During the federal election campaign in the autumn of 1965, dozens of students at my boarding school in rural Saskatchewan traveled in a big cattle truck to hear Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson speak in the Humboldt arena. The building was packed and Pearson gave a fulsome speech which was heard by anyone who showed up. Perhaps those were more innocent times. Or perhaps Pearson cared more about a vigorous democracy than some who have inhabited the office since then.
Tightly scripted events
Let’s fast forward to the 2015 campaign. Want to attend one of the prime minister’s campaign events? You have to be pre-screened before you can get into the hall and only Conservative supporters make the cut. Some of them are chosen by the Conservatives’ equivalent to central casting to sit behind the prime minister, nodding like bobbleheads and applauding on cue. It is all rather demeaning.
All events are tightly scripted so the prime minister can deliver his chosen message – tough on crime one day and a terrorist behind every bush on the next. In Etobicoke on August 18, Mr. Harper announced that the Conservatives plan to reintroduce so-called “life means life” legislation which expired when he unleashed the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history. The bill proposes to remove judicial discretion and imprison offenders for the rest of their natural lives if they are convicted of certain murders or high treason.
Reporters get to ask a total of five questions at Harper’s campaign events and on this day three of them dealt with the Mike Duffy trail. Evidence tabled there and cross examination of the prime minister’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright have exposed frantic attempts which occurred in the Prime Minister’s Office to cover up and manage Duffy’s expenses fiasco.
The media’s questions in Etobicoke did not please one heckler in the rent-a-crowd who shouted that reporters should confine their questions to the proposed life-means-life legislation. The prime minister, to his credit, asked the heckler to desist and the reporter to continue.
An angry man
However, this interruption was mild compared to what occurred at the end of the event when an obviously enraged older man confronted reporters at close range calling them and the media in general “pieces of shit” and “lying pieces of shit.” The man, who refused to give his name, was wearing campaign buttons on his lapel for Ted Opitz, who was the MP for Etobicoke Centre and is seeking re-election and for Doug Ford, the former Toronto city councillor and unsuccessful mayoralty candidate. The Toronto Star has found the heckler and named him. In a telephone interview with The Star, he extended his broadside calling the entire Toronto media a “lying piece of shit.”
Logical end point
Christopher Waddell, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University and a former parliamentary bureau chief for CBC News, says that these outbursts are “the logical end point of the evolution of political campaigning in Canada.” In a thoughtful article published with iPolitics, Waddell says that in the past leaders appeared at advertised events that were open to the public. Following such an event, that leader would usually hold an informal scrum with reporters in a separate room or location. But that has changed.
Campaign events now, particularly those of the Conservatives, are highly scripted for television sound bites and visuals and are tightly controlled to provide only friendly audiences. Harper and his campaign team do not want him exposed to heckling or discomfiting questions.
Another change deals with reporters and their questions. Rather than occurring during a scrum in a separate room or location, the questions are now incorporated into the campaign event itself and reporters must pose them before a partisan and sometimes hostile audience such as occurred in Etobicoke. It is, by design an intimidating arrangement and the recent incident is not exceptional. In the 2011 federal election, CBC reporter Terry Milewski and others frequently had their questions at Conservative shouted down by audience interventions.
The Conservatives are not the only ones to have played from this book but they have taken it to its extreme, as they have with many other questionable tactics.