Categories for Feature

My latest: Star, CBC no longer lead the way

How the media mighty have fallen.

Way, way back, when this writer was a special assistant to opposition leader Jean Chretien, getting ready for the daily Question Period ritual was simple.

Chretien’s staff, and select Liberal MPs, would gather in the panelled boardroom in room 409-S in Centre Block on Parliament Hill. There, early every weekday morning, we would determine what questions to ask of the government of prime minister Brian Mulroney — and, very briefly, that of prime minister Kim Campbell.

As noted, it wasn’t hard. One of the staffers would read out what the lineup of stories had been on CBC’s The National the night before. Then we would eyeball the front page of the Toronto Star.

Presto! We’d have our lineup for Question Period, as determined by the CBC and the Star.

Like Mulroney, like Campbell, those days are no more. The CBC and the Toronto Star no longer have the political impact they once did.

The numbers tell the story, and it’s not a happy one (for them). At the Star, “revenue (has) continued to decline sharply year-over-year — especially in terms of sales of print advertising space to national accounts.” The source? None other than the Star itself.

Just this week, the once-mighty Star reported a whopping $17.4 million loss in the second quarter of 2019, as its revenues plummeted. That’s even after closing up operations in Hamilton, and slashing jobs.

At the National Newspaper Awards ceremony in May, the Star captured one award. The Globe and Mail, to cite just one example, won 10.

The Star’s national bureau in Ottawa, meanwhile, is led by Susan Delacourt, and it hasn’t had a big scoop in a long, long time. That’s astonishing, when you consider that the Liberal Party holds power. In Ottawa, everyone knows that the likes of the Globe’s Bob Fife breaks the big stories like LavScam and Norman-gate – and the likes of Postmedia’s Andrew Coyne and John Ivison are the ones who dominate federal politics opinion-making. Delacourt’s bureau just doesn’t factor on either front.

The CBC, meanwhile, has plenty of problems, too.

Just before election day in 2019, CBC’s then-president whinged that the public broadcaster was at risk of “extinction,” quote unquote. Justin Trudeau got the message. Once installed in power, Trudeau forked over $115 million to CBC. For good measure, it threw in another $35 million.

But despite that, CBC’s national impact continues to shrink. Its flagship news program — the one that used to literally determine what topics were covered in Question Period — is failing. In the past two years alone, its viewership has nose-dived a mammoth 24%.

A few weeks ago, even the CBC’s editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire was forced to admit that The National isn’t all what it once was: “Are we pleased with the overall state of The National? I think the answer is no.”

She shouldn’t be pleased with the overall state of CBC’s relevance to the federal political scene, either. Despite being the recipient of millions in tax dollars — and despite being allowed to use that unfair advantage to compete in major markets with private-sector media competitors — the CBC simply isn’t breaking big national stories like it used to.

At the most recent Canada’s Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) awards, Global won a dozen awards for excellence. CTV, which regularly clobbers The National in the ratings game, picked up the RTDNA’s best national newscast award. CBC radio and its regional stations won some RTDNA awards, but none were for national political stories.

What does it all mean? Maybe nothing.

But to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, facing a hotly contested election in just over 90 days, it isn’t good. In the past, the Star and CBC could always be counted on to light the way for Grits, and help secure wins.

Those days — like the national political impact of CBC and the Star — are long, long gone.


Bernier and his infamous neo-Nazi friend

Paul Fromm is perhaps the leading Canadian far Right leader. Fromm has decades of involvement with the Canadian organized hate movement, from the Edmund Burke Society to the Western Guard to the Heritage Front to a myriad number of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. The Southern Poverty Law Centre tells us this:

From 1974 until 1997, Fromm served as a public school teacher with the Peel Region Board of Education. He was fired from his position after speaking at several Heritage Front events, one of which fell on Hitler’s birthday. A video of the December 9, 1990, event captured Fromm, in front of a Nazi flag, speaking to a crowd shouting “Sieg Heil!,” “white power,” “Hail The Order!,” and “nigger, nigger, nigger, out out out,” while performing the Nazi salute. He also hailed John Ross Taylor, a Canadian fascist, as a “hero.”

I wrote extensively about Fromm in my book Web of Hate, too. In one chapter, I detailed how Fromm participated in an extraordinary 1990 rally to memorialize neo-Nazi terrorist and murderer Bob Matthews, the founder of The Order. As Fromm paid tribute to Matthews, dozens of neo-Nazi skinheads applauded and gave fascist salutes.  Fromm’s support for white supremacy and neo-Naziism has increased in the intervening years.

And now, Fromm has a new friend. Here he is with Maxime Bernier, the leader of the alt-Right White People’s Party.

Bernier has now been photographed with the bigoted Proud Boys, with the far-right Northern Guard flashing the white power symbol, his candidates with the neo-Nazi Soldiers of Odin. And now he has fully crossed the Rubicon, and he is consorting with the undisputed leader of Canada’s white supremacist movement.

In his words, and his deeds, Maxime Bernier has shown us who he is.  We need to start believing him.


My latest: Butts, back, big bother

Kick me.

Here’s a little-known fact: The “kick me” sign — which is usually affixed to some hapless soul’s back or behind, for laughs — was apparently devised by merry-making Scots during the 16th Century.

They did it to celebrate April Fool’s. “Kick me” thereafter became so popular, it spread to the British Isles and then rest of the world.

And so, this week, the Liberal Party of Canada stuck a “kick me” sign to its collective keester, and invited all of us to do precisely that.

The occasion? Not April Fool’s, although it certainly felt like it could be. No, the “kick me” moment heralded the inauspicious return of Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary, and his forever-BFF, Gerald Butts.

Butts showed up for some Liberal campaign meeting. People noticed.

Yes, that Gerald Butts. He of the SNC-Lavalin meta-scandal — the one who helped propel #LavScam into hashtag hagiography.

He — the one who told us a million times that he’s a coal miner’s son. Him, the one who also told the chief of staff to the Attorney-General of Canada that Trudeau’s cabal wanted to short-circuit the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a Liberal Party donor.

Him, “Gerry,” who famously said of interfering in the coming corruption trial of SNC-Lavalin that “there is no solution here that does not involve some interference.”

Him. Gerald Butts. He’s back.

Now, before everyone starts reaching for the smelling salts, there is a passable pretext to justify the return of Butts. For one thing, he’s smarter than all of PMO put together. And, the wheels started to come off PMO the moment Butts left.

The Liberal Party commenced sliding precipitously in the polls. Patronage scandals sprouted up like weeds. And, of course, there was this stirring bit of oratory, which ranks up there with the Gettysburg Address: “We have recently switched to drinking water bottles out of water, when we have water bottles out of a plastic sorry away from plastic towards paper-like drink-box, water-bottle sorta things.”

So, on the one hand, it makes a bit of sense that Butts is back. But, on the other, it doesn’t at all.

Two reasons.

One, Butts — fairly or not — became the face of LavScam. And not in a good way. Former ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott came to embody decency, honesty and a belief in the independence of our prosecutorial system.

Butts, meanwhile, came to be seen as a guy who may have done something wrong. Why would he have resigned if that were not so?

LavScam hammered the Liberal Party in public opinion. It shredded Justin Trudeau’s promise of sunny ways. And it left his oft-made claims to be a feminist — to be the indigenous reconciler, to be the guy who’d bring back ethical government — in tatters after he expelled Wilson-Raybould and Philpott for having the temerity to speak up for the rule of law.

There’s a second reason why Gerald Butts’ return is dumb, dumb, dumb. And it’s that hoary old chestnut, Liberal arrogance.

“Liberal arrogance” has recurred so many times in Canadian politics, it practically deserves its own entry in Mel Hurtig’s Canadian Encyclopedia series. Liberal arrogance — that Grit belief that they alone know what is best for Canada, and are in fact synonymous with all that is good in Canada — is deadly.

Liberal arrogance has felled many a Liberal government. It is the greatest Grit weakness. And the return of Gerald Butts signals its unfortunate return, in marquee lights.

Butts is back. LavScam is back. Liberal arrogance is back.

Kick them: they deserve it.


The Hidden Conservative Voter

They’re hidden.

They showed up, however, at Brexit. They showed up in the U.S. presidential race in 2016. They showed up in Alberta in 2019, and Ontario in 2018, too.

They’re the THCV – The Hidden Conservative Voter. And they’re changing politics.

June 2016: shocking just about everyone, 52 per cent of Britons voted to leave the European Union. No one really expected that result, including many of those who campaigned for Brexit.

Polls conducted in the years leading up to the Brexit vote consistently showed public opinion split on the EU membership question. A year before the crucial vote, support for the European Union spiked upward, with many more Brits favouring remaining than leaving. That, perhaps, may have been what persuaded then-Prime Minister David Cameron to push for a vote.

It was a critical error, as historians will forever note.

Subsequent vote analysis showed that young Brits favoured remaining in the Union. So did big business, lawyers, economists, scientists and the well-to-do. Voters with lower incomes and fewer higher-education degrees, however, just didn’t.

And they, unlike the young Brits and the others, came out to vote. The “leave” side surged on voting day.

Pollsters and pundits hadn’t seen it coming. Neither did the bookies, even: on the day of the vote, Ladbrokes had been giving six-to-one odds that Brexit would fail.

What happened? Sifting through the Brexit results afterwards, public opinion experts and political scientists saw something they hadn’t previously spotted: what they called, antiseptically, “unrepresentative samples.” In other words, pollsters had too many “stay” voters in their computers – and not nearly enough “leave” voters. That, the British Polling Council determined after a lengthy inquiry, was “the basic problem.”

What is most shocking is that the pollsters repeated their error in the U.S. presidential race, which happened just a few weeks after Brexit. Every single pollster, pretty much, got it wrong. Again.

The New York Times declared Hillary Clinton – who, full disclosure, this writer worked for in three different states in 2016 – had an 85 per cent chance of victory. Huffington Post said she had a 98 per cent chance of winning. The respected poll analyst Nate Silver pegged her chances at 67 per cent – while Princeton University went even further, saying it was 99 per cent.

All wrong, wrong, wrong.

And, as in Brexit, the same thing had happened: pollsters had relied upon unrepresentative samples – allowing Trump voters to hide, in effect. One analyst told GQ that Trump voters hid on purpose: “It may also turn out to be the case that supporters for Donald Trump were shamed into keeping their support quiet. Shy Trump supporters may have kept their support secret from pollsters out of social pressure not to admit their support for a candidate labelled as racist and sexist.”

The same sort of thing has happened in recent Canadian electoral contests. Polls in Alberta suggested the race between Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party and Rachel Notley’s New Democratic party was far closer than it ended up being. Ditto in Ontario, the year before: mid-campaign polls proclaimed the Andrea Horwath New Democrats had moved ahead of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. But it wasn’t so: the PC vote surged on voting day, and Ford won a huge majority government.

The moral of the story, here, is clear: pollsters are either missing conservative-leaning voters in their sampling – or those voters are keeping their intentions secret, Until they sit down with a stub of pencil and a ballot, that is.

It’s the THCV – The Hidden Conservative Vote. And it’s changing outcomes in elections across Western democracy.

And for guys like Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, the THCV could be very good news in October.


Fifty years ago today

I was always a fan of science fiction. I always loved (and still do) Star Trek. I always loved the idea of a future where there are no races, no currency, no hunger, no sickness, no war – except bloodless 60-minute ones with the Klingons or the Romulans, that is.

The year 1969 was an important one, for our family. We had been living in Texas, and had gone through the killings of Bobby and Dr. King, close up. My parents wanted to return Canada, where my brothers and I would grow up in a place that (mostly) embraced tolerance and diversity and the common good.

The moon landing was extraordinary, for me. It suggested that that better world, the one celebrated in Star Trek and science fiction, was possible. Was likely, even.

The 1968 and 2008 victories of Pierre Trudeau and Barack Obama suggested the same thing. That we were turning the corner.

We weren’t. We didn’t.

A white supremacist is the president. Hate is on the march everywhere. The planet is getting hotter every year, and we did it to ourselves.

So, I offer up this bit of video, from a time when the brighter future of Star Trek seemed to be just around the corner. It made me, a boy of eight, so happy.

It makes me now, a man of 58, just unbelievably sad.