Our current political climate is obscuring any semblance of substantive debate.
Tory MP Rob Anders apparently has a reputation for falling asleep on the job. He even became an unwitting YouTube sensation last fall when he fell asleep during Question Period. Total views are clocking in at 98,000+, for those who are keeping count.
This week, Anders apparently fell into a slumber while presiding over a veterans-affairs committee. Don’t get me wrong: Falling asleep on the job crosses party lines. Just ask young NDP MP Jonathan Genest-Jourdain, who checked out a few weeks ago during a parliamentary session, the YouTube clip of which is now running at over 140,000 views.
The issue with the AnderZZZ… encore (all jesting aside) is not so much what happened as how it’s interpreted. Jim Lowther, the man who was giving the presentation to the committee at the time, was understandably slighted by Anders’ snoozing. But a simple apology, he says, would have done just fine. Instead, Anders went on a full-blown offensive. Lowther, argues Anders, is just another “NDP hack.” Never mind the fact that Lowther has voted Conservative federally and is a member of the provincial wing of the party in Nova Scotia.
It’s a shame that Anders reacted in this manner, especially when the Liberal (scratch that, “evil Liberal”) vice-chair of the committee actually has good things to say about his committee work. While Anders has been forced to apologize – twice – to Lowther, this incident reveals a profoundly flawed logic that is at the core of the Conservative Party of Canada’s governing strategy – a sort of transubstantiation of undeniable fact into political value. In this case, the fact that Anders fell asleep during a committee meeting immediately enters the sphere of politics, thus morphing into a political message. As a result, it is not understood simply as an MP falling asleep at an inopportune time, but has rather become a smear campaign, as Anders has argued. Thus, the fact of Anders falling asleep, if transposed onto the political playing field, merits an immediate and opposite partisan response to even the score, if not to go on the offensive against the opposition.
Far from being isolated to this incident, this politicizing of everything – and the strategic responses from parties that result – has become the reality in Canada. Witness the recent “Vikileaks” scandal: When an anonymous tweeter posted private details of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ life following Toews’ introduction of the controversial Bill C-30 into the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird immediately connected the partisan-charged dots to conjecture that an NDP staffer was behind the whole thing. Consider, too, the recent robocalls controversy, which, though fuelled by 31,000 complaints from individual Canadian households, is also a smear campaign fuelled by the opposition.
In this political climate, any semblance of real debate of fact is obfuscated and ultimately turned into political noise. With this logic, if the Conservative message-machine had its way, the YouTube video of Anders falling asleep in Parliament would instead be called, “Rob Anders does not fall asleep in Parliament,” regardless of what one actually sees in the video.
No, this is not 1984, although sometimes it feels like it is.
Let’s look at examples in the world of legislation. Soon after he announced the controversial “Lawful Access” bill (the same bill that spurred “Vikileaks”), Toews was interviewed by CBC’s Evan Solomon. When Solomon read – verbatim – passages from the bill, Toews countered that they were not contained in the bill. Once again, what could only be considered unaltered evidence was summarily denied.
Although these individual instances are certainly cause for concern, the real danger is that when these tendencies become systematic, they instill what can be called an authoritarian logic, whereby truth is what an authority deems to be true. If an authority says that a six-storey building really has seven, it really has seven. And the architect’s plans better correspond to that. End of story.
Take the false debate around Old Age Security. Despite many studies suggesting that the existing program is viable over the long term, and fiscal conservatives like Andrew Coyne suggesting that minor tweaks would do just fine, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has said over and over again that the system is unsustainable, throwing around big scary numbers. The fact remains that OAS in its present form will only represent about three per cent of GDP expenses, regardless of the spin you put on it.
Then there is the omnibus crime bill, which is coming on the heels of the lowest crime rate Canada has seen in about half a century. Somehow, we still need more jails and tougher laws. And it’s fine to scrap the long-gun registry because criminals, the Conservatives claim, do not use long guns. Ignore that pesky Statistics Canada report showing that about a quarter of gun-related offenses in 2009 involved long guns, and crime groups indicating that the registry is in fact a good tool to help them do their jobs.
Therein lies the problem: A “fact” is that thorn in a government’s side that prevents it from just taking decisive action. Facts are what can put ideologically motivated policy-making in check, whether they come from the right or the left. The Conservatives are keenly aware of this. As Paul Saurette has argued, the Conservatives’ decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census was not so much motivated by a belief in the sanctity of privacy, but was rather a deliberate strategy aimed at destroying knowledge itself.
But who cares about reality when we have ideology?