14 September 2015

The state of federal politics in Newfoundland and Labrador #nlpoli

There is a problem, apparently.

A very big problem.

In the current federal election, none of the federal party leaders have visited the province yet.

On Friday, three of the four major outlets in the province all carried some version of exactly the same story.  For the quibblers, the Telly story appeared on Saturday but it had to be written at least the day before.  In itself, that fact says much about the state of the news media in the province and it isn;t a good tale.

NTV had local candidates on Issues and Answers but included a reference to the absent party leaders in the set up.  CBC has a commentary by Peter Cowan on its website about the issue. The Telegram story on the Great Void includes comments from Bloc-NDP incumbent Ryan Cleary for good measure. Only VOCM seems to have ignored this political bombshell.

The Appearance of Stuff

The CBC piece purports to explain why the party leaders haven’t come to the province.  That much is in the title.  And then in the sub-head there is an important word:  “yet.”

The missing detail in all these stories that is absolutely essential in understanding this story is that the party leaders typically come to the province once during a federal election.


They have not come here yet.

As if the mid-point in the election – regardless of its length – was some sort of valid point at which to assess the question of party leader visits.

As if a visit by the leader of a federal party was a sign of anything besides a sign that the party has a good chance of winning seats or is concerned about losing seats that it already holds. Campaigning is primarily what a leader visit is all about.  To his credit Peter Cowan makes that point.  The fact that he was doing more than just blowing off the whole thing for the bullshit it is would be to Peter’s debit.

If reporters really wanted to have a non-issue over which to work themselves into a fine froth, they should have divided the campaign into quarters.  Then they could have been twice as indignant at the non-appearance in Newfoundland and Labrador of the party leaders after two quarters without a show.

In other provinces they could start scoring leaders based on when they showed up.  Was it in the first quarter or the second?  Third quarter appearance means that it’s a third rate province. The drama from the whole thing would be entirely fabricated but apparently that is what makes news these days. There is not enough happening in the campaign that reporters now have to make shit up in order to fill space.  The fact that some candidate for one of the parties somewhere in the country used a four letter word on Twitter is now  - finally – growing old and tired.

Once a campaign

We still have a very long way to go in this very long campaign. The 2015 campaign is only this long because the incumbent party wanted to try and outspend the other parties and set itself up for the next election, by making smart use of the federal election finance laws.

Typically, federally party leaders visit Newfoundland and Labrador once during a campaign regardless of how long it has been. The only reason they would have to come to the province more often is if one of the seats is in contention and they have a shot at winning it.  Other than that,  leaders spend their time visiting all the other ridings in the other parts of Canada where they have seats in contention.

There is nothing more to it than that.

Typically, the only people who try to make more than that out of it fall into one of two categories.  They are either completely naive or they are politicians trying to cover up for their own incompetence by creating a fairy tale that a party leader is insulting the province or has some sort of personal vendetta by not showing up.

Judge for yourself in which category New Democratic Party candidate Ryan Cleary falls when he whinges to the Telegram’s James McLeod about how he actually has to advocate on behalf of his constituents.  Every member of parliament has to do that.  That is a huge part of the job. 

The difference between Cleary and all the other politicians in Ottawa is that he tries to inflate his own value in the universe by claiming that the issues he raises are “near and dear to the heart of Newfoundland and Labrador and then I have to fight the government.”  They might be, but more likely Cleary is just exhibiting another trait of the egomaniacal demagogic politicians this province tends to turn out.  The truth is far less impressive and with Cleary that’s usually been what he turns out to be:  far less  impressive than he imagines.  

"Would I deserve a pension of $28,000 after six years? Cleary once asked rhetorically.  “Probably not … It should be more than that.".

Some people love that sort of thing and that’s why people like Cleary wind up in Ottawa.  That doesn’t make what he says anything other than bullshit, though. Or maybe we should call it seal crap in Ryan’s honour.  Or just point to the time he referred to a trade deal worth billions to the province to be a case of negotiating with serial rapists.

The Media and the Message

Rather than look at what the leader visit stories are about, put them in a wider context.  You’ll see three things.

First, Newfoundland political coverage  - like Newfoundland politics - tends to emphasise the leader, the leader above all else.  These three stories reflect that obsession with stories that are easier to write than ones that explain issues in greater depth.   It is easier to write a story that a prime minister is on a personal vendetta against the province than suggest that the provincial government or a politician just isn’t doing a very good job.

Second, note that all these stories appeared at the same time in three quarters of the local media, including both television of the province’s television outlets.  The radical changes in the media market over the past decade – far fewer people and far outlets – had just exaggerated the tendency of one view to rule them all. 

Just to put those changes in context for you,  25 years ago,  CBC alone had more people covering political news for radio in St. John’s than we have in total today in the major provincial media today.  Even a decade ago, you had more than we have today.  These days, the people covering any given subject know less about the subject than ever before. In some respects, there is more stable reporting on crime than there is on politics. But fewer people writing about stuff they often lack background on makes it more likely that local media will turn out filler.  

The third thing to notice is that this story fits with the pattern of local coverage of this election. Not much of it, is there?  Well, beyond the candidate nomination stories, there hasn’t been much.  They’ve told us who the candidate is in such and such a riding for such and such a party.  In the case of the Conservatives, the focus was on who the candidate wasn’t.

Beyond that, we haven’t seen anything that identifies a major local issue or explains the local impact of a national issue raised by the parties. Just to give you a sense of exactly how space local political reporting is these days, consider these featured stories on the Telly website halfway through the campaign:

  • recycling in St. John’s,
  • someone in Newfoundland who has created a buzz on social media by painting fingernails to look like “jellybean row” houses,
  • a story about Brad Gushue in curling finals,
  • a young woman got tossed from a car,
  • a three year old boy battling cancer, and,
  • more suspicious fires on Bell Island.

The Telly smartphone app is pushing national stories on the election, including one on a veteran Bloc Quebecois candidate looking for re-election for the umpteenth time. The content of the paper edition doesn’t have much more, except the Saturday non-story.  The Telegram’s “full coverage” section for the 2015 election contains exactly one story in which local candidates are seen doing something besides being nominated. And that one has a headline at odds with the body of the story.

CBC’s local website doesn’t have a single local campaign story, except for Cowan’s non-story.  The web space for the campaign is national, not local. 

ntv.ca actually has done a bit more than most even if its current story is the non-issue. They have featured local candidates on their weekly current affairs show.  Unfortunately,  few people watch it on Sunday mornings. These is a collection of “who is the candidate” stories.

And VOCM has a story about a new cancer fundraiser that involves people showing up in boxers.  Pants off for Cancer.

Reinforcing Incumbents and pernicious attitudes

News media play a role in shaping local opinions about everything, including politics.  If local media don’t cover local aspects of federal politics in any depth, it’s pretty hard for people to develop informed opinions.  If they don’t cover local candidates’ statements or if local candidates don’t make statements, then it is hard for anyone to know what is going on, let alone get involved.

In such an environment, the superficial dominates.  People think the crucial factor in federal politics is a politician’s personal friendship with his party leader.  That was Ryan Cleary’s line to James McLeod. Neither he nor the Liberal candidate quoted in the story talked about their party platforms, major issues or anything else of substance.  Superficial coverage is part of a political environment that thrives on the superficial.

If people aren’t engaged in politics through substantive news coverage there’s less likelihood they will get involved.  A recent assessment of voter turn-out in federal and provincial elections shows that Newfoundland and Labrador has had the second lowest average voter turnout in federal elections since 1993.

None of that is very good for democracy in the province.

And all of it is way more important than the fact that the party leaders haven’t visited here during the current general election… yet.