The national media (in the plural) want controversy. Coverage of the Liberal leadership campaign is but one example. At different points, journalists have tried to generate this controversy by following Michael Ignatieff around (as best they can) and reporting his quick turns of phrase on this issue or that. At other times, they've become enamoured with Bob Rae's sound bite complaints about George Bush (targeted at Ignatieff). I can understand why journalists seek out controversy. It seems exciting. It seems to make a good story. And, its easy to report. The problem with controversy-based coverage, however, is that it is often superficial and rarely does much to illuminate the issues at hand. Look at Peter MacKay's "dog" comment/gesture. Journalists get caught up in the question "is MacKay lying?" And "did he really say something so crassly inappropriate?" Unfortunately, in that instance, the wider issue relating to gender (cuts to Status of Women) was lost in the crossfire. What's the effect? Well, the effect is that we have a really important issue (government cuts to institutions that are designed to promote equality) lost amid a slew of dog jokes. Unintentionally, the media helped to distract attention from a key issue related to Canadians conception of themselves: our commitment to equality and our willingness to put "our money where our mouths are" by financing programmes that promote and support equal rights.
The controversy surround Ignatieff's equally (ir not more) comments this summer about the bombing of Lebanon and his quick one-liner about war crimes fall into the same category. Was the bombing of Qana a war crime? Who cares what we call it. Making a civilian population suffer because terrorists happen to live among them is wrong. In fact, its more than wrong, it morally bankrupt. And, if anyone does not believe that saturation bombing of civilian residences will not produce civilian deaths ... I've got a bridge to PEI to sell you.
Instead of talking about this issue, however, journalists became interested in the "war crimes" language itself. Ignatieff should not have used this and, if this guy is going to be the leader of a major political party, it is about time he realized that off the cuff comments are dumb. What was lost sight of in this, however, is far more important: what type of foreign policy is the Liberal Party -- potentially soon to return to government -- going to have? Here is stuff that is not being generally discussed in the media but which is pretty darned important.
Let me shift examples lest anyone think I'm just bagging on Ignatieff. What type of foreign policy would Bob Rae promote? For all Rae's quick anti-Americanism and distaste of George Bush there is an important issue to be discussed: Canada's relationship with the US. It is too each for someone to say "we need to stand up to the Americans", "we need to chart our own course", "we need to resist the Bush agenda." Who can't disagree with that? Those catch phrases -- perhaps with a little bit of linguistic modification -- can play in any party. Imagine yourself in a room with a bunch of Conservatives and you happen to say "Canada needs to look after its own interests." Is anyone going to disagree with you? Harper said exactly these same things in debates over the softwood lumber dispute. And, make no bones about it, whatever you think of Harper's solution, he thought and thinks he is acting in the best interests of Canada. The issue, then, is not saying "I will put Canada first". Of course you will, I want to say, back. You'd have no chance of getting elected if you did otherwise. Imagine someone running for election saying "I will put Canada's interests second." What chances do you think they would have?
The issue, of course, is what this means in practice. What does putting Canada first actually mean? What policy options does it entail? Does it involve modifications to trade agreements? Does it involve changing border security? Does it involve sticking to Kyoto commitments? And, if so, how are those commitments going to actually be implemented.
From my point of view, I don't want to hear potential leaders of the country saying "I will put Canada first." I take that as a precondition of running for leadership in Canada. I want to hear what that will actually mean, for Arctic sovereignty, with regard to our levels of foreign aid, with regard to the security of international and jointly managed water supplies, and with regard to a host of other measures. Controversy takes the focus off these kinds of important questions and focuses it, instead, on other, less substantial issues. Peter MacKay referred to Belinda Stronach as a dog. What's more important is his party's cuts to Status of Women. Ignatieff called bombing civilians a "war crime." You might think it is; you might not. The important issue is not his language but what would he do if he were PM. Maybe we could have some reporting on that?