The heading over the national column in The Globe and Mail on Nov. 12—Giles Gherson batting for Jeffrey Simpson, who is on sabbatical at Stanford University in California—declared: “The Liberals are back in town, and the civil servants are rejoicing.” Even then, it was not the first intimation of an old romance revived, which the Ottawa press corps, full of a new postelection warmth, seemed to find A Good Thing, which is odd. It used to be modish for commentators to say, although more outside Ottawa than in, that the real government of the country was a lot of faceless civil servants and that the people elected to do the job should assert themselves to get it back. If facelessness is about to make a comeback, it may be time for editorial boards away from the place to revive the old cry. But I digress.
Gherson began—at first, I thought, satirically—with: “For Ottawa’s beleaguered public servants, the years of purgatory are over. The Natural Governing Party is back. Across the capital, the supposedly staunchly nonpartisan civil service is having trouble suppressing its glee. As one senior bureaucrat told a colleague the day after Jean Chrétien’s Liberals swept into power, ‘I feel like a kid abandoned by his parents for nine years and left in the hands of an abusive babysitter.’ ”
Gee whiz. Beleaguered. Purgatory. Nine years with an abusive babysitter. I am so choked up I am scarcely able to say that if the senior bureaucrat in question were willing to come out from behind the screen of anonymity he/she ought to be fired on principle, the principle being that the parliamentary system counts on a public service able to serve equally whatever government the country gives it. Senior bureaucrats who aren’t up to it, as this one can’t have been, should be removed for their own protection, if nothing else.
It is possible that with the foregoing I have let slip that I unreservedly accept Gherson’s message, intended or not, that the public ser-
Why were the media not equally critical of all party leaders when they didn’t get details of campaign policies? vants are rejoicing, that they see the Liberals as their natural masters and that the service is “supposedly” neutral. I have held that view since the 1950s, and expressed it, in moderation, at intervals since.
My only quarrel with him is that, in singling out the public service as one important segment of the Ottawa establishment that simultaneously looks upon the Liberals as the natural governing party and pretends to staunch nonpartisanship, he takes too narrow a view. The Ottawa press corps, another part of the same establishment, does the same.
Deciding not whether, but how much, effect that had on the outcome of the Oct. 25 election requires more work. It is a hard case to argue that Kim Campbell was done in by the media. It could even be suggested—and has been—that she got more coverage than Jean Chrétien. However, the statement needs to be rounded out by adding that very much of it was negative. Even then, getting around the fact the PCs ran a poor campaign is not easy. The better question, then, is if the Tories deserved to lose, did the Liberals deserve to be accorded so much benign incuriosity, and was it good for the country?
Just four days before the election, Peter
Gzowski asked it, not quite in that form, of a media panel on Morningside. “Perhaps the story,” he suggested, “is the Liberal party. The consensus is that it is going to form a minority or a majority government. I don’t sense it has been under the same scrutiny [as some others] through the Liberals’ own choice. It has been difficult to get Mr. Chrétien in for an interview. Where are his answers on what he would replace the GST with, or what his deficit plan is?”
Two of his panelists, Jennifer Robinson, national editor of the Montreal Gazette, and Dale Eisler, editor of Leader-Star News Service in Regina, thought Chrétien had enjoyed pretty much a free ride. Eisler said there was a “sort of comfort factor with Canadians, and the media, with the Liberals.” He cited the natural-governing-party notion as a factor. Christopher Waddell, senior program producer at CBC television’s Prime Time News, thought the Liberals had been “held under a fair amount of scrutiny”—emphasis on the “fair”—but allowed for some difference because “Liberal policies do not predicate very much change from the way government has operated in the past few years.” (That was funny; a point made against Kim Campbell was that she wasn’t change enough.) Robinson said: “Yes, I think the Liberals have had a real free ride in the campaign, partly because [Chrétien] has run a very intelligent campaign. He has managed to divert attention from mistakes he’s made.” If these four were all representative in believing the Liberals got off lightly, how to explain why—why weren’t reporters equally demanding detail of policies, and why weren’t they equally critical when they didn’t get it?
But if the Tory campaign was weak enough in itself to earn defeat, which is debatable, the party’s devastation clearly had deeper roots. Certainly, over nine years they had their mistakes and messes, but what they also had to help them downhill was the most savagely judgmental press any Canadian government has faced, at least post-Second World War. The day after the election, James Travers, editor of The Ottawa Citizen, wrote a column in which he said Brian Mulroney claimed media preoccupation with patronage and partisan issues—what Mulroney called Gotcha journalism—“had denied Canadians a true picture of him and his government.” Travers said the Prime Minister wasn’t entirely wrong in that: “In the last of the Mulroney years, suspicion and cynicism flourished in a capital where promises and policies were routinely distorted by political self-interest.”
Suspicion and cynicism in just the last years? In the media? In Ottawa? Baloney. In 1984, the Mulroney government was no sooner sworn in than it was under media attack. There was a vindictive air to it, and it never stopped. The Citizen and Infomart Online are both Southam companies. Online, which undoubtedly is available to Travers via his desk-side computer, provides access to all the big-city Southam dailies, the Citizen included. Travers has no need to believe me. As the saying goes: “He could look it up.”
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