It’s not easy running for office, but then again it’s not supposed to be. It’s our natural human compulsion to avoid situations where we might look foolish or misspeak lest it be taken the wrong way. A Freudian slip, tipping over a glass of water, we all hate the idea that our best versions of ourselves will not be put forward. Now image that moment being caught on video or audio for posterity. And now imagine facing that possibility all day, everyday. That’s what politicians face, and being only human it’s only a matter of time until something slips.
But that’s the risk you take as a politician, sometimes something you say in your misspent youth comes back to bite you at the worst opportunity, and sometimes you call somebody a naughty word under your breath and the microphone picks it up. Usually, the people that take those slights and share them with a wider audience are the media.
Stephen Harper has never exactly seen the media as his friend, but in this campaign his obfuscation and downright belligerence towards the press has been even more apparent than ever. And no, I’m not just talking about certain Guelph-based Conservative candidates, but it’s certainly a nation-wide trend. And this goes beyond an incident today where CBC journalist Terry Milewski was booed at a Harper rally in Richmond Hill after impudently asking if he would accept a decision by the Governor-General to hand power to the opposition parties in the wake of the May 2 election.
The push and pull between Harper (and his candidates) and the media has made its fair share of news this election. Starting from the unusual step of limiting reporters’ questions to five a day, it seems that the Prime Minister is doing everything he could to keep those pesky reporters at arms length with all their queries, and stuff. The matter is a rather logical extension of other media mitigation measures like collecting names and choosing from it what reporters get to ask what questions at what time. This Prime Minister, who doesn’t scrum as often as he should, and has visited the National Press Theatre exactly once in his tenure as PM, has almost made a career out of ducking the press. And he leads by example as well.
In the early days of the campaign, Forum Research of Toronto did a poll for The Hill Times and found that only 19 per cent of voters believe that Harper has been “very open and willing” to answer media questions during the campaign. Meanwhile, 65 per cent of the 2,000 some-odd respondents ranked making the government more accountable to Parliament as a “very important” election issue, second only to the economy and job creation. This poll was done immediately following the events in London and Guelph where people deemed “unacceptable” were expelled from Harper rallies. It took the Prime Minister four days to apologize for this partisan profiling, but the chink in the Harper machine began to develop. The thought began to occur that the basis for this election, a parliamentary censure for secrecy and lack of transparency, wasn’t quite so pointless anymore.
What’s been most surprising about all of this is the reaction for the Tory faithful. It’s frequently come up the idea that how can the party that ran on a return to responsible government, following years of Liberal scandal, do their work in the shadows and expect the media be okay with that? How can their supporters be okay with that? And not just the people that booed in Richmond Hill, but just general commentators I’ve seen who’ve defended the mitigation of media and other members of the public by saying that the Tories are perfectly justified in who they do and do not let in to “private events.” This while Harper supporters freely photo-bomb Liberal events with (occasionally) little interference.
It’s a bizarre state of affairs. Harper and his team believe that the key to majority status is saying (or repeating) just enough of the party platform to convince undecideds and the rest of the time, keeping their peace and their silence lest they say anything to upset the apple cart. It’s a strategy seen in American politics: stay off the stump, stay on message, repeat something enough and people will buy it. And while this does occasionally work in Canada, the strategy seems to have turned in this particular election.
Though it may upset some people to hear this, an open media is essential to the proper administration of government, like Question Period, or being able to vote without some nitwit making a scene at the polling station. When you have a slate of candidates who come out to the debates, answer calls from the paper by actually picking up the phone, and is even willing to take time out to talk to alternative press, and one that doesn’t do any of that, the choice should be obvious despite your political affiliation.
Love it or hate it, the media is the anti-freeze that keeps the keeps the machinery of government from corroding in the harsh conditions of an autocracy. Harper may be of the opinion that out of site is out of mind, but millions of Canadians like the idea of being able to pay careful attention to what our elected officials are doing in the seat of political power in this country. Holding our elected representatives to account is the sacrosanct right of any democracy, its too bad then that between capping the number of questions asked, the number of journalists that get to ask them, and the even planning to start his own press theatre, that our Prime Minister doesn’t seem to appreciate that.