Election bill a cautionary tale against governing by talking point

The trials and tribulations endured by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre in defence of his much-maligned efforts to rewrite the country's election law make a pretty good case for knowing when to step away from the talking-point generating machine, and listen to the response.

Endless loop of partisan rhetoric serves neither spinner nor spun

Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre spent weeks defending his bid to rewrite Canada's election laws as "terrific," but announced last week that he'll make major changes in response to widespread criticism. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

There is much worth mulling over in former PMO communications director Andrew MacDougall's musings on political communications in the age of the internet.

You'll find few journalists able — or willing — to counter his caveats on the dangers of the always-on news cycle.

That said, you'll find at least one — hello there! — who will argue that the trials and tribulations endured by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre recently in defence of his efforts to rewrite the country's election law make a pretty good case for knowing when to step away from the talking-point generating machine, and listen to the response.

As Poilievre announced last Friday, his bill will itself be rewritten as a direct result of the ensuing furor.

By week two on the front lines, Poilievre must have been muttering darkly about sharper teeth, longer arms and freer hands in his sleep — presuming, that is, that he was getting any sleep by that point, what with his seeming omnipresence on television, radio and in print.

It's fair to say, in this case at least, reciting the same bumper-sticker-ready motto as an all-purpose response to questions, concerns and criticism swiftly transformed it into a sort of rhetorical white noise — a verbal tic, like an extended "um," that one could safely ignore in favour of a more substantive comment, which is pretty much the opposite of the intended goal of most strategic communications.

An example, albeit one deliberately vague on the details in order to protect the identity of the other party (a now reflexive practice for Hill journalists that likely deserves its own column at some point):

Shortly after Poilievre revealed his intention to bring forward amendments, I was chatting with a mid-level government staffer about one of the few lightning-rod elements of the bill the minister hadn't addressed: namely, the oft-repeated demand for the elections commissioner to be given power to compel testimony, as is currently the case for his counterpart at the Competition Bureau.

Instead of simply replying with the standard talking point that not even the police have that power, my friend pointed out that, unlike the Competition Bureau, which relies on a system of fines and administrative penalties, cases investigated by the elections commissioner can potentially lead to criminal charges, which is why the government doesn't believe it would be appropriate to give him the ability to force witnesses to talk against their will.

Context is key

Now, that's obviously a point wide open for debate — and indeed, had it been made in the course of the discussion of the bill, almost certainly would have been.

But every time the question came up at committee or on a political panel, the Conservative on defence duty at the time seemed to fall back on the "not-even-the-police" line without providing any additional context — context that, in this case, would have made their argument more compelling, if not necessarily convincing.

Is that, as MacDougall suggests, simply an unavoidable consequence of the 24/7 news cycle?

Not necessarily — although I'll agree it certainly doesn't help.

In the case of C-23, even the minister would likely quietly agree that, in hindsight, much of the sound and fury that has accompanied discussion of the bill thus far could have been sidestepped had the government opened up the floor to the audience from the get-go, rather than spending more than a month insisting that it was "terrific" as written.

Yes, Poilievre did claim from the start to be open to the possibility of amendments, but let's be honest: given this government's aversion to making major (or even minor) tweaks to legislation at committee, if it was always his intention to keep an open mind on improvements, he should have made it clear that this time, he really meant it.

If he hadn't allowed — and even, some might argue, tacitly encouraged — the debate to degenerate into a Mobius loop of partisan rhetoric, that message would have been quickly picked up and propagated by the very same news-famished media maw that his former colleague bemoans.

Of course, for that to happen, we of the aforementioned maw would have to do our part to boost the signal at the expense of the noise — namely, not instantly declaring any indication of an openness to reconsider or willingness to compromise as a tacit admission of defeat.


Finally, one last minor plea: For heaven's sake, enough with the dismissal of "process stories" as somehow unworthy of journalistic attention.

In politics, at any rate, "process" is How Stuff Happens, which can often be invaluable in understanding why it happens and, ultimately, what it means. Without knowing what went into a legislative sausage, how can Canadians make an informed decision on whether to take a bite?

Take that same election bill — which, it's worth noting, will change the process whereby Canadians exercise their very democratic franchise by casting a vote — as a textbook example of why process matters.

Had the initial ingredients and cooking methods not been so painstakingly detailed in the press, it's entirely possible there would have been no ensuing uproar.

Without that uproar, the minister may not have been persuaded to tweak his original recipe to better suit the public taste.

Mobile users, view the full list of proposed government and opposition amendments here.


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.