When the endorsements for the Ontario election started being rolled out by newspaper editorial boards – a kind of arcane practice that largely serves to confuse the understandings of politically agnostic newsroom coverage with editorial board “bigger picture” musings – many of us were surprised to find that the Globe and Mail endorsed a Progressive Conservative minority government. What they failed to explain, however, is how exactly one chooses a minority government.
We have long become accustomed to a particularly grating kind of rhetoric when after an election, we are told that “Canadians chose a minority government,” or “Ontarians chose a majority government,” or some such, despite the fact that there was no real active, conscious choice in the matter. In fact, what the voters did was choose a variety of local candidates in separate but simultaneous elections, and the end result of those separate but simultaneous events was that in some cases, a party got a plurality of seats, and in some other cases, one party got a majority of the seats. There was no conscious role in this kind of decision-making, and yet, we construct a narrative as though that were the case.
It’s not to dissimilar in the way that we discuss leaders’ performances during an election, or put the focus on those leaders in debates, while ignoring the fact that people can’t actually vote directly for those leaders, unless of course they happen to live in the riding of one of the party leaders. That hasn’t stopped the commentary from columnists across the province and the country from saying things like “Kathleen Wynne wasn’t on the ballot last time” – ridiculous, because she actually was in Don Valley West, and no leader is on the ballot province-wide – nor has it stopped other narratives post-election where parties have done poorly. Witness the talk of the “repudiation” of Stéphane Dion in 2008 (never mind that he won his own seat), whereas the when Pauline Marois lost her own seat in the recent Quebec election, that certainly was something that could be said to be a repudiation of her. Nevertheless, these are the kinds of narratives that get play within the media.
So how exactly is one able to deliver a minority government as the Globe and Mail’s editorial board suggests? They can’t. It’s a complete impossibility, and offers absolutely no guidance to voters, if that is indeed the point of an editorial board endorsement. It’s not like people have an option to say “I’d like a majority government please,” or “I’m distrustful so I only want a minority government because it keeps them on a short leash” – never mind that the Standing Orders in Queen’s Park have been bastardized in order to keep confidence motions from being moved by opposition parties outside of the budget, something that clearly needs to be rectified if Ontario wants to reasonably say that it operates under the rules of Responsible Government.
Because our system is predicated on single seats and holding individual members to account, perhaps a better measure of editorial “endorsement” would be at a local level, evaluating the performance of individual MPs or MPPs (or whatever your provincial representatives’ designation happens to be) so that voters can do their duty of holding their representatives to account. It would certainly be an editorial policy that is not only reflective of the way our parliamentary system works, but that keeps it in mind that ours is a system where individual MPs actually matter, rather than reducing them to be ciphers for their leaders.
The current endorsement system largely dates back to a time where we had partisan newspapers, before media consolidation created “omnibus papers” that strove to create a more balanced tone than existed previously. It also presupposes a greater degree of media literacy on the part of the public than currently exists, just as our level of civic literacy is at a point of crisis. The truth is that a lot of the newsreading public has a hard time understanding the difference between editorial comment and newsgathering operations, or the difference between columns and hard news. These kinds of endorsements just serve to confuse the issue because most people will start to attribute editorial bias to newsgathering because they don’t understand that there is a dividing line. This is a problem.
Concurrently, it becomes an even bigger problem when the very same editorial content can’t get the civic literacy right either. Confusing the issues at hand with utterly wrong-headed statements like “Vote for a minority government” or “Kathleen Wynne doesn’t have a mandate because she wasn’t on the ballot last time” only serve to make people even more confused about the system that we have in Canada. And it starts to look like the blind leading the blind, or worse yet, like the need to create a narrative has eliminated the need for facts when it comes to the basics of our electoral system. For the news industry, which is supposed to be informing the public, providing this kind of active disinformation is not only embarrassing, but it’s a blight on our institution.
Let’s get back to what we’re really looking at in an election – the individual seats. While it’s tempting to focus entirely on the overarching narrative that the leaders are providing, it cannot be denied that the focus on leadership in a quasi-presidential fashion has contributed to the disempowerment of individual members, even though they’re the ones that we’re voting for and are supposed to be holding to account. Absolutely it may be harder for a national paper like the Globe and Mail or the National Post to weigh in on the Ontario election if the focus is to be on the candidates that people actually vote for, but these are national papers after all. Provide a bigger picture, provide better context, sure – but don’t do more harm than good by endorsing leaders or dictating what the make-up of the chamber should be in defiance of the way our elections actually work.
Other articles by Dale Smith
A looming Senate crisis is history repeating
Chong’s Reform Act is a step but not a panacea
NDP satellite offices and expanding the definition of “parliamentary” work
Showing up for QP
Mandates and the names on the ballot
Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale