One of the central fallacies of modern capitalism is the idea that the market is largely free from interference and operates by a set of axiomatic rules codified in the discipline of economics like the “law of supply and demand.” Anyone experienced with the economic relations of the 21st century knows this to be nonsense. Modern capitalism is a massive set of exceptions, loopholes, subsidies, and arbitrary restrictions justified by a galaxy of nonsensical claims and special pleading. Essentially, when those wielding large-scale state and economic power reach a consensus about what should happen, laws are changed, rules are amended, new categories are introduced and old categories are abolished. All this became nakedly obvious to anyone watching after the 2007-08 financial crash.
But this is not just the way our “free” market works; it is how our “free” elections work, as exemplified in Canada’s oligopoly of broadcasters. Just as in the free market, here is what happens: a group of financially self-interested elites get together and craft a set of rules for the next leaders’ debate that delicately balance two things: (1) the debate not seeming so egregiously unfair as to lose all legitimacy and (2) the debate showcasing the candidates and biasing the election towards the political outcomes they desire or, at least, find most acceptable.
Back in the '90s, when I was with the B.C. Green Party, we met our local broadcast consortium’s requirements before every debate: 1986, run more candidates than a party that has been in the legislature in the past 10 years; 1991, run candidates in a majority of ridings; 1996, run in a majority of ridings and call your spokesperson your “party leader.” Yet each time, the requirements were changed during the writ period because they had actually been designed by broadcasters who thought we would either be unable to meet them or refuse to do so. But, in 2001, the Greens were admitted to the debate, even though no new criteria had been established or met.
In last year’s municipal election in Surrey, the same thing happened. CBC put on a televised debate and established a set of criteria met by four parties. But one party, my party, Proudly Surrey, was disqualified after the fact, without the CBC even explaining what the new criteria were. It is worth noting that the Surrey 2018 and B.C. 1991 events were the only televised debates in the electoral history of Western Canada that would have featured a Black woman on the stage, had my party not been disqualified on both of those occasions, without explanation.
So, let us not be fooled by the decision to suddenly add Maxime Bernier, leader of Canada’s neo-fascist party, to the federal leaders’ debate, despite his party not meeting the stated criteria for participation. We must understand that it is an arbitrary, self-serving ad hoc decision to reshape the election narrative based on the criteria of Postmedia, Bell Globe Media, and other big media outlets.
Of course, the consortium itself has struggled with legitimacy, as trust in media has declined, as has trust in the CRTC, our broadcast regulator, which used to be the way through which it acted with governmental endorsement and authority. Consequently, the consortium sought and received a closer relationship with the state and one associated with those parts that continue to enjoy greater public legitimacy. So, eleven months ago, a cabinet order appointed the only Conservative Party-appointed governor-general, David Johnston, as the commissioner of a new, expanded, rebranded consortium, the Debates Commission.
A crucial feature, we must remember, of the Greens being allowed into leaders’ debates in B.C. and nationally was the replacement of avowedly socialist leaders with, in the case of the national party, a senior civil servant in the Mulroney government, Elizabeth May. May’s antipathy for the NDP and socialism and her willingness to make deals with Liberals and Tories made her an acceptable candidate, whereas socialist Joan Russow was not. Similarly, broadcasters in B.C. have no problem with the pro-Uber, anti-union Green Party of Adriane Carr and Andrew Weaver. They help to drag the discourse to the right.
So, why is adding Maxime Bernier suddenly an urgent priority of the oligarchs of Canadian media? Because Andrew Scheer and his Tories keep being revealed as so homophobic, so misogynistic, so racist that they are, currently, beyond the pale in Canadian politics. The latest candidate scandal to blow up features a candidate considered beyond the pale and de-vetted by Doug Ford’s loathsome Trumpian gong show of a campaign, a candidate closely affiliated with avowed white supremacists. The Greens, too, have their own problem, sticking out, as they do, as the only party currently promising to breach the 30-year multi-party agreement not to permit abortion to be raised on the floor of the House of Commons. They just lost half a percent in the overnight polls.
What is needed, our establishment realizes, is a candidate who will normalize the pride-boycotting politics of Andrew Scheer and Elizabeth May’s painful dance with the forced-birth movement. With Bernier and his People’s Party still stagnant in the polls at less than 3 per cent, but the Tories stuck in second place in seat count, vote-splitting is not the issue, if it ever was.
Contrary to many people’s expectations, when a new party shows up in a debate, it typically causes them to freeze and then stagnate in the polls. That is what happened to the Greens in B.C. in 2001 and to the Greens in Canada in 2006. The humanization of leaders who had previously been empty signifiers often stops gains for those parties in their tracks. Bernier, who is already overexposed yet stagnant in the polls, is likely to suffer the same fate as May in 2006 following his appearance.
But more importantly, the whole idea of vote-splitting is based on the idea that election campaigns do not ever change people’s opinions, that public opinion is fixed and that the way one wins is to eliminate competition between parties that align to similar opinions. But let us consider the overwhelming evidence that elections do change culture and opinions all the time. The 2016 U.S. election is indisputable evidence that a campaign can and will change people’s opinions about what is and is not reasonable, not just what policies are reasonable but what behaviours and associations are reasonable.
What Scheer and his Tories need, more than anything else right now, is to give Canadians the impression that their associations with yellow vest–clad forced birth extremists, climate arsonists, racists and notorious homophobes is reasonable. Enter Bernier, flanked by the Soldiers of Odin. All Scheer needs to do is give his former rival one stern lecture about tolerance, acceptance and big tents and, suddenly, the mantle of reasonableness spreads and covers his party.
If Canadian politics is now organized into a spectrum of how associated one is with the forces of the extreme right, rather than into a binary that disqualifies parties so associated from being reasonable, a path to victory is opened for Scheer and the GOP-North band he runs.
To Canada’s media oligarchs, whose Andrew Scheer endorsement editorials have already been written, legitimating him and his party have proven a tough job. But Maxime Bernier might just pull it off.