Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Brave New World

Saturday morning in the Christ Church Cathedral. Three heavy hitting political critics led in a discussion of democracy in Canada by well-known Canadian television host, Don Newman.  


Before the talk, fiery snippets of conversations about civic life and democracy circulate the room. The crowd sits upright and watches the stage where Mark Bourrie, Brooke Jeffrey and Brent Rathgeber sit smiling.


All of the panel participants have strong views on Canadian politics. The titles of their books, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper’s New Conservative Agenda, Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, don’t beat around the bush.  They sit at the ready, looking alert and excited to be surrounded by interested parties. The panel is weighted to academics but Brent Rathgeber, a former conservative MP, brings first-hand experience of working with the current government.


Mark Bourrie, a longtime academic, got involved in the democracy discourse through PhD work on WWII media censorship.  Reflecting on the similarities between Canada’s current media/political landscape and that of the Mackenzie King era, Bourrie decided to apply his thesis framework to the contemporary context.  He cites the frailty of our media landscape and a party determined to stonewall the work of all MPs as creating a dangerous situation. A round of applause erupts as Bourrie affirms that we are in a downward spiral with citizens disconnected from elected representatives and representatives from information.


A failed MP bid in 1993 saw Brooke Jeffrey representing the Liberals in debates with Conservatives across British Columbia, helping her understand Reform and New Conservative thinking. She explained Harper’s early 1990s role in the Conservative establishment and his falling out with the powers that be as a brief period relegated to the political wilderness before his triumphant return and meteoric rise as a leader. Through the two minority governments and the current majority, Jeffrey assures us that the parties' dictatorial tendencies have only increased. Questioning the crowd she wondered who these Conservatives are, why they are doing what they are doing and how they have changed the face of Canada so quickly.


Brent Rather talked like an insider on the current government, explaining the gradual changes in parliament that have made being an MP more difficult. The increase in powerful cabinet committees made of members of the executive and unelected political staffers doing the bulk of work on bills rose in the 80s and 90s and is at its worst today.  He calmly explained how parliamentarians are overloaded by massive bills and the clever ways the executive spins the opposition’s votes on those bills.


How though, is Harper so popular despite his actions?  Don Newman prods curiously as the crowd nods in agreement and exasperation. Answers are clear and swift: Bourrie fingers a media obsessed with people and not ideas, as well as political bickering from a “little town in the bush” that is easy to tune out of for the rest of Canada.


Jeffrey contends the Harper government’s excellent control of information and creation of an in-house, parallel information universe that has taken advantage of an increasingly anemic Canadian media to disseminate the party line. This strategy and others were borrowed from elite American political strategists who helped the Conservatives focus on honing their appeal to specific target groups who could win them the seats necessary in an election. This type of campaign was only possible thanks to a heavy coin purse filled by public and private funds.


Rathgeber, the inside man, echoed Jeffrey, saying that the party has been very effective at micro-targeting specific groups. He stated that they don’t listen, and don’t need to listen, to people outside those target groups. All of the panelists were squarely supportive of one another, warriors with pens fighting the same battle, eager to spread information and get people thinking.


Newman, always affable, points out that a weak opposition helped along the current situation.  Jeffrey, a former Liberal strategist, agrees and takes the argument a step further, saying the Liberals have gotten caught in the parable of Conservative thinking: all government is negative, no deficit and lower taxes are the best a federal government can offer. Jeffrey urged them to rebel and face this head on, creating a discourse of increased funding and programs to create a better Canada.


The talk was wrapped up with the infamous topic of voter suppression. Beyond Pierre Poutine and robocalls, Bourrie charged that the story was woefully under-investigated by Elections Canada and under-reported, thanks in part to the poor state of journalism and journalistic training in Canada. Last minute voting booth location changes to the obscure (second floor of a Superstore) or exclusionary (gated community center) in the riding of Oakville alone are emblematic of the problem.


There is a dispirited air in the room as the talk winds down. The crowd wants to know how they can change the current situation. Our authors give faith; most changes by the Conservatives are reversible. There are a growing number of people, like them, keeping tabs and reporting on the situation.