Freedom of (Political) Speech

Recently, Elon Musk’s bid to take over Twitter spawned much speculation over the future direction of this social media platform. My colleague Amanda Deseure wrote in iPolitics about the importance of audience and the tone used on Twitter, particularly regarding misinformation and polarization, and what Musk’s (rumoured) intended changes to the platform could mean for its audience – particularly whether users would stay or flee.

One line that stood out to me in that piece was about whether “the quest for freedom of speech [would] erode a baseline standard for appropriate discussion online.”

Deseure is referring, of course, to how polarization, hate speech and disinformation can and have spread across social media platforms. It got me thinking about tone and leadership in Canadian politics. Having issues around the tone or rhetoric of user engagement on social media is one thing, but watching it creep into the political discourse, the language of our leaders – or those who would seek to be our leaders – is concerning.

As the federal parliamentary session winds down and the Conservative Leadership race heats up, we’re seeing in real time a shift in political rhetoric and discourse employed by leaders at the federal level. On one hand, we’re seeing the federal Liberals and NDP learn to live in an unperfect partnership that has been at least partially sold as a measure to decrease polarization and increase the level of debate in Parliament. On the other hand, we’re witnessing what may be a reckoning for moderate conservative politicians and a push toward a populist style of leadership and tone – defined by how supportive the candidates were of the freedom convoy or how anti-establishment they are – reminiscent of what former President Donald Trump brought to the table, which not long ago would have been disavowed by most Canadian voters.

It's perhaps important to note here that there is a difference between the ‘folksy’ brand and ‘common’ or ‘every-man’ language some politicians employ, and purposely anti-establishment or conspiracy-laden leadership and rhetoric. I would suggest the former is an effective way to contrast an overly wonkish approach that progressive leaders sometimes take in describing complex policies and platforms, and win over undecided voters who make decisions based on trust or whether they would have a beer with a candidate. I worry the result of the latter may very well be a more fractured – and volatile – governing system that sheds any semblance of the predictability that I believe Canadians prefer.

How voters more broadly will react to shifts toward populism remains to be seen, but it’s interesting to juxtapose this shift as federal Conservative leaders try to appeal to their voting base, with the rhetoric and tone of the Ontario election in real time. While the Ontario provincial election has turned out to be a bit of a sleeper, I would argue Premier Doug Ford – who rode to power on the wings of populism in 2018 and remains the favourite to win the election this year – has thrived in this election by flying below the radar and steering clear of the anti-establishment, conspiracy-laden rhetoric and discourse we’re seeing in other corners.

In the end, Parliament – Question Period in particular – and elections remain a vessel for theatre, and politicians will seek the support of Canadians by matching up a brand offering to what voters are looking for. It will be interesting to see if the calculus to win the support of a small bloc of partisan base supporters will hold up to the test of winning over large swaths of voters.


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