Crisis in Ottawa? Talk to backbenchers

Question: How should reporters cover a political crisis like the recent one on Parliament Hill?

Answer by Jeff Sallot

Jeff SallotThe first thing to remember is that a Canadian political crisis is rarely a real crisis. We’re not Zimbabwe and our government isn’t beating up supporters of the opposition.

What we are seeing in Ottawa is a crisis for Stephen Harper and his Conservative ministers. They might lose their cabinet jobs, have to take a pay cut, and be forced to sit on the other side of the House of Commons.

Reporters who work in the hothouse atmosphere of Parliament Hill can easily lose this perspective.

You want a real crisis? A paper mill in a small Newfoundland community is shutting down. And just wait until line workers at Ontario auto plants are laid off or families in the Alberta oil patch get mortgage foreclosure notices. Those are real crises.

The big story for most Canadians is not whether Stéphane Dion gets to be temporary prime minister. The big story is what our politicians are doing about the economic meltdown.

Talk to backbenchers. Ask them what their constituents are telling them.

You can always pick up the quotes you need from Dion or Duceppe or the other leaders from the cable news nets at the top of the hour. Invest your time in quiet conversations with backbenchers when they are away from the cameras and mics.

Backbenchers may not want to go on the record. But it is amazing how much they will tell you. CBC TV’s Keith Boag reported one of the most telling comments of the week from a casual conversation with an anonymous MP.  The MP neatly summarized recent events on the Hill this way.  “This is stupid. We all look stupid.”  

Boag encountered the backbencher Thursday afternoon walking from the Hill after the new session of Parliament was suspended for seven weeks. Boag could never have gotten that kind of candor out of a politician if there had been a camera around.

The best time to talk to backbenchers is when they are back in their ridings. Get them on the phone some afternoon after they’ve come from a service club luncheon. They will have heard an earful from their constituents.

Let the dust from recent events settle. Then early in January start to work the phones. It will be fascinating to hear what Conservative MPs have to say about Stephen Harper’s performance after they’ve been in their ridings talking with the folks.Ditto for Liberal MPs on what their voters think about letting Stéphane Dion become prime minister, even for a couple of months.

As you listen, remember that words matter. Note, as many journalists did, that Harper used the word separatists to describe Bloc MPs when he was speaking to anglophones in his TV appearance the night he gave his TV pitch, but used the less inflammatory word souverainistes  in French.

Above all, remember George Orwell’s dictum: don’t let political language obscure meaning. Parliamentarians understand what prorogue means. But as you write you must say it plainly. Parliament has been suspended to save Stephen Harper’s job. 

Jeff Sallot, a former Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief, is a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and teaches journalism at Carleton University.

(Parliament Building photo by RobertCiavarro, reprinted under Creative Commons license)