PREVIEW FRIDAY: The Road Ahead

BY WILLIE HANDLER

An novel excerpt from a political satire. Copyright is held by the author.

JERRY CANCELS all canvassing events for the next two days to concentrate on prepping Rick for Thursday’s political debate. This is all new to Rick so Jerry sets up a mock debate where he throws out questions and the candidate uses the notes in his briefing binder to respond. At times, Rick has difficulty sticking to the messaging in the notes. The debate sponsor has indicated that the topics to be covered are jobs and the economy, healthcare, education, transit and auto insurance. These are the issues that Jerry spends the most time on with Rick.

The campaign team shows up for the debate about an hour before the start time. The debate is being held in the gym of Brampton Centennial Secondary School and is sponsored by a union local. Jerry doesn’t expect it to be a very Conservative-friendly crowd. All the candidates have tables set up just outside the gym, with volunteers handing out literature and chatting with voters. People slowly trickle in and it seems early on that there are more volunteers than actual voters. Ameena 3 is in charge of the Tompkins table and Jerry frequently walks over to check how she and the volunteers are making out.

“Hi Jerry, you look more nervous than the candidate.”

“I’m a worrier.”

“What’s there to worry about? Haven’t you prepped Rick enough?”

“I’m always worried. You know that there is always the possibility that our candidate is going to say something inappropriate or off colour. Tact is not one of Rick’s strengths.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“Ameena 3, how much interest are we drawing tonight?”

“It’s been very quiet but the place is full of union members, so no surprise. I’ve been checking out who is here from the media and it turns out it’s not just local media. Kevin Carter is here from the Star and Christie Lefebre from the Sun.”

“There’s nothing unusual about that. The Toronto papers make the rounds through the suburbs during an election campaign. It’s easier to get a feel for a riding and the candidates by showing up to a debate.”

When Rick arrives, he heads over to the Conservative table. He is wearing a dark blue suit, white shirt and blue striped tie. Standard attire for a Progressive Conservative party candidate. He has his binder of notes under his arm. Ameena 3 comes out from behind the table and puts a large Rick Tompkins button on his jacket. “Are you ready to go?”

“As ready as I’m going to be.”

“Why don’t you stand out here and greet people coming in until it’s time to start.”

Rick begins to introduce himself and shake hands with people walking in. One tiny elderly Indian woman stops and speaks to Rick in Punjabi. Ameena 3 intercedes and responds to the woman, who smiles and shuffles down the hall. Rick turns to her with a puzzled look in his face. “What was that about?”

“She is looking for the washrooms,” Ameena 3 responds with a smirk on her face.

Jerry wanders into the gym, which is slowly filling up. There is a big banner on the north wall declaring “You Are In Buck Country.” Next to it are pennants for the 2007 hockey team, the 2008 girls lacrosse team and the 2009 boys basketball team. Also on the north wall is a large photo of NHLer Rick Nash who once attended the school. He notes that there are quite a large number of seniors, which is typical for an all-candidates’ meeting. Seniors tend to be some of the most engaged voters and are more likely to have the evening free. He also notices that a significant number of people are wearing union hats. Visible minorities make up nearly half the crowd, which is what one would expect in BGM. Jerry watches Geneva casually stroll into the gym. As chief of staff for the party leader, he knows she is there to report back to campaign headquarters. He waves her over.

“Evening Switzer. Is your guy ready?”

“He’s ready.”

“You make sure he stays on message.”

“Yes, I will remind him. I’ll be right back”

Jerry walks out of the gym to avoid having to get into some annoying conversation with her. There are still very few people stopping in front of the Conservative table. He walks over to Rick. “I know I don’t need to remind you but Geneva is here and she hasn’t driven out to Brampton to provide moral support. You need to keep to the messages in the binder no matter what question is asked.”

“Stop worrying, Jerry. Everything is under control.”

Several minutes later, one of the organizers politely suggests that people begin to head into the gym so that the debate can begin on time. Jerry wishes Rick good luck and walks back in to sit next to Geneva. In the front of the gym is a long table on a riser with a large name card for each candidate. There is also a name card for the moderator who works for a cable news station in Peel. Next to the table is a lectern. Jerry asks Geneva how the party is doing in some key ridings. She indicates that they are expecting to make big gains in the Ottawa area and the GTA. The Toronto suburbs have really shifted to the Conservative camp. “Even Bramalea-Gore-Malton has seen some improvement. Your guy is drawing close to twenty-five percent which is about even with the NDP candidate, although still twenty points behind the Liberals.”

The moderator stands behind the lectern and welcomes the audience. He goes over the format to be followed. Each candidate will be given an opportunity to make opening remarks. The moderator will then ask questions based on the major topics provided to the candidates in advance. That will be followed by questions from the audience. The debate will end with closing remarks from each candidate.

Rick is selected to start off and talks about how the Progressive Conservative party’s priorities are jobs, low taxes, safe communities and less government. There is a small smattering of applause. Sunny Gill, the Liberal candidate is next. He indicates that his party’s priority is more money for infrastructure projects, in particular, transit and energy. He speaks briefly in Punjabi. There is a large contingent of Liberal supporters in the crowd who cheer wildly when he finishes. Next to speak is the Green candidate, Dana Hiller. She focuses on environmental issues and transit. Last to go is Rita Dhillon, representing the NDP. She also speaks briefly in Punjabi and focuses her opening remarks on raising corporate taxes and an increase in the minimum wage. She receives significant vocal support from the pro-labor crowd.

The moderator then goes through his list of prepared questions. The candidates run through their party’s position on each issue. There is the typical partisan support following each response.

The moderator asks the candidates a question about funding a light rail transit line in Brampton. When it is Sunny Gill’s turn to respond, he looks a little uncomfortable. “The Liberal government recognizes the need to expand our transit infrastructure. To fund future transit, we will impose a small increase in the provincial gasoline tax.”

When he is finished answering, the moderator responds. “I’m sorry Mr. Gill but you didn’t answer the question. I asked whether a future Liberal government would fund a Brampton light rail line. Would you like to try answering again?”

He shifts uncomfortably in his seat and tries again but basically provides the identical answer. Some members of the audience hiss and boo. Jerry and Geneva smile at the exchange.

Jerry braces himself for questions from the audience. You can prepare for weeks but there will always be that surprise question to make things interesting. In particular when you have a candidate like Rick Tompkins. He can be as unpredictable as the audience. There are a number of local issues raised, some of which are municipal issues rather than provincial ones. Voters often are unable to differentiate which government is answerable for which area of responsibility. An elderly man is recognized by the moderator. He walks to the front of the room. “I don’t have a question. I want to make a statement.”

The moderator interrupts. “I’m sorry the audience cannot make statements. If you have a question to ask then go ahead. Otherwise, please sit down.”

He ignores the moderator. “I’m 82 years old and I have something to say. The Canadian prime minister is the best prime minister we’ve ever had. I know because I’m 82.”

The Liberal supporters in the room break into applause while everyone else yells for him to sit down. After the moderator restores order, he recognizes a young woman. “I want to ask Mr. Tompkins a question. You have been seen canvassing in the city with two young women who at times might be confused with escorts rather than campaign workers. I would like you to tell me about your attitude toward women.”

As Rick grabs the microphone, Geneva glares at Jerry. His chest begins to tighten. “Thank you for that question. The two campaign workers you refer to are enthusiastic volunteers who have dedicated many hours to my campaign. I appreciate their commitment. However, like some women their age, they tend to dress more provocatively than I or some of you may care for. I hope over time they will understand that people may be judging them based on their appearance and how they dress. I have always been respectful towards women. I am pleased that our party has a record number of women running for office on October 26th and I hope that many of them will be successful.”

Jerry relaxes a little bit. Rick read the response exactly how Jerry had written it. He looks around and there doesn’t seem to be much of a reaction from the audience, although Geneva is still scowling. He feels they may have dodged a bullet on this one. Then near the end of the debate, a middle-aged man gets up to ask a question that turns out to be more of an impassioned plea. “This question is addressed to all the candidates. As you all know, Brampton has the highest auto insurance premiums in the province, maybe in the country. I’ve heard all of your positions on auto insurance. The Liberals are promising more choice to allow people to buy less coverage. That’s not real change. The Conservatives are promising to reduce rate regulation though I have no clue how that would happen. The NDP is promising to improve accident benefits and introduce a consumer’s bill of rights for auto insurance. I don’t see that lowering my rates. I think the Green Party wants me to give up my car. That’s not going to happen either. I’ve got two cars and two teenage male drivers at home. My premiums are almost equal to my mortgage payments. Is anyone going to do anything to help car owners in Brampton?”

Sunny Gill repeats his government’s commitment to introduce more choice to allow consumers to buy down on coverage. That starts some grumbling in the audience and a few hecklers begin expressing their views. When it is Rita Dhillon’s turn to respond, she suggests that expanding coverage and reducing rates are both possible. Her response creates some snickering in the room. Jerry can see that Rick is anxious to be handed the microphone. Perhaps too eager. When it’s his turn to respond, he rises out of his seat to address the crowd. “My family has worked in insurance for several decades. I’m also a Brampton resident so I know how much it costs to drive in this city. That’s why I’m committed to lowering auto insurance premiums by twenty-five percent. For drivers in Brampton, that’s a savings of about $700 on average. Some of you might be thinking, how is that possible? The answer is by attacking the source of the problem: lawyers and rehab providers. These two professional groups are exaggerating claims and driving up costs. Drivers are paying more and accident victims are getting less. It’s criminal. If I am elected, I will go after these robber barons and make sure your hard earned dollars stay in your pocket.”

The room is on its feet clapping and cheering. Rick has found a winning policy position. The problem is it’s not one shared by the Ontario Progressive Conservative party. Jerry turns to Geneva and sees that she is slack-jawed and her face is turning almost the same shade of red as her purse and shoes. She turns to Jerry. “What the fuck is he talking about? You are supposed to be managing him!”

“I told you this guy is next to impossible to manage.”

“If there is media in the room, we are in deep shit.”

The blood drains from Jerry’s face. “Umm, there are reporters here from the Star and Sun in addition to Mississauga and Brampton media.”

“Holy shit!”

Jerry notices that the reporters are rushing to the front of the gym to grab Rick for an interview. He turns to Geneva. “We need to get up there and do some damage control.”

When they catch up to Rick, they hear him inform the journalists that more details regarding auto insurance reforms will be coming out in the next few days and that he stands behind his commitment to lower rates by twenty-five percent. Geneva decides that at this point it may be wiser to avoid speaking to the media. She pulls Jerry aside and heads out the door. “We need to talk first thing tomorrow morning. You need to control your trained chimp.” With that, she is out the door.

***

Jerry drags himself out of bed just after 6:00 a.m. half hoping that last night’s nightmare was just that, a bad dream. He flips open his laptop and first checks out the online edition of the Toronto Star. There it is, as one of the lead news items.

Conservative Candidate Promises
25% Auto Insurance Savings
Kevin Carter, Toronto Star Queen’s Park Bureau Chief

A Progressive Conservative candidate running in the October 26th Ontario provincial election has promised to reduce auto insurance premiums by 25%.

Rick Tompkins, a Brampton insurance broker, told an audience on Thursday night in the Toronto suburban riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton that the Liberal government has done nothing to help drivers in the province. He stated that a Conservative government would lower rates by a quarter.

Mr. Tompkins repeated his promise after the candidates’ meeting. A Conservative party spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by the Star. Nowhere on the party’s website is there any mention of a promise to lower auto insurance premiums. A spokesperson for the insurance industry was skeptical that rates could be lowered that much. Chip Bonham, vice-president at the Insurance Association of Canada suggested that the Conservatives would have to gut benefits to meet that target.

With just two weeks left until the election, it will be interesting to see what impact this announcement will have on the campaign. Ontario drivers pay much higher premiums than the rest of the country. In Brampton, according to the Insurance Association of Canada, they are the highest of the high, at about $2400 per car, about triple what it costs in Quebec and the Maritimes.

The headline is just as bad in the Toronto Sun — “Tories to lower car insurance rates by 25%.” Jerry feels a large knot forming in his stomach. This is not going to be a stellar day. He notices his phone is buzzing and picks it up. There are thirty-four unread text messages waiting for him. He counts eleven messages just from Geneva. The other messages are from various members in the Conservative campaign team and some media. It’s too early to get into it and he hasn’t had his coffee yet.

He is about to stumble into the bathroom when his phone begins to ring. “Good morning, Geneva. What a surprise to hear from you at this hour.”

“Fuck you, Switzer!”

“Yes, let’s just skip the niceties,” he sighs, rubbing his eyes with his free hand.

“Your Mr. Tompkins has got a lot of people worked up. There are some people who would like to see him disappear permanently. That being said, there is no early consensus on how to manage this issue. No one was planning to make auto insurance an election issue until the Jason Bourne of politics went rogue and decide to blow a hole through the party platform.”

“I was caught completely by surprise as well. He never mentioned to me that he wanted to see insurance rates drop by 25 percent. I have no idea where that came from.”

“Well, it’s out there now. And on the front pages of the papers. There will be a meeting of the campaign team at party headquarters today at 3:00 p.m. and you have been asked to attend. Don’t bring Tompkins. I’m sure he is too busy redrafting our positions on nuclear power and taxation.”

The line goes dead.