Explaining the Facts of Life – “Idea” Conservatives & The Media

“The facts of life are conservative” said Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps, but the facts never speak for themselves, which is especially problematic for any Canadian mildly interested in ideas. Too many newspapers have hollowed out their editorial, analysis and comment sections; the number and length of book reviews have been slashed; in both newspapers and on television, investigative reporting is often absent (there is no Canadian television equivalent of John Stossel for example); and the Canadian media is more monolithic than the American media, in part because our smaller population makes diversity in staffing and the sheer number of outlets less possible.

All of this is very unfortunate, as changing minds necessitates first reaching minds. And that reality should be of particular concern to those who, for the last several decades, have been the ones to generate the intellectual lightbulbs. Call them the “idea” conservatives (even if they don’t self-identify as such), a term I’d define widely to include: libertarians, liberals who believe in responsible individuals and responsible governments, those who think security and foreign policy should not be an annoying afterthought, and to a lesser degree, social conservatives.

To understand why the media matters for idea conservatives, think of some useful reforms over the last two decades and how they percolated into policy and politics. On welfare, consider how in the 1960s academic/politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan (among others) forecast that the family would suffer from an overly generous welfare state, or how urban decline was analyzed and solutions proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kellin in 1982, incubators of the “broken windows” theory on crime. In both cases, new ideas were proposed in journals and magazines (The National Interest, Commentary and others) based on a look at either existing problems or ones predicted to soon appear. These new ideas and remedies soon bubbled into public discourse and into media coverage and commentary. Policy and political reform was the eventual result, though never as quickly as would have been ideal.

But the erosion of intellectual discourse in Canada combined with a legitimate concern about media bias raises this question. How does one explain the facts of life to reporters, editors, and producers who in general terms are:

  • Not as economically conservative as many claim – i.e., the oft-repeated clichés about being “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” (or, “I’m not ideological,” or the most meaningless claim – “I’m a centrist”);
  • Not socially conservative, an assertion with which I doubt few in the media would themselves quibble;
  • So uninterested and non-conversant in foreign policy so as to not know the difference between an American president acting from and constrained by Henry-Kissinger/Hans Morgenthau realist impulses (George Bush I) and a president acting largely from largely Woodrow Wilson impulses yet combined with a new post 9/11 recognition of the West’s latest adversary, the radicalization of a creed (George Bush II).

I’ll address this conundrum with my own theory on the state of Canadian media and start with potential media prejudice including structural bias many journalists may themselves be unaware of, offer an observation on the myths some in the profession hold about themselves, give an explanation of the practical impediments to communicating with the wider public through some media “mediums,” and end off with some common sense suggestions on how to communicate to, with, through, and around the media.

The Question of Bias

Is the media biased against idea conservatives? Many think so just as some on the political left think “the media” are little more than corporate stooges. But that’s the first mistake – thinking of the media as one single entity. The media is not monolithic as critics on the right and left occasionally allege. (The Financial Post’s editorial page editor, Terry Corcoran, is hardly on the same continuum as the Toronto Star’s editorial board.) However, there are trends within the profession that one can spot with the usual caveat that there are always exceptions, and some very fine ones.

In their 2003 book, Agenda: How Journalists Influence the News, Lydia Miljan and Barry Cooper documented several incidents of media bias, though in most cases they were not obvious at first blush.


With respect to fiscal issues, Miljan and Cooper found that the wider media pool in Canada have similar preferences in line with the general public. At first glance, this is odd. Journalists in other countries tend to be more left-of-centre than the general population, according to international and American research. However, once the professors drilled down into behaviour among Canadian journalists, some useful insights could be gleaned.

Unsurprisingly, CBC journalists displayed a strong left-of-centre position on economic issues and also described their supervisors as “moderately left-wing” (compared to 20 percent of private sector journalists who said the same thing about their superiors). CBC Radio employees were far more likely to vote for New Democrats than was the case among the general public. (When I was interviewed by one CBC host in 2006, she argued Cooper and Miljan were incorrect; she did not, however, offer a critique of their statistical methodology so as to prove how they might be in error. The host merely disagreed.)

Beyond the CBC, 20 percent of all journalists told the academics’ pollster that they voted for New Democrats in the last election (at the time of the survey); that compared to eight percent for the public in same survey.

So while journalists may self-report as “moderate right” or “moderate left,” actual voting behaviour is tilted to the left, particularly so among members of the state-media outlet. The professed similarity to the public is in part due to an “I’m centrist” claim many journalists hold about themselves which I’ll soon analyze in more detail.

With respect to socio-cultural-religious issues, Miljan and Cooper found other indicators that might influence coverage and commentary: 32 percent of English speaking journalists said they definitely believe in God compared to the 66 percent of the general population who answered the same query in the affirmative. Given that we know from other surveys that belief in God (and especially religious attendance) affects the political views of individuals, this was a particularly significant finding, especially for social, religious and cultural issues.

Unintentional affirmations of the state

Beyond the statistical data, however, my experience in newsrooms is that journalists often promote the government-needs-to-be-involved view of the world but not necessarily because they are economic interventionists. They might be, but plenty who are not can still fall into the trap of promoting state intervention.

“Government-as-saviour” angles can crop up in stories because governments do, in modern life, have a department and spokesperson on almost every facet of life. So when a reporter needs a quote, it’s natural she’ll phone up a government ministry. Even unintentionally, here’s the angle introduced: “What is the government doing about “X” problem?” It likely doesn’t occur to the reporter that an individual, business or a charity might be more adept at solving problem “X.” The underlying message raised in the mind of viewers or readers is: where is the government on this issue? The presumption, albeit unintentionally, is that the government should be involved.

Skepticism – in one direction only

Another problem is that most journalists have numbers and statistics thrown at them by various advocacy groups, government or business – with little or no independent analysis before going to print. This weakness also shows up in social policy reporting. For instance, few reporters stop to ask why taxpayers should pay for daycare services used by millionaires in Montreal’s Mount Royal neighbourhood.

This problem also rears its head in how public interest stories are covered. A particularly poignant example illustrates both a blind spot on the part of some reporters and editors, and a bias against markets from others, including an uncritical approach to financial reporting.

Several years ago, a group which claimed to represent consumers, the Consumers Association of Canada (CAC), published a series of reports on automobile insurance prices. The group claimed average insurance premiums were a great deal in provinces where the “public” sector ran automobile insurance and a lousy buy for consumers in private sector provinces. Almost every newspaper in the country ran headlines like these:

  • “Drivers pay far more for private-sector vehicle insurance, consumer study says,” headlined the Halifax Daily News in September 2003.
  • “Ontario motorists saddled with skyrocketing insurance: Consumer study finds that Toronto drivers can pay 500 per cent more than other regions,” claimed the Charlottetown Guardian.
  • “Insuring car can cost 6 times as much in TO” repeated the Montreal Gazette.

In 2005, more studies from the group which claimed to represent consumers led to more sensational headlines.

  • “Auto insurance cheaper in B.C. than Alberta,” proclaimed the Globe and Mail.
  • “Outrageous costs hammer Ontario drivers,” noted the National Post.
  • The Calgary Herald announced “Albertans pay more, consumer study finds.”
  • The Vancouver Province praised the government auto insurance company: “ICBC fairest in the land,” and added a sub-title: “Study gives public auto coverage top grade.”


The basis for the group’s claims was their ostensible finding that average automobile premiums in Ontario and Alberta and in the Atlantic Provinces – i.e., the private sector provinces, were exorbitantly expensive in comparison to British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – three provinces where, just coincidentally, governments deliver most automobile insurance coverage.

But the consumers’ numbers were meaningless and misleading as they came from Internet quotes for insurance. The approach was akin to taking the average of bids on E-bay for a product and claiming that average represented the product’s real cost. Hardly.

In contrast – the real industry averages came from premiums that are actually paid. That meant that the CAC exaggerated Ontario’s prices by 80 percent and Alberta’s by 68 percent. But most media outlets played the David (the alleged consumers’ group) versus Goliath (the private insurers) tack in their storytelling.

That the CAC’s national averages were highly misleading was pointed out in 2003 by none other than the then Ontario director for the Consumers’ Association, Theresa Courneyea. She said the national office’s insurance comparisons “violated arithmetic” and “slanted the picture.”

Not that it mattered. The media’s coverage of trumped-up prices for private sector insurance was an example of the one-sidedness too often practiced by the fifth estate. Most of the media engaged in the crudest of stereotypes that if applied to race would properly be seen as unthinking and a result of uninformed prejudice. Media skepticism of how money motivates people too often runs in only one direction: against the private sector, but rarely practiced with regards to self-interested groups on the take from government. (The Consumers Association of Canada was heavily funded by Industry Canada in producing the statistical junk.)

Defining Canada through post-1968 glasses

But if unidirectional scepticism is problematic, there is the more obvious variety of bias. Unsurprisingly, frequent examples can be found at the CBC. Back in January 2006 in the midst of the federal election campaign, CBC-TV’s correspondent Neil MacDonald gave viewers his rundown on the just-released Conservative platform:

For MacDonald, the Tory plan which promised $45 billion in tax cuts was a chance to pronounce on how oddly un-Canadian such promises were. “There is more tax cutting here than Canadians are used to seeing,” opined MacDonald. (He forgot that the Liberals claimed to have delivered $100 billion in tax relief back in 2000).

MacDonald admitted to viewers that the Tory budget plan would still produce a balanced budget – “Is Harper’s plan affordable? Not much question about that. The federal government is rich, much richer than the Liberals have been letting on in recent years” – but then MacDonald delivered this parting, sign-off shot – “but Harper’s plan is also more American, less tax, smaller government, and ultimately less service.”

That MacDonald’s legendary bias was again on display was no surprise. But it was better suited to election commercials produced by New Democrats or Liberals.

The same bias cropped up in my own dealings with another CBC reporter in 2002. As B.C. director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, I was present at the first B.C. Liberal budget in early 2002. Their first budget contained spending cuts, which I argued didn’t go far enough given the looming $4.4 billion deficit.

After the CBC camera was turned off, reporter Terry Milewski commented off-handedly to me that I was “so Albertan.” I corrected him, noted I was born in Kelowna and spent the first 20 years of my life in B.C. and was again back in my home province (Apparently, it was inconceivable that a native British Columbian could be fiscally conservative.)

Milewski, as with MacDonald commenting on the Conservative platform, looked at history through their own baby boomer, economically “rose” coloured glasses. As it happened, British Columbia’s fiscal hawks appeared a lot earlier on the Canadian scene than they ever did in Alberta. It’s why government restraint was introduced by then Premier Bill Bennett in 1983, a full decade before the “Klein Revolution.”


But Milewski’s off-camera assumption and MacDonald’s on-camera editorializing were reflective of a prejudice that views Canada and all our history – economic, military, social – through the filter of post-World War II Keynesian economic thought, which reached its zenith with Pierre Trudeau. But the assumptions of interventionists are only a part of Canadian history and even then, not ones ever shared by all.

The election of Mike Harris in 1995 is one example; the historical reality of British classic liberalism upon Canada’s body politic is another. Ideas which today might be referred to as “conservative” or neo-conservative or libertarian, were rife in central Canadian assumptions during the first six decades of Confederation (and pre-Confederation) and arguably afterwards in significant chunks of the country.

Thus, consider this statement: “All taxation is a loss per se. It is the sacred duty of the government to take only from the people what is necessary to the proper discharge of the public service; and that taxation in any other mode, is simply in one shape or another, legalized robbery.”

The orator of such words was not, as the CBC’s MacDonald might surmise, a modern-day right-wing Republican, perhaps the retired supply-sider congressman Jack Kemp or Newt Gingrich. It was the very Liberal Dominion Minister of Finance, Sir Richard Cartwright in his 1878 budget speech.

Or this comment: “The good Saxon word, freedom; freedom in every sense of the term, freedom of speech, freedom of action, freedom in religious life and civil life and last but not least, freedom in commercial life.” That would be not, as the Toronto Star might editorialize in the early 21st century, an American libertarian with the CATO Institute. It was the very Canadian Liberal opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier in 1896.

To wit, the lack of media recall on Canada’s full history extends into other areas though these have been covered in more detail elsewhere: we used to be the social conservatives (especially Ontario) vis-à-vis the Americans, and English Canadians were of course mostly loyal British recruits while the Americans were famously isolationist.

Myths the Media Hold About Themselves

Beyond the ideological bias in some journalistic circles, the structural (“call-up-the-government-for-a-solution”) bias, and the empirical clues about trends within the media, it’s useful to consider what those who work in the news business might believe about themselves. These are my observations from my 25-year involvement working in and around the media.

“I’m not ideological”

Some journalists can say this and be accurate. Others say it because they’ve mistaken the status quo with ideological neutrality.

Thus, to suggest privatization of automobile insurance (where run by governments) or of government liquor stores, is often pegged as “ideological.” But that begs the question of whether governments need to sell beer or insurance. The ideological approach – to start with ideas and to impose them as opposed to allowing markets to flourish and only to use intervention where they fail – may well have been the original decision to nationalize such industries 30, 50, or 100 years ago.

“I’m centrist”

This is a version of the “I’m-not-ideological” argument but even less coherent. It makes little sense in many contexts, in part because what is considered “centrist” is in constant flux, or is so vague as to mean nothing at all.

Back in the 1980s, the idea of balanced budgets (and the budget cutting necessary to get there) were considered “extreme,” “right-wing,” or “radical” (take your pick). Now even spend-happy New Democrats speak of the need to balance budgets.

Another problem with this claim of centrism is that the logical end of it implies that when confronted by two irreconcilable claims – “two-plus-two-equals-four” and another “two-plus-two-equals-six” – the “centrist’“ answer is five. No journalist would make that simple error. But versions of it appear in more complicated dollars and cents debates and in commentary on social policy and foreign affairs issues.


The centrist claim from some in the media is particularly hollow when it means “my view is the moderate one and yours is not.” A fine example is on a controversial social issue such as abortion. Polls of Canadian attitudes reveals that the vast majority of Canadians do not favour either the strict pro-life position (no abortions are allowed) or the strict pro-choice position (where abortion is legally unrestricted at all stages of pregnancy).

A plurality of Canadians prefer unrestricted abortion in the early stages of pregnancy but with some restrictions in the second or third trimester.1 The law of the land in Canada is that no restrictions exist. Like it or dislike it, the legal reality is not reflective of where the majority of Canadians sit on the issue.

But any attempt to move the law closer to the views of Canadians on abortion – the actual center position according to polls – would be construed and portrayed on most front pages and on every evening newscast as extremist and immoderate.

At best, the claim of centrism can be more about a journalist’s own views and comfort zone than a reflection of where much of public opinion might be at. At worst, the claim is nonsensical because an issue doesn’t lend itself to easy right-center-left descriptions, as in the two-plus-two-equals-five example.

“I just report the facts”

Editors, producers, and writers can influence coverage by what they display, assign or omit. During the 2000 federal election campaign, the National Post ran a picture of Jean Chrétien every day that looked to be the worst one available. It appeared to be an obvious effort to show the Prime Minister as a tired retread in comparison to the new guy, the athletic, jet-skiing Stockwell Day.

In the case of the Post, maybe the assignment editor had a conservative bent. Insofar as most newsrooms are concerned (editorial boards are another matter) it’s generally more often a liberal or activist bent. (Exhibit A: Think of the recent Globe and Mail over-the-topattack against the Conservatives over changes to committees which recommend judicial appointments, this for merely adding police and victim’s rights advocates.)

Media facts: History is history in journalism

One useful aspect of journalistic culture to understand is that reporting and analysis too often reflects a “today” consensus, one deficient in historical perspective and which might otherwise call into question the approach some reporters take and also how the news is framed.

That’s understandable on one level – news is about today – but coverage and commentary could be improved if a sense of history and grounding in other disciplines (economics or science for example) were more widespread. An understanding of history would help ensure more balance in reporting and commentary. Without it, reporters and others can create their own reality for readers, viewers and listeners, a “reality” which may well be false but not readily recognizable as such.

There are exceptions. In the U.S., George F. Will has an encyclopedic and nuanced grasp on history and philosophy; Charles Krauthammer’s psychiatry degree informs his analysis. Here in Canada, examples include the Post’s Andrew Coyne and Robert Fulford who provide a grasp of essentials beyond the trendy opinions, in part because of Coyne’s economic background and Fulford’s deep well of artistic, historical, and literature sensibilities. Over at the Globe, Marcus Gee (though rarely published any more) gets it on security and military issues because of his background in the same. And there are others, but they are the exception with Canada’s fifth estate and not the rule.

Medium-specific barriers to communicating with the public

Beyond the image many journalists have of themselves, anyone who wants to communicate with the public should understand the limitations and advantages of each medium.


The social problem: Ottawa and provincial capital coziness

When I lived in Japan in the mid-1990s, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, then based in Tokyo, gave a critical speech of Japan’s press corps. What I recall is that he compared the Japanese media to Canada’s and it wasn’t a compliment. Friedman outlined a litany of complaints: the media were too enthralled with the Royal family and too reluctant to challenge the status quo assumptions of their colleagues or of Japanese society in general, among other problems.

Friedman’s sideswipe at Canada’s media was not wholly underserved. Even the fawning over the royal family comparison was apt. Witness how our Canadian media went agog over the about-to-be-appointed Governor General Michaelle Jean in 2005. Many were reflexively supportive despite her and her husband’s past sympathy for Quebec separatism. (Try and imagine an American presidential candidate having ever expressed broad sympathy for southern secession and then imagine the reaction of the media and general public when such a dalliance was revealed.) It was a demonstration of how, while many in Canada’s media like to think they challenge the status quo, rarely do when it goes against the journalistic and elite grain.

Part of it is cultural: Americans have challenged the status quo since their own revolution against the British. Part of it results from a smaller population and media pool and the resulting coziness: Washington and New York are large enough to avoid too many incidents of having one’s spouse, friend, or former colleague end up in the story one or one’s colleague needs to write or comment on. That’s not as rare in Canada, either in provincial capitals or in Ottawa.

Problems with the medium of television

Ideas are not always explainable in ten second sound bites (though sometimes the kernel of a concept might be). It’s why talk-radio is a friendly medium for conservatives. If you’re confident that your ideas make sense and can withstand scrutiny, talk-radio is a particularly useful medium as one can explain them at length and engage the public in a conversation.

In contrast, television has inherent limitations as a medium for public discourse. The late Neil Postman argued correctly that television (beginning in the 1950s) began to erode our only-recent culture of literacy – that it restored and exalted the image as the default currency of communication, the image we’d work so hard to get away from over millennia.

So how does this affect modern political debate, not only for conservatives in Canada interested in ideas and sensible policies but for anyone concerned with rational thoughtful debate?

First, images can easily deceive because the context is often not provided. In a CBC documentary about Pope John Paul II, CBC producer Terence McKenna noted the pontiff’s 1983 visit to Nicaragua during the Sandinista reign. McKenna showed one event with the Pope visibly unhappy at constant interruptions from the audience. The CBC producer portrayed it as evidence of a Pope unwilling to brook dissent, of John Paul II’s supposed authoritarian streak, the default and predictable theme of McKenna’s feature.

But viewers were never told that the front section of the rally had been taken over by Sandinista plants who then unfurled their banners and constantly interrupted the Pope’s message to the faithful. The Pope was properly angry that the political Sandinistas interfered with his message to his flock. But viewers unacquainted with the event and its context would never know such facts given McKenna’s selective editing and commentary.

Television can also often lead to political actions that, had more reflection been allowed, might never have been taken. Images produce a gut reaction and tempt an irrational but understandable emotional response: here’s the tragedy – do something about it now. Thus, the response to the latest horrific scene on television runs ahead of thought and in fact replaces reasoned debate as politicians and pundits try to keep ahead of the unfolding tragedy on their television screen.

Aid organizations and environmental groups have long known this which is why they put impoverished kids from Africa and cute animals on television in their attempts to raise money: we’re naturally and properly empathetic and want to “do something.” There’s nothing wrong with that and it can be quite helpful. But it’s one thing to donate money in an effort to stave off famine or to save an endangered species; it’s another to withdraw troops from the battle front because of the evening news.


Budget cuts and personal priorities

Beyond television’s natural limitations, budget cuts over the past five years at two major chains, CanWest and Sun-Quebecor, have reduced the opportunity for thoughtful commentary and for newspapers to take deeper, longer looks at issues of the day. It’s affected not only reporting but also from the editorial side meant to balance out the sensational headlines and stories which appear on page A1.

To wit, my local broadsheet, and for which I’ve written occasional freelance columns, the Calgary Herald – recently put the death of Anna Nicole Smith on the front page. Smith was the ultimate Seinfeld celebrity – a career about nothing and who had long ago used up her fifteen minutes of fame. Her appearance in death on the first page was not exactly a positive development for the Canadian newspaper establishment.

For all of Conrad Black’s critics, at least his personal support for aggressive reporting (ask Jean Chrétien) and for thoughtful and provocative commentary made a difference to the nation’s newspapers. That made a decade-long mark on Canada’s media establishment, including among Black’s competitors who during his ownership were forced to encounter editorial viewpoints that were much rarer in the pre-Black era of the 1970s and 1980s. Black’s influence was positive for journalism as he believed in newspapers as serious vehicles for a nation’s debates about itself.

Editorial boards need a mix of long-time journalists and specialists but unfortunately, current editorial pages across the country are being starved of both. Instead, experiments with free publications – CanWest’s failed Dose and Torstar’s Weekly Scoop are examples – and other expanded entertainment-like sections of newspapers, are the new priority.

Thus, a scan of newspapers with the exception of the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail will find that commentary and book review sections have been slashed. That CanWest has now largely left much commentary, analysis and book reviews to newspapers with a more left-wing view of the country is, in my view, a serious mistake both for reasons of attracting readership and because Canada need diverse analyses and opinions but also because thoughtful commentary and reviews of ideas in general are critical to a well-informed public and especially to leaders be they in politics, business, or other fields.

With a nod to the necessity of newspapers and television stations to make a profit, newspaper owners, accountants and publishers should rethink their drive to dumb down their product; it may make it indistinguishable from what’s already free on the web. Such self-selected suicide is not in their or readers’ long-term interest.

Will the Internet change anything?

Perhaps it will, through increased reading instead of mere viewing, challenge the dominance of the image-based culture which grew up over the last fifty years (though it would be a mistake to think pre-Internet or pre-television eras were always bastions of considered thought).

I suspect for many, the Internet will reinforce existing predilections on how they receive information. Those who like television will stick to websites that give out “knowledge” visually; those who chose a more literary medium – magazines, broadsheets and journals – will choose the equivalent of the same on the web. So Youtube will reinforce the inherent weaknesses of an image-based culture while some blogging and other web-based information might challenge it.

And the Internet has already had an effect in challenging myths and outright lies. The New York Times’ Walter Duranty, who in the 1930s wrote there was no famine in the Ukraine (when contemporary evidence since produced suggests Duranty well knew 10 million were already dead) could not get away with such deception in the 21st century – not with an Internet that connects most corners of the planet, save North Korea and other repressed states.

So the Internet has made challenging the “old” media easier. Think of Dan Rather and the CBS credibility implosion after lawyers and others spotted the fake National Guard papers CBS attributed to George W. Bush. This ability to spot such falseness punctures the traditional media’s monopoly on information flows and may be the Internet’s most significant contribution to public discourse to date.


Explaining the Facts of Life to Canadian Media

The reality of the media in Canada is that plenty of myth-making is perpetuated, occasionally due to error, tight deadlines, understaffing, misplaced resources, or simple bias. That’s another fact of life, and idea conservatives might as well face it and then think about how to grapple with the media. Here’s my shortlist.

First, break down information into manageable bites suited for the medium one is communicating through and explain it repeatedly over time

One of my goals when I was in full-time advocacy was to give journalists easy-to-understand factoids in digestible tablets relevant to their medium– especially critical for television, progressively less so for newspapers, magazine and talk-radio. I could write 20 to 50-page studies and 280-page books. But if one wants to communicate with the greater public, it helps to pull out the salient fact from such works. The evening news is looking for one ten-second “acorn” quote from your brilliant new book or study or article – not the entire grown-up tree.

Second, communicate creatively: how 10,000 gold loonies beat a 50-page study

This is especially important with difficult-to-grasp ideas, concepts and policies. When I worked for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation we mounted a campaign against “bracket creep” taxation. There were many ways to explain bracket creep, none of them naturally simple or “sexy” and it was a concept ten times tougher to explain on television.

Back in 2000, I suggested to the CTF’s federal director, Walter Robinson, that he borrow 10,000 loonies from a bank, put them on a table, hold a press conference and announce that bracket creep taxation cost the average Canadian $10,000 over the last fourteen years. He did, and it worked in communicating a tough concept in easy-to-understand terms through a medium not naturally suited to explaining obscure points about tax policy.

Third, don’t fib or get “cute” about the truth

If idea conservatives think the facts support them – that the reality of human experience proves competition works better than regulation most days, that defence of one’s country is sensible, that stable families are the best bulwark against tyranny, that moderate levels of taxation are friendly to employment creation and thus create opportunities for the poor – then there is no need to get “creative” with the facts or use bogus arguments and weak claims. The facts are already on your side and only need to be explained and extrapolated time and again (see Point Two above).

Fourth, don’t confuse political partisans with partisans of truth, and don’t apologize for the former unless you actually agree with them on a particular issue

Politicians, political parties and compromise are all necessary elements of the democratic political process. There’s nothing wrong with that and there’s nothing wrong with a career in politics. It is an honourable profession. But politicians – even decent, thoughtful ones, need to get elected. The result is an incentive (for them) to blur tough truths and to occasionally enact less-then-sensible policies.

It’s the job of a policy wonk, columnist, academic and advocate to tell the truth as they see it, with the obvious caveat that all of us can be mistaken at times. It’s the job of a politician to find some way to stop citizens from killing each other – which means they’ll often saw the “idea baby” in half a la King Solomon. Nothing is gained when idea conservatives make excuses for political parties and politicians who enact questionable policy. It makes more sense to sell the public on why a whole “baby” makes more sense than a stillborn half of one.

Fifth, do your homework and others can’t ignore you- even if they want to

When I researched my second book (on taxation), I poured through the dry history of taxation and spending in Canada. It paid off with gems such as the quotes from Wilfrid Laurier on freedom, from early finance ministers on the need to keep tax rates below those of the Americans, and the discovery that many of our taxes first originated in the United States. Those facts defy modern assumptions about which country first suggested big government as the solution to all that ails us. Jack Granatstein has performed similar work on our military history and Janet Ajzenstat has produced several volumes on Canada’s early classic liberal (in today’s terms – conservative) history.

History is not the final word on any matter, but how can one argue that Canada was the original high-tax, big government, isolationist nation – and that’s it’s un-Canadian to favour limited government and a robust defence – when history’s record demonstrates otherwise? Answer: one can’t, not honestly, and not even if one works for the CBC or Toronto Star – not if others are willing to correct them with the facts.

The facts of life are more accessible than ever before

Idea conservatives in command of useful, relevant facts have nothing to fear from the old media, though they should understand who and what they’re dealing with and the built-in limitations and advantages of each medium. Idea conservatives can also make substantial gains in gaining a broader audience through the new media, if one is smart and creative and occasionally entertaining about it.

“Is the media biased?” Some in it certainly are, but call me an optimist: The facts of life have never had a fairer chance at a fair public hearing as they do now.

Mark Milke started working on-air on a Kelowna radio station when he was 14, is a frequent freelance contributor to editorial pages across Canada, author of three books on Canadian politics, including “A Nation of Serfs?” from John Wiley & Sons, and a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Calgary. mmilke@telus.net.


1 – A 2001 Gallup poll on Canadian public opinion probed this issue at some depth. It asked: “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal under certain circumstances or illegal in all circumstances and in what circumstances?” A minority — 32 percent – said abortion should be legal in all circumstances. A minority – 14 percent – said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. A slim majority – 52 percent – said abortion should be legal only in certain circumstances. In other words, about one-third of Canadians think abortion should be legal at all stages while two-thirds of Canadians do not favour an utter lack of limits on abortion at all stages in a pregnancy – the current situation in Canada where no law restricts the procedure in any month.

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