Every politician in a position of responsibility these days has figured out an important aspect of this new reality: they own the microphone. I mean, really own it, in a way we’ve never seen before.
Some, such as Donald Trump, regularly abuse the privilege, either by disseminating bad information or by turning the occasion into a political rally (while hard-working health-care experts, surely with better things to do with their time, helplessly look on).
Others, such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Ontario premier Doug Ford take pains to keep the partisan nonsense to an absolute minimum. Ford, in fact, often praises Liberals, such as the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, and even former federal cabinet ministers (Jane Philpott, for putting on her MD scrubs and responding to an emergency in a long-term-care home). He’s even thanked the official opposition for passing emergency legislation with unanimous support.
Most politicians I’ve seen giving the daily briefing (Trudeau, Ford, Toronto mayor John Tory, New York governor Andrew Cuomo) seem to take particular care not to abuse their positions. They know they have a virtual monopoly on the public’s attention, and they understand that, if these information sessions were to turn into partisan political slugfests, the public would not be amused.
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When the federal opposition leader, Andrew Scheer, was seen as digging in his heels by demanding in-person question periods to keep the government accountable, he was chastized for his tone-deafness in both legacy and social media.
It’s hard to do the math on this, but I’d be willing to bet that prime ministers, premiers, cabinet ministers, mayors, and chief medical officers of health are taking up probably 95 per cent of the available microphone time these days. Whenever I’m watching an all-news channel, someone from that list is almost always on.
I’d also guess that official opposition leaders are grabbing about 4 per cent of available time before the cameras. That means if you’re not part of one of those groups, you’re fighting for what might literally be just 1 per cent of what’s left. To use a hockey analogy: How can you possibly stay relevant and make a contribution with so little ice time?
The Ontario Liberals are in just such a quandary. With only a handful of seats in the legislature, they’re not an officially constituted party. But they just chose a new leader — Steven Del Duca — who’s trying to get the party back into the game under impossible circumstances: the government owns the microphone, the legislature isn’t sitting, and precious few in the media feel a need to get comments from the leader of a party with just eight out of 124 seats at Queen’s Park.
So what are the Liberals doing? They’ve started to release a daily transcript of what question period might look like if the House were sitting. Yes, it’s a virtual question period.
“The Premier has talked about the shortage of staff at long term care homes for weeks — but all along nurses who wanted to come back and help were ignored,” Wednesday’s virtual lead-off question begins. “Can the Premier explain why so many nurses are telling us it took weeks for them to be contacted — if they were contacted at all?”
“Will the Premier commit to immediately issuing a moratorium on commercial evictions? He has said everything is on the table — will he finally take action?”
“Will the Premier commit to spelling out which business will be affected in the first phase of re-opening?”
The Liberals are supplying the questions; there are no answers in the transcripts. You can supply your own joke here about the extent to which this therefore resembles a real question period (the government of the day, regardless of who’s in power, often doesn’t provide answers — it is called question period, after all, not question and answer period).
The opposition parties across Canada are in a tough spot right now. As we’ve seen with the federal Conservatives, if they come across as too tough and aggressive, particularly on issues that may not be as important to people outside the Ottawa bubble, they can look out of touch with what most Canadians care about. (The party has the added misfortune of being in the midst of a leadership contest, which surely only the most hardcore conservatives care about, given the global pandemic.)
On the other hand, in our system, opposition politicians have an important role to play in holding the government of the day to account.
Pretty tough to do, Mr. Speaker, when the government owns the airwaves.