Motive, Fallout

By Simpson, Jeffrey | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Motive, Fallout

Simpson, Jeffrey, Queen's Quarterly

If most reporting is about motive and fallout, it becomes the reporting of political calculation, and therefore assumes that political decisions are all about calculation, and nothing else. No wonder, then, that the citizens, when fed this kind of reporting, believe, as the media lead them to believe, that all politics is calculation, that no politician ever thinks about the national interest, the substance of issues, and what is right or wrong, as opposed to what will sell or not.


IN November 2007, Finance Minister James Flaherty announced the second one-point reduction in the Goods and Services Tax. The Conservatives had promised this two-point drop in the election, and they delivered. The cost of this decision to the federal treasury was about $60 billion over five years, by far the largest fiscal policy change since Prime Minister Stephen Harper's election.

Within minutes of the announcement, one of Canada's premier television journalists turned to his assembled guests and asked what they thought about this "pre-Christmas present," the assumption being that voters would love the latest GST cut.

Throughout the next hour, as guests came and went, all questions and what passed for discussion swirled around the political implications of the tax cut. Not once did the host ask, nor did a guest venture an opinion, about whether the cut made economic or fiscal sense. In other words, the entire discussion centred not on whether the policy was good or bad substantively, but rather whether it was good or bad politically.

Most of the newspaper "analysis" and commentary the next day picked up the same questions: would this precipitate an election? How would the opposition Liberals respond to this "present?" How could such an obviously attractive tax cut not help the Conservatives? Who would win, and who would lose?

Weeks later, the Globe and Mail got around to asking twenty business and academic economists what they thought of the GST cut. Two approved of it; two offered no opinion; sixteen said it was bad policy.

This kind of "analysis" ought to have informed the immediate reaction, but reporting and commenting on substance in the contemporary media have long been chased by speculation about the motives behind and the politics surrounding almost every decision government makes.

Every government tries to anticipate political reaction before making a decision. Politicians are in a marketplace, after all, offering themselves and their ideas to customers/voters. To suggest that political considerations are divorced from policy is fantasy; to suggest, however, that nothing but political considerations drive policy is also fantasy. At least most of the time.

Too much of what now passes for political reporting in Canada is about motives and optics; too little about the soundness, or otherwise, of what is actually being proposed or done. Somehow, a balance between motives/optics and substance has been lost, because of the nature of the contemporary media, the way governments manipulate information, and perhaps, sad to say, an audience increasingly conditioned to the sound bite.

The worst offenders--and in this I know whereof I write--are the panels of talking heads that have proliferated on television. What passes for discussion in these compressed segments of six or seven minutes is about who's up and who's down, which side wins and which loses, how the government's fortunes will be affected by this or that development. It's all politics, all the time, with these panels, as it is quite often with the instant "analysis" offered by commentators who pop up on 24-hour news channels within seconds of an announcement or event.

Almost all of this instant political analysis is demonstrably wrong, because it rests on false foundations--namely that the "public" is paying attention, will react in a particular way to a specific event or announcement, and will therefore be more inclined come voting day to mark a ballot in a certain way.

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