Campaign Diary: Of Testy Leaders and Zealous Handlers - New Canadian Media

Campaign Diary: Of Testy Leaders and Zealous Handlers

Covering this Canadian federal election has been a surreal experience. First off, being a permanent resident without the right to vote, it made me feel like a party crasher – an outsider on the inside.…

Covering this Canadian federal election has been a surreal experience. First off, being a permanent resident without the right to vote, it made me feel like a party crasher – an outsider on the inside.

While not having a skin in the game gave me the veneer of a neutral observer, interactions with campaign offices and leaders at rallies and events soon got under my skin.

There was the constant messaging, with both party leaders and candidates refusing to stray away from well-rehearsed lines and showing their irritation when thrown a curveball.

For me, New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair made this particularly evident early on during the campaign during the launch of his book, Strength of Conviction. Having bought the book, I lined up to get it autographed by someone who had a fair shot at being the next prime minister.

[W]hen I identified myself as a journalist and asked an innocuous question on what his government would do for new Canadians, Mulcair’s reaction was telling.

After pleasantries, when I identified myself as a journalist and asked an innocuous question on what his government would do for new Canadians, Mulcair’s reaction was telling. It was as if I had asked him something as contentious as exporting fresh water.

The oxygen got sucked out as ‘Angry Tom’ summoned his media handlers, who ushered me away with promises of other opportunities to interact with the party leader. That never happened, and it was only late in the campaign that I was even put on the NDP’s mailing list.

Interactions with the offices of the other two major parties proved much better.

The Liberals put out the best media outreach effort – so good it was almost textbook perfect. The Conservatives were not far behind, but were much more guarded. They seemed keen to provide photo-ops rather than access to their leader or candidates.

Understandably, security concerns for Prime Minister Stephen Harper meant that his campaign stops were not made known well in advance. There was always a cordon around him and people at his rallies were carefully selected. This ensured that the events were dull, sparse and looked more staged than those of the other parties.

“Timbits moment”

Take for instance this event at a Brampton trucking company to create a quintessential, Canadian “Timbits moment.” It was framed as “Harper bringing coffee for the crew.” Never mind that a table with Tim Hortons coffee and Timbits was already positioned against a backdrop of tractor-trailers and loaders.

Tory supporters on the campaign trail don’t hide their dislike for media and tend to avoid journalists like the plague.

Before this photo-op unfolded, the media were corralled away in a dilapidated room and brought to watch the drama only when the bus rolled in. The purpose was obvious: to prevent the media from interacting with the assembled truck drivers and mechanics.

The media handlers need not have worried. Tory supporters on the campaign trail don’t hide their dislike for media and tend to avoid journalists like the plague.

Inadvertently, these tendencies created a funereal-type atmosphere at some of the party’s events. Fittingly, most of our election stories carried the disclaimer that Conservative candidates refused to comment.

Far cry from elections elsewhere

All this is a far cry from what I had experienced covering numerous elections in boisterous India and a referendum fraught with danger in what is now South Sudan.

While the politics could be maddening and working conditions daunting, the optics were festive.

While I was not expecting that kind of enthusiasm in a First World situation, I did get a glimpse of it at Liberal rallies and events.

While I was not expecting that kind of enthusiasm in a First World situation, I did get a glimpse of it at Liberal rallies and events.

Although not massive by global standards, the supporters were animated. But more important to a journalist, they and their leaders were approachable and willing to talk on any issue.

This kind of openness was refreshing, but I had to be guarded against its insidious effect.

Because the Liberal media team and its candidates were more forthcoming, they would invariably get more coverage. Early on in the campaign, I warned my election desk colleagues in jest to flag me down if I tended to veer in favour of the Grits.

Newcomer disconnect

Finally, as a new Canadian, the attack ads against Justin Trudeau signalled unintended messages to me.

I am not talking of the much-reviled Conservative ads in Chinese and Punjabi language media here. What I have in mind are the “just not ready” ads put out by both the Conservatives and the NDP.

Both parties sought to frame the election as a job interview for Trudeau and had his photos conveniently clipped to his ‘resume’.

Most newcomers will remember being warned by well-intentioned mentors not to include their mug shots with job applications, as it was not ‘the Canadian way’. And here we have interview panels pondering about offering the most important job in the country based on, among other things, Trudeau’s perceived lack of experience and commenting about his hair.

At a subliminal level it reminded me of the “lack of Canadian experience” barrier faced by newcomer job seekers. And yes, the fact that newcomers’ hair tends to look ‘different’ as well.


Ranjit Bhaskar is New Canadian Media’s Election Desk Editor. 

About the author

Ranjit is a Toronto-based writer with interest in Canadian civic affairs, immigration, the environment and motoring. Maytree and Al Jazzera English alumnus.

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