MEDIA WATCH

The free flow of new information

If it is true that most Canadians do not know enough about free trade to make an informed decision, why is that?

GEORGE BAIN October 24 1988
MEDIA WATCH

The free flow of new information

If it is true that most Canadians do not know enough about free trade to make an informed decision, why is that?

GEORGE BAIN October 24 1988

The free flow of new information

If it is true that most Canadians do not know enough about free trade to make an informed decision, why is that?

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

Ed Broadbent says that the Conservatives are unwilling to discuss the ramifications of free trade. John Turner accuses Brian Mulroney of

refusing to take part in a separate television debate on the issue, which, by implication, would make all clear. Recently, Peter Mansbridge, on CBC Sunday Report, put to his new-for-the-campaign political panel two questions, prefaced with the comment by columnist Carol Goar in that day’s Toronto Star that it would be a tragedy if Canadians went to the polls without having a full understanding of the free trade issue. Mansbridge wanted to know if the party leaders would put aside rhetoric—bombast would have been another choice—in favor of explanation. And he asked, “Do any of you actually think that the majority of Canadians understand what’s in that deal?”

Skipping over the answers, which is scarcely more than the panelists themselves did, here are several more questions, this time mine. If it is true that most Canadians do not know enough about free trade to make an informed decision, why is that? Have essential facts and explanations about the agreement been withheld from them? Or is it possible that many people, having decided very early that the issue was too difficult, too little related to any direct concerns of theirs or simply too boring, now prefer to put the blame on a lack of information rather than their own lack of effort?

The cruel fact for the media is that they are wide open in either case to serious question about how well they have done their job. Either they have not reported the issue well—perhaps by concentrating too much on the political war and not enough on the substance of that war—or they have lacked the ingenuity to find ways to make the issue compelling for many Canadians.

Free or freer trade with the United States has been with us this time since before the last Trudeau government left office. On

March 16, 1984, The Globe and Mail ran five stories, beginning on page 1, all related to discussions the Liberals had entered into in Washington. Those were pursuant to a 1982 Senate report, which advocated complete free trade, and a cabinet paper in 1983 that said Canada was “part of a North American regional market” and should take advantage of this partnership to establish stronger trade links.

The arrangement then being explored was one of free trade in specified product sectors. In November, 1984, Donald Macdonald, the former finance minister whom the Liberal government had appointed to lead a royal commission on Canada’s economic future, made his “leap of faith” speech, advocating an effort to negotiate free trade. The commission itself, in September, 1985, urged fast action to bring about a general agreement. The Mulroney government’s decision by that time remained only to be announced; it had been studying its options in future trade relations with the United States most of the year.

Clearly, Canadians have not lacked time to think about the issue. Neither have they lacked material—beginning with the agree-

ment itself and the implementing bill, which are available. In just 1987 and 1988, the National Library has catalogued 98 new books under the heading of free trade. In the clippings section of the Library of Parliament, there are 12 current files on free trade and 32 storage files, each of these three or four inches thick—11 to 14 linear feet of unduplicated newspaper clippings.

Proponents and opponents of the agreement have been interviewed or have debated on endless television and radio programs. There have been public hearings across the country by a Senate-Commons committee on the general question of trade with the United States before the Mulroney government set out to negotiate such an agreement as we now have, and on the agreement itself. There have been debates in Parliament. If the government has been unwilling to discuss the ramifications of the deal as alleged by Broadbent, certainly he has had opportunities to do so himself and has made unrestrained use of them.

If (to come back to the implications of Mansbridge’s question) a majority of Canadians do not understand what is in the free trade agreement, the people who deliver information on a daily basis should be the first to ask why. Mansbridge himself, in talks to various groups about news, has made the point that there is a three-part responsibility in the business of informing and being informed—on the media to gather up and relate accurately as much significant information as they can; on government to make information available; and on the public to want to be informed.

That last point is not to be overlooked. Another is that, in this context, government must also embrace the opposition; simply crying “sellout” does not do a lot to illuminate the intricacies of a major national undertaking. But in the end, it falls on the media to decide what is to be conveyed to the main public, to sort out the facts and to try to stimulate a public interest in being informed by presenting the substance of issues in attractive and readily comprehensible ways. In cases where the issue is founded on textual matter, as in free trade, that responsibility falls mainly on the print media.

If people are still not comfortable that they know as much as they should about free trade, a random sampling of some of those fat files in the Parliamentary Library suggests a reason. Most of them are about the political struggle over free trade, about who alleged this and who vehemently denied that. Remarkably few take on the hard job of dissecting the agreement and explaining what is in it and how it relates to other undertakings we have, notably the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Somehow the zeal to serve the public’s right to know, so evident in, say, tracking a cabinet minister's misdemeanor, leaks away in the face of a long, complicated and hardto-understand text—the frequently asserted fact that the fate of the nation depends on it notwithstanding.