Rob Ford's election as mayor of Toronto and the "how did this happen?" post-game analysis triggered yet another round of hand-wringing about what's wrong with political coverage in Canada. True, reminiscent of the famous quotation from a senior parliamentary reporter about the "boys on the bus" having a government to defeat, some of the columns and editorials that appeared during the campaign did leave the impression that at least some journalists would have gladly substituted their own preference for the judgment of voters. But for the most part what should have been a dispassionate assessment of the strengths of each campaign too often descended into a proxy war between AM talk radio and the Toronto Star. After all, why should we look to the candidates to explain their victories and failures when we can instead blame the inherent biases of the media?
Of course, this is not new. Let us not forget: "Sun newspapers are valued only by those who cannot read." Or: "CBC news coverage is irreparably distorted by the biases of the Central Canadian socialist elite." Or even: "Sun TV - aka Fox News North - will be so excessively right wing that it should be declared un-Canadian and barred from broadcasting over our airwaves." Over the last six months, statements such as these have dominated commentary on Canadian political journalism, grabbing headlines and causing politicians to divert their attention from the priorities of the nation to defend or disown former allies and pundits. Of course, none of these statements is true, but such "analysis" has been so often repeated it has taken on an aura of truthiness - putting at risk the public spaces we count on for open debate.
In isolation, statements like these reveal more about the messenger than the message. Rather than challenge and oppose an idea, it's often less taxing intellectually to dismiss it simply by attacking the credibility of the medium. Thus, it is tempting to declare them the exception and minimize their meaning for public debate. However, as federal political parties position themselves for an eventual election campaign - possibly as early as next spring - we should worry about the cumulative impact they have on our politics.
For decades, the federal political landscape was shaped by brokerage parties whose primary role was to aggregate diverse interests into a coherent policy platform. Regional and ideological cleavages were bridged on the convention room floor as delegates from different parts of the country with different experiences and priorities fought for, and agreed on, their party's plan for government. Dismissed today as too "old school" for the internet age, this process allowed for individuals to better understand the other and rally to a common purpose.
The fragmentation of the party system after the 1993 election weakened this role. The larger number of parties in the Commons certainly broadened the diversity of voices heard there - in itself a positive thing - but the fact that not one of them could truly claim to have national reach meant the aggregation of diverse interests would occur between parties, not within them. And while the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance went a long way to remedy the situation on the right, the current cycle of minority government has neutralized any progress that might have been made for the system as a whole.
So if political parties cannot by themselves be aggregators of interests, how are citizens to debate ideas and decide on priorities? Early on, experts looked to the Internet and social media. If political parties were shrinking in terms of their capacity to reconcile divergent agendas, this vast new public space would create new opportunities for citizens to share views and debate ideas. To be sure, many such opportunities were in fact created. But over time, for each opportunity to debate health-care reform, attracting more foreign investment or climate change, there appeared an online petition to urge "Lisa" to name her next child "Megatron."
Technology, as we can now clearly see, is not inherently democratizing, nor does it necessarily raise the level of debate - for the doubters, please visit the comment section of most media websites. It is a neutral medium that follows the trends of its users. So, as with politics, online and media spaces are fragmenting, and participants are gravitating toward smaller groups of people who share their views. Far from recreating the convention room floor in cyberspace, we gather in evermore isolated living rooms. In this environment, how is anyone supposed to rally a majority to a common cause?
Politics is a blood sport. Public debate can - and indeed should - get heated, passionate and sometimes messy. It is precisely for those reasons that we all have an interest in, and a duty to, protect those public spaces in which opposing views can address each other. We need more Sun TVs and CBCs, not fewer of them. Retreating to forums populated by those who already agree and attacking those who don't from the safety of that vantage point is not a virtue. And more to the point, there is no majority in it: with each jab at the messenger, one more citizen writes us all off and walks away.
Graham Fox is a strategic policy adviser at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP. The views expressed are his own.
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