"Shocking ignorance" and "mis-education"
Last night, I attended an event for constitutional survivors at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto. I mention that "survivors" line with only half a smile -- there was a bit of a post-traumatic feel to the meeting, with about 50 folks in the room discussing the battering that Canada's poor old Constitution has taken during this election campaign.
The headline on this post comes from the quick web story I filed after the event, which you can see here (but not in the actual print copy of the Star, simply because it happened too late.) I also decided -- in a bit of 18th century meets 21st century -- to live-Tweet the proceedings, and if you click on my Twitter profile, and scroll down, you can see the events as they happened, in 140-character bits.
Though only two journalists attended last night's meeting (the CBC's Keith Boag and yours truly, who've travelled down many many roads together), there are signs that other journalists are feeling uncomfortable about our own contribution to what was lambasted last night as "civic illiteracy" in this election campaign. Graham Thomson in the Edmonton Journal has a great column today on the same theme. While I'm at it, I'd also like to point your attention today in the direction of the Canadian Press's Joan Bryden, who is writing again about how all this focus on the polls is also dumbing down the discourse of the 2011 campaign. Watch some of the panel discussions these days about polls; while okay in themselves, that's all they're about, it seems. Not a mention of the issues or policies beneath the numbers.
Let me try to explain why journalists of my vintage are doubly surprised at what the politicians are getting away with saying about Parliament and coalition government in this campaign. Back in the early 1990s, the reverse happened in Canada. Elites and constitutional experts/professors/journalists were confident that the public was too disengaged to care about the fine points of two constitutional accords that were hammered out by the Mulroney government. Twice, in the Meech and Charlottetown sagas, the public surprised the political elite with their passion for grappling with the details of the agreements. People showed up at town-hall meetings in 1993 with annotated, heavily scribbled-over copies of the 50-so-page Charlottetown accord, fiercely arguing those "finer points."
Flash forward to 2011, and we find ourselves in a meeting room at U of T, with only 50 or so people and just two journalists, wondering how the basic laws of the land could be so determinedly trashed during this election campaign, with barely a peep of protest from the public. If I understand things correctly, the public has decided to hand its interest in these matters back to the elites and the professors. From this perspective, it looks like de-democratization. I hope I'm wrong.