COLUMN: A Call For Greater Responsibility -- in Citizens and in Media
In late November the federal government’s House Leader announced a series of changes to the ways the House of Commons is to conduct its deliberations. The ways in which Parliament operates were to be changed to empower backbenchers, diminish partisanship, restore civility, and to make government more accountable and more family friendly. Much of the nation’s media welcomed these changes. Unfortunately, the federal government’s announcement does not appear to have had much impact on the media’s political reporting.
In late 2011 The Canadian Press obtained documents confirming that the government had issued orders to federal public servants to change all references to the government in non-partisan communications from the “Government of Canada” to the “Harper Government.” It did not take long for the media to follow suit and to voluntarily adopt that directive in its reporting of federal politics. Referring to the Government of Canada by the name of the prime minister of the day rather than its constitutional authority became the norm. The penchant to refer to citizens as taxpayers and to public funds as taxpayers’ dollars gained acceptance at about the same time.
It would be fitting for the media to once again emulate the federal government with a commitment to tone down partisanship in political reporting. Democratic governments are not owned by any one person, least of all by their first ministers. Democratic governments are accountable to the legislators and parliamentarians we elect. Governments are continuous entities; they are not interrupted by elections. The federal government has been in place, without interruption, since 1867. Our provincial government has been in place since 1871 when British Columbia became Canada’s sixth province.
As to the people referred to as taxpayers, they are – we are – citizens. Of course we pay taxes! We pay taxes on the income and interest we earn, on the goods and services we purchase, and on the property we own. While we do pay taxes, paying taxes does not define who we are. We drive on roads, we walk in parks, and we visit medical clinic. Driving, walking, visiting clinic and paying taxes are activities; they are not the embodiment of who we are.
The contention is not the use of superficial labels (what if Kim and Gordon Campbell, or Joe and Christy Clark had been in office at the same time). The practice of labelling governments and citizens in this manner has a negative, albeit subliminal influence on politics. A decision made by a Smith or Miller government absolves citizens of their responsibilities. Our governments arise out of elections. Our electoral system is less than perfect, but that does not absolve us of our responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. People may rightfully deny responsibility for government decisions where a nation is governed by an autocrat. When people are denied the right to vote, decisions are indeed made by the Smith or Miller government; the people have no say in the matter.
Referring to our governments by the names of first ministers exonerates us. We are not responsible, he or she is. The taxpayer label reduces citizens to victims of government. The prime minister or premier has all the power; we are the victims of government, left with having to pay the bills.
The Members of Parliament we have elected may or may not succeed in changing the ways Parliament operates. Whatever the outcome of their intended good will, it is time for the media – reporters, writers, columnists, editors, and publishers – to take a hard look at the way we write about and report on politics. Diminishing partisanship and restoring civility in the media would contribute to making governments more accountable and citizens more responsible.