Trudeau’s Useful Protestors

In any debate, the goal is not to convince your opponent, but to convince your audience.

Justin Trudeau is spending the first month of 2018 travelling the country in a series of town hall events, taking questions from Canadians and offering fairly well-rehearsed answers in return, in what is, admittedly, great PR. In many ways it’s theatre, a stage play.

Political events bring crowds, and crowds bring people who loudly disagree. From Nova Scotia to Ontario, the press has breathlessly covered every heckler to raise their hackles, their cameras swooping to focus on the security scrum while Trudeau gently admonishes them as only a teacher knows how.

I accept that each question at these town hall events is likely scripted and planned for by Trudeau’s team, but is it a stretch to wonder if these more raucous moments were gently massaged as well?

In the 2017 NDP leadership race, then-candidate Jagmeet Singh ‘calmly and positively’ responded to a woman’s emotional questions about the Muslim Brotherhood, and the internet ate it up. The moment went ‘viral’ (I loathe to type the term), and many saw it as a turning point that clinched Singh the leadership position. Whether or not this exchange was actually the race’s deciding factor, it doubtless won him a great amount of good-will. The optics were on Singh’s side.

It would be entirely reasonable for Canada’s Liberal party to hope to gain the same kind of buzz by showing our PM smiling affably as he suffers the verbal tirade of a disgruntled constituent. As above, these events are about optics, not politics, and ”smiling, reasonable liberal humours angry, irrational conservative” is a pat narrative, easily condensed into a news article.

What’s interesting is how the CBC’s treatment of protestors has shifted along with the party being protested.

In 2011, well into Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister, Canadian Senate page Brigitte DePape disrupted a throne speech by sneaking in and unfurling a ‘Stop Harper’ sign. She was promptly scuttled out of the senate, and into the CBC’s welcoming embrace.

If you're going to go to that much effort, plan your margins accordingly

Her protest led to immediate news stories and interviews. She was titled the ‘Rogue Page’ (and later the ‘Former Rogue Page’), and given a national platform to discuss her distaste of Stephen Harper. Long after her protest DePape remained a CBC celebrity. In 2013 an interview asked for insights on her favourite MP, and dreamily wondered if she had any plans to run for parliament. In 2015 she was again brought in to discuss her thoughts (ie. gloat) on the new Liberal Government.

Protestors of conservative governments are ‘Canadian Activists’, de facto political experts and spokesmen for the everyday Canadian. I doubt you’ll see many follow-up interviews on the CBC with the protestors escorted from Trudeau’s performance in London and Hamilton. Although just as angry and disruptive as DePape, they had the misfortune of being angry at wrong government, and are doomed to be cast as the villains in Trudeau’s play.

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Why A State-Run News Media Is A Bad Idea

Questioning the source of news stories is always a healthy practice, a beneficial cynicism we develop through years of experience. We understand that news programs aren’t produced by Samaritans with hearts of gold, but usually by corporations, for financial gain. That story at the top of the Camel Cigarettes News Hour, revealing that 9 out of 10 doctors recommend Camels Cigarettes for their smooth flavour and low tar probably isn’t Pulitzer material, and we’d be silly to think otherwise. Ulterior motives abound and should be scrutinized.

downloadIn Canada, one of our largest news organizations, the CBC, is funded not by a private corporation but largely by the government. That doesn’t make their motives any less deserving of scrutiny though. Even though an entity says it has your best interests at heart, it may not be telling the whole truth.

Consider the apparently pressing issue of incompetent financial investors. CBC raised the alarm in February that many bank employees, paid to give financial advice to customers, might bad at their jobs. Hidden cameras and flashy stacks of cash (and non-sequitur b-roll footage of babies on rocking horses) were deployed because that’s what news-y shows do, and otherwise the viewer might not believe that people might be bad at their jobs. The CBC introduced a dramatic problem that threatens the elderly, single mothers, and even you! But what can stop this villainous evil? Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Children

CBC then escalated the story in April, with concealed-identity interviews showcasing dark silhouettes and blurred faces dropping bombshells such as ‘Banks like profits’. With its foot in the door, the CBC ramped up its sales pitch. The only sure-fire, fast-acting, guaranteed effective cure to the scourge of financial investors? “Calling on the industry’s regulators across the country to implement something called a statutory best interest standard.”

bmo-insiderLest anyone think this was the CBC’s idea, they quickly published a follow-up news item citing polls that crow “89 per cent want the titles used by people selling financial investments to be regulated“! “It’s time for governments to stop discussing, debating and delaying, and start taking concrete action.” All the cool kids want regulations! You should too! Your friends and neighbours are doing it. You don’t want to be the last person on your block to demand government regulation, do you?

In short, a state-run media has gone out of its way to find a problem that not many people cared about, scare its viewers, and insist that it alone holds the solution, government regulation! What is the price of this miracle cure it’s selling? More laws, greater influence over the private sector, committees, studies, reports, debates, and new positions to oversee the whole works, employing government workers for centuries to come. All to fix a problem that could be addressed with Yelp reviews.

Private corporations are flawed, but at least we’ve developed a healthy skepticism for their tricks. Government has become so ubiquitous that we have a blindspot to the power we’ve granted it to feed us news, and the conflicts of interest that can create.

Rethinking Net Neutrality In The Age Of Trump

The topic of ‘Net Neutrality’ laws sits in the middle of a debate over which is worse: big business or big government. Internet access is a vital commodity, and exclusively provided by private, for-profit companies. With the established wired and wireless networks spanning North America, bandwidth is a vast, but not unlimited resource. The question posed is who should decide how this limited resource is distributed, and by what mechanism. The ‘for it’ side argues that private companies could artificially limit bandwidth for their own gain (profit) and should be regulated by government to distribute it according to the government’s definition of ‘fair’. The ‘against it’ side argues that private companies should be allowed to distribute bandwidth according to market demand, and that allowing governments to impose regulations on private companies is inefficient and a target for political coercion.

For years it was easy to cast each player in this debate in black and white caricature, government as good and business as evil. In the United States, Barack Obama’s administration was seen as principled and noble, treated with reverence by the press and defended passionately by the left. How could a government headed by a such an affable, jeans-wearing, bike-riding, smooth-dancing aw-shucks herald of civil rights and human dignity be distrusted? Obama was a champion for minorities of all categories, he fought for healthcare and the middle class, they said. Anyone who opposed such a benevolent and kind institution must surely be paranoid, unreasonable, or just on ‘the wrong side of history’.

Then, November came. Barack Obama was unexpectedly replaced not by the left-wing, media darling Hillary Clinton as so many predicted, but by Donald Trump, who had been portrayed for a year as unhinged, unstable, and unbecoming of the position. Republicans took a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. The drum-beat accusations of fascist, nazi-pandering, totalitarian, rights-trampling evilness migrated from Clinton’s campaign speeches into the teleprompters and opinion columns of the media, and from there to the popular wisdom of the left. It became cool to worry about concentration camps and military raids, and to tweet of fighting back against totalitarianism.

Now advocates for Net Neutrality on the left are forced to confront a contradiction: Is access to the internet a fundamental right, the protection of which should be entrusted to the enormous and arbitrary powers of government, or is the government a malicious, dictatorial regime that must be #Resisted? Should such a critical resource as internet access be entrusted to an institution helmed by one so demonized as Donald Trump? This is a conundrum which could be foreseen as easily as it can be avoided: Don’t give government any more responsibilities than absolutely necessary. You don’t have to worry about it abusing power it doesn’t have.

The future is unpredictable, and laws outlive the political climate in which they were created. This has to be considered when deciding how much regulatory power to grant governments. Once in place, regulations are hard to rescind, and often only get worse over time. Without taxpayer funding and a police force to back them, private companies rise and fall entirely at the mercy of their customers, and rather than every four years, your ballot is cast every time you open your wallet or take your business elsewhere.

It remains to be seen whether people’s newfound distrust in government causes any to revisit their  opinion on the wisdom of Net Neutrality. Politics makes strange bedfellows, so with any luck Trump’s election will introduce some to the benefits of limited government.