Canada Votes 2015

Will 2015 be the end of Harper?

Independent media challenge mainstream Conservative consensus
Photo: Ken Yuel

"Whatever your first issue of concern, media had better be your second, because without change in the media, progress in your primary area is far less likely." – Robert McChesney

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During the 2011 federal election campaign, the Globe and Mail endorsed Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. Their editorial lamented “a dearth of serious debate” in the campaign and concluded that a Harper win could “help propel Canada into a fresh period of innovation, government reform and global ambition.”

In endorsing Harper, the Globe and Mail was part of a veritable corporate media consensus. In winning his majority government with a mere 39 per cent of votes, Harper enjoyed the massive advantage of having the editorial support of over 90 per cent of major newspapers in the country. The National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Sun, Hamilton Spectator, Winnipeg Free Press, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Province and more than 20 other major papers endorsed Harper in 2011.

The conservative editorial boards of the corporate-owned media contributed to a “dearth of serious debate” and helped deliver the 2011 election to Harper.

But it isn’t just about the groupthink that penetrates the deepest recesses of the fourth estate, or the slavish devotion of so many in media to the status quo. It’s about corporate owners and their agendas, which are often at odds with the public interest.

When self-censorship fails, as it did when the Globe and Mail editorial board decided to endorse Liberal Kathleen Wynne in last year’s Ontario election, owners simply overrule the editors, in this case changing the endorsement to support Conservative Tim Hudak at the last moment.

This is why independent and alternative media voices are essential, and why Ricochet is making coverage of federal politics an editorial priority in 2015. As an independent media outlet with distinct French and English editions, which draws the bulk of funding from our readers, we believe we are uniquely placed to provide the sort of national, non-partisan coverage that has been so sorely lacking in past election years.

In short, in this election year we will strive to connect the two solitudes, and make up for the glaring media deficit that distorts democracy and keeps the playing field tilted in favour of private interests.

In addition to expanded coverage of national politics in both languages, we will be expanding our translation effort to make sure that unilingual Canadians can follow French news from Quebec or English news from Alberta with ease. In short, in this election year we will strive to connect the two solitudes, and make up for the glaring media deficit that distorts democracy and keeps the playing field tilted in favour of private interests.

Looking back on the past four years, the Globe editors’ prediction — along with the justifications for backing Harper offered by the rest of the mainstream media’s editorial boards — reads as laughable.

There has been no innovation driven by the federal government. Instead, we’ve seen regression across the board, as environmental protections have been gutted to support oil and gas and other extractive industries of the old economy. Canada now lags badly behind countries that are rapidly investing in innovative new sectors such as renewable energy.

Far from witnessing government reform, we’ve seen an unprecedented string of corruption scandals, from Arthur Porter and Bruce Carson to Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, almost all involving individuals personally appointed by Harper.

As for global ambition, Harper has indeed distinguished Canada on the world stage, but only in ignominious ways, as the most over-the-top supporter of Israeli war crimes or the most shameless obstructionist towards collective action on climate change.

Ricochet’s political coverage in 2015 will dig into Harper’s record over the past four years, and highlight political and economic alternatives that fall outside the narrow consensus of the corporate media’s editorial boards.

The stakes in 2015 couldn’t be higher: we have no more years to waste on climate inaction. Our future hangs in the balance.

The stakes in 2015 couldn’t be higher: we have no more years to waste on climate inaction. Our future hangs in the balance.

There is no longer much talk of Stephen Harper taking his own “walk in the snow” this winter. The prime minister appears determined to lead the Conservatives in this year’s federal election.

Even if the polls hadn’t turned around slightly in his favour, it’s hard to see how anyone could seriously have imagined any other scenario. Over nearly a decade in power, Harper has consolidated his hold on the Conservative Party with the same zeal and focus with which he has imposed his agenda on the country.

This is the Harper government, after all. No one from within the Conservative camp is going to nudge him out the door.

It’s up to the rest of us to kick him out. And it won’t be easy.

Jeffrey Simpson, writing in the Globe and Mail, argues there is a substantial core of Harper’s base that is nearly immovable: “He has an unshakable core vote of 30 to 32 per cent of the electorate. These people skew older, rural, male, western Canadian – and they vote.”

This rings true, even if Simpson’s numbers feel a bit overstated. But even in the Conservative heartland, there are real signs of discomfort with Harper’s ham-fisted support for Big Oil. A recent poll by Insights West commissioned by BCBusiness magazine and Alberta Venture, for example, found “59 per cent of Albertans believing it was more important to protect the environment than foster economic growth.”

However unshakable Harper’s base, his party enjoys other advantages heading into this election year. First and foremost, the Conservatives have more money in the bank and a greater ability to fundraise. The party has proven adept at using this war chest to micro-target sectors of the electorate with specific issue-based advertising and direct mail. And, of course, the airwaves are already saturated with negative ads.

As for the opposition parties, there is a real danger that the tendency to focus on the “horserace” and the personalities, instead of the issues, will obscure real differences between the NDP, Liberals and Greens.

In 2015, we need fewer puff pieces about Justin Trudeau and more in-depth analysis of local and national politics. To give just three examples of concrete policy proposals that deserve far more media attention: Thomas Mulcair and the NDP’s call for a $15/hour minimum wage, which is related to a continent-wide campaign being picked up by labour movements and municipal governments; the demand for proportional representation, which both the NDP and Greens say they are committed to implementing (the Liberals will say only they’ll “study” it); and the vital proposal for a national child care program put forward by the NDP.

This must change in 2015 if we are to have a real debate of ideas, rather than a stage fight between the beard, the hair and the helmet.

From the Liberals, we have seen little of substance on the policy front. This must change in 2015 if we are to have a real debate of ideas, rather than a stage fight between the beard, the hair and the helmet.

Ricochet’s political coverage will also feature the work of social movements. In recent years, we have watched as our political parties have become more alike, their disputes more superficial than substantive, and their agendas increasingly variations on a defence of the status quo.

As our parties become more out of step with the population, social movements will play an important role. With the debate around tar sands pipelines, we’ve already seen in the past number of years how movements can completely transform the debate and change the balance of forces. Thanks to grassroots campaigns against Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, Keystone XL and Energy East — campaigns bolstered by the resurgence of Indigenous struggles for sovereignty and in defence of the land — the pipeline debate will be a central issue in the 2015 election.

Even with the limited choices on the current electoral menu, the outcome matters. As Noam Chomsky noted a decade ago about U.S. politics, “small differences can translate into large outcomes."

Removing Harper from power in 2015 is far from guaranteed, and it won’t solve all of our problems. But at the very least, it will give us some much-needed breathing room.

In this pivotal year ahead, we can’t afford either blind optimism or paralyzed pessimism. With your support, Ricochet, together with our independent media allies, can help us move toward a healthier and fairer society. Because media democracy is essential to achieving greater political and economic democracy.

No government can be trusted to act in the public interest, not when the private interest employs the finest lobbyists while the public has none. That’s why our focus, in this campaign and thereafter, will be pushing all political parties to stand up for us.

Journalists used to be champions of the public interest. With your help, we can be again.

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