No one to blame but ourselves

This week, an elderly woman in New Brunswick became the latest victim of Canada’s listeriosis outbreak.

This week, an elderly woman in New Brunswick became the latest victim of Canada’s listeriosis outbreak. At the same time, an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal lays out the case against the Harper government, which clearly bears much of the responsibility for the 17 deaths that have been linked to sloppy inspection practices at the plant.

Unless you’re a regular Nordicity reader, you may be unaware that the Conservatives recently dropped government inspections of meat-packing plants, giving the job to the business owners themselves. A couple of weeks ago this column discussed the possibility that the listeriosis outbreak may be the result of those cuts. Now a group of doctors and medical journal editors has confirmed that suspicion.

According to the medical journal editorial, “A full-scale public inquiry into the major failings of Canada’s food inspection system is necessary to protect Canadians from future epidemic threats.” But, the authors point out, Harper has authorized only an internal government investigation, of the type most conducive to a cover-up.

As you may have noticed, Canada is in the midst of a federal election, and up until now the opinion polls have seemed to indicate that the government will be returned to office, perhaps with a stronger mandate. Two years of bad news have failed to scratch the Harper government’s veneer of competence, or at least of slightly higher competence than its nearest rival.

Harper entered this election with what should have been a necklace of millstones. He violated his own new law — and one of his loudest promises — by calling an election ahead of the scheduled date. His claim that his hand was forced by a dysfunctional Parliament disintegrates into absurdity at the mention of Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loon’s manual instructing his caucus colleagues on techniques to manufacture dysfunction.

The Harper government is awash in scandals, almost any one of which could dwarf the sponsorship affair that brought down their Liberal predecessors, and Harper’s unseemly haste to call an election smells very strongly of a cover-up — a couple of enquiries and court cases were starting to take a turn for the scandalous, and given time could have proven disastrous for the government.

The Conservatives have pursued an unpopular war, and their only steps on global warming have been backward steps. They have gutted arts funding, Americanized the justice system, and done nothing measurable for the economy except to open up boreal Alberta to certain destruction in the name of a short and dirty boom sure to be followed by a long and dirty bust.

Despite all this, Harper has been able to capitalize on his opponents’ weaknesses, and remain strong in the polls. So much so that Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente commented that Liberal leader Stephane Dion’s only hope was to “persuade us that the Harper-Harris Tories are to blame for killing people’s grandmothers with poisoned sandwich meat.”

That fact is now staring us in the face, and so far, it’s had no measurable effects on public opinion.

The Conservatives now enjoy the same privileged position once occupied by the undefeatable Chretien Liberals — a fragmented opposition, and the support of CanWest Global, the media giant that controls the flow of information in most of Western Canada.

Even so, Harper ought to be vulnerable on the listeriosis outbreak. He has surrounded himself with the authors of the Walkerton affair, and repeated their homicidal folly to predictable effect. And now a panel of doctors and distinguished editors have called him on it. You don’t get much more busted than that. So why are the Conservatives still in the race at all, let alone apparently winning?

The answer would seem to lie in media reaction to the story. While most major news outlets covered the medical journal editorial, nobody ran it as their front story. In most it fell far behind Harper’s announcement that he will bow to pressure and release the costs of the Afghanistan mission. It’s a sad fact of modern political life that the voters respond less to the facts than to the volume at which they are received.

If the National Post bellows that Harper finds opposition spending promises “mind-boggling,” and then whispers that a distinguished medical journal has found Harper’s policies could kill us all, most of its readers will give greater weight to the first story. This is in no way the fault of the media. The Post has as much right to its love affair with the Conservatives as Nordicity has to distrust their every move. It’s up to readers to observe these biases and weigh the facts for themselves.

A democracy is only as good as its citizens. Corporate media may slant the news how it wishes; the facts are there to be read, if only the voters take the trouble. If Harper and crew are returned to power, a compliant media will have played a role in that victory. But the blame will fall far more heavily on the shoulders of a complacent electorate.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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