Andrew Coyne put forward an interesting premise a few days ago: “Time For Ignatieff To Take A Chance.” The popular Maclean’s columnist suggested it might be time for Michael Ignatieff to rip up those prepared speeches and just speak from the heart. He believes the public is looking for someone who’s truly “authentic” and they would likely “rush the barriers” to see Ignatieff if he just put it all out there. Coyne presses on to say that Canada’s present political climate is largely dishonest and timid – incapable of taking Canadians where they really need to go. It was a well-written column but I still wonder as to its premise.
Let’s be honest: No political leader in their right mind dares to be as truthful as Coyne challenges because it would be the media itself that couldn’t withhold its skepticism long enough to truly investigate the merits of that leader’s case. Opposition parties would immediately pounce and all manner of bloggers, pundits and columnists would discuss the scary ramifications of such a daredevil proposition. I recall when Ignatieff came to London following a visit to Cambridge, in which he stated no leader would be worthy of the name if he or she didn’t place the possibility of raising taxes on a long list of future considerations if a deficit couldn’t be brought under control. Political staffers mulled around, worried that it would be taken out of context, which it inevitably was. Media had a field day with it. Ignatieff, suffering from a gruelling cold, sat in a chair prior to the event in London and wondered what became of honesty in the public space. The very next day in the House, Conservative members used every possible occasion to ridicule Ignatieff, calling him just another “tax and spend” Liberal. The media ate it up.
Back in early-2007, a few months after I was elected, I watched in disappointment as Stephen Harper wondered aloud as to whether Canada might not have to consider remaining in Afghanistan a while longer, only to be ridiculed as a war-monger by opposition parties and media alike. He had dared to ask an important policy question in public and many in the media took the easy route, opting for the salacious over articles of in-depth research. That research did come later but largely through the Manley Report.
I watch it every day in Question Period. Like the half-mortal gods of the ancient Greeks, the media occupies the upper tier of seats in the press gallery and amuses itself on the vain actions and ambitions of the mere mortals below. When a minister, whom the gods appear to favour, responds to a question by minimizing the query in an amusing fashion, many of the gods merely smile outwardly at his brashness, refusing to acknowledge that, not only is the answer untruthful, it is, in fact, demeaning of a serious place of public debate. Politicians pick this up. Those that are ahead in the polls (supposedly favoured by the gods) at a given time look up to their communications benefactors, nod in greeting, and remain intent on schmoozing with the journalists at some event later in the day to maintain their favour. Those that are behind in public favour cast quick and insecure glances at the upper tier, wondering if the journalists will only make their lot worse the next day.
Maybe, if we were all to be truthful, we should just acknowledge that the media has become Canada’s natural governing party – it remains when other parties stumble and fall. Journalists and commentators facing horrendous deadlines find their work made easier when some politician steps out of line and in a rare moment of candour tells the truth. It’s far easier to mull over the effect of the statement than to truly take the time to consider its potential for damage or good. I read in a national daily today a well-known columnist whom I respect wonder if it might not be a wise time for Harper to cause another election if he wants to survive some upcoming challenges like Afghanistan. What’s with that? Ignatieff just took a national pummelling for threatening to force an election and now we have a pundit thinking it might not be a bad idea for Harper.
I admit that, as a fairly new MP, I am confused by all of this. When I told an NDP MP friend of mine that I was going to write this post, she immediately replied, “Glen, don’t do it; they’ll dump on you.” But when everything we do in the House is meant to satisfy the media, little is left for true honesty and the need for serious public policy. Can Andrew Coyne guarantee a fair hearing from media colleagues for honest revelations from political leaders? Unlikely. I remain at a loss. Meanwhile the gods above observe … and enjoy their bemusement.