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Ginny Roth: Pierre Poilievre continues to confound the media

Commentary

As an avid consumer of wonky right-of-centre new media content, I’m always eager to receive my daily email from The Line. I read it after The Hub newsletter (I know where my bread is buttered!), but I enjoy it nonetheless. So when I saw last week that the chronically reasonable Matt Gurney had published under his own byline, I eagerly opened the email, and when I saw the headline—“What I got wrong about Poilievre—I was practically salivating. As I began reading, my mind leapt back to a little more than two years ago to February 1, 2022. The trucker convoy had swept into Ottawa, Erin O’Toole’s leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada was hanging on by a thread, and some Canadian political blowhards were drinking wine at 10 pm on a YouTube livestream (yes, of course I was there), talking about what would happen next. 

There were several guests who joined and left throughout the night and while there were various points of agreement and disagreement, one thing was clear. When it came to empathizing with the trucker convoy and finding a new party leader, I was on my own. It wasn’t that the hosts and other guests thought O’Toole was doing so great, it was just that they were deeply and incredibly concerned about what very dangerous dancing with the devil of virulent populism would do to decimate one of Canada’s otherwise mainstream political parties. There was quite a bit of fretting. It’s the same concern that Gurney had written about five months prior in the column he re-assessed last week. And it’s the same concern most mainstream Canadian commentators have expressed (mind you with decreasing vigour and enthusiasm recently) ever since. 

So, when I read Gurney’s headline I thought, finally! Finally, they’ve come around. They get that the carbon tax debate wasn’t in fact settled, our monetary policy wasn’t above reproach, Canadians weren’t OK with creeping woke culture, and the country isn’t made up entirely of Liberal voters willing to lend Tories their vote if only we would stop being so scary. No such luck. In fact, as I read Gurney’s piece, I couldn’t help but think that despite his authentic effort to do otherwise, he was largely avoiding the crux of the matter. Two years ago, he and so many others thought our political frame was fixed. That certain issues were settled, that certain voters were locked in, and that fights for power would involve quibbling around the edges. They weren’t thinking big enough.

In the end, Gurney does almost get there, but before he does, a friend and source walks him through some other, mostly irrelevant factors. They’re worth exploring lest others be tempted to use them to explain their own miscalculations. First, they get into the two-year-old supply and confidence agreement between the Liberals and the NDP. The deal was a bit of a surprise, sure, but it didn’t change anything. Not one iota. In fact, Canadian politics would be in an almost identical place today had it not been struck. The NDP would still be broke, torn between trendy urban social issues and old-fashioned socialist economic policy, unable to differentiate a message track or put forward a value proposition, and propping up an unpopular government. The supply and confidence agreement isn’t “the single best thing that happened to Poilievre,” as Gurney’s source put it. It’s irrelevant.  

Next, they turn to the People’s Party of Canada. Sidelining the PCC is relevant they think (agreed!) but not in the way one might expect (oh). It’s true that the PPC isn’t relevant anymore (do they think this happened by accident, I wonder?) but according to them, the reason this has helped the Conservatives isn’t because they can own more right-wing votes, it’s because Maxime Bernier’s lack of success quiets the silly western Conservative MPs who just think the PPC could be a problem for the Conservatives. It seems not to occur to either Gurney or his source that perhaps a broad coalition that has room and respect for voters (and Members of Parliament) with right-wing views isn’t an accident, but an actual strategy. And that the reason CPC MPs have stopped worrying about the PPC is because the strategy is working.

After a cursory acknowledgment that maybe Poilievre’s early pressure on inflation has paid off, Gurney and his source turn to the big whammy: the pandemic. In short, as they would have it, O’Toole was unlucky because he had to deal with the pandemic, and Poilievre’s been lucky because he hasn’t. But, of course, Poilievre did deal with the pandemic. He launched his leadership at peak insanity surrounding its fallout. Indeed, Poilievre’s willingness to step out on the trucker convoy and take a firm stance for personal freedoms and a return to normalcy ushered in a mainstream revolt against unreasonable restrictions. He didn’t luck into the end of COVID lunacy, he practically manifested it.

People walk past a truck bearing a flag calling for Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre to become Prime Minister as part of a protest against COVID-19 measures that has grown into a broader anti-government protest, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

Finally, Gurney and his source contemplate changes in male and female voting habits. They think Gurney wasn’t hip to Trudeau’s waning popularity with men. True enough, but that’s just another way of saying Gurney wasn’t hip to changes in voting habits in general. The last year of polling has seen Liberal support wane and Conservative support increase across every demographic, including women of all ages. So, the question isn’t why didn’t people see a wave coming—it’s how did they miss the tsunami?

Ultimately Gurney’s source raises an observation that gets close to the truth. He tells our columnist that his analysis was too stuck in the present (or the near past). Gurney concedes that he was too biased against change and therefore wasn’t open to seeing it coming. 

This admission is indeed closer to the truth, but they still don’t make it all the way there. Gurney’s source thinks that he should have foreseen that a different Conservative leader could motivate different voters on different things, thereby changing the political dynamics. This explanation would be adequate if Poilievre’s strategy was about suppressing his opponent’s votes and motivating his own, attempting to eke out a victory through sophisticated narrowcasting and targeting. But that thinking is still too limited. 

Poilievre’s Conservatives aren’t just trying to motivate static voters, they’ve been persuading changing voters, building a coalition from the bottom up, re-litigating “settled” policy debates, like on carbon tax and crime, and staking out new policy ground, like on drugs and DEI.

Recent history is riddled with examples of conservatives thinking matters were settled and missing out on opportunity or mitigating challenges. When Conservatives thought balanced budgets should be a given and matters of fiscal discipline were settled, Trudeau went about persuading the electorate that they ought to give deficits a try, and it worked for him. When Republicans became convinced they couldn’t win with non-white Americans unless they had a more permissive approach to immigration, they sat on the sidelines until Trump broke the issue open again. Matters of great debate often seem very settled—until an ambitious leader comes along, makes a strong argument, and suddenly they’re not again.

Snark aside, I’m impressed with Gurney’s willingness to interrogate his priors. Our aging, brittle commentariat would do well to take a page out of his book. Watching our 2021 YouTube livestream now, it’s incredible how limited we all were in our thinking. In my efforts to convince the group that success would not come from sticking with O’Toole, I suggested (with some trepidation) that Conservatives should envision victory as a big majority of seats and more than 40 percent of the popular vote. Everyone kind of shook their heads. To be fair, at the time, I sounded naïve. It’s only now, in retrospect, that it doesn’t seem so crazy. But that’s the thing about hindsight.

Rudyard Griffiths: In trying to save journalism, government risks killing it

Commentary

Readers will have seen this week our appeal for free Hub members to become paid subscribers. Some of you might be wondering: why the push now? And why is The Hub’s news and journalism deserving of my financial support? 

Let me explain, as our campaign is about more than The Hub. It goes to the heart of the now sweeping intrusion of government into the funding of journalism in Canada and its implications for news and information consumers like you.  

The largess began with the 2019 federal budget and the first-ever labour tax credits for producers of written digital news. Fully $360 million was set aside over five years to support media outlets (not including broadcasters), who were able to convince a panel of political appointees that they were mostly engaged in the production of “original news” content. 

The subsidies were snapped up by privately owned media outlets (you can see a partial list here as there is no formal requirement for newsgroups to report they are taking government funds) from Canada’s paper of record, the billionaire-owned The Globe and Mail, to local and regional outlets across the country. Thanks to the media’s aggressive lobbying, the program was enriched to the tune of $129 million in the 2023 fall economic statement so that “qualified” outlets can now claim nearly $30,000 in subsidies for every journalist they employ.  

Around the same time, the federal government established (and just this month renewed for three years) its so-called “Local Journalism Initiative.” This now almost $130 million program currently funds upwards of 400 journalists’ salaries up to $60,000 each who cover “the diverse needs of Canada’s underserved communities.” Participating news organizations must have or adopt a hiring policy “promoting diversity and inclusion” and acknowledge the government’s financial support by featuring the Canada Wordmark (“Canada” with the Canadian flag on the final “a”) in their publications. Editorial guidelines helpfully remind news publishers to display the Government of Canada wordmark “…in print on the front page or in the masthead, and online on the homepage…” How this promotes the best traditions of an independent press capable of holding the powerful to account, including government, is frankly anyone’s guess. 

This surge in government subsidies for the news media ratcheted up yet another notch in 2023, with the debut of the Online News Act. After a torturous legislative and regulatory setting process that prompted Meta to ultimately block news sharing on its platforms, the government was able to extract from Google a $100 million annual pledge (indexed to inflation) to fund news journalism. This time, coerced Big Tech, not big government, will work with a yet-defined news media association to parcel out subsidies to a smorgasbord of publishers, broadcasters, local media, First Nations and French language media outlets, and the CBC, as proscribed by federal regulation.  

The Online News Act monies, combined with the recently enhanced labour tax credits, the Local Journalism Initiative, Google funding, plus tax credits for digital news subscriptions, will bring about a truly bizarre state of affairs for the news media. Fully half of the salaries of most journalists working for private companies will be paid for by, in one form or another, direct or indirect subsidies. In Quebec, thanks to a provincial tax credit, the subsidy will approach 100 percent of the salaries of journalists earning up to $75,000 per year.     

Remember that all this government largess being heaped on private, for-profit news companies is happening alongside the CBC’s $1.4 billion dollar-a-year public subsidy and the massive national news operation it helps to underwrite.

In sum, it is by no means a stretch to claim that in the coming year, almost all the news journalism we will consume will be produced by reporters and editors whose salaries are majority funded by one type of subsidy or another. 

We also know that in the next 18 months or so there will be a federal election. It will be a high-stakes campaign with sharply different visions of the country’s future on offer. And it will be fought for the first time in an information environment where the majority of the salaries of most news journalists—including at private media outlets—will be subsidized by the policies of the party in power. 

To state the obvious, we (the news media) are facing an “own goal” of epic proportions. Specifically, how do we think the only 37 percent of English-speaking Canadians who say they trust the press are likely to react when they suss out that almost all the news they are consuming is directly or indirectly government-subsidized? Will they be more or less likely to trust us? Will they take our reporting as factual, or government-funded spin? The complicity of silence of the “news industry” on these questions, ones that go to the core of what the profession of journalism is supposedly all about, is as appalling as it is inexcusable.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge speaks with reporters in the Foyer of the House of Commons, Wednesday, November 29, 2023 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Editors and journalists will protest that they aren’t corrupted by the government’s lucre, and for most, this will be true. But we live in an age of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and bad faith actors. All three will ensure that government-subsidized “news” journalism at scale becomes something far less than what our democracy urgently needs: truly independent, arm’s length reporting.  

There is a good faith argument we’ve encouraged at The Hub about whether news journalism is a public good that merits government support in a moment of sweeping technological disruption. But assuming that conspicuous rent-seeking from government by private news providers is consequence-free strains credulity. Instead of saving journalism, the blind rush to subsidize newsgathering risks destroying what little remains of the industry’s credibility.  

As The Hub enters its fourth year of publication and starts gearing up to cover the coming federal election, we are purposely choosing to hoe a harder row than the mainstream media: producing original news journalism not funded by the current subsidy regime. In the process, we will turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential government subsidies because we cannot in good conscience take these funds and claim to be truly independent. 

This is why we are now asking you, our 25,000+ free subscribers, to become paid supporters of our news journalism. It’s your generosity that helps us hire fiercely independent reporters and editors who know their salaries are paid for by readers like you and not by the incumbent government and its policies. 

In sum, support a future for independent journalism by supporting The Hub

Rudyard Griffiths, Publisher, The Hub