People and Places

ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 13): Campaign financing, media objectivity, and a nod to Fabio

Day 13: In which Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie deftly weaves together a tale of campaign financing and media objectivity — with a nod to Fabio

A few months ago, a stoner nicknamed Fabio won the top prize on the reality show Survivor. When host Jeff Probst asked him what he planned to do with the million dollars, Fabio yammered that he planned to overthrow the government.

Since this was prime time American TV, Probst tried hard to pretend that he did not seriously regret asking the question. I’m sure Fabio’s name was added to a few FBI and Secret Service lists, and if I was a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, I probably would have put him under my professional microscope.

But the American political system and the candidates of the two major political parties, have nothing to fear from Fabio and his million, or what’s left after he paid his income tax and his dealer. Fabio would have to win a thousand Survivor contests to raise the money that a serious contender in a U.S. presidential race needs to have a chance to go the distance.

In Canadian federal elections, by contrast, you can’t use your savings or lottery winnings to buy the outcome that you want.

In Canadian politics, politicians collect a little bit from all of us. It happens in two ways. Every vote for every major party earns that party $1.75. That’s something Stephen Harper wants to get rid of.

There’s a second way — one that no one talks about or fights over. When you write a cheque to a political party, you get a hefty tax refund on the first $500. That rebate has to be made up, somehow, from the tax payments of the rest of us.

But parties get other valuable support. I wonder if you can put a price on the free advertising given to the political parties by the media? Some of them have become, in effect, third-party advertisers for political parties, usually Liberals or Tories.

There’s an element of truth in Conservative claims that most of the media questions on the Ignatieff campaign have failed to rise above “what does it feel like to be so smart and wonderful?” I know a lot of reporters, and I’d estimate four out of five want Harper to lose.

Most of the press questions on the Tory campaigns are tougher, partly because Harper and his handlers have absolutely no brains when it comes to media relations. There are a few reporters travelling with Harper, who seem to feel that they’d rather give him a hug than ask him a question. But most are revelling in describing the ham-fisted way they’re being treated, as though they will come back to Ottawa after the election with Ernst Stavro Blofeld-style Prussian dueling scars.

Get away from the leaders’ tours, and the press has seriously let the Canadian public down. No newspaper, radio station, or TV network can truly be objective, but at least it can be fair. Fairness has become as endangered as a Rhino candidate.

In fact, most of the mainstream media, already delegitimized by years of attacks on it by neo-cons and by neo-Marxists, has dropped whatever mask of fairness used to exist. Gotcha journalism and hatchet jobs are the norm. The main media outlets hire pollsters who also work for political parties and let these pollsters set the news agenda.

It’s happening at the CBC, which has already been burned by its Vote Compass. And now pundits like Andrew Potter of Maclean’s (click on link to read his arguments) and Ezra Levant of Sun Media (ditto) are engaged in a pissing match over whether Peter Loewen of the University of Toronto was smeared by the Toronto Sun when it suggested he was biased against the Tories.

(Former Harper advisor Tom Flanagan warned the Sun’s Brian Lilley not to make Peter Loewen “political roadkill,” good advice that Lilley ignored.)

You can see it on CFRA, Ottawa’s “News talk” radio station, where morning drive host Steve Madely runs interference for federal and provincial Tories. Anything that makes Harper look bad is soft-soaped. Anything that makes Ignatieff look bad is super-torqued.

This morning, Madely and pensioner Lowell Green were whining about the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association raising $3 million to fight Tim Hudak and the Ontario Tories in next fall’s election. It was scandalous, they cried, tears bouncing off the microphones and subliminal organ music playing in the back.

Madely tried to work up his audience to unplug their catheters and call in to bitch about the evil teachers and their treacherous union, but none did. So the station made the Catholic Teachers’ political plans the topic of its daily poll, with questions so loaded  they make the Vote Compass seem ruthlessly objective.

The two radioheads were right about one thing. In Canada, $3 million injected into a political campaign is a substantial amount of money. But third parties can’t do this at the federal level, a fact they deftly skipped over. But it’s not because no one wants to. They can’t. The Supreme Court of Canada shot down big-money third-party advertising in 2004.

The case was lyrically called Harper v. Canada  ([2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, 2004 SCC 33, in case Madely and Green want to look it up). Despite the arguments of Stephen Harper (then head of the National Coalition), the Catholic Teachers, the Federation of Canadian Business, and the hundreds of other deep-pocketed interest groups can’t jump into election campaigns.

And neither can Fabio. Foreign money is illegal, too.