Leaders, please give us answers, not insults

Posted on in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Stephen Harper didn’t start the attack on electoral accountability, but he’s refined it into an art.
Aug 26 2015.   By: Robin V. Sears

There are three essential legs to electoral accountability: voter access to their leaders, media access to those same governors and debates. Traditionally, elections were used to test the pulse, in leaders’ “meet and greets” in small groups and in announcements and soaring speeches to large public audiences. Leaders tested messages, tweaking the ones that did not work. Voters got access to a leader, unscripted and often under pressure from hecklers and the media.

Debates have become more important. They allow voters an opportunity to judge character and competence. In this election, for the first time since 1980, it looks like we may not have an English language televised debate with all the leaders anywhere near election-day. It is one less window for voters trying to make an informed political choice.

Until recently, there was no partisan divide over the media’s role in elections. Everyone agreed that an election without an intelligent, engaged media with full access to every campaign and candidate, would be a farce. After all, the daily interplay between reporters and politicians has been the strongest third leg to democratic accountability for centuries. No more.

Sadly, each of these pillars of electoral accountability is under attack.

Stephen Harper was far from the first leader to raise campaign barriers to democratic access. Here, as elsewhere, he only polished borrowed American “innovations.” American campaigns have been squeezing reporters’ freedoms to move around freely and limiting their access to candidates for years. Harper took the device to new levels, allowing local reporters one question a day, with four to national media. As Vice Media correspondent Justin Ling discovered, however, you must buy the right to ask a question as a national reporter, $78,000 for the entire campaign, or $12,000 a week.

Australian hard-right campaign guru Lynton Crosby taught the Harper team how to limit debates, while claiming to be keen on more anytime, anywhere. Crosby used the technique with brutal effectiveness for David Cameron in the recent British election.

Crosby also helped pioneer leaders’ speaking, briefly, to small groups of their own partisans … and to no one else. The Harperites went to the hilarious extreme of requiring their partisans to sign a “non-disclosure agreement.” You may not discuss with your spouse what you heard at an event your buddies will have seen on television?! In the face of widespread snickers they dropped that idea.

This ever-tighter cocoon is bad for democracy … and for the leader himself.

Every Leader’s Tour is a bubble. It creates its own narrative, even an alternate political reality. Michael Ignatieff’s tour team were convinced their leader’s performance had them sailing to victory. Ensuring a tour does not veer too far into fantasy means daily contact with real voters and outside reporters.

Stephen Harper may become Canada’s first political leader to have conducted an entire national election without once meeting an unvetted, non-partisan ordinary voter; nor encountered a national reporter who had not paid for his seat and the promise of an occasional question. (And only if your question has been vetted and approved and you behave yourself, mind.)

He will not have delivered a campaign message to a single voter not instructed to react deliriously from his opening “hello” to his rictus grin at the end of his six-eight minute speech. This is not wise.

Worse, however, is his refusal to answer questions.

Yes, his stressed spokesperson, Kory Teneycke, pretends that he answers more questions than any leader. But Kory knows this is a large fib, because repeating “life means life” to a question about marijuana or gun control is not an answer, it’s an insult.

Harper makes statements daily that bear no relation to the five questions he permits. He is content to drone on once more through a short menu of partisan attacks. This is not media scrutiny. This is a partisan stunt, aided by the selected poodles’ claps and boos. Sadly, it matches his approach to the rules and rituals of democracy, more broadly. You pretend to endorse them, insist you respect them, then make a parody of them.

Still, some are fooled. One naïve Harper-boosting pundit characterizes critics of this childish game as “closed liberal minds,” made “hysterical” by Harper’s success. Canadians may be tiring of being treated this way, but sneering “Hysteric!” at them is as insulting, and unbelievable as Harper’s claim to have “known nothing, seen nothing” about the brutal dispatch of his “PEI senator.”

Justin Trudeau has promised to hold regular real news conferences if he is elected. Thomas Mulcair has made a similar commitment to openness. In power they will be tempted to duck their pledge when they face their first bad news. They should resist the temptation. They will win confidence, credibility and support by standing up, even on the worst days. Indeed, why not offer White House style daily press briefings.

When all the legs of democracy are being sawed away at, that political leaders must be responsible to their voters through the watchdog role of the media is surely beyond debate.

Robin V. Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe and a Broadbent Institute leadership fellow, was an NDP party strategist for 20 years.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2015/08/26/leaders-please-give-us-answers-not-insults.html >

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3 Responses to “Leaders, please give us answers, not insults”

  1. In our Canadian elections, the word democracy would seem to go hand in hand. However in seeing Stephen Harper’s risen control, it leads away from democracy and more to the idea of a autocracy. Stephen Harper has raised control and closed to doors in voter and media access. These actions have created a disconnect with the public and the government, especially with the largest population class of people, the middle class, Harper’s actions to shut people out in order to gain better control of his government. In doing this is lead the question to how confident and secure does Stephen Harper feel he has in our nation’s issues. In my assumption, Harper does not have very much. They talked on how other running leaders like Trudeau and Mulcair are picking up on this issue and are promising to more communication between the voters and the media. It is heavily suggested that Harper has given into the temptation and hiding when issues come up and it is time to face the people. Something we want desperately for our new leader to avoid at all costs. The big question is how we have dealt with a leader, like Harper, who has been not honest and cowardly. Mistakes will be made in any politician’s life, it just is not avoidable. Doing what Stephen Harper is doing by hiding from the public rather than stepping up and admitting the problem to make a solution has shown to be toxic for our government.

  2. Election season is meant for everyone to have many questions and concerns, to help understand how our government is going to support the people of this country. I agree with the post above about Harper wanting power and having an authoritarian agenda, while not wanting to deal with the people’s needs. Harper’s campaign has consisted of him, restricting what he is going to saying to the media while it being all scripted. So in reality people do not know what he is actually planning on accomplishing once elected nor if what Harper is saying is true. Not having the knowledge on what Harper is planning to do for the government, how do we know he will make our lives any better? A fair election would allow us to have the ability to have access to our future leader and be able to ask as many questions as we wanted so we have the knowledge and understanding on how the government is going to work for our advantage. Many people already feel the need not to vote, either because they do not know what is going on with the government or they just do not care. But for the people that do care, they want a government that is honest. If Harper is elected he will not be a honest or helpful leader. As for the other leaders running, yes, they say they are willing to have open discussions with the media/people but who’s to say they are going to be 100% honest and truthful. It is a hit and miss when it comes to election season, but it seems that Harper only has one agenda and it is not to make our government accessible to the peoples questions and thoughts. The government decides what we are going to make of our lives. Are we willing to have someone who does not seem to care to benefit our lives?

  3. The essence that Harper is bringing forth to the federal election is power; not democratically responsible and accountable power, but corrupted power. This is evident with how Harper is using his power to manipulate the media system, in regards to what he is being asked and who is asking the questions. These actions just raise more questions to Harper’s capabilities as a leader. Why elect a leader who refuses to open up? Why elect a leader who refuses to debate? Harper’s reluctance to meet with the media demonstrates that he is a type of leader who is sticking to his own narrow minded authoritarian agenda, and he is not able to compromise that with potential media outlets asking questions that he is not prepared to answer. Not to say that that Trudeau and Mulclair have not jumped at the chance to charge reporters for their seats, or have reviewed the questions that they may be asked during a press conference. But at the same time these other parties have also made promises of openness in order to keep residents of Canada informed on various issues and maters that could arise. Something that Harper has ceased to do, or even made word to do so in the future. The federal election are citizen’s chances to expose the government system of its accountability about what has been done and what has not. How will that get done when Harper refutes questions or manipulates the media system in order to protect his own image? This is not what Canada needs in a leader.

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