Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Factually Inept: Media, the Quebec Election and the Distortion of Politics

It will likely strike many as odd to state that no Canadian, from 1867 to the present, has ever voted to elect a first minister, be it a provincial premier or a federal prime minister. The statement, it seems, flies in the face of popular wisdom. Indeed, we have elections and our political executive is headed by an individual called a premier or prime minister. How then is it possible to state that Canadians have never voted for such a position? Given the way our political system is presented by this country's political and media elite, it is no wonder that such a seemingly suspicious claim would raise vocal objections.

Election nights in this country hammer home quite forcefully the point that our political and electoral systems are grossly distorted by the ineptitude of our media and the indifference of those who occupy positions of political power. They mark the culmination of an election campaign narrative in which the leader of a party becomes the public face and focal point of discussion. The focus from the dropping of the writ to the televised leaders debate and through to end of the campaign reinforces this notion that an electorate is charged with selecting the leader directly.

Part of the problem stems from the improper use language and is a direct result of proximity to the United States. Not only have we imported a very American visual style of presenting our politics through the media, we have also imported the language of American politics, language which is part of a very specific discourse: the American Congressional system of government. As would be expected, transplanting terms, concepts and ideas across the border wreaks a substantial degree of havoc.

Our discourse has effectively been Americanized and, as a result, our politics presidentialized. This presidentialization is largely the result of the focus on leaders. It is also, to a substantial degree, the result of a fixation on aggregate vote totals in the form of the 'popular vote'. While clearly we cannot deny the existence of this 'popular vote', the problem is that, for the purposes of Canadian politics, it is largely meaningless. Only riding results matter, not the sum of ballots cast nationally or province wide. The only aggregate number that matter is the aggregate that forms from the collective of those individual elections: the formation of a parliament. This insistence on focusing on a popular vote disassociates the reality that Canadians elect individual representatives to form legislatures. We do not have a system of popular election for our political executive. A premier is the byproduct of the collective will of individual riding results, not the collective will of an electorate as a artificial whole.

Exacerbating the problem is the lack of understanding of those individuals tasked with explaining political processes to a television audience. Election night political commentary reveals a stunning lack of knowledge and competency in the institutions and processes of Canadian politics. It becomes akin to the game of telephone where information becomes further and further distorted as it is disseminated. When it comes to the very basics, those essential and foundational principles of governance, the media (by and large) does not have a clue.

Of course, politicians are partly responsible as they have adopted much of the American language of politics. This reaches to the highest levels. Take, for instance, Prime Minister Harper's reaction to the electoral results.
“The people of Quebec have made the decision to elect a minority government led by the Parti québécois.
“On behalf of the Government of Canada, I would like to congratulate Pauline Marois on her election victory, and the other candidates for taking part in this democratic process.
Both statements seem innocuous yet they are fundamentally at odds with the reality of Canadian electoral politics. In the former the error rests in assigning to a mass electorate any sort of determinate will as a collective. For a number of reasons, the 'people of Quebec' have done no such thing as elect a minority government. First, governments do not form instantaneously after a ballot box. These results are mediated through the principles of responsible government. No government forms until the Governor General - or the lieutenant governor in the provinces - invites such a formation. This is a firmly established principles based upon the prerogative powers of the Crown.

Secondly, in reference to the results in Quebec specifically, an incumbent government, regardless of being 'defeated' - or, more aptly for our system, failing to secure a plurality of seats - is granted by convention the first attempt at government formation. There is no automatic right of any party to form a government, regardless of how many seats it has won. The exception is a clear majority wherein it is readily apparent that a party will have the support of the house. Still, regardless of whether it is a mere formality, no government forms until it is requested to do so.

Finally, the results of the Quebec election were such that, contrary to the opinion of the media, there were in fact more than two options for government formation. In addition to the a PQ majority or minority, the possibility also exist for a PLQ minority, a PLQ-CAQ coalition government or a PQ-CAQ coalition government. Moreover, the fact that an incumbent premier failed to secure is own seat is neither eliminates his party from forming a government nor from that premier himself from remaining in his post. Twice Prime Minister King was met with electoral defeat and twice he remained prime minister, securing a seat in a by-election. In Canadian democracy there is never a clear cut case of 'winning' or 'losing' short of a clear majority.

The latter Harper statement is also a distortion of reality. All Pauline Marois won in the election was her own seat. She remains, for the time being, a simple MNA and party leader. There is categorically no such thing in Canadian politics as a "Premier-elect". She has won neither the Quebec election nor the premiership. Again, two things preclude such a thing. First, Canadians - as stated above - do not vote directly for a political executive. The executive is chosen from among the legislature. Second, governments are not won but granted under a Westminster parliamentary model. The 2012 general election saw one hundred twenty-five separate electoral contests. Those contests will decide the fate of the government.

While Canadian politics has clearly borrowed aspects of the American system of governance, it remains at its very core a vastly different system from the American congressional system. Canada is not simply a democracy; it is a Westminster Parliament democracy. This makes a profound difference on institutions, rules, procedures and, importantly, political language. The language of a congressional and presidential system cannot simply be grafted onto a parliamentary system without significantly distorting processes. In this case the American discourse is a problematic foreign pest brought across the border by a hapless media.

The Canadian electorate is already disconcertingly uninterested in the political process. This is only exacerbated by a population that is functionally illiterate when it comes to the the trappings of parliamentary democracy. This is not simply a matter of correct terminology for its own sake but rather speaks directly to the quality of democracy. Canadian democracy suffers greatly when the electorate fails to understand how the most basic aspect of the system of governance works. It allows politicians to take advantage, consolidate their power and avoid accountability. The media fails in its own watchdog capacity because it two lacks proper knowledge of the basic rules of the game as well. Simply put, if Canadians cannot identify or define responsible government, how are they to lament its passing?

Fluency in the language of politics is the basic currency of a functioning democracy. Canada had a distinct system of government based upon centuries of parliamentary traditions and precedents. Canada's adaption of the British heritage is unique in its own right. The language of the american congressional system ill fits that tradition. Our discourse and our use of language should reflect our politics, not the politics of our American neighbours. Our inapt use of language simply makes our politics inept.