Notes from John Ibbitson’s Speech

John and I were sharing some insights at the Fall Planning Session of the Alberta Teachers’ Association in Banff last week.  John has just returned from the Globe and Mail Washington Bureau Chief to become their Ottawa Bureau Chief. He is replacing Brian Laghi who has moved to the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy as Director of Communications and Public Affairs.

John has a new book, “Open and Shut: why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper.”  His observations about the two political cultures was fascinating and he has travelled and lived on both sides of the border to have observed a lot about our similarities and differences.

Michael Adams’ book “Fire and Ice” reflected many of the political cultural truths and the differences between Canada and the States that Ibbitson mentioned.  What I found particularly interesting from John’s comments was his observations on the different ways Canada and the USA selects its leaders.

The road to being the President of the USA is a two year marathon that runs on media and money – lots of money.  Obama spent over $650m on the nomination and the Presidency.  I understand that is as much as all presidential candidates from all parties spent all together in all aspects of the 2004 campaign all combined.  An astonishing fact.

The US Presidency selection process is at first a series of church basements and town-halls where the wannabes go one on one with individual citizens are the full range of issues.  The party primaries are where the party members act  almost like a jury to judge the mettle of hopeful and pass judgment on them in preparation for the party convention.  If they are successful to become the party’s nominee they then get to do it a second time as the candidate for President. 

This open arduous and ultra-democratic process coupled with the power and reach of social media now means you can elect a President from the grassroots of the citizens.  That is exactly what happened in the Obama experience.  This process has its faults but it ensures a vigorous and vital democracy will be alive and well in America.

Canada’s democracy is ineffectual, flaccid and stagnant by comparison.  Ibbitson had some interesting observations as to why.  The process to become Prime Minister of  Canada is a closed, elitist, unimpressive and disengaging process.  Political parties, who have astonishingly small memberships, make their partisan leadership choices through elites who foist the decision on the citizenry.

Same is true at the provincial levels for Premier.  Historically the fight become Premier of Alberta has been a factional fight amongst party elites who get to resolve the issue of leadership and present the results to a disinterested passive electorate.

Ibbitson noted that all the key stores in the American election were broken on the web, not by the traditional media.  The conventional elites in business and academia, until recently, were totally oblivious to the influence of the worldwide web on politics and public policy.  That awareness is changing but very slowly.  The first reaction the conventional elites seem to have to the impact of the Internet and importance of social media is denial followed by fear.  The new world order has already changed and has passed by those people with those attitudes – but it is never too late to learn. 

It was refreshing to hear a traditional journalist like John Ibbitson showing such insight and awareness of the profound changes that is happening in media and communications.  I expect ot be continuing our conversations on line.

Check out his book here. I will pick it up from my local independnt bookseller and am looking forward to reading it.