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Heads I win, tails you lose

Posted by ealboim under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links, Election 2011 Media commentary

Elly Alboim

Virtually every political operative, communications consultant and journalist watching last night’s Mansbridge/Ignatieff interview would have known immediately what would come next. And it did.

The news story flashed out on the wires and all-news TV; the Conservative war room response was immediate; the next morning’s front page headlines were large and blaring. More inferential than literal, the news stories and political attacks focused on what Mr. Ignatieff might do if the Conservatives won a minority on May 2. Most reports (and certainly the Conservatives) elevated it to a working plan to topple Mr. Harper and cobble together a government supported by other opposition parties. Mind you, not a formal coalition but something that looks like it.

As predictable as all that was the likelihood that Mansbridge would ask the question and press it home. Not as predictable was Mr. Ignatieff’s choosing to respond the way he did. It is the stuff of which election “gaffes” are made.

Or is it? And should it be?

There has been a persistent complaint by media and other observers about the lack of content in this year’s campaign, just as there is every campaign. The litany is by now familiar:

• The campaign is not addressing the demographic time bomb about to hit the health care system
• No one has a credible fiscal plan to reach the objective they all adopt of a balanced budget
• The environment was not discussed in the debate and no plan exists that lays out the detail to credibly meet GHG reduction targets
• No one has really tried to lay out serious plans for reform of a clearly dysfunctional parliament

Implicit is the invitation to introduce “grown up” discussion into the most fundamental moment in democratic systems, an election campaign. It’s not clear however just who the grown-ups are. And it certainly is not clear whether adult discussions are anything but career limiting activities for politicians. That’s a lesson Mr. Ignatieff learned yesterday – a lesson he should have been well aware of.

Looking at what he said dispassionately, it was little more than a Politics 101 primer and one that was absolutely and factually correct. He did not use the word “plan” (a word that is prominent in headlines). He expressed not a single word that directly or indirectly implied intent. But to journalists, context is critical and political impact is the primary yard stick. Inevitably they “read in” context and probable public impact and determined they had “news.” That they all actually understand the constitution and its conventions is beside the point. They also understand what the Conservatives will say (there has after all been an off-Broadway run of this) and they believe they understand how many in the public will react (basing it on opinion polling). That makes it news, in reality something more prized than adult conversations about complex and difficult to decide upon issues.

It is the same process they would go through if a politician tried to lay out an “adult” position on health care reform, fiscal restraint, democratic reform or environmental policy. We obviously have experience with the latter. Stephane Dion’s carbon tax proposal became the butt of jokes and aggressive and cartoonish political categorization. Even substantive opinion columnists who had adopted strong advocacy positions on carbon pricing dismissed it as “good policy, lousy politics” and accepted that communicating it in an election campaign was strategically stupid.

Kim Campbell was vilified in 1993 for her frank assessment of the possibility of having an adult discussion during a campaign. Stephane Dion was destroyed because he tried it in 2008. Now Michael Ignatieff – who probably wasn’t even trying to do that but rather just trying to get out alive from an aggressive interview – has relearned the media paradox. Surprising given his media background.

Journalists design questions often knowing that any answer will elicit news because they force choices that are unpalatable or at least unattractive politically. Further, even the refusal to answer or to evade the question creates news although of a less compelling variety.

It’s: “Heads I win, tails you lose” – a little like 6 year old con artists flipping coins with their friends – that doesn’t have anything to do with “adult” conversations.

Elly Alboim is an associate professor of journalism and a former CBC TV Parliamentary Bureau Chief