8 lessons from one (or two) campaigns
At the outset of the last election, I rattled off a little blog post that seemed to strike a nerve (not to mention some hilarious additions I couldn't post -- yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. MacDonald in Washington.)
In the nearly two months since the election ended, I haven't blogged a whole lot (that's deliberate -- needed a wee break), but I have been out every now and then babbling to various audiences about what I observed/hypothesized/concluded from Canada's 41st election.
This morning, for instance, I was on a panel with the CBC's Julie Van Dusen and McLoughlin Media's Laura Peck, moderated by Tobi Cohen of Postmedia. The event was a breakfast at the Rideau Club by the WXN (Women's Executive Network.)
I thoroughly enjoyed the event, by the way -- and not just because my mom was there too. It's worth checking out one of these gatherings if they happen to occur in your hometown.
Anyway, since I haven't blogged much on any of the topics we discussed at WXN, and now, with the benefit of some reflection, I thought I might lay out some of these thoughts here. Call them a bookend to the 10 lessons I posted at the outset of the campaign.
1. There's been a lot of talk about "how did the media get it wrong?" in the wake of the last election.
I find this odd.
The strangest essay in this vein has to be Marjory LeBreton's piece in the most recent Policy Options, which argues that journalists spent too much time on the leaders' buses, too much time on social media, too much time arguing for more questions from the PM, and thus (get your basketball shoes on, we're about to make a leap in logic): we were wrong about everything.
If I understand that argument correctly, we should stay away from the buses because no one tells the truth there, and not insist on more questions from the politicians because, well, they're tiresome to the folks on the bus, who are too busy not telling us the truth to let us get on with the more proper job of declaring the Conservatives the likely winner in all our reports. Confused? Yeah, me too.
So, here's my simpler solution: Why don't we reporters stop trying to call winners and losers and just do our jobs? (Which, sorry, involves asking questions of impatient prime ministers and then telling the public what they said.) I took that view back in 1993, when the reporters organized an election pool aboard the Liberal campaign tour and posted their vote predictions by the bathroom door in the plane. "No way," I said. "I'm not calling the election." At a stop in Quebec, guess what Jean Chretien did? He told his loyal Liberal crowd about the pool entries he'd perused on the plane and said, "see, even the media think I'm going to win." Eeww. Not our job. We're not supposed to be judged on how well we tell the future; it's how we recount/analyze what happened in the near or distant past.
2. How are women doing in politics overall?
Much better, thanks. A record 25 per cent has finally been hit in terms of numbers in the House of Commons. This is actually the second surge I've seen in my career here as a political reporter. In 1993, again, women's numbers jumped from 13 per cent to 18 per cent and in this election, from roughly 20 per cent to 25 per cent. Women do well when voters are in "the mood to kick the bums out," as Jennifer Lawless said at an event in Ottawa shortly before the election. Women are definitely not seen as "more of the same."
That may well be why Elizabeth May, excluded from the TV debates, pushed to the fringes of media attention in the campaign, actually won this time. It was an outsider's election: Conservatives and New Democrats campaigned against Ottawa, the NDP successfully cast the Bloc as consummate insiders of Quebec politics. Liberals, for some strange reason, after five years in the wilderness, are still seen as the picture of resented power in Ottawa and so they lost because they were seen as part of a government they hadn't run since 2005. Lesson: You must run against the system you want to control. Shades of Rob Ford. Mark that well.
3. Have women "arrived" in politics?
Yes and no. There's no question the numbers are getting better, but the ceiling is still there. Don't forget, in 1993, when a record number of women were elected, Canadians harshly rejected the two parties led by women (Kim Campbell for the Conservatives, Audrey McLaughlin for the NDP). Women MPs, okay, but women leaders? May is an interesting exception, but we'll see. I still sense a certain hesitation or invisible limits on women getting too much power.
4. Is the situation the same for women reporters?
A bit. There are more women reporters in the press gallery today than ever before -- about 35 per cent by my rough count yesterday. That's just excellent news. But there are very few women columnists (I count two full-timers, compared to at least a dozen men) or bureau chiefs -- those jobs are almost totally dominated by men. Two of our leading women broadcast hosts, Jane Taber and Kathleen Petty, are leaving their high-profile spots at CTV's Question Period and CBC's The House, respectively.
Women are more likely to be found in the reporting ranks, doing the same jobs they did when they arrived in Ottawa (as mentioned in previous posts, so enough about that.)
5. Social media, like Twitter and Facebook... are there opportunities for women there that don't exist in the traditional political media?
It is true that the wild-west nature of the new media has made it easier for dynamos like Kady O'Malley and Rosie Barton to become dominant voices in the brave new frontier. But a large survey of Canadian Online Political Participation, released earlier this year in preliminary form at the Canadian Political Science conference, shows women severely lagging in the political blogosphere.
Just 12 per cent of the participants in the study (including yours truly) are women bloggers on politics. But when you break down the numbers according to the type of participation, some interesting findings: women form only 7 per cent of the unabashedly partisan blogs, associated with political parties; 14 per cent of bloggers "identified" or leaning in a certain direction and 30 (!) per cent of non-partisan political bloggers. So, the closer you get to power and authority in the blogosphere, the women retreat. Kind of reminds you of the lack of women leaders and columnists, doesn't it?
6. Will decorum and civility be any better in this House of Commons than the last one?
Call me an optimistic skeptic. I'd like to think so, but I'm also aware that there are more rewards for bad behaviour in politics than there are for good behaviour. Negative ads work. Character assassination is quotable. TV panelists are constantly being urged to mix it up more to make their shows "lively" for the viewers. Need I say more?
7. Will the Liberal Party survive this period in the wilderness?
I don't know. (See answer to question 1.) I give it a 50-50 chance. (How's that for a prediction?)
8. What was the most important lesson you took from Election 2011? (This was, in fact, the last question asked at today's event.)
Here's the longer version of what I replied, since we were pressed for time by this point:
I have a degree in politics and a career in journalism. Both are fields that were "professionalized" in the mid-to-late 20th century. The idea, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, was that everything could be a science; measurable, predictable, operating under certain, mechanized, routinized rules. (That's why kitchens, incidentally, started to be designed like hospital operating theatres in this era. Science fixed everything.)
My view is that the public is no longer "buying the science," as they say. (Shades of last year's census controversy, or, for that matter, the climate-change debate.) I think the public was more influenced by skewed, partisan ads in this election -- certainly when it came to the Liberals -- than they were by journalistic reporting or political debate on a level playing field.
I think we journalists have to grapple with the fact that the public is perhaps more willing to believe a blatant partisan report than a perhaps complicated work of journalism. Repetition works; even when the facts being repeated are wrong. It may mean that this 50-year-old experiment, treating journalism and politics as a measurable science, with absolute rights and absolute wrongs, is coming to an end. And what rises up in its place?