Not Busy Being Born, Coalition Now Busy Dying

This is a piece I submitted for the coalition feature in the latest issue. I've been assured it was left out because of a lack of space and not because it sucks. (And I'm sure I didn't help my case for inclusion by turning this in a day late and 200 words longer than asked for.)

But thanks to the miracle of the interweb, all that typing won't be wasted.

A note about writing this.... My conversation with Donald Gutstein ended with his comment about how the coalition has missed its moment. I liked the way he put it and thought the remark important so I opted to start writing with that. After doing so, the article naturally became an inversion of the way the interview played out. You'd think, then, it would leave us in a happier place. But it doesn't. And so it goes....


Not Busy Being Born, Coalition Now Busy Dying

A deathknell is sounding for the coalition. And there seem to be two camps ringing the bell announcing its demise: those who welcome the news and those who hear the tolling with a certain amount of sadness. Among those in the latter camp is Donald Gutstein, senior lecturer at Simon Fraser University and co-director of NewsWatch Canada.

“The moment has passed,” he says with regret. “What’s happened is the resumption of traditional politics in Canada. We have Harper on the right and Ignatieff on the centre-right and that’s going to be the range of debate. And, I think, that’s it.”

With the entry of “prorogue” into our vocabulary and Ignatieff into the Liberal command chair, the media has declared the nacent centre-left uprising done. You could almost hear a sigh of relief in the coverage. We’ve already written these stories, the media seems to be saying.

“They’re part of the corporate elite too so they’re happier with this kind of political and economic system,” says Gutstein. “What twigged it for me was the morning after Ignatieff was crowned, Margaret Wente said, ‘Yes, we can live with Ignatieff.’”

But how did it all unravel so fast?

From the moment the coalition became a possibility, the spin machine in every party’s warroom fired up. On one side, Harper was portrayed as akin to a tyrant, a petty man out to wreck petty vengence on his opponents. From the other, the coalition was depicted as a naked power grab by the Liberals inspired to action by a threat to their government welfare cheque.

While Harper’s reputation took a bit of a hit, opinion polls showed over 60 percent support for his government -- a pretty clear indication that his message had the most traction.

A few factors contributed to this, not the least of which being many Canadian’s lack of understanding of their own political system. Coalitions are de rigeur in many parliamentary democracies, but to a populace more familiar with the idea of an American-style republic they can sound pretty threatening.

“They filled a void by creating a myth about how the Canadian political system works,” says Gutstein of the Conservatives. “Patrick Muttart, he’s the guy in their warroom who’s in charge of the master narrative, and in the 2006 election he spent time in Australia and spent time in the US. So I think the master narrative is to move Canada more in the direction of an American-type republic. Even voting for senators and everything is part of that. And the left was totally incapable of correcting that message.”

At the same time though, he notes there were many on the left who weren’t behind coalition either, and he points to the perceived weakness of its leader as the key reason for that.

“I think one of the things was the problem with Dion,” says Gutstein. “I think it was more of a tactical concern than a strategic or ideological one. You know, with Dion as the leader of the coalition, what is it really?”

Ultimately, Gutstein argues that the mainstream media itself should hold much of the blame for putting paid to the coalition message. He notes that it was the way the coverage framed the situation as a “crisis” that first set off his alarm bells.

“What’s this crisis? There really wasn’t one,” he says. “The crisis was the possibility of a centre-left government. For the corporate media and for corporate Canada that could have been a huge crisis. So, at the outset, they chastised Harper for getting into it in the first place. He shouldn’t have done what he did, so they were after him at first. But then they totally switched over to attacking the coalition.”

Is it any wonder, then, that so much of the recent coalition coverage reads like an obituary?