This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave his first televised interview since deciding to prorogue Parliament for the second time in a year.
The CBC’s Peter Mansbridge visited Harper in his office, where among other things the PM told him that Canadians don’t care that cabinet members appear to be implicated in war crimes in Afghanistan.
Ever since the detainee-transfer story blew wide open last November, Harper and other senior ministers have been careful who they speak with. CBC Radio’s hard-hitting public affairs programs The Current and The House had no success in their attempts to interview Harper, Peter MacKay, or Gordon O’Connor. How did Mansbridge succeed where others failed?
The answer is simple. Unlike the hosts of those other shows, Mansbridge is a patsy. Harper used him like a fresh Kleenex for 20 minutes and then dropped him in the wastebasket with a satisfied grin. First victory for Harper: the home turf advantage. No sterile studio for this PM, the pair sat in Harper’s cozy, dark-panelled office amid pictures of his family.
At Mansbridge’s elbow sat a photo of Harper’s wife and daughter, clearly visible and in focus each time he posed a question. Beside Harper, a slightly less clear shot of the family, all dressed in red like a big happy Canadian flag.
As to the questions, if the prime minister’s office didn’t actually write them they must surely have screened them for maximum propaganda potential. Not since the fall of the Soviet Union has a national leader faced such friendly questions on a state-owned public broadcaster.
No reasonable, impartial observer doubts Harper has prorogued Parliament for several months in order to cool down the detainee transfer scandal. Mounting evidence suggests that his right-hand man, Peter MacKay, knew or should have known that Canada’s detainees were in danger of torture. The clear implication is that Harper himself ought to have known.
Mansbridge dealt with this issue in a single soft-lob question about the reason for proroguing Parliament. When Harper insisted that the long winter break was to give the government time to think about the next stage in its economic stimulus package, Mansbridge nodded sagely and moved on. He asked not one single probing question about the detainees, and openly endorsed Harper’s fiction that polls show Canadians don’t care.
An Ekos poll – conducted in the days after big guns like David Mulroney and Rick Hillier testified to the parliamentary committee investigating the war crimes allegations – found that “A clear majority of Canadians believe that Canadian Forces handed off prisoners with the knowledge that they might be subject to torture (61 per cent nationally and more than 70 per cent outside of CPC supporters). Of that, the vast majority (83 per cent) believe transferred prisoners were undoubtedly subjected to torture.”
True, there is nothing in the above statement to prove that the 83 per cent of respondents who believed these crimes were committed actually give a damn if people are tortured, but there’s even less to suggest they don’t. Was Mansbridge unaware of the polls? If so, why? Isn’t it part of an interviewer’s job to do a little research ahead of the show?
The interview came to an exciting conclusion when the CBC’s No. 1 news anchor furrowed his brow, pursed his lips, and searchingly pondered, “It’s been four years since you took office – how has it changed you?”
I struggle to think of a time when Canada was more in need of serious, searching enquiry into the behaviour of its government. The prorogation of Parliament to avoid scandal is in itself scandal enough. The fact Harper has cut and run instead of facing his accusers twice in the same year makes it doubly important that he answer hard questions from diligent journalists, instead of taking soft lobs from softer newscasters.
The interview aired on The National, Canada’s most-watched news program. Harper could not have bought better spin at any price, but this one he got for free. It’s been clear for some time that Canada needs a new prime minister. Now it’s equally clear that our national broadcaster needs a new senior anchor. Most pundits agree that Harper’s still in his job for the simple reason that Canadians don’t see a credible alternative. Surely that can’t be the case for Mansbridge.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.