Archive for April, 2011

The politics of “conflict exploitation”

April 18th, 2011

In 1995, I had the privilege of taking a fourth-year seminar in political reporting as part of my Journalism degree, at Carleton University in Ottawa. 1995 was a good time to be a journalist in Ottawa. The second Quebec referendum was less than two months in the future at the start of the school year.

The class was notable not only for being taught by the very experienced CBC journalist Elly Alboim (now a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a lobby group that was at one time closely associated with Paul Martin), but also for one of the other students attending: my good friend and future NDP MPP, Paul Ferreira.

In between trying to get a handle on as much political intrigue as we could, all the students had to pick a political book published that fall, and write a review. I chose All the Kings Horses by Ron Graham. It is an interesting book, trying to document, and throw up red flags about, the shift in Canadian politics from a “we’re all in this together” sentiment, which Graham argues was the foundation on which Canada was built, to a more “I’m in this for myself” sentiment.

I don’t think I fully appreciated the book at the time. I was certainly interested in political reporting, but I was more interested in what would happen to me after graduation. Since I had the good fortune to be born in the early ’70s, it meant I would graduate right at the beginning of the internet boom, so really I had nothing to worry about.

Recently I grabbed this book off my bookshelf, to see how it stood up after all these years. Imagine my amusement to discover this quote from “Reform MP Stephen Harper” (remember, this is from 1995):

There’s no longer the political climate or the economic resources for politicians to fulfill the expectations of a wide range of people. Now they have to make choices, which means saying no to ethnics or bankers or whomever. They can’t be all things to all people any more. And many of them are having trouble adjusting to that different role because it’s new and because consensus politicians aren’t well suited to conflict management or conflict exploitation.

Oh, where to begin!

I think the word “ethnics” is certainly an interesting choice.

It’s nice to see that he is up front about wanting to exploit conflicts. Though I haven’t heard much about that on the campaign trail this year. Maybe it doesn’t play well with focus groups. But Stephen, you can’t be all things to all people, remember? Maybe that’s why it will be a cold day in hell before this country reaches the kind of consensus that will let you have a majority government.

Thanks to the forces at work in the ’90s which Graham was trying to draw attention to, and thanks especially to conflict-politicians like Stephen Harper, we now have a political discourse in this country where coalitions, the very essence of political compromise and consensus, are said to be undemocratic. Call me old fashioned, but I thought democracy was about reflecting the will of the people…which is why my mind always boggles at the thought that a government can be formed by a party which less than 40% of the people actually voted for! (Join Fair Vote Canada if you want to help change that injustice.)

I think this is why I had a hard time getting excited about the exclusion of the Green party from the leaders’ debates this time (and that’s saying something, since you know that with a solar power array on the roof of our house, I have a big soft spot for the Green party). I found it hard to get worked up about the injustice done to the Greens, because I really didn’t know which is a bigger sign of failure in our democracy: that unaccountable media executives are excluding the voice of nearly 1 million Canadians from the debates, or that the ridiculous sideshow that we call a debate is so important to our political process that it’s a travesty when the Greens are excluded!

When the politicians are picking and choosing between pandering to “ethnics” or “bankers”, as our future prime minister so in-eloquently put it, when the magic of crafting political consensus has given way to the politics of conflict exploitation, how can a debate matter? Who cares whether the leaders can intelligently thrust and parry with their words and ideas?

Coincidentally, today I also read an article in the Toronto Star about Justin Trudeau. Channeling his father, who helped create the vision of Canada that Graham was pining for, Trudeau Jr. was quoted as saying:

“The Conservative party is saying: ‘Vote for me, we’ll make one of your guys a senator. Vote for me, we’ll put an extra visa office in your country (of origin). Vote for me, we’ll support your festival or your community centre.’ It’s a transactional relationship…and it is effective to get you elected. But you just cannot build a strong society and you cannot build a strong Canada that goes beyond its differences when you’ve played up these differences.”

No joke. I read that on the Star website, and then idly flipped through All the King’s Horses and chanced on Harper’s quote promising 16 years ago to do exactly what Trudeau was arguing against in this election today. So I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or not. We’ll have a better idea after May 2.

[Update - Oct 7 2013 - Belatedly, I have to say I was dead wrong about the chances of a Harper majority government. Perhaps though, it was in part a side effect of the collapse of the Liberal party, something that wasn't fully understood back then...votes flocked left and right, away from the centre? Regardless, we're stuck with a government that lives on conflict exploitation now. Lucky us.]