That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Media malaise? It’s a Canuck thing

I’m going verbatim copy-and-paste here (pretending I’m Jane Taber with a CPC memo to members, of course) and reproducing the comment I placed on the murky swamp of the Globe and Mail’s comment boards beneath Lawrence Martin’s article: Has the fourth estate lost its tenacity?

I refrained from replying to the argument with the a single word – "duh!" – and thought instead I'd beat a drum I often beat. Sorry if it comes off as too familiar…

THANK YOU for this critique. As you must know, Lawrence, the Globe is among the worst offenders in the Canadian media universe. The Globe seems to run more copy on Ruth-Ellen Brosseau than it does on Kevin Page. It’s pathetic with a capital P.

You say: “The stories (or contempt, corruption etc) don’t stick, it is said. The reason may well be, to cite Mr. Thomson’s cautionary words, because we in the media don’t stick to them. It’s episodic journalism. We report one story, then move on. We don’t probe deeply. If a Watergate was happening, the public would never know it.”

It is worth remembering, I think, that this is not a global problem. We can’t only blame the “24-hour news cycle” and the pressures of online publishing. It’s a particularly Canadian problem – the Canadian media, bar a couple of exceptions, is uncritical, unimaginative, and doesn’t investigate. It’s a lukewarm media culture where, bizarrely, no one’s speaking truth to power.

Compare Britain. The British media are relentlessly investigative; more diverse, with at least nine national dailies; each of them are openly subjective, and they engage in debate from clear positions; and, crucially, British journos do *not* suffer fools. I’ve said many times, as a Canadian in the UK: if Stephen Harper were a politician in Britain, he would have long ago been eaten *alive*

I’m imagining David Cameron redacting the budget for a crime bill. Or stacking the House of Lords with defeated MP candidates, and delivering the news through a memo, and not through a live press conference. I’m imagining him limiting reporters’ questions to five-a-day during an election campaign. I guarantee you he’d be toast – absolute dead meat. The British media demand accountability, whereas too much Canadian media simply parrot government talking points.

It’s awful news for Canada that the media culture is so tepid, shallow, and almost disinterested in fostering public debate. Too many journos appear happy to just eat what they’re fed by the PMO.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , ,

Oops, they did it again

Is there any surprise that the Globe and Mail has endorsed the Conservatives?

In small ways, yes. I had expected at least a modicum of restraint on their behalf, and was prepared to bet serious money that they’d declare for a Conservative minority, and against a majority, given, well, everything we’ve seen for five years. The deficit, the dishonesty, the cronyism, criminality, and corruption – and pure, unalloyed contempt, in every sense of the word.

But, nooooo, the Globe maintains its tragic, eternal love for the ethereal, departed ghost of Progressive Conservatism. Pitiably, rather than mourn its demise, the Globe falsely recognises its reincarnation in the Party of Harperland. It’s like seeing Madonna in your toast – stare long enough, and you’ll see what you long for. Sadly, it is only a miserable mirage, though no one will ever convince them of it.

Where is the objective assessment of where the country’s being taken, from the perspective of a newspaper that advocates for fiscal conservatism? Harper’s team may be called the Conservative Party, but these are no Tories. The U.S. Republican populism they employ betrays the “fiscal prudence” mantra time and time again. No intelligent being (and I include dolphins, puppies and bonobo chimps) can honestly consider Stephen Harper a sober steward of the Canadian economy. The historic deficit proves it wrong, and the simultaneous drunken sailor spending, with its “state secret” price tags to-boot, only underline it. Even the long-feared New Democrats would treat tax dollars with greater seriousness, and Canadians in unprecedented numbers are coming round to that, despite the inertial forces holding much of our media back.

The Globe has resisted the centre and the left for nigh on thirty years now, and there’s no reason to have expected they’d make an exception now. What is perhaps surprising is that so many Canadians continue to depend on the newspaper, despite disagreeing so fundamentally and so consistently with its position.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

The Globe’s endorsements: a litany of facepalms

Is this catharsis? Penance? The Globe & Mail has decided to offer up every single one of their election endorsement editorials of the past thirty years. I mean, none of it’s even redacted.

It puts stuff in an interesting context. Canada has very little in the way of a diverse national media culture. The Globe was the only national newspaper in the country until Conrad Black thought he’d shift the narrative further to the right by launching the National Post in 1998. This essentially gave us one Progressive Conservative paper, and one Reform Party paper. And nominally-independent city dailies which have long been, in the main, localist subsidiaries of the national outfits like Southam/Hollinger/Canwest/Postmedia.

Compare Britain, where there are four “quality dailies” and five more “tabloid dailies” printed nationwide,* and speaking from every point on the political spectrum (more than one in the lunatic fringe, it must be said).

Looking through the Globe’s archives, we see that they shunned the Liberals solidly, in every election from 1979 through to 1993, endorsing Clark over Trudeau twice, and Mulroney in both ’84 and ’88. And even in 1993, their endorsement of Chrétien’s Liberals was unashamedly begrudging. They declared “firmly for a minority. We do not trust the Liberals to govern unguarded.”

And why didn’t they? Because, they were convinced that:

[I]t is clear that a majority Liberal government would make no serious attempt to rescue the nation’s finances. Indeed, it’s a safe bet the Liberals would not get the deficit below $30-billion. It would be five more years of the same desperate game of catchup with the debt, just keeping pace with the remorseless growth in interest payments by nickel- and-diming spending – and raising taxes. In the same vein, the Liberals’ expressed willingness to let inflation rise again only guarantees the country will have to endure another recession before long. What that will do to the debt we can only guess.

And, they eat their hat.

Even in 1997, with budget surpluses on the books, and Québec separation averted, the Globe said, you know what, Jean Charest’s Tories look pretty good right now. Seriously? 1997’s Progressive Conservative leader, presiding over a parliamentary caucus of *two* MPs, was deemed best fit to take the reins of government in the midst of Chrétien/Martin actually balancing the budget? Wowza.

In 2000, they endorsed Paul Martin for Prime Minister despite the fact he wasn’t the leader of his party. The Globe, however, pretended to perceive Martin as simply a better political animal, cleverer, a better speaker, and uncorrupted by a lust of power for power’s sake (lolwut?). At the heart of it, Martin was further to the economic right, and the newspaper liked it. Reaganomics has always been the Globe’s North Star.

What’s so surprising in all of this is not that the Globe can admit that, since pretty much the end of the George Brown era, it has been a decidedly dyed-in-the-wool Old Blue Tory rag. The curiosity here is that, by way of setting up this new interactive editorial timeline, they are essentially declaring how wrong they’ve been. Habitually. Relentlessly. Wrongy McWrong.

Will John Stackhouse and co. be as scared of the prospect of a Liberal budget in 2011, as we wallow in historic depths of Conservative deficit? Will they deem Flaherty’s thunderous spending sprees to be “sober investments”? Will the perceived arrogance in 1997’s Liberal “Red Book” be translated into perceived arrogance in the tinted-window cloisters of Harperland and their heavily redacted “No Book”?

It shouldn’t matter. The abysmal accuracy rating and the bungled political priorities of the G&M editorial board over the course of the past thirty years should be enough to render their endorsement without real value. The problem is that this is Canada. There aren’t many newspapers. There isn’t a great, diverse, representative debate going on. Even television – there will be one televised debate (in each language), compared to the U.S. and the UK where there are normally three.

And that’s the greater shame about this election, like all Canadian elections – it happens in a stilted press environment that (aside from some provocative and engaging online outlets) is mainly dull, conservative, and more often than not, wrong.

* just for reference, the main national British papers, and who they tend to trump for. Wishing the Canadian press universe were as wide-ranging (keeping in mind that the UK Sun’s headline today is “I Eat Sofas: A Mum’s Deadly Addiction”):

Qualities: The Telegraph (Conservative), The Times (Labour/Conservative), The Guardian (Labour/Liberal Democrat), The Independent (Liberal Democrat)

Tabloids: The Mirror (Labour), The Sun (Labour/Conservative), The Daily Mail (Conservative/UKIP), The Daily Express/Daily Star (Conservative), The Morning Star (Socialist)

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Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , , , , , ,

Election time: a right and a wrong

Jeffrey Simpson can get it very right, and very wrong, depending on the day of the week and the subject he’s writing about. Today, he’s done both.

Very right:

Here’s one suggestion for a red-blooded leftist party. The NDP wants to cushion people from rising home heating bills? Pay for the cushion with an excess profits tax on the oil industry because when international oil prices rise above, say, $90 (U.S.) a barrel, their profits are going to soar. The NDP, after all, has only one seat in Alberta and isn’t going to win another one. Moreover, bashing rich oil companies while consumers feel the pinch isn’t bad populist politics.

It’s more than good advice for the NDP, it’s good advice for Liberals, too. Tangible, costed, bold policies. We have this problem whereby Jack Layton speaks rather vaguely of “expanding” the Canada Pension Plan, while Ignatieff talks equally vaguely about “health care when you need it.” Until these warm fuzzies lock into “actionable” policies, Harper isn’t going to come down to earth.

There are hints of boldness in the NDP’s wider position – the proposed referendum on Senate abolition, for example. It’s good to be provocative with a vision, as opposed to withering timidly before the prospect of constitutional reform, as Rob Silver prefers. But grand, visionary concepts too often founder on the details. Both the left and the centrist parties need to back up broad visions with step-by-step, costed, failsafe plans.

Very wrong:

It would appear the New Democrats will have the most to say about whether Canadians will experience another election.

“Experience another election!” He makes it sound as though it’s a flood, or a plague. Passing a bladder stone. I thought the masses were generally supposed to be excited by the chance to activate our common democratic power. But, no, there is no love for experiencing democracy at the moment, apparently.

Hence the mutual distancing from responsibility that we see across Parliament. It’s a common thing to cast the blame for causing the tumult of an election on the intransigence of our enemies. Liberals will blame the NDP, the Tories will blame the Liberals, and the NDP the Tories.

Hung parliaments don’t lend themselves to such easy characterisations, however. A majority decision on anything right now is, by its very nature, a cross-party decision. It has to be when no one’s got a majority.

If any single party could be pinned with “causing” an election, though, then it would have to be the odd one out. If 3/4 of the parties say salt, and 1/4 say pepper, and pepper is what we get, then it’s fair to say it’s the fault of the 1/4. As regards confidence measures, this puts all responsibility on the party of government. Not any one of the opposition parties. You can “blame” the NDP for bailing the Tories out, if they do indeed buckle on the budget vote. But no single party in Opposition can force an election. The only single party that can is, by coincidence, the most single-minded of them all – Team Harper. So if they do it, on balance, it’s because they want it.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

A future in monochrome

Canada’s House of Commons has risen for the Summer, leaving us with little else but the World Cup to keep us entertained (otherwise known as 22 men jogging for an hour and a half). I suppose it beats 308 men and women shooting political paintballs at each other.

But the Globe and Mail has noted the end of the session by harkening back to a more acrimonious time – one of dubious constitutional legality, and one which has left Stephen Harper with a legacy that will never be shed – the infamous economic update, the proposal to end public party subsidies, and the coalition and proroguation crisis which followed.

The Globe has taken sides late in the game on this one, effectively endorsing the Tories’ December 2008 position that the $1.95-per-vote party subsidy should be abolished. It was an astonishing position for the Globe to take in June 2010 (if ever), not only considering how spectacularly Harper’s initial attempt at this backfired, but also considering the reasons why the House rebelled against it – sure, smaller and cash-strapped parties’ livelihoods depend in part on the subsidy, but so does any semblance of an egalitarian democracy.

Our first-past-the-post (let’s call it FPTP, shall we?) voting system is not designed for competitive multiparty democracy – it’s designed for a bipartisan 18th Century British context in which voters needed local candidate MPs to act as the face of their respective parties – most voters would never get the chance to ever know what their Prime Minister looked like, let alone sounded like, and so local candidates were there to represent the party to the unwashed masses. We must remember that this electoral system was not designed for MPs to represent their constituents in Parliament – it was designed for MPs to represent their party to their constituency.

As obsolete as the FPTP system is for a regionally diverse, multipartisan, educated and media-savvy Canadian public in the 21st Century, the public party subsidy offers voters a faint and meagre incentive to go and vote for who they believe in. The majority of Canadian ridings would not be considered “marginal” – by and large, our country is built up of safe seats. With the subsidy in place, voters in safe constituencies have, at the very least, been incentivised to vote for the party of their own choosing content in the knowledge that, even if their party hasn’t a snowball’s chance of taking the riding, they will receive $1.95 of public funds for each vote they receive. It’s the only direct activation of voter’s will that we have, with the electoral system we’re saddled with.

The Globe suggests that by abolishing the subsidy, we can begin to reverse trends in voter apathy – the argument being that parties that rely more on their own fundraising will be driven to perform better. In essence, it’s a textbook conservative argument that welfare disincentivises beneficiaries from seeking work. But in the political context, this argument completely ignores the electoral system which itself refuses to compute the popular vote in favour of 308 winner-takes-all miniature races.

Currently, at the national level, the Green Party can rely on about 8-10% of the popular vote, yet have consistently received 0% of the seats in the House. The NDP get 17-19% nationally, on bad polling days, and end up with only 10% of seats. Harper and the Globe define “small parties” as ones without a threatening representation in the House of Commons: yet the NDP and Greens together amass the same (or a better) proportion of the popular vote as the ruling Tories – yet this huge wealth of public support is squandered in the electorally-meaningless runner-up camp.

This electoral injustice, rectified long ago in most Westminster parliaments inheriting FPTP systems, already contributes to voter apathy in Canada – and now the Globe advocates pulling the rug out from parties already crippled by an antiquated voting system designed for a bipartisan 18th Century Britain? If you are quizzing voter apathy, look no further than our unitary government, representing just a third of voters.

An electoral system in which 17% of the votes equalled 17% of the seats in the HoC – now that might get voters excited, it might get them to the polls in bigger numbers, and it might get donors on board to support “small” parties that command significant support from voters, but no representation in the Commons.

The Harper team, and the Globe 18 months behind it, push the view that these parties are small because their seat distribution is small – and thus, they are the political equivalent of underperforming welfare cases who shouldn’t be propped up by the all-important taxpayers’ dollars.

But any assessment of party performance, and any strategy to alleviate voter apathy, has to first take aim at our ancient and inappropriate electoral process which rewards monochrome bipartisan contests. Taking aim at the party subsidy is little more than an attack on our single pillar of public financing: the pillar that helps enable parties to remain accountable to the broad, national popular will rather than well-heeled donors with conditions dangling from every cheque they send.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,


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