“This election was, in one sense, about the future of the country,” says Communications Studies Professor Dennis Murphy.
Murphy’s work includes the study of propaganda and media/communication ethics. Elections are a prime opportunity to consider these two fields and their inter-relationship.
Murphy argued that both the Liberals and the Conservatives presented a conditional view of the country. Each party’s values, spirit and strategies were not simply reflective of policy choices, but were represented as a direction for the country as a whole.
“From January 24th on, we’re about to replay this definition of who and what we are as a country,” Murphy says.
This perspective was captured in the tag-line to the Liberal’s much-maligned negative ad campaign “Choose Your Canada,” which suggested that Paul Martin’s Liberals had the correct perspective on the country’s future.
As the campaign continued, Martin’s definition of Canada relied increasingly on negating Stephen Harper’s position. Harper was equally up to the task of rejecting Martin’s positions and values by exhorting voters to “Stand up for Canada.” Either party leader’s “Canada” presumably did not include the other’s values, according to Murphy.
Nor was either leader necessarily evoking the traditions of his respective party. Stephen Harper’s decentralization would be unrecognizable to Sir John A. MacDonald, Murphy thinks. Our first Prime minister literally tied us together with steel.
“Party platforms centred on the issue of what Canada is at the moment,” Murphy concluded. “It’s easy to get caught up in the moment. An election is very immediate.”
Murphy suggests that we step back and look at the larger picture.
“In our relatively short history, each generation has faced a crisis about what Canada is.”
These crises have come in 30-year-odd cycles, at least back to the Patriotes in 1837, before there even was a country. Canada established itself with Confederation 30 years later, in part to avoid possible incursions from the south in the period following the American Civil War which had ended only three years earlier.
Wars led to the next two crises, with conscription battles sometimes turning bloody during both World War I and II. Finally, the FLQ crisis of the ’70s also threatened to tear the country apart.
“All of those previous situations involved violence and warfare. In an information society, the war is played out with ideas,” increasingly negative advertising being a manifestation of this development. The battle is won by destroying an opponent’s image and credibility, instead of by taking lives.
Murphy does not evoke this history of Canadian growing pains to lull us into complacency. He believes that the conflict between both party’s definitions of what Canada represents is very real. But, even from the battleground, retaining the view of the bigger picture remains important.
Murphy recalled a speech then Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson made to top Canadian media leaders two years ago. Canada today, she told her audience, is very different from the country it was during “your formative years.”
Clarkson stressed that the two biggest issues shaping the “new” Canada were immigration and globalization.
Murphy said that the party best positioned to work with those phenomena is the one most likely to emerge at the top of this current skirmish. Ultimately, no party can be dictating values. “They need to reflect our values.”
When it comes to defining this country, it is their turn to listen.
- KAREN HERLAND
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