Terry Fallis Visits Hamilton

Today was a very literary day. I got a chance to meet Terry Fallis and listen to him read excerpts from his first book, The Best Laid Plans. Terry is a McMaster alumnus (Engineering), a former political staffer and organiser and is current one of the principals at Thornley-Fallis, a marketing agency based in Toronto. He also does Inside PR, a podcast about the Canadian PR industry.

The story of his novel, The Best Laid Plans, is quite amazing. He self-published, first through podcast, chapter by chapter, and then in print. After that he won the Stephen Leacock Award for humour. Amazing. His novel follows the adventures of Ottawa political staffer extraordinaire, Daniel Addison, who convinces Angus McLintock, a professor of engineering at the University of Ottawa to run as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada in one of the greatest Tory strongholds in the country. Much hilarity ensues and, needless to say, it is a pleasure to read a book that treats of subject matter – Canadian political communication – that I am so close to and enjoy so much. I read the book ahead of time and was looking forward to Terry’s reading. He didn’t disappoint. He read with aplomb and vigour – and even tried to imitate a Scottish accent for Mr. McLintock’s speaking parts.

Many members of the ADFW Federal Liberal Riding Association were present (it was the association’s annual Christmas volunteer appreciation event) and there was pleasant conversation over punch and cookies. A surprise during the evening was the calling to order of the meeting by the Dundas town crier! That was certainly unexpected, but comforting and familiar at the same time. A good night was had by all.

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Future public servants evaluated on opinions about Conservative Economic Action Plan.

The highly controversial Conservative Economic Action Plan is being used in an essay question for potential applicants to an elite management training program in the federal public service.

One of my former research assistants was really excited recently – he was applying to get a job in Canada’ public service. So he logged on to the Public Service Resourcing System to fill out requisite forms. Part of the job application process meant writing an essay. Making applicants write a 1000-word essay is probably a good way to see whether candidates can reason.

But look at what the topic was:

  • “In 1000 words (maximum) ‘In 2009, the Government of Canada introduced Canada’s Economic Action Plan to help Canada’s economy weather the economic storm. In 1000 words or less, please choose two of these measures and discuss their implications for Canada. In your answer, please consider, as appropriate, the social, economic and international policy imlications of each measure.”

It seems as though, to be recruited into the public service under the watch of this government, you must find a way to discuss the Economic Action Plan – a plan that has already been communicated to Canadians in a strongly partisan fashion.

The political communication around the Economic Action Plan has been venal to the point of being divisive:

  • the scandalous Conservative-branded cheques,
  • the fact that municipalities have to ante up money to pay for signs advertising the Action Plan, the uneven distribution of stimulus (with the majority being doled out to Conservative ridings),
  • etc.

The highly politicized, outrageous political communication of the plan has been so riddled with controversy that it has effectively invalidated the Action Plan as fodder for an impartial essay question for a public service entrance exam.

It doesn’t seem right for the Government of Canada to potentially make applicants feel as though they should pass a partisan or ideological litmus test to get a job with the public service.

Here is the screen shot of the webpage in which you type out your essay. Just make the text bigger to see the picture in higher resolution.

Canadian Public Service Job Applicant Essay Question

The Web Address and Text of the Job Description:

https://psjobs-emploisfp.psc-cfp.gc.ca/psrs-srfp/applicant/2/page1600?careerChoice=102441&action=viewPoster

Accelerated Economist Training Program (AETP), Post-Secondary Recruitment

This career choice is part of the Post-Secondary Recruitment Program* (PSR) which provides entry-level positions to university and college graduates.

Department Name: On behalf of Government Departments (current participants: Department of the Environment, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Department of Industry, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Department of Health, Department of Transport, Treasury Board Secretariat, Privy Council Office, Department of Finance)
Locations: Ottawa, Gatineau
Classification: EC – 02
Salary: $49,381. The salary may be increased with relevant experience.
Closing Date: November 9, 2009 – 23:59, Pacific Time Useful Information
Reference Number: FIN09J-009189-000371
Selection Process Number: 2009-FIN-EA-BL-17074
Employment Tenure: Indeterminate
Vacancies: between 8-12 positions.

The Program is seeking highly motivated candidates who have an interest in Canadian public policy and governance, and who possess good judgment, analytical skills, leadership talent, and the ability to work as part of a team. The Program offers four challenging, six-month assignments in central agencies (i.e. the Privy Council Office, the Department of Finance Canada, and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat) and various other departments in the National Capital Region (Ottawa/Gatineau). Participants will have an opportunity to analyze and contribute to a variety of social, economic, and international policy issues. Upon completion of these assignments, participants are eligible for intermediate-level positions in the Public Service of Canada. The combination of hands-on work experience and training provides participants with a unique introduction to a challenging and rewarding career and a chance to serve Canada and Canadians.

Canadians deserve evidence-based politics

It is about time that political communication caught up to medicine by applying modern standards of evidence to its practices.

The practice of medicine has been revolutionised over the last 20 years by the emergence of evidence-based diagnosis and treatment. The idea behind evidence-based medicine is that doctors should apply the findings of scientific research to medical decision-making.When you go to the doctor, you don’t expect to be treated with certain drugs or diagnosed with a certain disease because the doctor thinks it will improve his public image to diagose or treat you that way. You want the right diagnosis and treatment for your symptoms.

Why shouldn’t politics in Canada be held to the same standard?

This is the Internet era. This is the Information Age.

Canadians must demand that its politicians adopt an evidence-based approach to political communication and political decision-making.  We expect our doctors to present evidence for their diagnoses, but we allow our politicians – of every stripe –  to convince us with anecdotal evidence, generalisations from the specific and a hundred other fallacies of argument.

Gerard Kennedy, Official Opposition critic for Infrastructure and MP for Parkdale-High Park and his team of staff and volunteers have been tearing up the spreadsheets coming up with evidence for how the Conservative Government is distributing infrastructure stimulus money around Canada. His latest press release describes how infrastructure money is being spent unequally, on a per-student basis, on small, conservative institutions based in Conservative-held ridings.

Whether or not you agree with Mr. Kennedy, this is just simply good political communication. He has taken the facts – the data – and parsed them so that they make sense. He has used evidence and simple statistics to start a critical discussion about what the Government is doing. The beauty of Mr. Kennedy’s evidence is that you *can disagree* with him in an intelligent way. You can challenge his evidence. You can produce evidence of your own.

It is no coincidence that Mr. Kennedy has been scooping up news stories and front-pages across Canada with his evidence-based criticism. He is setting a new bar for political communication – away from anecdotal allusions and personal attacks toward evidence, facts and argument.

This can only be good for Canadian democracy.

The challenge for the other Opposition MPs, Liberal, Bloc and NDP, is to meet and exceed his example.

The challenge for the Conservative Government is to respond with transparency – to show Canadians the evidence for their infrastructure program. Here is the Government’s first evidence-based attempt.

Mr. Kennedy is forcing this Government to get away from rhetoric and present Canadians with the evidence.

If medical doctors must use evidence to justify why they have chosen one diagnosis for you instead of another, Canada’s Government must use evidence to justify how its infrastructure stimulus investment is equitable and good for all Canadians – not just those who live in Conservative-held ridings.

Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie – a great documentary

I have spent the evening writing up a grant to fund a new research project (while eating lots of chicken couscous that I made yesterday) on political communication using the technique of content analysis. I will be submitting it later on this week. More on that project in a future post.

While I was writing, I had a film about Ingmar Bergman‘s creative process playing in the background: Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. It is fantastic. While watching it, I realised how challenging his creative life must have been. He was identified early on as a creative prodigy and his work usually involved deeply personal insight. Often his work would involve reflections on the nature of God, prayer and the contemplative life. In the documentary, which is composed of a series of interviews with him and his crew, Bergman reflects on his desire to produce films that move people and capture a feeling of place. He describes, quite candidly, how these goals obliged him to always move among people. What is most interesting, however, is how he keeps coming back to the idea of blending in, of anonymity. He says, at one point in the documentary, that he had no greater desire than to fit in to be anonymous – but that the very fact that he was capable of pulling truths and feelings out of the people, society and scenery around him made him stand out and maintained his celebrity. What a paradox.

I think the world of political communication is similar. A good political communicator is always among the people of his or her riding, empathising with them and then finds a way to synthesise the feelings, thoughts and dreams of his or her constituents into policy, communication and action. The politician becomes the tribune for the dreams, fears and everyday concerns of the population – something that requires maintaining a critical distance at the same time. I hadn’t realised how much politicians and artists have in common. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me – both artists and politicians deal in raw human needs and desires. There is a lesson to be learned here somewhere for Canada’s politicians. A little soul-searching is in order. To return politics to its place as the ground for negotiating the order of things in the City, it is necessary for political communication to become less stunt and attack oriented, and focus more on telling the story of Canada’s citizens in the House of Commons, then translating that story into legislation that retains what is good and beautiful, but points the nation toward a better future. This better future cannot be communicated as the imposition of a party’s ideology (“After all, you voted for us!”), rather it should be the weaving together of the stories that all members bring to the House, whether they are members of the Official Opposition, or of the Government.

I highly recommend the movie – very thought-provoking. Ingmar Bergman has a lot to teach political communicators in Canada.

Canada’s choice: political communication as dance or war?

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a lecture to my first year communications class on George Lakoff‘s idea that our thinking is fundamentally rooted in metaphor. Lakoff explains that the underpinnings of how we structure our understanding of the world is metaphorical. He gives the example of “Time is money” – a metaphor that expresses a principle which guides us to use our time parsimoniously. He also says, in Metaphors We Live By, that “Argument is war” is the metaphor that governs how we interact when we debate a point. Lakoff asks us to think about what the world would be like if we lived by the metaphor that “Argument is dance.” It would certainly change the way we speak about debating and how we behave while debating. For example, we would no longer say things like: “I shot down his argument.” or “I really clobbered him with that point!”

After class, I was walking in the rain back to my cozy mustard yellow corner office in Togo Salmon Hall. A couple of students, excited by the ideas presented in lecture, were walking with me. But I was a little distracted. In fact, I was thinking about how metaphor structures political communication in Canada.

We have seen a marked decline in parliamentary courtesy and civil discourse – both in the House, during Question Period, in the media, and in attack ads. Why is this so irksome, when we have been watching the same thing evolve below us in the US for decades? I think there is an answer that many may have overlooked.

Marshall McLuhan suggested, in Medium is the Message that the United States is a society that was a product of the printing press, like France – a society where the uniform communications permitted by printed media enabled a “legalistic” system of government. One that depended on rules.

Now, Canada comes from a different tradition. Our Parliament is part of the Westminster system, like the United Kingdom. The Westminster system was not born during an age of industrial mechanization and laws. It was born during a feudal time in the midst of an oral culture where relatively few things were written down. This required a much more consensus-based system of political communication where people built the national narratives through storytelling and tradition. These national narratives that would later become – through the power of precedent – principles that would guide political function. This is completely different from the American or French systems, which depend on laws and the interpretation of the judiciary.

On top of this, let us consider John Ralston Saul’s argument, laid out in his latest book, A Fair Country, that our culture is actually a Métis product – a negotiated hybrid of British, French and First Nations culture. The British culture was oral and precedent-based, First Nations culture was oral and precedent-based. And, remember that French Canadian culture was developed in pre-revolutionary France (which was a feudal society) – so French Canadian culture was also oral and precedent-based. This meant that the thrust of our politics has been to encourage negotiation, compromise and continuity. In these oral, precedent-based cultures, “Argument is dance.”

What we are seeing, in the change of tone of our political communication toward warlike aggression, partisanship and spiteful attack, is fundamental change toward a more “legalistic” or “structured” society. We might call it Americanized, because it is becoming more and more similar to the American model and they are the greatest cultural influence we face.

The fact is, though, that it represents a fundamental change in our political culture – a shift away from our roots in oral cultural traditions. An oral cultural tradition which necessitates that “argument be dance” because of our mutually shared responsibility for telling the national story and keeping it alive, renewing it with ever more subtlety and nuance – human nuance – which is inherently subjective and flexible. We are shifting toward a national definition captured in a set of laws that we write down, print out and hammer into shape – and then fight over.

We are seeing the ideas on which our culture is based move away from storytelling, toward objectification and rules.

I think it’s a sad development. I love the stories and myths of our past – Paul Bunyan, Louis Cyr, Gitche Manitou.

Canadians chafe at the ideas of laws – they’re constraining. So let’s decide to be civil.

Maybe we can shake hands over it and give one another our word.

At least then we will be true to our historical roots in oral culture.

Conservative government hubris chequed.

I think that the Conservative Party of Canada wants to remain in a permanent minority position.

For a couple of weeks, they had the Liberals on the run, with the media and NDP ganging up on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. The Liberals’ popularity was sagging in the polls to below-Dion levels. The terrible mistake in judgment from the Liberals – announcing that they wanted to force a Fall election – pretty much guaranteed clear sailing for the Conservatives until Christmas. But no. The Conservatives made a giant communications error. Someone in the PMO thought, in his or her wisdom, that displaying hundreds of giant faked-up cheques in Conservative-held ridings across Canada was a great idea. It’s true that that sort of prop is fairly common fare at this sort of announcement, but it is completely unprecedented to have the cheques display the logo of the Conservative Party of Canada or to have them signed by the local MP, or by the Prime Minister. It was just simple misrepresentation. And it backfired. And it will have legs.

The surprising hubris and arrogance of this minority Conservative government began to be brought to light by the targeted communications campaign carried out by Gerard Kennedy. He went on tour and engaged in something that sells like hotcakes in political communication: evidence-based politics. Mr. Kennedy, his staff and volunteers gathered, parsed and then distilled the data about where the Conservatives doled out the infrastructure money into catchy narratives and punchlines. Then they targeted specific ridings where the most egregious offenses stuck out. It was easy pickings, but brilliant none-the-less.It resulted in some great coverage.

If the Liberals want to make some headway against a Conservative government that, even in minority, is behaving bloated, entitled and arrogant, they need to learn from Mr. Kennedy’s example and behave more like an Official Opposition party and engage in more evidence-based political communication.

It’s easy pickings out there. The Conservatives have left lots of low-hanging fruit. The Liberals just need to get organized and grab the golden apple.