No reward for being right in long run

Maybe it's not much to latch on to, but a couple of moral tales worth repeating are emerging from the mess which is federal politics.

The first has to do with NDP Leader Jack Layton. Layton and the NDP, of course, decided to support the minority government in exchange for improvements in the employment insurance system when the Liberals said they would no longer prop up Stephen Harper's Tories.

The scorn heaped on Layton's head, mainly by national media pundits, especially those on those TV talk panels, has been gleefully relentless. According to the narrative, Layton, the sanctimonious pinko and prototype of his ilk who was always berating the Liberals for propping up the Tories, is exposed as a hypocrite at last. The guy who piously preached making minority government work but two-facedly voted relentlessly against the Tories, is now back to co-operating because he's freaked by the prospects of losing seats in an election. How juicy.

But second thoughts have kicked in about the worth of Layton and his works, showing that maybe even the media are marginally redeemable. There's the obvious, of course: that Layton spared the country an election it doesn't want, and that there will be some improvements to EI.

But deeper down, there's this awkward twist that doesn't fit in the storyline. Layton, and Alexa McDonough before him, were mostly right about Afghanistan -- at least if we can go by what top generals are now saying: that we're on the wrong track. And about the missile defence system that the Harper government cheerfully supported and the NDP opposed and that now has been scratched by President Obama. And about the need for financial regulation, for an auto-sector strategy, an alternative plan for pensions, more economic stimulation, and more.

Further, there's this: proclaiming that minority government must be made to work and voting against the Tories is not contradictory. Co-operating with Harper is like trying to hug a porcupine. Harper only "co-operates" when he's hit between the eyeballs. So now he's hit and Layton is co-operating. Good for him, sanctimonious or not. The question here is why Layton's the target and not Harper. Has the latter successfully intimidated, or at least bamboozled, the media?

The main point here, however, is that there seems to be no reward in our system any more -- at least at the federal level -- for being right in the long run. Everything depends on how the drama of the moment turns before the TV cameras, and how the whole thing is interpreted on its ephemeral merits. Some of these TV panels, in lieu of wisdom and useful information, even rate "who's hot and who's not" for the week based on what the perceptions and the tittle-tattle in the corridors of the Commons are. That really helps the voter whose ballot is meant to guide the country's destiny.

Back in the 1960s, when communications guru Marshall McLuhan launched his famous dictum "the medium is the message" -- meaning that the form of the medium has more impact that the message it contains -- it was a brilliant but also readily understandable revelation, mainly because all adults at the time remembered the days before TV and had experienced the changes it wrought.

Now, two generations later and with young journalists being made to understand that the most valuable kind of news is "breaking news" -- a three-car pileup caught on video outside Omaha, the Hollywood sensation of the moment and her brand-new hubby splitting -- I doubt that anyone understands anything.

Or, to drive the point home: three weeks at mid-summer with nothing on the news channels but the Michael Jackson death -- including, shamefully, on CBC, both French and English -- that reduced even the Iranian near-revolution to insignificance and left me wishing that al-Jazeera was on my cable network making a stab at reality, biased or not.

All of this is the context in which our federal politics plays itself out, in a wash of the immediate and the trivial. Any citizen relying only on TV (and most do) trying to figure anything out has to do it by luck or osmosis.

And so we have the NDP as the only party in the Commons giving any evidence of having done any long-term thinking, and having turned out to be right in much of it besides, but with little hope of being rewarded for it. Indeed, beset by the Greens on one side and the Liberals on the other, they might even be punished for it. Yet, reading through the second thoughts, this may be the most useful and responsible party we have. Pity.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.

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