Why Harper’s Lies Matter
We’re one week into the election and already the party leaders have settled on stock expressions and focus-group- tested phrases. While the three main opposition leaders attempt to draw contrasts between their parties and the ruling Tories (with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff sounding almost poetic when summarizing the current government’s priorities as “fighter jets and jails”), it’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper who remains the most stuck on one strategy, one claim and one word.
Harper cannot or will not stop using the C-word. And no, I don’t mean a dirty word, as the Prime Minister hasn’t lapsed into random cursing (although that would definitely perk up his regimented five-question-only press conferences). The C-word isn’t even ‘Conservative’. The word Harper is obsessed with is ‘coalition’ and he’s been using it until he’s Tory-blue in the face.
Politicians seeking re-election often dwell on their accomplishments, although Harper has always been more successful at tearing down his opponents than building himself up. Other than trumpeting the Conservatives supposedly deft handling of the economy, this election threatens to be more of the same bickering, name-calling and gravelly-voiced attack ads we’ve become so used to.
By constantly invoking the failed attempt of then-Liberal leader Stephan Dion (along with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe) to form a coalition government in 2008, Harper is in a way reliving one of his shining moments. Through swift action and shameless spin, the Prime Minister successfully painted the coalition as an undemocratic take-over by “separatists and socialists” rather than as a legitimate alternative in our British-style parliamentary system.
Harper won both the ground war of politics and the war of words and the Liberals have been paying for it ever since. He’s hoping that the bogeyman of a coalition is scary to enough voters to not only dissuade them from voting Liberal but to grant him the majority he has long been denied. “Unless Canadians elect a stable, national majority,” the Prime Minister threatened outside Rideau Hall on Saturday, March 26th, “Mr. Ignatieff will form a coalition with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois. They tried it before. It is clear they will try it again. And, next time, if given the chance, they will do it in a way that no one will be able to stop.”
It doesn’t matter that Harper himself toyed with a coalition in 2004 (with the same villainized separatists and socialists). Nor that Ignatieff has been forced preemptively to rule one out. Harper insists that’s a lie. And, so far, it’s working, at least according to the media, who nowadays report on “what people are talking about” rather than acknowledging that the relationship between reporters and the public is reversed.
So we have the sorry sight of the CBC’s Wendy Mesley hounding Liberal MP Bob Rae with question after question about the coalition. To Rae’s claim that Ignatieff had started the campaign well, Mesley countered “but we’re not talking about ethics and the kind of issues you’re trying to get on the table.” “Well, I’m talking about them,” answered the clearly-frustrated Rae.
All this talk of coalition is partly to blame for the success of the Tories’ other big lie of Election 2011: that the Speaker of the House’s finding that the Conservatives were in contempt of Parliament was somehow manufactured political sabotage in order to bring on an election. This glosses over the Hydra-like scandals that have plagued the Tories for the better part of a year. One would assume that charges of corruption make a more interesting narrative than the procedural details of a coalition, but hey, I’m not a CBC producer.
Politicians calling each other liars is nothing new. But a governing party running a campaign by deliberately misrepresenting the Opposition’s position is pretty disturbing. It edges closer to an American style political scene where facts matter less than vaguely-defined “feelings”. All the evidence for climate change doesn’t matter to those who trust Fox News more than scientists. The Obama administration could drop photocopies of the president’s birth certificate from airplanes during a Thanksgiving Parade but it wouldn’t stop the so-called ‘birthers’ from denying he was born in Hawaii.
Even potential-Republican candidate Donald Trump (let that sink in for second) has flirted with questioning the President’s nationality, despite nominee Trump’s support base being not Tea Party activists but fiscal conservatives and, presumably, those who like TV shows where people get publicly humiliated and fired.
When facts don’t matter and opinion is everything, politics becomes a game of who can talk loudest and most repetitively. Sadly, many people, unable to make sense of all the noise, tune out, leaving only the most motivated to choose the direction of our country. It is the media’s responsibility to separate fact from fiction and to focus on a new C-word: clarity.