The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Dear Stephen Harper,

You could have been one of the great ones. You had ideas. You had initiatives. Suddenly during the campaign we discovered that you had energy. You were talking constructive action to air out a stagnant House. The greater part of the Canadian media was solidly on your side, and even the CBC had started to lean in your favour. And finally, you were starting to show that you were willing to tone down the most extreme elements of your party -- and, especially, that you were capable of compromise.

I had not thought it would be possible for someone who had become -- through his own efforts! -- so very popular with the majority of the national mass media, to manage to turn all but the most favourably partisan channels so virulently against him.

You have proved me wrong.

I speak, here, as one who learned to respect you during your election campaign, and who found and continues to find something of true substance in some of the policies you advocate. By and large, I find myself to an unexpectedly large part in agreement with your government's first budget of this sitting.

I speak, also, as one who does not agree with your policies in every particular. (Start with my opposition to the GST drop and your proposed childcare policy, add to this my wince at your newly-demonstrated knee-jerk willingness to jump on every National Post bandwagon, go from there.) And in that lack of complete agreement in every particular, I think, lies the problem here.

Listen, Stephen: it is not the job of the press gallery to be the opposition to the government ... but it is also not their job to agree with you in every particular, to paint you always in glowing colours, to never ask a single question you don't like. After all, it is their job to ask whatever questions they deem fit, for the specific purpose of teasing or forcing or wrinkling out what the governing party might prefer to remain hidden; and then it is also partly their job to place the new findings in context. In so doing, it is entirely possible they may question what you do not want questioned. After all, they have repeatedly done so against the ruling Liberals: even more than for your party to date, in fact, in part because there is not yet all that much of established practices to examine other than your own actions. This last, you can lay at the door of your own policy of virtually gagging your own cabinet ministers: a policy which, for some strange reason, does not particularly inspire public trust ... not so much in them (who we can't really know after all, not outside your shadow), as in the person who chose to appoint them to their positions -- and then regularly demonstrates to all the world that despite that appointment, he does not really trust them to do their jobs independently.

Still.

You may attempt to exercise an iron control over the sitting members of your party, but the members of the media do not belong to your government. ... Although, perhaps, you may wish to be a bit more careful with how heavily you choose to exercise this control, as some of us do remember, during some earlier votes, how you promised us greater member freedom when you would be in power: to the point where we were starting to be curious if the position of government whip were about to become a sinecure.

For better or for worse, Canadian reporters and journalists have become accustomed to a certain freedom of access to the prime minster's office, a certain freedom to ask what they will of the prime minister (and any member of the government) without having to first run the obstacle course of an intercepting body determining what is and is not acceptable to ask in our free society. Our scrums may not be as polite as White House press releases, but a little disorder and even contradiction has always been the cost of independent thought. Please, don't start thinking that the media should be compliant in this: for, from here, it is only a very small step to the media becoming the official mouthpiece of the PMO's office.

If the positions of the various national media now seem "Liberal" to you, consider, please, at what point freedom of thought and speech has taken on for you the "Liberal" label? After all, it is only your own actions, nothing else, that have brought the media and the PMO to this current impasse. (And you know it is bad when public relations people from Joe Clark's prime ministership look back to that as the good times.) And surely you of all people must appreciate the irony implicit in how Preston Manning remembers you, when you were the backbencher and he the leader:
Even though procedures existed for handling any complaints about the use of party funds, Stephen went to the media.
- Preston Manning, Think Big
Equally, there are two ways out of this impasse. You can accept that the media can and will ask questions freely, and that sometimes this freedom will mean that the questions won't favour you. (More often than not, in fact: for when has good news ever sold newspapers?) Or, you can continue to play hardball until the media does cave and ask only the questions you want them to ask ... at which point everyone except those who already completely agree with you will cease to take the media seriously. It has happened before, in other countries. It could happen here.

Did you really think no one would notice?

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