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Election 2015: The unruly electorate

Attendees to one of the Prime Minister’s election events loudly suggest that he be asked different questions


 
Conservative leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Fredricton, New Brunswick on Monday, August 17, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Fredricton, New Brunswick on Monday, August 17, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

One day in April 2011, four weeks into that year’s federal election campaign, Stephen Harper was in Mississauga, Ont., for the day’s official announcement and, after that announcement, the CBC’s Terry Milewski took one of the four questions provided each day to the travelling press to ask a three-part query of the Prime Minister. Reporters are not officially allowed to ask follow-up questions of the PM during these availabilities, but Milewski was not entirely satisfied with one part of the response he received, so he attempted to shout a supplemental. The Conservative supporters who had been brought in to watch the announcement and fill out the camera frames then began to applaud, drowning out Milewski’s question. Eventually, the crowd stood to cheer and chant the Prime Minister’s surname.

Today, 2½ weeks into this year’s federal election campaign, Harper was in Etobicoke, Ont., for the day’s official announcement and, after that announcement, the members of the travelling press, as they have done repeatedly over the last few days, sought to ask him questions about the matter of suspended Sen. Mike Duffy. Some of those assembled to watch the announcement and fill out the camera frame audibly objected to the choice of questions.

“Ask questions about the topic at hand,” shouted one voice.

“What about seniors?” another person wondered aloud.

Afterward, a man, who responded “Go Stuff Yourself” when asked for his name, loudly conveyed to the travelling press that the Duffy affair should not be considered a matter of particular significance. “You’re a lying piece of s–t!” Mr. Go Stuff Yourself told a reporter from CTV. “And you, too!” he added to a reporter from the CBC.

All of this prompted a reporter from Reuters to note this morning that, in 2008, he had been advised to “Go back to Russia” at a Conservative campaign event. (Though perhaps that was merely an ironic reference to The Simpsons from a Conservative supporter with a decent sense of humour.)

(This wasn’t quite the first unscheduled outburst of the campaign. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s book launch was interrupted by protesters last week.)

For the sake of general decency and proper etiquette, the sorts of collective notions that help us live with each other, we might all agree here that the heckling and insulting of members of the press should be limited to Twitter and the comments that appear underneath the items that journalists post online. But this is also about how politics is done.

As I believe Christopher Waddell, the journalism professor, noted this afternoon (I only caught parts of his interview with the CBC), situations such as the one this morning should probably be put in context. During official campaign periods, the Prime Minister has taken only to taking questions from reporters when he is surrounded by a room full of supportive partisans. I believe Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has acted similarly on a couple of occasions during this campaign, and am not sure of Mulcair. And supportive partisans can be counted on to applaud every response. But if it’s inappropriate to heckle the questions, it might also be considered inappropriate to cheer the responses. For the sake of professionalism and an uncompromised environment, it might be insisted that news conferences (as distinct from partisan rallies) are held in nondescript rooms with blank walls. I suppose scenic backdrops might still be okay, if only because fresh air is equally good for everyone in attendance and most topographical features are non-partisan (with the obvious exceptions of Mount Trudeau and Lake Diefenbaker).

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have also been impressing upon their supporters that the members of the press are disposed to oppose the Conservative cause. A quick search of my inbox shows 17 emails from the Conservative party to its mailing list between June 2014 and last February that contain the phrases “media elite”, “Ottawa media” or “Ottawa media elite.” (I would have to count myself among the Ottawa media, but I’m not sure I qualify as “elite.”)

So that a reporter might be heckled is perhaps predictable, or at least foreseeable.

I suppose I should acknowledge that I know each of the journalists involved in the incidents noted above and that I have had cordial interactions with them and that I don’t think anyone should be subjected to insults or heckling when trying to go about their work (with the obvious exception of professional athletes), but that I don’t think any member of the press should be above or beyond public question or complaint.

Before reporters came upon the gentleman who thought the news coverage of the Duffy affair was out of proportion to its actual significance, the members of the travelling press had been speaking with another attendee (see the video here). This man was aggrieved with the Prime Minister. Specifically, he was concerned about help for seniors—perhaps this was the man who had earlier shouted the question about seniors?—and unsatisfied with Harper’s explanations for the Duffy affair.

Possibly, all those who would rather see the Prime Minister, or any party leader, asked different questions would be better satisfied if it were not only members of the Ottawa media elite who were able to question party leaders, but also members of the great unwashed. For the sake of everyone’s benefit, such questions could be asked and responded to in open forums that allowed for the proceedings to be broadcast.

For the politician, there would seem to be good and reasonable reasons for never submitting oneself to such a thing. The party leader should have access to relatively sophisticated polling and focus-group data that can help him or her understand what voters think better than any anecdotal interaction. Each party already has hundreds of candidates and volunteers who are knocking on doors and bothering people on their way to work and generally being in direct contact with the common man. Reporters, expert associations and political opponents already exist to hold a politician to account. And the prospect of a voter with a microphone and a chance to ask you a question in front of television cameras—the classic “town hall” setting—presents some kind of risk to one’s political fortunes. (Ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel what can happen in such a situation.)

Granted, the politician might benefit from the exchange, or even just the idea that he or she is willing to submit to such a thing. But I wonder how significant that potential benefit is. The travelling press, of course, could probably be counted on to dwell on any unfortunate moments, though perhaps the significance of any unflattering moment would be reduced, if exchanges with the public were a regular phenomenon. Michael Ignatieff derived no obvious benefit from his frequent town halls during the 2011 campaign—if anything, they only complicated his campaign’s ability to deliver a consistent “message”—and, while U.S. Sen. John McCain, circa 2000, built a campaign around town-hall events and the idea that he was an open, accessible and “straight-talking” politician, he was still trounced in the Republican primaries. Trudeau has participated in one town hall meeting so far during this campaign, but I’m not sure the act of doing so is necessarily going to boost his public standing, though it might implicitly reinforce the idea he wants to present of how he’d do politics. For an incumbent with more than nine years in office to answer for, I imagine the prospect would be even more fraught.

Of course, a party leader can also just meet with members of the public in private. But that’s no fun.

I imagine that, if you asked 1,000 voters whether they thought the Prime Minister and other party leaders should participate in open forums where they would take unscripted questions from members of the public, some majority would say yes. But, among those 500 or more voters, there probably wouldn’t be more than three who would actually have that as a primary consideration when casting a ballot. That’s democracy. Beyond the complicated math of multi-party elections, a country’s politics is a product of collective willingness and demand.

There’s precedent for a prime minister attempting such direct public openness. After he became prime minister, Jean Chrétien participated in annual town hall forums organized by the CBC. But, in 1996, it went badly. And that was the end of the CBC’s annual town hall with the prime minister.

It’s also possible that regular town halls wouldn’t naturally evolve into meaningful forums of interesting questions and responses.

But practicalities can also just be pushed aside to wonder about how things could, or should, be.

I have previously sighed wistfully about Lester B. Pearson’s decision to launch his campaign for a new flag with a speech to a hostile crowd in 1964. It’s possible that Pearson calculated that he stood to gain from staring down such a reaction. But, even still, as I wrote in February, it seems unlikely that any politician would attempt to do such a thing now.

The modern campaign is mostly a series of basically stage-managed events. (In the case of the incumbent Prime Minister, attendance is by invitation only.) And that works so far as contributing to a coherent system of partisan politics. But would it be of some benefit if political leaders were not almost only ever seen speaking to friendly crowds, members of the press or each other? Would that change the style or focus of national discussion? Would it fulfill some principle of how democracy is supposed to work? Would it be a better democracy? Would it be a more real kind of democracy? Or would it just be a different kind of spectacle?

I ask such questions with earnest intent, but you are, of course, welcome to suggest that I stick to the actual issues at hand or, as it were, go back to Russia.


 

Election 2015: The unruly electorate

  1. I suspect that the heckling wouldn’t be an issue if the “reporters” started acting more like reporters, and not like the un-paid cheering section for the Opposition parties.

    How many times does the PM have to answer the same question? What happened with Duffy is pretty clear. The good senator from PEI (in spirit only) was making expense claims that were not an actual reflection of what was expended from his own pocket. The PM found out about it, and ordered Duffy to pay back the money to tax-payers. Duffy was stubborn, and claimed to be in the poorhouse. The PM’s staff came up with a plan to pay back the taxpayers; involving one of them PERSONALLY taking money from his own bank account. the PM was told the matter was taken care of. When Harper discovered what actually happened, he fired the two guys responsible. That’s what he was supposed to do.
    What the media is trying to do now, is to somehow make this “stick” to Harper to make it look like he was involved in something unethical. If being unethical means demanding someone PAY BACK taxpayers, as opposed to taking from them (I’m entitled to my entitlements – Liberals), then we need more of that type of ethics.

    The media isn’t fooling anyone – they are very biased, which is why people don’t have any respect for most of them.

    If the media was actually doing the job they are paid to do…they would start asking questions of the other leaders. For example, the hardest question posed to Justin Trudeau to date, is “Who is your favourite AVENGER?”
    They don’t ask questions about how much taxes would be raised, how much the carbon tax would be..etc..etc….

    this is an election. The media should be conveying the platforms of the parties as a primary focus; including asking the tough questions about who is paying, and how much.

    answers to questions should be tougher than, “my favourite AVENGER is the HULK”

    pathetic.

    • IT’S NOT FAIR!

      [Doncha just luv it when Cons whine?]

      • How is it whining to point out the obvious?

        The Avengers?

        Seriously?

        • LOL shows how current he is…and we need current…….Harp, in his ‘Farmer Punk’ outfits just doesn’t cut it.

    • “What happened with Duffy is pretty clear”

      Hahahahaha!

      Yes, Harper was ‘good to go’ with Duffy paying. He was ‘good to go’ with the fictitious narrative. Harper praised Wright when he found out. He held the responsible parties accountable when he found out. Wright resigned. Wright was fired. Everyone involved would be held responsible. Only Wright was involved. Not only Wright was involved. Ray Novak wasn’t involved. Ray Novak was involved.

      Sure is weird that reporters keep asking questions about this.
      Guess they just hate Conservatives or something.

    • “For example, the hardest question posed to Justin Trudeau to date, is “Who is your favourite AVENGER?”
      They don’t ask questions about how much taxes would be raised, how much the carbon tax would be..etc..etc….”

      BTW, jameshalifax is lying here.
      During the same press conference Trudeau was asked how he was going to pay for his platform, amongst other questions. Of course, unlike Harper, Trudeau answer all the reporters questions and stayed until they were done.

      • Tresus,

        I said that AVENGERS question was the hardest question posed because I listened to the answers. Of the questions asked, this is the one that gave him the most trouble. He already had the answers (prepared for him) to the questions he knew would be asked.

        as for answering the questions..umm..sorry, he didn’t. He may have responded, but he certainly didn’t answer the question being asked. The reason he didn’t answer of course, is simple: he didn’t have one, and the folks who are telling him what to say don’t know the answers, or at least don’t want to admit to them. (hint: the Liberals are going to tax the hell out of everyone – and given their history, will end up pocketing much of it themselves)

        • ignoring the facts makes a person delusional or deceptive, either way, not good characteristics for someone who wants to be pm

        • Right James.
          “The Avengers” question was the hardest he was asked because he had the most trouble with it.
          The only problem with that explanation for your lie is you then go on to tell us he couldn’t answer any of the other questions.

          Ladies and gentlemen, you’re lying Conservative base!

          • Tresus noted:
            “The only problem with that explanation for your lie is you then go on to tell us he couldn’t answer any of the other questions.”

            Again, you need work on your reading comprehension. go back and re-read my intial comment. You’ll note that what I actually wrote, is the exact opposite of what you imply. I wrote he didn’t have any trouble with the other questions because he already knew the answers before the questions were asked.

            You need to work on that.

          • James:

            “as for answering the questions..umm..sorry, he didn’t.”

            “he didn’t have any trouble with the other questions because he already knew the answers ”

            Hahahahaha!

          • Tresus,

            RESPONDING to a question, does not mean he ANSWERED them. the answers he responded to……were the questions his team had already prepared him to answer. When faced with any unforseen question requiring actual thought and consideration…Trudeau simply umms…ahhss…..and then spouts off some plaintive platitude.

            I should have made the clearer for dim folks like yourself.

          • “RESPONDING to a question, does not mean he ANSWERED them.”

            “he didn’t have any trouble with the other questions because he already knew the answers ”

            ““as for answering the questions..umm..sorry, he didn’t.”

            Hahahahaha!
            Dance Jameshalifax, Dance!

    • “How many times does the PM have to answer the same question”
      ——————————–
      he just has to answer it once honestly, something that has yet to happen

      • Jessie,

        Just because you don’t like the answer, doesn’t mean it’s not a true response. Your harper derangement syndrome is showing.

    • What you are missing is that Harper appointed Duffy and the other 58 Senators (another thing he lied to Canadians about!) just to raise money for the party. These unworthy appointees were appointed to lifelong decent paying jobs just so Harper could generate more money for the party. Why do you think he appointed journalists, failed candidates and Conservative fundraisers to the Senate? Not because they were qualified for the job! Then these Senators flew all over Canada on the taxpayer dime to raise money for the party!!!! Gerstein and Duffy ALONE spent $800,000 of taxpayer funds to raise money for the party! Harper was so proud of his poorly vetted appointments he actually said to Duffy: “You are my BEST and hardest working appointment EVER”!! I think we all know what he meant. He also told Canadians that he personally reviewed Wallins’ expenses and they are all OK! Harper is unethical, immoral and has continually lied to Canadians. We are too proud to have to live with a PM that is so self-centered and narcissistic that he actually thinks we will accept his outrageous behaviour!!

      • Tom Rudd…

        Are you really that deluded? Harper didn’t appoint a whack of senators until there was a risk that he would be toppled by a coalition. If that had happened, the Senate would have been almost entirely filled with Liberal party hacks. It had nothing to do with raising money for the party; as frankly, the conservatives have the best fundraising machine already. that’s what happens when your supporters actually believe in the party. The Liberals are the party that relied upon kickbacks and shenanigans to fund their machine. The conservatives earn little donations, by many thousands of donors.

        clearly, Tom…..you don’t like Harper. No doubt, at some point during his tenure he’s cut the freebies you were receiving; or his policy resulted in your fat government job being declared surplus.

        that…or you’re just another shiftless loser who prefers socialism as it means you don’t actually have to do any work to get by as long as someone else (mostly conservatives) pays your bills.

        Either way…have fun with that.

        • ” Harper didn’t appoint a whack of senators until there was a risk that he would be toppled by a coalition. If that had happened, the Senate would have been almost entirely filled with Liberal party hacks. ”

          Hahaha!
          You’re really on today!
          Harper didn’t appoint any senators until he thought he might not be PM any more. When he promised not to appoint any senators he was assuming he would be PM forever!

          • Tresus,

            the fact you cannot grasp even a simple argument, or glean any nuance from what you are reading, is simply enjoyable.

            I’m surprised you know how to turn on the computer in your mom’s basement.

            As for the appointment of Senators…….it was pretty clear he wasn’t left much choice when the opposition tried to topple him.

          • “it was pretty clear he wasn’t left much choice when the opposition tried to topple him”

            Ah, so Harper promised not to appoint Senators until the end of his term as PM.
            I must have missed that part.

  2. Halifax, here’s something useful for you to do with your time.
    Make a list of a all the people whose reputations have been damaged because of their association with Stephen Harper.

    • J.W.,

      If someone’s reputation has been damaged due to their association with harper, then I would suspect they did something to bring it upon themselves.

      Just look at the Chief Justice of the Supreme court. Even several of the other supremes stated she twisted the hell out of the law to defeat harper’s legislation. it was personal, it wasn’t law.

      Look at the NADON decision. Mclaughlin didn’t dump him because he wasn’t qualified, she dumped him because harper picked him, and she was given an opportunity to interfere.

      • Chief Justice McLaughlin’s reputation was greatly enhanced by her encounters with Harper.

        • If her reputation was enhanced, it was no doubt only enhanced in the academic or lawyerly circles.

          doesn’t detract fromt he fact she has become too partisan against the current Governmnt and has no place on the bench. You’ll note that a couple of her peers have repeated the same thing. She’s an activist judge who has twisted the law to fit her own political agenda against harper.

  3. “You’re a lying piece of s–t!” Mr. Go Stuff Yourself told a reporter from CTV.

    You got his name wrong, it was Gustav Youssef.

    • the only problem with what he said was “Lying piece of…”

      More appropriately, it should have been “biased piece of….”

      Of course, lies of omission are just as bad, so he may have been on to something.

  4. @JAMESHALIFX Like Ezra said The Media Party along with the Dippers, Libranos and the American Dizzy Lizzy…….

    • Ah yes, everyone is out to get you….puir wee persecute christians that you are.

      • Emily forgot her meds again.

        Too bad they don’t provide the Diazapam at the food bank eh, Em?

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