Yesterday’s “new format” leaders’ debate originated with CityTV and radio network. City is not one of the media “consortium” whose national debate planned for October Stephen Harper intends to boycott. Tom Mulcair last week threatened to do the same.
A few days ago, I was venting my frustration about Mulcair’s latest position to a relative who is a highly experienced left-wing political activist. I have always liked “the national leaders’ debate.” (Let’s frame it for what it is and not denigrate it with Harper’s “consortium” brand which focuses on the producers and not the voters.) It is the one time when 10 million voters across the nation gather for a great national event, something which brings us together to consider the decision ahead. It is one of those all-too-few occasions in our national calendar when the nation stops and pays attention, together.
I understand why Harper doesn’t like the format. He has a ten-year record to defend and two (or three) against one is a challenge. Besides, he doesn’t like the CBC and anything he can do to harm the corporation suits him fine. And if the other big media companies are unhappy, that’s okay, too. He’s already gone out of his way to make their lives difficult recently and this is totally consistent. With the “consortium,” he can’t control the questions or curb who watches, both partisan advantages he needs. Every one knows that Harper is a control freak who doesn’t like access. No control, no Harper.
But Tom Mulcair? I was looking forward to all those millions of English-speaking Canadians watching a national debate, absent the incumbent prime minister. The stark symbolism of an empty rostrum would have been as suggestive as the PM working alone in his office at night. Actions speak louder than words. You couldn’t buy (or produce) a negative ad more effective than that.
So what is Mulcair’s motive in walking away from this multi-million dollar opportunity to connect with voters? Elizabeth May says that he (like Harper) doesn’t want her to participate in the debate and this is just another example of how the NDP really works with the Tories. My experienced politico relative says he understands that if Mulcair were leading in the polls, he would not want to set himself up for potential attack in the absence of Harper. He also says that these debates really don’t have any impact on the public; the public is only interested in the media analysis after.
I beg to differ. Has everyone forgotten the effect of the 5 o’clock shadow on Richard Nixon during the precedent-setting Nixon-Kennedy debate? Or the gutsy impression left by Kathleen Wynne when attacked by both sides in the recent Ontario election debate? The post-debate pundits said that provincial Conservative leader Tim Hudak “won” the debate; the electorate thought otherwise. Voters do watch debates, and form impressions of character which are definitive.
My view is that the public needs to see the existing opposition debating together, all the better without Harper. They have more in common with each other than they have with the incumbent prime minister. A minority government, an accord (as in Ontario in the mid-80s), or a coalition between the existing opposition parties are real post-election possibilities. Voters need to know that this result is a viable democratic alternative (not an aberration, as Harper would say), and that it need not lead to weakness and instability. Besides, isn’t Mulcair wanting proportional representation? A new voting system will need new skills, including the capacity to negotiate solutions between different parties for common interests. Where better to foreshadow that perspective than in a leaders’ debate without the current prime minister?
In a “positive” debate, leaders could score debating points by highlighting common interests and demonstrating their leadership in negotiating to solutions. Wouldn’t that be refreshing? And a real change in Ottawa?
Is there a back story to the “Heave Steve 2015” website? It’s such a great slogan, with such a delectable rhyme, resonance, and prospect, that I immediately checked out the site. The blog was put up in January 2015, and copyrighted as “Heave Steve in 2015.” It is apparently the product of “a non-partisan group…” of “centrists” who are “NOT…anti-conservative,” but “are against a Stephen Harper conservative government.” There are only five posts, one dated January 24th, and the rest January 25th. The only apparent writer is identified as “Ed.” There is a link to the Facebook page of author Michael Harris (Party of One, Viking, 2014) and a call for volunteers “to coordinate election drive flyers in their city.” There is the usual structure of a WordPress blog site but, apart from the five posts, the template is empty. The website is singularly unsophisticated, replete with diction and spelling errors, and filled with rhetoric that will turn people off. If it represented the groundswell of a rising grassroots campaign, one would have thought that the website would have taken off and gone viral by now. But such is not the case. It seems to have ended as quickly as it began. All of which is profoundly suspicious.
How can that be, in this particular federal election non-campaign? The latest polls show that the Tories are neck and neck with the Liberals and the NDP. Who would have thunk it? Never have the polls been so close. For all the talk about “the middle class,” “the economy,” and “the threat of terrorism,” the really hot issue in this campaign is the track record and the legacy of Stephen Harper. Hence, the significance of the “heave Steve” label.
The writ has not yet dropped, but the federal election non-campaign has been waging for months, with endless notices of tax benefits yet “to be approved by Parliament,” lavish partisan ads funded by Canadian taxpayers, and attack ads questioning whether “Trudeau is ready.” The hotly contested ridings around the country have been identified by where the Prime Minister travels. And when his travels take him for extended visits abroad, you can be sure that it is for a photo op with the troops or some foreign leader, or because there is bad news on the domestic front. One week it is Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault complaining about the government passing retroactive legislation to protect the RCMP from future investigation into their own past wrongdoing, a troubling historical first. The next, the Auditor’s report on Senate expenses is released.
Harper strictly stages his public appearances and doesn’t like press conferences. The media picks up on when he does not speak, as in no response at all last week to the Truth and Reconciliation report. It’s like his non-response to vacancies as they have arisen on the Senate in recent years. If the Supreme Court of Canada says the Harper government cannot reform or abolish the Senate, except with the consent of the provinces, he will show them. He will do it himself, by stealth, one vacancy at a time, until there is no one left. Ditto with the monument to the victims of Communism he’s building in Ottawa, in front of the Supreme Court of Canada, and with the long-form census he killed a few years ago. If all the experts agree that the location is wrong or that the long form census is essential, he will resolutely forge ahead anyway. What do they know?
Clearly, the PM is a control freak. It is called the “the Harper government,” not the Canadian government, at his direction. No one in the public service or the federally-funded agencies says anything or does anything without prior approval from the PM’s office. He has reduced Parliamentary backbenchers to lap-dogs barking on command. He has appointed Senators for seats they are geographically unqualified for. I didn’t realize that Tory Senators were part of the Conservative caucus until Harper emerged telling them what to do when the Duffy/Wallin/Brazeau scandal first broke a year ago. Since Harper controls everything, and fires the watchdogs who take him to task, the key issue in the campaign is whether the time has come to heave Steve.
This brings me back to the “Heave Steve 2015” website. Is it possible that the Harper Tories bought out the writer of the blog so that they could control the domain name and shut down the site? Or that they published the blog themselves and claimed a copyright, to block use of the phrase by anyone else? And that they left up the existing site as a decoy to discredit those who did? The Harper Tories do, after all, have a history of political tricks: the in-and-out scandal, robocalls, exceeding election spending limits, “vote suppression” in the “Fair” Elections Act. Use of a decoy “Heave Steve” website seems like it could be consistent. Question whether it is possible to copyright a phrase as generic as “heave Steve”? I was never an intellectual property lawyer, so I don’t know.
Regardless of the suspect authenticity of the inactive website, maybe we should begin to speak plainly about what needs to happen in October, and work to make it so. If you agree, please forward this post by email or social media to everyone you know. And follow my blog for further posts on the 2015 federal election.