a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Harper after 5 years in power

What’s interesting about all the coverage of the fifth anniversary of Conservative rule is how little attention has been focused on the party.

Instead the stories have been about Stephen Harper, the man who became Prime Minister after leading the merger of the old Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties.

Mention of the party Harper happens to lead is only incidental.

When you compare what the Conservatives under Harper in five years of minority government have achieved in tangible accomplishments with the minority under Liberal Lester Pearson of 1963-1968, resemblance is very slight.

Pearson’s government gave the country a new flag, a national health care system, the Canada Pension Plan, the foundation of a bilingual civil service, social insurance numbers and so on.

Harper’s government has given us the Federal Accountability Act, which tightened up legislation governing lobbyists (with loopholes) but also rolled back provisions of the Access to Information Act. His government also cut the GST by two percentage points and introduced a ton of law and order legislation despite Canada’s declining crime rate.

Harper’s government also introduced fixed election terms in 2007 – a law it disregarded a little over a year later.

And yes he made the dubious decision of eliminating the mandatory long form census while failing – at least so far – to get rid of the long gun registry.

The Harper government’s legislative record looks pretty slim compared to most governments.

But that is not why we are so fixated with our Leader.

There is no question; politics in Canada has changed under Harper. Historians will probably look at Canadian politics in terms of before and after Stephen Harper.

The authority of Parliament, which the textbooks tell us is supreme to the executive, has been diminished under Harper. Parliamentary committees have been openly undermined under Harper. Public servants who dare to be watchdogs instead of lapdogs are very publicly disposed of by Harper’s government.

Yet Canadian media seem to devote most of their scrutiny to the weaknesses of the Leader of the Opposition as opposed to the tactics of the man who leads our government.

Time was when Canadian Conservatives fancied themselves as rugged individualists who weren’t afraid to speak their minds. Now dissent, at least publicly, is unheard of in the Conservative caucus.

Recently, Toronto Star writer Linda Diebel wrote about the climate of fear that is consuming Ottawa under Harper. That story was no exaggeration.

When Harper campaigned in the 2006 election, he promised a new era of accountability and transparency. That message clearly resonated with most voters.

Once elected Harper began rolling back the very things he promised to increase. Secrecy became the new normal. Yet the public for the most part has accepted that.

There must be something in human nature that submits to a forceful, alpha-dog of a leader much like Quebec allowed Maurice Duplessis to be ``Le Chef’’ for so long.

Harper may not be able to win a majority in the next election. But he will be able to rule like he had one as long as he continues to have a strong hold on the national psyche.

As we know from history, once Duplessis was gone, the party he founded, the Union Nationale, began a long spiral to oblivion. Will the same thing happen once Harper is gone?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Censorship for nothing, futility for free

Pop music stations in Canada aren’t known for daring programming. But some of them might be on to an important principle by defying a censorship order.

As any Canadian reasonably conscious of popular culture knows, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has ordered radio stations across the country not to play Money for Nothing, a big hit in 1985 by Dire Straits, without editing out a certain word that is insulting to gays. The order was made in a response to a complaint from a radio listener in Newfoundland.

But a growing number of stations across the country are defying the order with support of their listeners.

There is no point in repeating this word. We all know what it is. But most of would agree it is insulting, much like the N-word is to blacks.

But should the F-word be stripped out of a classic rock song about a bigoted and alienated guy working in an appliance store who thinks musicians don’t have to work for a living? The same question has been applied to whether the N-word should be stripped out of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

I would argue the answer in both cases should be no.

Twain’s book was controversial the moment it was published because of its scathing look at racism and entrenched bigotry in an era when racial slurs were common vocabulary. This is probably why it was first published in Britain in 1884 instead of Twain’s native U.S.

Even though Twain was describing a slavery-based southern society that no longer existed 20 years after the Civil War, it can be easily argued the book was an important step in eventually ridding the U.S. of institutionalized racism. To fully understand that era it is important to understand the vernacular of the period.

Money for Nothing was actually written by lead guitarist and singer Mark Knopfler while he was in an appliance store in New York. There was a guy delivering boxes while MTV was blaring on a wall of television sets. Knopfler says he used the guy’s actual words like ``that ain’t working’’ as he composed the lyrics on a piece of paper.

The song is a narrative on working class alienation in the 1980s and the vernacular of the time – a time when the F-word at issue was common in everyday conversation.

``The societal values at issue a quarter-century later have shifted and the broadcast of the song in 2010 must reflect those values, rather than those of 1985," the Broadcast Council said in its ruling. That amounts to retroactive censorship.

If the Broadcast Council wanted to, it could find hundreds of recorded songs with the potential to offend. There are songs on the airwaves today that glorify violence, advocate law breaking and use sexist language.

But the council’s policy is not to act unless there is a complaint. That means its stewardship of the airwaves is uneven at best.

Public taste shouldn’t be arbitrated on the basis of one complaint. Nor should the past be purged to suit political correctness today.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Arizona tragedy a political game changer

It is risky to make political predictions at the best of times. So it is too early to say if the tragedy in Tucson over the weekend will end Sarah Palin’s political ambitions, or anyone else’s for that matter.

But it is probably safe to say the attempted assassination of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six others on Saturday will force Americans to take a long look at what has happened to their political culture.

The media of course didn’t wait long to blame right wingers – Palin in particular – for using such inflammatory rhetoric against liberals and Democrats that a disturbed young man would be incited to shoot the Congresswoman in the head and kill six others.

They were especially hard on Palin because her political action committee published a map last year with the cross hairs of a rifle marking the Congressional districts of 20 Democrats, including that of Giffords. Palin also once uttered the words to supporters, ``Don’t retreat. Reload.’’

Palin likely lent some credence to those allegations by her reaction on Monday. She sent one of her aides out to deny the map had anything to do with the shootings rather than do it herself. She also e-mailed her sorrow for the shootings to right-wing commentator Glenn Beck on Fox News.

Her seclusion will be interpreted by most people as cowardice. Indeed, her reaction could cost her more political capital than the map.

Beck, meantime, tried to imply Palin was in danger of being assassinated by liberals. He also accused the left of using a terrible tragedy to score cheap political points. (Actually, Beck’s behavior on Fox was cheap.)

But even though both right wingers acted like they were guilty as hell, it is important to remember both sides are responsible for the current political climate.

“If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.

Barak Obama used those words to supporters in Philadelphia in 2008.

Americans need to clean up their political debate by all sides just as they need to inject some sanity into their gun laws. Canadians need to ensure politics here doesn’t become more Americanized than it already has.