Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

State of the Nation: John Ibbitson, Susan Delacourt, & Paul Wells

A chilly October night in Ottawa in the nation’s capital, and what better way to warm up than a discussion about national politics at Knox Presbyterian Church, only a few blocks from Parliament Hill.  Given the cast (John Ibbitson of the Globe & Mail, Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star, Paul Wells of Maclean’s magazine, and host Rosemary Barton of the CBC.), ‘State of the Nation’ always figured to deliver interesting discussion.  But with the Senate scandal in full swing?  Oh, it promised withering good fun, and insight besides.


The evening was an opportunity for the authors (all three guests were promoting their most recent books) to talk about the current political direction of Canada.  Ms. Delacourt explored citizens increasingly viewed and spoken to as consumers by politicians in Canada, charting the growth of consumerism and its diffusion into politics starting in the 1950s.  Mr. Ibbitson outlined his (and Darrel Bricker’s) argument that a fundamental and permanent power shift has occurred in Canadian politics, from the “Laurentian Coalition” elites based in the St. Lawrence River watershed to western Canada and the large populations of recent immigrants surrounding major cities, particularly the 905 belt around the GTA.  Mr. Wells summarized his “political history of Stephen Harper” as Prime Minister: how he operates politically, how he wins, and how he has developed as a leader while in power.  Ms. Barton then posed a number of questions about consumerist politics and current events in the Senate and their potential implications before inviting questions from the audience.


Arguably the most engaging discussion centred on the current Senate scandal, Stephen Harper’s (mis)handling of it, and the impact it might have on the next election.  All three authors felt that the crisis was real, and comparisons were drawn with other crises faced by the current government, most notably the coalition crisis of late 2008 (when a minority Conservative government was at risk of being supplanted by a Liberal-NDP coalition).  Much of the evening involved mutual agreement, at least in broad terms, but here there was visible divergence among the authors, and it made for some interesting back and forth.  For example, Ms. Delacourt felt that Mr. Harper had actually lied in 2008 about the functioning of Canada’s democracy but this was challenged by Ibbitson; Ibbitson felt that current Senate scandal was a more significant crisis than 2008, while Delacourt and Wells argued the opposite.


If there was anything to criticise about the discussion, it was perhaps an excessive focus on Stephen Harper himself.  True, he looms large in Canadian political life, is a polarizing figure, and Mr. Wells’ book is about Mr. Harper in particular; but a bit less focus on him and a bit more on wider trends would have been welcome, say a deeper exploration of Ms. Delacourt’s distinction between consumers and citizens.  But this was a minor point.  The discussion was generally thoughtful, insightful, and witty, from four journalists who are not only well-informed from following Canadian politics for many years but able to view themselves and their profession with a degree of humour and circumspection.  They displayed mutual respect and sought to avoid partisan or inflammatory language while still speaking honestly.  A political discussion like that counts for much in these times.