Here’s what we learned from the front pages of the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star on Monday, Day One of the campaign:
The Grits’ campaign plane won’t be ready until mid-week, a cause of much grumbling among the boys and girls on the bus.
A poll shows the Tories are within striking distance of a majority. Stephen Harper is at pains to downplay that possibility, fearing Canadians will deny him absolute power if the scenario seems in prospect. In the midst of an image makeover as a family man, Harper seems unaware that his fellow party leaders also are married with children.
Harper says, “We have come to a moment that requires Canadians to choose.” (I’m game. I choose Tony Bennett over Michael Buble, and Cheetos over tofu.)
Did I mention the plane? The Grits’ tardy aircraft is 35 per cent less fuel-efficient than the Airbus 319 opted for by each of the Tories and NDP. (An irony, of course, given Stephane Dion’s centrepiece carbon-tax proposal, a backdoor means by which actual policy crept onto the front page.)
To its credit, the Star had a front-page editorial – a rarity in major North American newspapers since the middle of the past century – that was packed with issues afflicting Ontarians, from stalled healthcare reform to lost manufacturing jobs. This being the GTA-first Star, the editorial was unapologetically parochial; the woes of Canada’s 12 other provinces and territories got scant mention. But it least it was about things that matter, like putting bread on the table and inadequate nursing staff in the hospitals.
Otherwise, the coverage was all campaign tactics, strategy and logistics (did I mention the planes?), boilerplate quotes and “horse-race” coverage (the media obsession with polls, of particular uselessness in the campaign’s earliest days).
Stephane Dion was allowed to say that Harper has led “the largest-spending government in Canadian history” without fear of contradiction. (As a percentage of GDP, Macdonald, Pearson, Mulroney and Trudeau, among others, have Harper beat.)
With its editorial, the Star at least tried to set an agenda independent of the parties. No doubt you, dear reader, have one too, and it’s not about which cities the party leaders visited on Monday.
For decades the J-school instructors have railed against “handout journalism,” in which reporters merely convey what people in power want conveyed. If traditional print and broadcast journalism is going to survive the rapidly improving quality of analysis offered free by the better bloggers and online political journals in the blogosphere – and by Jon Stewart, to whom a majority of young adult Americans (and not a few Canadians) turn for the daily news fix – we’re going to have to become a lot more truly informative than this.
Layton’s missed chance
Jack Layton missed an opportunity to reinforce his gender-equality and environmental credentials by joining with other parties to freeze Green Party leader Elizabeth May out of the televised leaders’ debates. There is an animus between Layton and May that predates the Greens and their gambit to relieve the NDP of the mantle of environmental progressivism.
Rather than a gang-up with the other parties to deny May national TV exposure in the debates, Layton would have scored points all over the place by championing May’s debate participation – with women, eco-warriors, free-speech types, peaceniks (“world peace” is one of the Greens’ platform planks)...
Instead, the NDP looks, and is, churlish. So for that matter are the other big boys, who all talk a good line about their ardent desire to increase women participation in politics, but in this telling incident have denied them visibility.
And anyone who thinks five’s a crowd on a debate state, they missed the 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls who flapped their gums in that party’s early debates, and the 11 GOP candidates in the Republicans’ first half-dozen or so debates.
“Day 2 of the federal election and democracy is already taking a nose-dive,” said May. Well put.
Looks like the Tories have settled on “competent leadership” as their slogan. Fair enough. The Harper style actually invokes “inoffensive leadership” or “invisible leadership.” But Harper has seemed these past two and a half years like more of an “in-charge” guy than Dion, Layton or Duceppe, the latter so uncertain of himself he briefly sought the Parti Quebecois leadership.
But a warning: the competence card often comes up a joker.
Pierre Trudeau’s 1972 “The land is strong” culminated in a Grits’ loss of their majority. And Brian Mulroney’s 1988 “Managing change,” which belongs in Guinness as the most banal rallying cry in modern Western politics, was eclipsed mid-campaign by a awakening fear of the implications of the free-trade deal the Tories had struck with the United States.
Mulroney clung to a narrow majority, but not after one heck of a scare as Canadians on both sides of that issue were suddenly gripped with a belief that the country’s future was at stake.
Harper’s not alone in his “family man” makeover. Following the Tory lead, the other male party leaders are suddenly highlighting home and hearth. It makes me queasy. Using the spouse and kids as props is a staple of U.S. electoral politics. By refreshing contrast, the private lives of Canadian pols is traditionally just that – private.
A reminder that “family values,” properly understood, is adequate daycare, decent jobs and affordable housing for low-income workers with families to feed and clothe. One million Canadian kids live below the poverty line – a national badge of shame.
I don’t have it in for warm and fuzzy legislators – although it will be noted that Mackenzie King, the historians’ choice as our best PM, was a childless bachelor.
But I do want a leader who helps put one of my friends’ life back together, a teacher in a remote Labrador settlement who in her thirties succumbed to a breakdown after 11 years in which at some point in the school year one of her students was found dead of a drug overdose, had taken his or her life, or was beaten to death by a father or uncle. Some years, my friend buried two of her precious young students.
So family values, by all means. But let’s invoke the term as we repair families and communities in distress, and leave it to others to traffic in cuddly photo-ops.