THE BLOG

Here's Why Harper Lost

10/22/2015 12:35 EDT | Updated 10/22/2016 05:12 EDT
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister, attends a news conference where he conceded victory on election day in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party has swept into office with a surprise majority, ousting Prime Minister Stephen Harper and capping the biggest comeback election victory in Canadian history. Photographer: Ben Nelms/Bloomerg

Stephen Harper lost the election not because Canadians rejected Conservative values, i.e., an aversion to big government, bureaucracy and regulation but because he came to be seen against democracy. Conservatives believe in smaller government, lower taxes and keeping the state out of the lives and businesses of citizens. But Mr. Harper sometime during his nine-plus years as prime minister began sacrificing our democratic institutions, especially the media, on the altar of his Conservative government.

The list of anti-democratic measures by the Harper government is lengthy and documented: there was the robocalls scandal, the surreptitious changing of election laws, breaking election laws, putting party logos on government cheques, muzzling backbenchers and civil servants, stacking the CBC board of directors with Conservative supporters, bullying the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Supreme Court and Statistics Canada (especially cancelling the long-form census), being in contempt of Parliament, mocking Question Period, proroguing Parliament on dubious grounds, etc. But the main one, the one the average citizen finally took notice of was his disdain for the press, arguably our most visible and important democratic institution.

Core Conservative supporters, the so-called "base," may not have been fazed by Mr. Harper's actions. And most other Canadians are too busy with their lives to take notice of such esoteric things. But public awareness of Mr. Harper's interaction with the press began to grow and the tipping point came to a head during the 78-day election campaign.

Mr. Harper's treatment of the media and message control was so flagrant several books were written about it. The best were Mark Bourrie's Kill The Messengers and Les Whittington's Spinning History: A Witness to Harper's Canada and 21st Century Choices. But how many people, other than book reviewers and journalists have the time to read them? The media, however, kept reporting the slights and eventually it became the focus.

Les Whittington summed it up:

As years went by, Harper tended to put himself in fewer and fewer situations where he had to deal with open-ended questioning by any reporters. One often-used alternative was to engage in question and answer sessions with business types. By 2014, as far as television was concerned, Harper sometimes gave interviews only on the condition that the questions were restricted to one topic, such as the historic importance of D-Day. This meant that he could get valuable media exposure without having to handle queries on such embarrassing topics as the Senate expenses scandal.

At the start of the 2015 election campaign reporters roundly criticized the Harper for restricting the questions at events and only accepting questions from reporters who had flown with the leader. This was costly and only a few media outlets could afford to do so. At campaign events reporters were often harassed and heckled by Conservative supporters. In one famous exchange a Harper supporter called CTV reporter Laurie Graham a "lying piece of shit" on camera, which was (rightly or wrongly) associated with the Harper's behaviour.

But the tide started going out on Mr. Harper's campaign just before it started, when Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke announced that Harper would not participate in the traditional debates on CBC, CTV and Global. This was a tradition going back to 1968, when Pierre Trudeau debated Robert Stanfield, Tommy Douglas and Real Caouette. CBC says over 15 million people tuned in. The first and most famous U.S. TV political debate was eight years earlier and is credited with putting JFK in the White House.

Canadians look forward to this major national spectacle, the political equivalent of a seventh game in the Stanley Cup, but tHarper didn't want to play. The Conservatives agreed to a series of mini-debates dealing with just one topic each (sound familiar) on a few smaller TV networks and the websites of MacLean's, the Globe and Mail and the Munk Institute, moderated by journalists with little broadcast experience but plenty of distracting idiosyncrasies. They attracted a fraction of the audience that could be achieved by CBC, CTV and Global. The approach was called a national disgrace, even by the Globe's TV critic.

A little noticed Abacus poll is very revealing and provides the evidence that Mr. Harper's scorn for the media, especially the major TV networks, caused his fall. When asked whether Mr. Harper was accountable/willing to answer questions only 1 in 5 agreed, while Mulcair/Trudeau both scored closer to 1 in 2. The job of the press is to hold our politicians (and others) accountable and the decision not to participate in a major broadcast debate was the crowning anti-democratic action and seems to have resonated with voters as the campaign progressed.

It seems to have motivated many voters. Some 17.5 million people voted this election, the highest absolute number in history and almost 3 million more than in the last election. While the Conservatives had almost as many votes as in 2011, all the new voters went to the Liberals and other parties. So the anti-democratic actions, refusing to debate and be accountable to the media, got people to exercise their democratic right. Thank you for that Mr. Harper.

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