Home / Canadian Politics: Diversionary Tactics

Canadian Politics: Diversionary Tactics

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Canadian politics is a lot like soccer; you can go huge amounts of time where it looks like apparently nothing is happening, when in reality it’s been a build up to a flurry of activity. Well, lets be fair here, that’s probably not an accurate reflection of soccer players; there’s more chance that they’ve planned what’s going to happen in advance.

Around here everything just sort of runs by the seat of the pants with the situation, as the Generals like to say during wartime, fluid. In other words things are happening but we’re not quite sure what, why or how. Although when politicians use the word fluid in relation to an issue it usually means that they are waiting to see what public reaction will be before they have an opinion. Heaven forbid they commit to anything and take a leadership role.

Maybe this will help any American football fan understand the Canadian version of the game a little better. It’s just like our politics, we are allowed to have far more players in motion than you do on any given down. It may not explain the whole single point for missing a field goal bit, or why our field is damn long and wide, but scrambling seems to be ingrained into our social character.

There’s two ways that this tactic can be applied in Canadian politics: there’s the ‘endlessly clarify the position’ ploy, and the ‘avoid it and hope it goes away’ ploy. Both require that politicians be extremely agile and quick on their feet and are used in controversial and delicate situations.

Most commonly both rules will be applied under similar circumstances; completely misunderstanding the mood of the public or not wanting to deal with anything controversial. Not surprisingly endless clarification usually applies in the former while avoiding it and hoping it goes away applies in the latter condition.

Sometimes there are subtle nuances that are applied to these strategies, especially in the case of endless explaining. If it’s an issue that threatens to be controversial, but not one they can see anyway of avoiding, what politicians might do is float their proposals in advance to gauge the reaction, then start the modifications and the explanations until they have something that is either acceptable to the public, or everybody is so confused about where they stand it no longer matters what their opinion is.

This, of course, is where unnamed sources and tame reporters come in handy. If you’re a smart politician you always have a couple of reporters you have let cultivate you, so that they think they have a source inside the government. You can use them to plant anything you want in the newspapers through the simple expedient of leaking them the information.

The other potential means at a politician’s disposal is to pass the buck and have a non-elected official do the revealing. This way when you step forward to “clarify” the position it gives the appearance of some civil servant getting it wrong, and that wasn’t the governments plan at all.

That was the circumstances in regards to the conduct of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. In a story in yesterday’s Globe and Mail it was reported the Canadian high command had told its soldiers that the rules of the Geneva convention concerning Prisoners of War (P.O.W.) did not apply to the Taliban. Because of their command structure and lack of uniforms they did not fit the definition of enemy combatants and were therefore not entitled to that consideration.

Today’s paper featured a clarification under the headline of: Geneva Convention Applies In Afghanistan: Defence Minister. What makes this such a good example of the clarification model was the fact that the Minister simply repeated what his generals had already said.

The generals had said Taliban members would not be accorded status of P.O.W. but would be treated according to the Geneva Convention standards of humane treatment. In the House of Commons Defence Minister Dennis O’Connor said: “When they take prisoners, they will always follow the rules of the Geneva Convention, no lower standard than that.” Noticeably absent from his speech was any reference to whether that meant as P.O.W.s or just the humane treatment his generals had been quoted as talking about.

It was a masterful bit of not presenting a sitting target for the opposition members to take a run at. He’s said very clearly what the public wants to hear, our troops are following the rules of The Geneva Convention, thus setting their minds at rest about any possible dishonourable conduct on their part.

Obviously he’s counting on people not reading any further than the sound-bite headline; in most people’s minds Geneva Convention means treating P.O.W.s fairly and once those two magic words are said everything is hunky-dory. All in all though, it was a very impressive bit of political fancy footwork in the backfield.

When Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada were in opposition they were predicting everything from biblical plagues to the destruction of sacred family values if a bill legalizing same sex marriage was passed in the House of Commons. One of his promises during the last election was he would call a new vote on the issue.

This was largely seen as political grandstanding on his part by analysts because the Supreme Court of Canada had already ruled it unconstitutional to prevent same sex couples from legally getting married. The only way Mr. Harper would have been able to overrule the courts was by invoking the portion of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms called the Not Withstanding Clause, which allows a government to overrule a particular right as awarded by the courts.

It was mainly included in the constitution as a sop to Quebec so they could have their French only language laws for business signs. This way if anybody challenged the infamous Bill 101 that had implemented the French only laws and created the language police in the courts, the government could overturn the ruling by invoking the Notwithstanding Clause.

Since Mr. Harper had already promised he wouldn’t do that, the rationale behind the vote was non-existent except to appeal to the social conservative elements in his party. The problem is, that promises like that prevent him from winning seats in any of the major urban centres to the extent needed to form a majority government.

Since seats in our House of Commons are assigned based on representation by population, a huge chunk are confined to the Ontario/Quebec region where the majority of our population is concentrated in the urban centres of Toronto and Montreal and their surrounding suburbs. Those areas, and the other major population centre, Vancouver on the West Coast, went primarily to opposition parties in the last election because of fears of the social conservative views of Mr. Harper’s party.

So it doesn’t come as much surprise to read that the Conservative Party is starting to wish the issue would just go away. First of all the motion they are considering introducing in the fall wouldn’t even be a vote on same sex marriage, it would be a vote on whether or not there should be a vote on same sex marriage.

Talk about inspired. Rather than risk defeat on a controversial topic, first find out if people want to even have a vote. Notice it doesn’t ask them whether or not they support same sex marriage, it’s asking them if they see any point in debating the issue anymore.

Not only doesn’t Mr. Harper risk re-opening the whole can of worms again, and belay the image of the reasonable party that he’s trying to convey in Ontario and Quebec, but he throws a bone to the social conservatives by giving them their opportunity to vote against same sex marriage, without actually voting against it.

He’s doing nothing about the issue while looking like he’s doing something. What a perfect example of great political movement. All the activity and motion is just a diversionary tactic to hide the fact that nothing what so ever is going to change about the bill. Stephen Harper is not only wishing the issue would go away; he’s performing the vanishing act that’s making it disappear right in front of our eyes.

Perhaps it’s because our House of Parliament only seems to be open for business about six months of the year, while the rest of the time Members of Parliament spend their time…well on other things, that everything seems to happen all at once in spurts of intense energy. For three two-three month stretches during the year all the political parties gather in the Nation’s Capital, Ottawa, to enact legislation, argue over issues, and generally try to govern this country.

Perhaps soccer really wasn’t the best of analogies, it’s a lot more like a feeding frenzy at the shark tank. Instead of it being blood that is spilt, it’s words; and instead tearing a victim apart with their teeth, the pack dismembers ideas with words. The experienced politician has long ago learned tricks to prolong both the life of their ideas, and their careers.

Talking until you finally hit on the right solution or simply long enough to outlast the opposition’s stamina and making issues vanish are only two means of survival at the disposal of today’s Canadian politician. This week we have seen Conservative party members give examples of how to work those two popular diversionary tactics extremely well.

I wonder what would happen if politicians ever put the amount of energy into governing as they do into covering their own asses? It’s a pity will probably never find out.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Be careful what you ask for, Richard. One of the few good things about the Canadian government is their half-assed way of doing things. That benign neglect of their jobs means that they aren’t interfering in your rights and day to day life as much as they could be. Wouldn’t you rather have them fecklessly not figuring out ways to prevent same-sex marriage than actually working on ways to ban it?


  • I think you might be missing the point slightly Dave – the government doesn’t have a half-assed way of doing things – it is fully assed! The government spends an inordinant amount of time in avoidance, in NOT doing things and in appearing to NOT do things. The concern is while they window-dress for appearances, behind the scenes it is business as usual (i.e. building up whatever party in power’s friends list, pushing their own particular policy agenda etc.).

    Successive Canadian governments have long-since learned that pork-barrelling is best done back-stage, as is policy-making best done through bureaucratic cut-outs and behind lace curtains. It’s like one long never-ending episode of Yes Minister (a great old series, by the way if you ever get the chance to see it on the BBC).

  • I got that, Deano. My point is that the less the government actually does, the better for the people.


  • Ah if only that were the case Dave, but unfortunately they not only are half-assed, but they are interfereing in spite of themselves. They managed to create a system of day care subsidy that benefits family’s with one staty at home parent and high income- and which does nothing to create new subsidized spaces for those who can’t afford day care…I only wish they’d maintain their exemplary record of doing nothing and leaving things that were working alone. Ten years ago we had a health Care system that worked (I know you don’t like our style of health care, Dave, but still it did work) People who had sufficeint incomes paid some insurance, while others didn’t and we had plenty of hosptital beds and doctors. Then the government decided it needed reforming, that there was too much duplication of service,(two doctors doing the same thing-horrors) presto bango we have a health care crises because they took half of it away.

    Utah Philips, a very great American story teller, once talked about how he was going to run for President on a platform of doing absolutly nothing. He said the only the times of worse strife for Americans was when they had presidents that actually did something. He promised to sit around, scratch his ass, shoot pool, and do nothing at all the entire day.

    Now if we only get the rest of them to promise the same. I doubt it though, the most dangerous ones are the ones who want to to get themselves in the histroy books…then you know you’re in trouble.


  • I really enjoyed this article! 🙂

  • Steve

    I know that BBC series you speak of, Deano! Great fun to watch (at least if you’re into politics anyway lol).
    Richard, though the cuts in health care were painful, I think Canadians need to realise (and some have) that we need to live within our means. Having a debt of over 500 billion dollars created over 35 years is far from living within our means. It’s taken 7-8 years to pay off hardly 11% of it. We were living on the hog and now we’re paying for it, the sooner we pay it off the better it will be for future generations, spending money on interest payments is a waste, the sooner we get rid of the debt the better.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    He said you said I said you said – and now
    to clarify that position…

    Sounds just like home, Richard. Except that every now and then your folks do a little governing – like those Mounties acthcing all those terrorists…