Why CANADALAND: COMMONS is possibly the worst thing for Canadian politics

A member of the Press Gallery on why ignorance is not bliss.

It was with some curiosity that I had been anticipating what Jesse Brown would do with his long-awaited politics show, CANADALAND: COMMONS. Brown has been looking at a program that he sees as pushing back against shows like Power & Politics, and I don’t disagree that we need new voices in the Canadian political discourse. This, however, is not it.

Let me first give you my credentials – I’ve been a freelance member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery for nearly seven years, writing for both large and small markets. I wrote my master’s thesis about community-of-interest media (religious, GLBT, etc) in the Gallery and how they shape their coverage, and I used to write the “Politics on TV” column on Macleans.ca before budget cuts came down. I’ve seen what political shows in Ottawa have to offer, and where their weaknesses are, and those weaknesses have little to do with them being “too insider,” as Brown seems to infer. No, there really aren’t journalists going around sucking up for Senate appointments – stories he took as gospel from embittered figures at the margins of the Gallery. Sucking up was pretty much Mike Duffy’s shtick, and look where that landed him. Brown is pushing back against a straw man, where the actual problems with political coverage are far different than what he tends to imagine.

Brown found two hosts who are in Toronto and have pretty much zero knowledge about how Ottawa works, which he touted as a “good thing.” Like so many, he has stroked a fetishism of the political outsider who is going to come in and show the rest of us in Ottawa how it’s done without an actual exploration of the challenges that Press Gallery journalists face when it comes to our coverage.

If there’s one thing that’s been missing from political coverage in this country, it’s institutional knowledge. The truism we constantly struggle with is that nobody likes a process story, except that democracy is process. It’s hard to cover politics if you can’t tell a process story in an interesting way, and instead, coverage focuses on personalities and where possible, stoking partisan conflict for the dramatic value (I’m looking at you, P&P). The value of “insider connections” is limited to personalities, rather than how things actually work, and it’s a gaping hole in the coverage we get.

Andray Domise and Desmond Cole went for a “basic information” shtick for their first podcast, and it failed miserably. Instead of using knowledge to challenge the talking points that parties regurgitate to reporters, they instead took pride in their ignorance of the system, and were careful to find a guest that didn’t sound too much like an insider (because remember, there’s an outsider fetish to pander to) and they proceeded to deliberately sow confusion to the issue.

It’s funny that a conversation about trying to figure out “who’s in charge” managed to neglect the very organizational principle by which Canada – and indeed all Westminster-style democracies – follows, which is Responsible Government. It’s not a cute slogan or self-congratulation by a party in power, but rather the way in which governments are formed and power is distributed. You know, like they were trying to figure out.

“Why is it so complicated?” one of our intrepid hosts whined.

CORRECTION: At no point in the podcast do either Andray Domise or Desmond Cole ask the question “Why is it so complicated?” At 8:36, Cole asks “is that part of the reason why this is so complicated?” in reference to Canada’s existence as a former British colony. CANADALAND regrets the error. -ed 

It’s actually not, but in seeking to deliberately confuse the issues and the listeners, they presented the information without that fundamental organizational principle, and then they added in a bunch of misinformation. In fact, their “expert” from the University of Toronto was blatantly wrong when it comes to role of the Governor General, particularly in the formation of governments after an election, and in large parts of the discussion around the “unwritten” conventions that govern us. Our two hosts expressed fear and shock that part of our constitution is unwritten – but last I checked, the UK wasn’t some Mad Max anarchist wasteland for not having a written constitution at all.

The discussion on the role of the monarchy in Canada was similarly boneheaded. There was no acknowledgement of the separate Canadian crown from the UK crown, and they proffered this notion that somehow Aboriginal communities just see the monarchy as a symbol of colonial oppression. Again, that’s false – the relationship between First Nations and the Crown is a much more complex and personal one that goes to the heart of what much of the consternation around the role of the Governor General should have been during the Idle No More protests a couple of years ago. Add to that, they got someone from the Monarchist League to make a couple of points didn’t actually deal with the role of the Crown with respect to governing (hint: Responsible Government), and muddied the waters even more.

After having sown confusion about how our system works, Cole and Domise then went on to express shock at how terrible it is. Their agenda was clear from the start of the show – if you want to change the system, you need to know how it works. The problem is that instead of understanding, they mischaracterized it, and then denigrated it based on that mischaracterization. I’ll freely admit that in my own column writing, I’ll defend the status quo because I understand why things work the way they do, their history, and that the reforms people tend to propose won’t actually fix the perceived ills. Knowledge and actually engaging with the system as it was designed will.

If CANADALAND: COMMONS is intended to be a new or fresh voice in political coverage, then it’s a big problem. Ignorance, misinformation, and agendas are the very last thing that we need. We are a country suffering from a lack of basic civic literacy, and our current political shows, with their need for personalities and psychodrama, exacerbate that problem. Cole and Domise’s first effort only made all of that worse, and it serves nobody’s interest.

Correction: The academic from the University of Toronto was misidentified as being from the University of Saskatchewan in an earlier version of this article.

Follow Dale Smith on Twitter here.

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