Monday, September 28, 2015

A Day Well-Spent

There is something both restorative and energizing about spending time among people who are politically engaged, and that is probably the best way to describe those in attendance at both the Toronto Star Tent and the Bestsellers Stage yesterday at Toronto's Word On The Street. As much as I have a strong aversion to Toronto's congestion, it has an energy that so many other cities lack.

It was, weather-wise, a perfect day to go down to Harbourfront Centre, the new home of the annual celebration of the written word. And for the first time, I got there early enough to snag a decent seat (actually, it was front-row) at the Toronto Star Tent, where Tim Harper, Thomas Walkom and Bruce Campion-Smith held forth on the current federal election campaign. That alone was worth the trip.

Hilariously hosted by Dan Smith, who described himself as "a recovering journalist," the format this year lent itself to far more questions from the audience than did last year's event. Here are a few highlights:

While none of the journalists was able or willing to predict the outcome of the election, Thomas Walkom said that its outcome depends on the answer to this question: "How sick are you of Harper?" Assuming the majority of Canadians are very fatigued of the current regime, the outcome will depend upon how the vote splits. He would not even rule out the possibility of a majority government.

Tim Harper said the two things were a surprise to him in this campaign, one being the fact that Justin Trudeau is still very much a contender, having brought control to his messaging after having had an earlier propensity for speaking off the cuff and getting himself into trouble. The other surprise is the Mulcair campaign having adopted a very cautious strategy; it is, in fact, something he writes about in today's Star.

All three journalists were rather dismissive of polls as merely being "snapshots in time" rather than predictors of election results. What surprised me was that the 'free polls' made available to the media are what were described as "cheap polls," ones with shallow samplings that pollsters provide for the free publicity it brings their companies. Parties' own commissioned polls, which are not released to the public, are much deeper and expensive. Were I able to have a real conversation with these fellows, however, I would question the relatively benign cloak they cast over polls; I have always been of the opinion that they not only reflect public sentiment but also influence it.

Disheartening for me was the assertion by Tim Harper that the niqab is an election issue, and not just in Quebec. The banning of it at citizenship ceremonies has widespread support judging by the email he gets, and it could cost Mulcair support. Walkom has no doubt that it is simply Harper playing upon anti-Muslim sentiment. Writer Michael Harris has some interesting things to say today about the issue in iPolitics.

Despite my repeated efforts to be recognized by the host to ask a question, it was not to be. I therefore approached Tim Harper at the end of the session to ask him what he finds most disappointing about this campaign. His answer echoed what I think many of us feel - the fact that big issues like climate change and pharmacare are not really being addressed, attributing it to the caution the two opposition parties have adopted owing to the closeness of their standings in the polls. He did add that this campaign is hardly unique in that failure, which reminded me of what Robert Fisk said the other night about the lack of statesmanlike vision afflicting contemporary politicians.

The afternoon session I attended was interesting as well, featuring Kevin Page and Bob Rae speaking about their respective new books.

Addressing the general dysfunction of our politics, Rae observed that its hyper partisanship, and the fact that campaigning seems to go on year round, 24/7, is a major problem and has debased discourse. He said that it is incumbent upon both citizens and the media to ask the hard questions and hold the parties responsible, a prescription I usspect is far easier said than done. I was able to get myself recognized to ask him a question, which basically revolved around whether or not the Canadian soul has been too debased these past several years to be able to recover to the point where a healthy democracy is now possible.

Rae answered by saying he did not think that was the case, and he cautioned against laying all the blame on the Harper regime, as it is far from the only party responsible for our sad state of affairs. Had I been permitted a follow-up question, I would have asked him that since all parties have contributed to the problem, what are the chances of any kind of rehabilitation of the Canadian psyche taking place?

While still trying to maintain a certain objectivity that, I suppose, comes from the years he spent as a civil servant, Kevin Page, who has a surprising facility for deadpan humour, lamented the loss of nobility that once came with being an MP out to serve the public good and to hold the executive to account. He observed the loss of values and vision that echoed what Tim Harper alluded to, but he also said that decision-making has become debased (that is my word, not his).

Page says that spending information has to be made available to the entire parliament, but he relayed his frustrating experiences while serving as the Parliamentary Budget Officer seeking such information from deputy ministers only to be told that he couldn't have it. Decisions are therefore made in a fiscal vacuum; the cost of a politicized public service has been high.

Beyond the monetary considerations, however, Page observed that there is no discussion on what kind of institutions we want, be they military, parliamentary, or what have you. This is an ideological government bent on enacting legislation on that basis alone. It used to be that civil servants, for example, would present three options for a decision. Now they are told those options are not needed if they don't fit into the government's 'vision.'

I will end this rather lengthy post with an anecdote Bob Rae told about talking to a cab driver. Rae asked him who he favoured, and he replied, "Rob Ford and Donald Trump." When asked why, he said that they speak what is on their minds. In other words, to this man they had 'authenticity.'

A sharp and perhaps bitter reminder of what mainstream politicians seem so sorely lacking in today.


  1. Great review! Now I really regret not going.

    1. Thanks, Marie. I must admit that I had dithered for a while about going, but it proved to be a very a rich day.

  2. It sounds like your time was well spent, Lorne. Several folks have correctly diagnosed the disease. Finding the cure, however, will not be easy.

    1. This disease requires much more than the lancing of a boil, Owen. As your post this morning shows, the rot is widespread.