The big­gest sup­port­ers money can buy

The Southern Gazette - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 36 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­[email protected]­gram.com Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

I like to think that if any­one tried it here, they’d be laughed right out of the Con­fed­er­a­tion Build­ing.

Right now, it’s a feature of press con­fer­ences with On­tario Pre­mier Doug Ford or his cabi­net min­is­ters: they bring along paid gov­ern­ment staff to ap­plaud an­swers to re­porters’ ques­tions.

It wasn’t just for the po­lit­i­cal show, ei­ther. When gov­ern­ment han­dlers de­cide it’s time to pull the plug, they an­nounce “one last ques­tion,” and af­ter that, the hired cho­rus is used to rap­tur­ously drown out any more re­porters’ ques­tions.

“Oh, our great pre­mier,” the tele­vi­sion and ra­dio au­di­ence is sup­posed to sur­mise, “he’s trailed ev­ery­where by his ador­ing sub­jects!”

(It makes me think more of moirol­o­gists. That’s a term for pro­fes­sional mourn­ers, peo­ple paid to wail and pull their hair at fu­ner­als and make it seem as though the dearly de­parted was more dear than is ac­tu­ally the case. It’s all the grief that money can buy.)

And sure, it hap­pens here in the House of As­sem­bly, at least to some de­gree. I can re­mem­ber watch­ing bud­get af­ter bud­get, when gov­ern­ment mem­bers “spon­ta­neously” start clap­ping, stand­ing and some­times cheer­ing mul­ti­ple times dur­ing the bud­get speech.

I can also re­mem­ber think­ing how lit­tle self-re­spect you’d have to have to vol­un­tar­ily act as some­one’s prop. It is truly sick-mak­ing to watch grown adults play-act, and play-act so badly at that.

It’s not only the House of As­sem­bly.

At big gov­ern­ment an­nounce­ments, there’s of­ten a co­terie of the blissed or the bought tucked in among the in­vited guests, there to add a crackle of ap­plause to ac­cen­tu­ate a par­tic­u­larly pithy pre­mierial bon mot.

Luck­ily, though, it’s not a daily part of po­lit­i­cal prac­tice here to game the public and shut down the me­dia. And let’s hope that doesn’t change.

There’s one thing that’s clearly work­ing in our favour: we’re a smaller prov­ince and the po­lit­i­cal play­ers are bet­ter known. I asked one leg­isla­tive re­porter what would hap­pen if Pre­mier Dwight Ball started bring­ing his own cheer­ing sec­tion to gov­ern­ment an­nounce­ments, and the re­porter said he’d like to think that the press gallery would sim­ply turn its tele­vi­sion cam­eras and iPhones around and start record­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing just ex­actly who was in the cheer­ing sec­tion.

In­stead of a story about the lat­est an­nounce­ment, there’d be a story about the peo­ple tak­ing a gov­ern­ment pay­cheque to mind­lessly ap­plaud - “Hey, look! Isn’t that Betty down the block? What do you sup­pose she makes for do­ing that?”

Af­ter all, the public should get to see what they’re pay­ing for - and also, cour­tesy of the prov­ince’s sun­shine list, to find out what the go­ing rate is for non-spon­ta­neous syco­phancy. (Wait a sec - syco­phancy is a great word, but I think the dic­tionary def­i­ni­tion of it is even pithier: “ob­se­quious be­hav­ior to­ward some­one im­por­tant in or­der to gain ad­van­tage.” Yeah, that’s it, all right.)

In On­tario, the press corps has started fight­ing back. They’ve started ques­tion­ing politi­cians about whether us­ing staff for pro­mo­tional pur­poses is an ac­cept­able use of tax­pay­ers’ money, es­pe­cially by a gov­ern­ment that ar­gued long and hard that its pre­de­ces­sor was a peren­nial money-waster.

They’ve stopped play­ing by other rules, too, like be­ing forced to ask ques­tions through a cen­tral mi­cro­phone that gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials grab back when they de­cide there have been enough ques­tions.

In a com­pet­i­tive busi­ness, though, there are al­ways a few re­porters who will break ranks with a lit­tle syco­phancy of their own.

That’s a shame.

But worse? Pay­ing peo­ple to pub­licly pre­tend to like you and cheer on your poli­cies.

It’s like hav­ing to tie a pork chop around your neck to get the dogs to play with you.

It is truly sick-mak­ing to watch grown adults play-act, and play-act so badly at that.

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