In politics, as in television, there are tropes. These are shorthand ways of thinking, urban legends that everybody knows are true, beliefs about the way things are or should go, even if the reality may be something else entirely.
When it comes to political tropes, these are tales we tell of our political leaders, that everybody appears to have heard, and everybody assumes to be accurate. I’m sure every party partisan can list the tropes that have been applied to their own party, Liberal, Conservative or New Democrat. The Liberals and the Conservatives have been using these tropes against each other for years, if not decades. Some of these accusations may have elements of the truth involved — and I myself have even subscribed to them — but it would probably serve us better if we stepped back and examined the facts behind the assumptions, and assessed whether or not they really backed our assumptions or not.
There’s a trope that surfaces periodically when Jack Layton rises in the polls. It accuses the leader of the New Democrats of living in a publicly subsidized house when he and his wife (Olivia Chow) were making over $100,000 per year. Invariably, this is raised in an act of gotcha politics. “Look! Look! How hypocritical! The Laytons are taking up space that could be occupied by a truly needy family! Such freeloaders!” Now that the NDP has surged in the polls, it’s materialized again.
Except that it’s not true. I remember when the accusations surfaced for the first time, in 1990, back when Jack Layton was still a city councillor (my city councillor, point of fact). Dr. Dawg does a very good job debunking this trope. First of all, Layton and Chow did live within a community that contained subsidized housing. They themselves never received subsidy for their housing. Not only did they also pay market rates for their home, they topped their rent, covering the subsidy of some of their neighbours on behalf of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
And if you have to ask why should Layton and Chow be living within a community that contains subsidized housing, you don’t understand how subsidized housing works in Toronto. Rather than create ghettos of a single income group, the designers of subsidized housing in Toronto since the 1970s have sought to create mixed income communities, where subsidized units stand side-by-side with units sold at market rates. This is among the most successful experiments ever attempted in terms of creating livable, viable communities offering shelter that most everyone can afford. The neighbourhood of St. Lawrence is one of the pleasant places I’ve ever had the pleasure of walking through in the City of Toronto, and it was launched as a community featuring subsidized housing. The neighbourhood I grew up in had its share of subsidized housing as well, but I felt as safe there as I’ve felt anywhere else I’ve lived, and far safer than I’ve felt among the projects of South Chicago.
This is what Layton and Chow were participating in, and I say it reflects well on them that they did so.
Unfortunately, reporters with an axe to grind don’t seem to want facts like these to stand in the way of a good story. As this trope surfaces yet again, I guess we’ll just have to beat it back with the truth as I know it. I was there. I know what happened.
Related to the above is the recent story that surfaced surrounding Quebec NDP candidate Ruth Ellen Brosseau. Now, let me run two reads of this by you, and see what you think of each one:
Read One: NDP candidate works at a campus bar and has taken a vacation mid-campaign in Las Vegas.
Read Two: A single-mother working to raise her child, put her name forward as an NDP candidate knowing she would probably lose, booked an extra cheap vacation in Las Vegas weeks before the election was called and could not cancel the ticket.
Tell me: doesn’t read one sound a heck of a lot more sinister to you? Care to guess what certain media pundits and more than a few partisans chose to run with?
Now I know that, given that the NDP has decided to run a number of placeholder candidates in a number of ridings throughout this country, and given the sudden NDP surge, there’s going to be a lot of sudden interest in these previously unknown candidates, and some embarrassing apples will show up in the barrel. That isn’t limited to any party. Remember the white supremacist that was discovered as a Liberal candidate for a northern Quebec riding that Ignatieff had to can earlier in this very campaign? I wonder what sort of interesting Conservative candidates we might find running in areas of Quebec where the Conservatives typically poll under 10%? Or Albertan Liberals?
And it is fair to point out that, given the NDP’s surprising surge, there exists a potential to elect candidates that had never hoped to win, and would never expect to win in normal circumstances. Voters have to take that into account. And I admit that the potential for comedy is high in the case of Ms. Brosseau, and other candidates like her. On Election Day, how many newly-minted MPs will answer the phone, I wonder, to say, “What?!!? I what?!!? Oh… Um… Children? We have to move. To Ottawa. Tomorrow.”
But it takes a special kind of dedication, I think, to put your name forward for a party in an election you know you can’t win. And the fact that a single mother is willing to do this is a good thing, in my opinion. It makes these would-be not-policians human.
Tomorrow, an actually whacky NDP no-name candidate may make the front page, much to Layton’s chagrin, but that’s a news story for tomorrow. For today, I think it’s unfortunate that the media have chosen to report Ms. Brosseau’s situation in the most sinister way possible. It may make for good copy, but it does a disservice to dedicated individuals like Ms. Brosseau who believe enough in democracy to step forward and fight a campaign they believe they cannot win.