Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Media myths shape Canadian politics

The media has created a myth, embellished it, and pursued the narrative to the extent it has now actually caused a shift in Canada’s realpolitik by redefining comprehensively media narratives.

The myth: that the Wajid Khan defection actually changed the balance of power in the House of Commons giving the NDP the so-called ‘balance of power’.

In fact, the NDP plus the Conservatives and the two independents (an essential aspect of this math) could have won a Commons vote before Khan’s defection, and the essential facts about this are no different today, although there is now a three vote rather than a one vote margin. (The Lapierre resignation adds another vote.)This calculation actually deducts one vote from the Liberals but there is a good reason for this: the Speaker, Peter Milliken, is a Liberal and does not vote except in the event of a tie, in which case he is bound by tradition to uphold the government.

The only source I can find who seems to grasp this basic fact is the former Clerk of the Privy Council, Norman Spector, who noted in a column:

Let's be clear. It's simply incorrect to say that the NDP now has the balance of power in Parliament. In fact, the NDP is in precisely the same position as the Bloc Québécois, and the two parties are in precisely the same position as they were on the day Parliament opened last year. Neither party held the balance of power then, neither party holds the balance of power now.

There are two other key media assumptions: that the poor poll numbers recently for the NDP mean it desperately wishes to avoid an election in which it faces certain losses; and that the governmentwishes simply to hang on to power long enough to find a way to win a majority. So the implicit message is that we can look forward to a new glorious news-rich parliamentary session full of Tory-NDP deal-making.

Aside from the underlying math being wrong, it appears that another assumption underpinning this outlook is also shaky. This interview that Stephen Harper gave to the Hill Times strongly suggests to TC that he wants an early election, likely to take advantage of the financial and organizational lack of preparedness on the part of the Liberals (which would thus make all recent media speculation about Layton-Harper dealmaking moot). Harper may also be hoping to benefit from a particular constellation of public opinion that would see a diversion of votes from the Liberals and the NDP to the Greens (see TC’s earlier posts on voting for the Greens and the recent Environics poll).

Ironically, there has been a benefit to the beleaguered NDP from all this media attention, however erroneous the basis for it. The party normally has a hard time getting noticed, but Jack Layton has been popping up on all the usual news shows and received a full hour of exposure tonight on TV Ontario’s The Agenda.

TC’s guess is that the budget will likely be delivered close to the March 20th date floated by Radio-Canada. The Parliamentary Calendar suggests the vote on the budget won’t then take place until after the Easter break, putting it well into April. If Jean Charest as rumoured calls a Quebec election in the interim, the federal parties would no doubt defer action until after that electoral process is over. That would easily push the election back from some time in the latter half of May into June. That seems to TC to be the most likely scenario, although I doubt that Charest has really made up his mind yet on whether to call an election this spring.

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