Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Borking of Michaëlle Jean

If the title of this post sounds vaguely obscene, I should explain: "borking" refers to the discrediting of a candidate for public office through intense and unfair media scrutiny. The term comes from the U.S. in reference to Judge Robert Bork, who was rejected as a candidate for the Supreme Court based on intense coverage of his viewpoints. We now see an attempt to recreate the "borking" phenomenon, this time directed at Governor-General designate Michaëlle Jean.

Leading the charge against Ms. Jean's appointment is the magazine Le Québécois, which published an article yesterday describing activities which seemed to show sympathy for the cause of Quebec independence.

Note that I say "seemed." One thing to remember about Quebec politics is that it is socializing as well as socialist. The independence-leaning activities didn't take place at a political meeting, but at a cocktail party. So there's some question as to whether Ms. Jean was being heartfelt or was just trying to ingratiate herself with the guests. (Remember, she's a journalist, a career where schmoozing to gain sympathy is a virtue.)

Anyway, you have a "he said, she said" scenario, with enough ambiguity that target clarification is needed. You have a newsmagazine, with a biased viewpoint (and to their credit, Le Québécois proclaims its bias), ready and willing to keep the target on the public agenda. And you have the context of "silly season," when news days are typically slow. The perfect environment for a borking.

Now, Ms. Jean has apparently decided not to comment further until her investiture next month. In terms of handling a borking, this is a mistake, a big one. These charges are like an untreated boil; unless you take care of them right away they'll fester in the public agenda until things really get ugly. And since Ms. Jean's investiture is on Sept. 27th, that's a month and a half during which more potentially damaging revelations can be discovered. (Things like a predeliction for polka music, or being a Maple Leafs fan--things that can really damage a candidate in the public eye.)

Of course, it keeps the journalists out of trouble, and everyone else either entertained or more disillusioned with the Canadian political process. Borking can be fun -- unless you're the borked.

A couple of observations:

First, I think I've mentioned before that it's somewhat ironic that sovereigntists would want to get rid of an executive who's allegedly sympathetic to their ultimate goal. But we have to remember, this isn't really about Ms. Jean. This is about attacking the competence of Paul Martin.

The press goal, here, is to demonstrate that the PM has made a bad choice for GG by picking someone not truly representative of Canada as a whole. (After all, not too many people have heard of Ms. Jean in western Canada.) And they will be aided by a national news media that has not much else on the agenda and always welcomes an opportunity to stir up trouble for a sitting government.

The drawback, of course, is that the position of GG is not one that most Canadians think about. Apart from some ceremonial duties and the granting of Royal Assent to bills, the job's not one that makes the news a lot. Unless Ms. Jean or her spouse makes a collossal flub (i.e. one on a Prince Philip level), I think most Canadians will be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. (And Prince Philip's almost always been forgiven for his faux pas, even when they've been doozies--slitty eyes, anyone?)

Second, there is definitely a need for formal public input in to the G-G selection process.

As things stand now, all the PM has to do is submit a name to the Royal Sovereign in Great Britain. The Sovereign can theoretically reject the nomination, but in practice he or she doesn't really do all that much vetting because he or she assumes the PM's already done that, and has made a good selection.

It's not quite the same as the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court. There, at least, the nominees are vetted by the Canadian Bar Association, so there's some superficial outside input. While the PM certainly may have consulted some party members, in theory he could just pick a name out of a hat and send that to London, no vetting, and it would be approved.

So I'd argue that a change is needed--maybe not a direct public election of the G-G (gosh darn it, that sounds so--republican--a bad word to use in Canada), but maybe informal meetings with either the Commons or the Senate.

It's true that you run the risk of an "Anita Hill" scenario, and dignity is still a strong element of Canadian politics. But at least it's in an environment where a vigourous defence can earn a candidate points in the public eye--and the inquisition is done by people who can legitimately claim to represent the public will, which the media cannot do.