When a fellow blogger and former RMWB councillor wrote a blog during this election about a tool that he called "gold" I think he genuinely believed it was gold, and for a time I did, too. It is a tool devised to help constituents engage with candidates in the election, asking them questions regarding platform and policy that would help determine where their vote would one day be cast. But in this recent election that tool, called the "Talking Stick" started to slide sideways, and in the end I think it became a victim of an election that was mired in rumours and accusations. I am afraid what started out as gold became, in the end, fool's gold.
The Talking Stick has been around for some time, and in previous elections I too used it to interact with candidates. This year, however, the questions on the anonymous forum (as all one needs to do to ask a question is provide a name and an email address) went far beyond questions on policy and platform. It became a public airing of grievances, and, in some cases, slid far enough that I began to fear slander suits against those who host the webpage (and as many of us who host pages such as this know we are legally responsible for the content on them, whether we have written it or endorse it or not). It became so enmeshed in some of the nastiness of this campaign that it stopped being of much use to anyone, including the candidates I suspect, who found themselves answering over a hundred questions. And since candidates were evaluated based on how many questions they answered many probably felt tied to answering them all, spending hours and hours on a keyboard when their time was probably better spent knocking on doors and engaging people face to face. The idea behind the Talking Stick is a great one, and it has amazing potential - but in this last election I think the tool itself fell short of the goal. And how do I know this? Because even I stopped reading it.
Look, I read everything to do with this election, local and provincial coverage. I went to debates and spoke to most of the candidates personally through Facebook, Twitter, email, or in person. I was keenly interested in it as democracy and politics fascinates me - but about halfway through I gave up on the Talking Stick because it stopped being about platforms and policy. It became a lot of accusations and innuendo, and there came a point when I simply gave up - as did some of the candidates.
For the record I don't blame the candidates who stopped answering the questions, because it must have been arduous. More than one of them revealed to me that they had begun to refer to it as "The Beating Stick", because I am sure most were terrified to open it, both by the sheer volume of work that it involved and the fact that there might be content in it that had nothing to do with their platforms and everything to do with them as people - because at the end of the day politicians are people, and while we think they are made of steel with Teflon coating that simply isn't true.
If one looks at the results it seems that time spent on The Talking Stick certainly didn't guarantee election or re-election, as some who answered almost every question will not serve on council while some who answered few questions will. There seems to be little correlation, and I think in the end while there might have been many visitors to The Talking Stick this season many came simply to gawk, much like people do when they pass motor vehicle collisions. Was there true value in the responses and the interaction? Yes, there was some, I think, and I think the idea is a brilliant one, but in elections where things get nasty (and make no mistake, they did in this one) forums that allow such anonymity are subject to tremendous abuse and begin to lose some of the value they once held.
I want to make something clear, though - I have great respect for those who developed the idea of The Talking Stick and who host the platform, and who invest their time in maintaining it. This criticism is not meant to imply that they have done anything wrong, but rather to illustrate how an excellent tool can turn from gold into dust when situations change and things get contentious. It seems that in this election not only did some candidates fall victim to cheap shots and tawdry politics, but so did a valuable tool in our community - and frankly, I think that's a shame, because The Talking Stick is a tool with amazing potential. I think this last election simply proved that it is, like many other tools, a double-edged sword.