Monday, December 15, 2008

CPC Spin & Public Ignorance: The Chicken Or The Egg?

A few days ago, Steve V over at Far and Wide posted about the reality of seemingly overwhelming public disapproval of the coalition. In general, I agreed with most of what he had to say. But I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that public views on matters of government are largely shaped by knowledge about the way government is supposed to work. Today, some numbers have come out which confirm that, in general, Canadians are rather poorly informed about our system of government.
For example, results of the Ipsos Reid survey show 75 per cent of Canadians asked believe the prime minister, or the Governor General, is head of state.
It's a telling statistic, and I have to wonder how a misperception of our PM being the head of state may have influenced public acceptance of the legitimacy of the coalition.

All of which brings me to the point of my post. The Conservatives have been busy in recent weeks denouncing the coalition as "illegitimate" and "undemocratic". Harper himself has said:
"The opposition does not have the democratic right (to replace the Conservative government)...without your say, without your consent and without your vote"
This is of course a falsehood in our constitutional monarchy. So by repeating a lie, is Harper creating ignorance, or simply feeding off it?

In either case, I think a strong case can be made for mandatory civics classes in our elementary and secondary schools. As citizens of a democratic nation, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to take our obligations as electors seriously. As Marc Chalifoux (president of the Dominion Institute) said:
"Canadians certainly were interested by what was going on in Ottawa, but lacked in many cases the basic knowledge to form informed opinions"

18 comments:

WesternGrit said...

You know... going back in my blog for the past several years, I've been harping on about mandatory civics courses. I've been on the doorstep in many ridings across Sask., AB, and BC, and I've encountered the ignorance in every election. It is not "some" of the people, it is "most" of the people. The average Joe tends to vote on trends, and what the media says.

Going forward, as Liberals, we should know this by now, and should sell our party knowing these facts. The Cons are tuned into the "Idiot Nation Mentality". We have to work at changing that...

Red Canuck said...

WG - It's a monumental task, but definitely a worthy one. It might take a generation to see the results, but our democracy can only be strengthened by educating our citizens, and starting at an early age.

I remember in my high school, our teachers had us run a mock federal election, complete with "conventions" and multiple "parties". It was actually quite fun, and taught us a lot about the process of politicking in Canada.

Ron said...

Actually, Harper's claim that the coalition does not have the democratic right is valid. They have the constitutional right to ask the GG and she has the legal right to permit it. Don't confuse the words democratic and legal - they are not synonymous. Democratic legitimacy flows from the will of the people; Constitutional legitimacy flows from a document. It is also true that many Canadians lack the basic knowledge of our system of government but that by no means invalidates their right to express a view or opinion either in favour or opposed to the coalition. The misunderstanding of the intricacies of our Head of State/Government was highest in Quebec; coincidentally, support for the coalition was also highest in Quebec - don't know what that means but it could be that the more you know and understand our system the less likely you are to support the objectives, motives and methods of the coalition. Remember what I said - just because it is legal, does not mean it is democratic. Harper wasn't alone - many, many Canadians felt this was not a democratic method of selecting our PM.

Anonymous said...

The first rule of communication is "Know your audience".

Western grit describes the situation correctly, but has the remedy all wrong.

The Cons will continue to talk to people at their level. If the Libs think that success will be earned by trying to bring up Canada's collective education level they have only greater electoral disaster ahead of them.

If people are stupid you have to talk to them that way. As Greg House always says "People don't change."

WesternGrit said...

Fletch! Sounds great. We actually are advocating Pol Sci education in elementary and high schools here in the Lower Mainland. Working group being put together...

I agree with you whole-heartedly...

WesternGrit said...

Anon 2:09... It might be hard to do what we want to do, but I really don't like talking down to people, and don't think taking that route would go far. Teaching/educating has a benefit far beyond any "immediate need", and we will be something people keep with them for life. No-one can ever take your education away from you.

If, at the very least, we end up with better-educated Canadians, with a respect - even love - for their system, and our democratic system, the better it will be for all of us. Even to sit back in a coffee shop (like a Tim Horton's) and hearing intelligent discourse about politics, rather than last night's "broomball score" (not that I don't enjoy a good game of broomball every now and then)...

If even one person is more enlightened from our efforts, then we will have won. It matters not what party you support, I'm sure you will all agree.

Red Canuck said...

Ron - Actually, Harper's claim that the coalition does not have the democratic right is valid.

Why is it valid? There is no fixed definition of a "democratic right" as you put it. The Cons feel that the coalition was "undemocratic" only because they are the governing party. You are right to point out the difference between democratic legitimacy and legality, but your definition of "flowing from the will of the people" is rather malleable, if you consider that the Conservatives only garnered the support of 36% of voters (in terms of popular vote).

Regardless, the CPC was very clearly trying to discredit the legitimacy of the coalition by using terms such as "coup d'etat", and peddling the falsehood that Canadians had elected Harper as PM. These type of statements were designed to play into the public ignorance of our system of government in order to engender support for the Conservative political agenda.

Harper wasn't alone - many, many Canadians felt this was not a democratic method of selecting our PM.

See what I mean? We never select our PM. We only select our local MPs.

BTW, I'm not saying that Canadians would overwhelmingly support the coalition if they were better educated about the constitution. The polls likely reflect a number of concerns that Canadians had about the coalition, ranging from Dion's unpopularity to the involvement of the BQ. But it's hard to argue that we wouldn't all benefit from more education about our own system of government.

Red Canuck said...

Anon @ 2:09 - If people are stupid you have to talk to them that way.

This is a bit of a defeatist attitude. I agree with WG's response to your comment...no need for me to re-hash it.

I will say that the LPC does need to improve its marketing strategy. For better or worse, we live in age of youtube, sound bites and news tickers. The Libs need to learn how to use these tools effectively, like the Cons do, in order to compete in the modern media market. But that doesn't obviate the need for better education.

As Greg House always says "People don't change."

As a physician, I can say this with confidence: Greg House is a wanker. :)

Red Canuck said...

WG - We actually are advocating Pol Sci education in elementary and high schools here in the Lower Mainland. Working group being put together...

Sounds like a great idea to me. Good luck with it!

RuralSandi said...

The biggest threat to democracy is spending five minutes talking to the average voter
- Winston Churchill.

Perhaps, the Liberals should put forth a private members bill or motion that the government put on its website a full explanation of our parliamentary system as well as all websites of all political parties. Force Harper to tell the truth.

Josef said...

Great idea :-).

Red Canuck said...

RuralSandi - Not a bad idea. Unfortunately, I doubt many people would take the time to visit those websites and educate themselves. Sad to say, but unless we 'force' civics onto our students, the number of politically ignorant people in this country isn't likely to decline.

MD said...

More civic literacy would help, but I think it might be our exposure to American media which causes people to think in terms of directly elected leaders being the natural order. Its just part of being a small country next to a large one. I suspect Australians for instance, probably have a better idea of their system of government than we do of ours.

I remember during the Ontario referendum on MMP (proportional representation), many advocates were blaming dismal voter turnout on our First Past the Post electoral system. The results about civic literacy in your post make such claims dubious to say the least. I bet the vast majority of non-voters couldn't tell the difference between FPTP and MMP, or tell which one we use. Its certainly NOT the reason why they don't vote.

MD said...

Ron:

I agree that what is democratic and what is legal can be different things, but disgaree with the suggested implications of that statement. What is considered "democratic" or "undemocratic" is extremely subjective. Proroguing Parliament solely to avoid a vote you're going to lose certainly violates the democratic spirit, but it is apparently legal. Should I therefore consider Harper to be an illegitimate Prime Minister?

Before Parliament was prorogued, the objective facts were that Stephen Harper and Stephen Dion were both members of Parliament elected by their constituents. I have many misgivings about the coalition, but what had become apparent was that Mr. Dion could lead a government which commanded the confidence of the House, and Mr. Harper could not. To me, that makes Mr. Dion a more legitimate choice to serve as Prime Minister.

Mr. Harper avoided the vote, and therefore still technically enjoys the confidence of the House. I accept his legitimate claim to office of PM, despite the undemocratic way in which he behaved last week, because relying on the law is the only reasonable way for a government to function.

Red Canuck said...

MD - You may be right that our relative innundation with American political news influences our beliefs about the nature of our government. Still, that's not an excuse for ignorance.

As for Australia, you are of course aware that voting is mandatory there, and so there may be an inherent incentive for Australians to learn about the system. I'm not aware if Australia has any sort of mandatory civics education program, but a quick Google search reveals that at least New South Wales does have a compulsory "Stage V" history class which does encompass some of the basics of the Australian governmental system.

Anonymous said...

The Canadian Prime Minister should be the head of state! We do not need the Queen and the GG; it is a useless farce.

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