St. George enters federal campaign: how media frame the economy, Part I

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Former PM Paul Martin (Photo: Andrew Rusk)

Former PM Paul Martin (Photo: Andrew Rusk)

As federal politicians continue their trek toward election day on October 19th, it’s worth looking at how mainstream journalists frame economic issues and asking what if they framed them differently? What if, for example, journalists asked who gains and who loses from balanced budgets, tax cuts and spending restraint?

Michal Rozworski’s piece published yesterday in The Tyee is a helpful backgrounder because it views economic policies through the lenses of social class and the capitalist system. It’s especially relevant now that Paul Martin has appeared on the campaign trail.

Rozworski recalls Martin’s record as federal finance minister in the 1990s. He argues that Martin’s austerity policies disciplined workers on behalf of the capitalist class, though of course, Martin himself would never put it that way. Aside from Martin’s cuts to social programs in the 90s, the Liberals also gutted unemployment insurance.

In 1990, 80 per cent of workers could qualify for UI. Thanks to Martin-era reforms, that figure fell to 45 per cent by 2008 meaning that most workers could not collect what had, by then, been renamed Employment Insurance. As Rozworski writes:

When workers know they are less likely to get state support, they are also less willing to go out on a limb to demand wage increases, form a union, or otherwise try to better their working conditions. Changes to unemployment insurance were part of a reorientation towards more flexible labour markets and a lower social wage. Business was helped directly, too: their unemployment insurance contributions fell by over a third.

But mainstream journalists rarely remember the effects of Liberal policies in the 1990s and in any case, would never frame them as anti-worker.

Martin as economic star?

Paul Martin’s appearance at a campaign event yesterday in Toronto prompted the Canadian Press news agency to report that the Liberals “put on a display of economic star power…as voters watched jittery world markets and Justin Trudeau faced unrelenting Conservative attack ads that portray him as weak on the economy.” Martin was one of the economic stars the news agency referred to.

For mainstream media, Martin achieved his star status with his 1994 and 1995 budgets when he became the St. George who, “come hell or high water,” slew the “deficit dragon.”

Canadian Press called Martin’s campaign appearance “a not-so-subtle attempt to remind voters that as finance minister under Jean Chretien he oversaw the elimination of the federal deficit.”

In that way of framing things, Martin’s deficit record is a bankable asset, an achievement Canadians (and Liberals) can be proud of.

Martin as slasher

Left-wing economists, such as Jim Stanford, have long pointed out, however, that Martin’s slash and burn approach to social programs went far beyond what was needed to eliminate budget deficits and bring federal debt under control.

Martin scored part of his success on the backs of the poor when he eliminated the Canada Assistance Plan which shared welfare costs with the provinces. It was replaced by the Canada Health and Social Transfer that reduced overall federal spending on social programs. After the elimination of CAP, welfare rates took a dive sending the message that supporting Canada’s “unproductive” underclass was a luxury the state could no longer afford.

Even so, mainstream media applauded Martin’s cuts in the 1990s and continue to applaud them today, although Sun Media columnist Anthony Furey did wonder why Martin would sully his fine reputation by campaigning with the likes of Justin Trudeau. Furey writes:

It’s obvious why the Liberals wanted Martin at their presser. As finance minister, he balanced the budget during tough times in the 1990s. The surpluses continued during his years as PM.

What’s less obvious though is why Martin would want to damage his legacy by standing beside a novice campaigner whose most memorable lines on economic policy are that “the budget will balance itself” and that he’ll grow the economy “from the heart outwards.”

While it’s true that the Sun Media chain likes to lean to the right, Furey’s positive view of Paul Martin’s legacy as deficit slasher, budget balancer and surplus maker is echoed throughout corporate media including the CBC.  Somehow Martin’s other legacies affecting poor people and workers have been forgotten or erased. For journalists, government economic policy, even Stephen Harper’s, is as free of ideology as it is of class bias.

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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