corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

12 Dec '08

Press Panic Sweeps the Nation

How to turn a legal, logical, ‘leftish’ coalition into a hysterical ‘crisis.’

Did Canada’s commercial press help the Harper government cling to power last week?

From Halifax to Victoria, most mainstream newspapers declared the country was in a political crisis, attacked any suggestion that a “leftish” coalition government was legitimate or useful, and concluded that Stephen Harper, despite his serious missteps, was still the right man for the job.

The Asper-owned Canwest papers in particular pulled out all the stops to ensure the party they endorsed in the election would stay in office.

A ‘crisis’ triggered

Three weeks after the Oct. 14 election, the Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois signed an agreement to form a coalition government. That didn’t provoke much media attention since Harper was still running the show. The coalition faded from the news pages until Nov. 27, when Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty issued their fall economic update to the House of Commons.

It wasn’t much of an update, but did propose cutting spending by over $5 billion and selling off government assets. It also included a provision to axe the Elections Canada annual subsidy of $1.95 per vote received by political parties. It proposed a ban on strikes by federal government workers for two years and cut pay equity by discontinuing payment for litigation before the Human Rights Commission. All four moves would be wildly applauded by Harper’s right-wing base. But the update excluded measures to stimulate the economy, an initiative being taken by governments in most developed nations.

The opposition parties vowed to vote against the fiscal update, not because they would lose significant funding, they claimed, but because they saw no plan to spur economic growth or help Canadians who are losing their jobs because of the economic downturn.

It would be a vote of confidence; the government would be defeated and have to resign. But that would not be a problem, since the opposition parties had signed a power-sharing agreement and could take over the reins of government in a smooth transition of power without the need for an election.

That’s at least how the opposition parties saw the situation. Many in the media saw it differently and seized their opportunity. During the weeks between the election and Harper’s economic report, newspapers were filled with stories about the “global credit crisis,” the “economic crisis,” the “global financial crisis,” with a rare mention of a constitutional or political one.

But the day after Harper’s update, “political crisis” and “constitutional crisis” began appearing in newspapers with increasing frequency, eventually crowding out the economic story. A Globe and Mail editorial that morning declared that “through gratuitous partisanship, [the Conservatives] have turned an economic crisis into a political one.” Elizabeth Thompson, writing in the Montreal Gazette, proclaimed that “little more than a month after a general election, Canada is teetering on the brink of a political crisis after leaders of all three opposition parties vowed to oppose the government’s fiscal update tabled yesterday.”

Blaming the coalition

Harper backed off and postponed for a week a vote on his report, but the constitutional crisis frame took on a life of its own.

The Liberal-supporting Toronto Star tried to turn attention back to the real crisis. “If the political crisis has been averted for a week or more, it buys time for Harper and his cabinet to turn their attention to what really matters to Canadians the economic crisis.” But if the economic crisis did really matter to Canadians there was little room for discussion in the pages of Canada’s commercial press over the next week.

By then, thanks to the work of a hastily reconvened Tory war room and conservative columnists and editorialists at Canwest newspapers and the Globe and Mail, the reason for the crisis was shifted from Harper to the coalition.

The National Post didn’t mask its contempt. A Post editorial judged the coalition to be guilty of “ugly opportunism.” It was engaged in a reckless gambit led by Bob Rae, the “Trotsky” of a “depraved,” desperate, unprincipled movement.

Fearing increased taxation, Lorne Gunter wrote in the Post he was putting his silverware, his wife’s jewellery, his dad’s old stamp collection and his nice watch in a box and handing them over to the coalition of left-leaning Liberals from Williamsistan (formerly Newfoundland and Labrador), Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and the faculty-club socialists of the NDP, supported by the big-government separatists and cheered on by public sector unions and autoworkers.

Ottawa Citizen columnist Randall Denley told Canadian taxpayers they were “entitled to a primal scream.” Why? Because “three of the least credible men in Canadian politics” were “about to seize control “of our government in a virtual coup that is perfectly legal, and perfectly wrong.”

An Edmonton Journal editorial intoned that “Installing a coalition … would be an insult we cannot tolerate, even for a few months.” It is a move typical of “emerging or deeply troubled states” not “the stable, sensible success story that is Canada.”

Sun: ‘Parliament in crisis’

By Dec. 3, a political crisis caused by the coalition was the new reality in the media, moving from the opinion pages to the news pages. The press panic reached its apogee with the Vancouver Sun’s 72-point screaming headline, “Parliament in crisis.” Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe’s front-page piece reported that all parties to the melodrama were searching for a way to defuse the political crisis. “And a crisis it is,” she maintained, but her evidence was thin. Rallies were being held across the country, hotlines were humming, and Harper was reviewing his options, most likely asking the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. Some crisis.

That morning Governor General Michaëlle Jean agreed to prorogue Parliament. The next day Canwest Global released a poll indicating the majority of Canadians were supporting her decision. Fear and hostility to the coalition were the main themes and these were plastered on the front page of nearly every Canwest paper across the country. “Coalition no, election yes” (Vancouver Sun), “Nation in fear, poll finds” (Montreal Gazette), “Political crisis spooks public” (Edmonton Journal), “Canadians ‘scared:’ political crisis in Ottawa,” (Calgary Herald), “60% back Tory hold on power, poll finds; Ipsos Reid: Majority ‘truly scared for the future of the country” (National Post).

The Ipsos Reid poll’s wording is interesting. Question 6, for instance, began as follows: “Some people say that … Stephen Harper and the Conservatives should fight and do everything they can legally to continue governing because of the severe economic situation the country faces and the fact that the Liberals and the NDP have entered into an ‘unholy’ deal with the Bloc Separatists.”

Respondents need to be wary of any polling question that begins with “some people say.” It can build bias into results as it seems to be simply reflecting public opinion in asking for a response to a question. “Some people say…” Who are these people? Might they be the executives who commissioned the poll?

The Ipsos-Reid question then continues: “Other people say that … it is proper that a smooth transition of power to the Coalition take place if it is apparent the government will be defeated and that the economic policies brought forward by the Coalition, and the agreement of support and stability from the separatist Bloc Quebecois, will be good for the country.”

We don’t know who these people are either. It is difficult to imagine, given that coalition supporters wouldn’t claim support from the “separatist” Bloc Quebecois. Progressive might be a more accurate word.

“Which is closer to your own point of view?” Ipsos Reid then asks. Given the seemingly distorted framing of the question, it might seem a miracle that anyone outside Quebec opted for the second choice. But 46 per cent of Atlantic Canadians, 35 per cent of respondents in British Columbia and 32 per cent of Ontarians supported a smooth transition of power to the coalition.

Polling, a matter of angle

What do polls like these really tell us? The Canwest survey was followed by one for Wal-Mart Canada. Ipsos Reid discovered that 43 per cent of Canadians planned to shop more at Wal-Mart this Christmas than they did last year. Conclusion: more people support Harper than plan to shop more at Wal-Mart.

Instead of measuring what people think about the Canadian political system, Canwest should ask questions about what people know. They might find that many opinions are based on a lack of knowledge about how the Canadian political system really works. And they should consider that this ignorance may be based on biased and distorted reporting in their papers.

Was there really a political crisis as Barbara Yaffe and others claimed? Or was it little more than a media fabrication? Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines crisis as “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs whose outcome will make a decisive difference for better or worse.”

A media system that reflected the views of the 62 per cent of Canadians who didn’t vote for Harper would have framed the situation, not as a crisis, but as a simple transfer of power from an unstable minority government to a more stable — because it controlled a majority of parliamentary seats — coalition government.

Stopping the left

In the end, the media-generated crisis was not about the Constitution or the viability of the Canadian political system. It was about the possibility of a centre-left government. This could not be allowed to happen.

With the restoration of Harper and the ascension of the centre-right Michael Ignatieff to the Liberal leadership, Canadian politics returned to their traditional territory with Harper on the right and Ignatieff on the centre-right. Even the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente applauded the Ignatieff takeover.

Harper was quick to show his appreciation for the Asper support in keeping him in power. His office let it be known he would be visiting Winnipeg — the Aspers’ home town — within the week to officiate at the sod-turning for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. This was one of family patriarch Izzy Asper’s projects, now being pushed by daughter Gail.

And who knows what other goodies Harper will shower on the Aspers and other media tycoons in the days to come? For years, corporate media owners have lobbied both Liberal and Conservative governments to open up the Canadian news media market to greater foreign investment. Rupert Murdoch, another ardent Harper fan, may be waiting in the wings.

First published in The Tyee

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