not enough to surpass Liberals: Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole steered his party back toward the ideological centre of Canadian politics in 2021 and made this shift a key selling point during the five-week election campaign. But it was not enough to win Canada’s 44th general election as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will form the next government.

Jagmeet Singh still holds balance of power after 2021 federal election but NDP doesn’t make major seat gains: The NDP under leader Jagmeet Singh will be returning to Ottawa with its balance of power position intact, but the party’s hopes of major seat gains came up short.

PRIME MINISTER’S DAY

Justin Trudeau takes a selfie with a supporter at the Jarry Metro station in Montreal on Sept. 21, 2021, after the Liberals won a minority government the day before.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted commuters at a subway station in his Montreal riding of Papineau, where he was re-elected Monday. The Liberal Leader is not scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday.

LEADERS

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is scheduled to hold a news conference at 4 p.m. ET in Ottawa.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is scheduled to hold a news conference at 9:30 am PT (12:30 ET) in Vancouver.

Itineraries for Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Party leader Annamie Paul were not immediately available.

OPINION

Gary Mason (The Globe and Mail) on Erin O’Toole and the Conservative Party brace for an ugly war over his shift to the left: “There is little doubt Mr. O’Toole is girding for an internal fight, one that could get very loud and very messy and has the potential to lead to a complete fracture of the conservative movement.”

Robyn Urback (The Globe and Mail) If this election was a test of leadership, all of them failed: “None of the front-running candidates in this election campaign ventured to engage with challenging ideas, or dared step offside of politically advantageous positions. That bodes poorly for whatever faith the public should have in the capacity of the next government, whatever its specific composition might turn out to be, to capably deal with whatever crisis comes next – be it climate change, or an aging population, or another pandemic – just as long as the tough but necessary decisions risk political penalty.”

Andrew Coyne (The Globe and Mail) on A battle between fear and loathing that both sides lost: “Consider: Had the election been held on schedule, two years from now, the pandemic would (please God) have been long over, the mass vaccination program, with its associated mandates, a distant memory. Without the oxygen of this approaching “tyranny,” Maxime Bernier’s campaign might never have got off the ground. But call an election in the fevered atmosphere of a public-health emergency; spend the entire campaign insisting on the very policy, vaccine mandates, you had previously rejected as “divisive”; steer your campaign straight at the PPC, literally and figuratively, and who knows what profitable mayhem you can create?”

Campbell Clark (The Globe and Mail) Trudeau had just enough resilience to return to office, but doubts about his intentions remain: “He looks the same, still, at 49. But six years ago the Justin Trudeau of 2015 was a figure who for many seemed to symbolize good intentions, even for some who weren’t sure about his politics or ability. The 2021 Mr. Trudeau pulled through a campaign in which he had trouble convincing folks he had the right motivations.”

John Ibbitson (The Globe and Mail) Erin O’Toole tried to refashion the Conservative movement and deserves another chance to lead: “Moderate suburban voters will support Conservative government. We know that because most provincial governments are conservative, of one stripe or another. Many would vote Conservative federally as well, if they could trust the party: a Conservative Party of fiscal responsibility and individual freedom; a party that takes pride in our country while recognizing where we have fallen short; a party that supports business but understands the vulnerability of workers, that protects property but cares for the earth. Mr. O’Toole bet big that he could build and sell such a party. It didn’t work this time. But he could still be the next prime minister, perhaps sooner rather than later.”

Got a news tip that you’d like us to look into? E-mail us at tips@globeandmail.com. Need to share documents securely? Reach out via SecureDrop

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Liberals' bank surtax is 'pandering politics': Former RBC CEO – BNN

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A former chief executive of Royal Bank of Canada said the federal Liberals’ plan to slap a surtax on big bank and insurance profits “makes no sense” and called the move a purely “political decision.”

“That type of policy is pandering politics,” said Gord Nixon, who is also chairman of BNN Bloomberg parent company BCE Inc., in an interview Tuesday. “It might sell well in terms of achieving votes but it doesn’t make any sense from a policy perspective.”

The Liberals proposed a three-per-cent additional tax on profits that exceed $1 billion for Canada’s biggest banks and insurance companies as a way to help pay for new program spending, although some Bay Street analysts feel the plan lacks crucial details.

Nixon implied he isn’t necessarily surprised politicians took aim at big banks given his prior experience as RBC’s CEO and president from 2001 to 2014.

“Why the banks? Other than they’re an easy target,” he said. “The banks always deal with political issues.”

He said there are a few sectors, such as technology and grocers, that fared much better than banks and insurers through the COVID-19 pandemic, which suggests the targeted tax has political undertones.

“The banks actually didn’t do very well during the pandemic. You look at the three-year returns on banks, they’re up less than five per cent. The S&P is up close to 15 per cent,” he said. “I’m not suggesting there’s hardship there. But their earnings were very strong the last two quarters, largely because they were reversing a lot of loan losses that were taken when the pandemic first hit.”

Instead of a bank tax, Nixon would rather see policies that help attract business investment and talent, something he felt the campaign platforms proposed by Canada’s major political parties lacked.

“A lot of the issues that needed to be discussed were not necessarily discussed. And I think clearly, the result is that there is no mandate, if you will, given to the Liberal Party.”

Another one of Nixon’s concerns is the ballooning federal debt burden. The Conservative Party was the only major federal party to propose bringing the budget back to balance within a decade.

“We can’t just spend and spend and push that problem down the road. One of the problems of politics – and it’s all political parties – is it’s very easy to spend when you don’t have to live with the consequences of that spending for many years down the road. But there’s always a day of reckoning,” he said. “That day of reckoning is ultimately going to appear whether it’s through higher inflation or anemic economic growth.”

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