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Economic Freedom


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Volume 8, Number 2 - March, 1995


OF LATE, PROVINCES ACROSS THE COUNTRY, regardless of political affiliation, are falling over themselves to tackle the debt/deficit crisis. In its recent speech from the throne, the Saskatchewan NDP government announced that it will be enacting balanced budget legislation in the upcoming session. Newfoundland's Liberal government is touting that it will project a surplus budget. [Clyde Wells, "The Challenges of 1995 for Newfoundland and Canada: Developing the EDGE," Speech given to The Fraser Institute, Vancouver, B.C., February 13, 1995.] Indeed, with the exception of the country's two largest provinces, most provincial governments seem to be concerned with winning the war against deficits. [Bruce Little, "Provinces winning deficit war: But heavyweights Ontario, Quebec remain mired in a losing battle," Globe and Mail, February 13, 1995, p. B1.]

The most controversial deficit-fighting province has been Alberta, whose Conservative party premier Ralph Klein vowed to cut the deficit by spending cuts alone. In stark contrast is the province of Ontario, whose NDP government chose to run an unprecedented $10 billion deficit in its first budget.

We conducted a content analysis of the first 20 months of the Ontario government under Bob Rae (April 29, 1991 to December 30, 1992) compared to the first 20 months of the Alberta government under Ralph Klein (May 7, 1993 to December 31, 1994). The purpose of the study was to see how the media framed the debt/deficit issue in light of two diametrically opposed economic approaches.

Ontario budget framed as a national story

Nearly three-quarters of CBC's and half of CTV's stories on Ontario's fiscal management mentioned national repercussions. This should not come as a surprise as Ontario constitutes approximately 40 percent of the domestic economy. Rae's decision to fight the recession with increased spending has enormous economic consequences for the rest of the country. Therefore, it is legitimate to frame his decision as a national story. For example, on the April 29, 1991 CTV News, then finance minister Michael Wilson argued that the Ontario budgetary deficit would have a profound effect on the rest of the country: "That's going to put upward pressure on interest rates and the result of that is going to slow down our efforts as a country to get out of the recession." Similarly, on December 22, 1991 when CBC's Peter Mansbridge asked a panel of pundits to name "the national story of the year," Dalton Camp said: "I think it's the Ontario NDP's chutzpa budget that it brought down in the first blush of victory which tripled the deficit, tripled the debt, brought up the deficit to around $800 million, and increased taxation by a quarter of a billion and drove everybody in Ontario into a cold shower and I think, brought a lot of people in Canada, including a lot of those on the left, to their senses."

Alberta receives substantially more attention than Ontario

As figure A shows, even though Ontario's budget affected the country's interest rates, bond markets, and international investor confidence, television news still paid more attention to Alberta. Ralph Klein's proclamation of "the miracle on the Prairie" can be seen as a miracle on many fronts. For the first time since the National Media Archive has been tracking public policy issues, national television news has focused more extensively on a western-based province than on central Canada. Both networks provided twice the amount of coverage on Alberta than on Ontario in the first 20 months of each of their budget mandates.

Alberta receives more negative attention on fiscal performance than Ontario

While the two provinces differed significantly in their approaches to fiscal management, the networks also differed in their assessments. As figure A illustrates, assessments of Ontario's policies were slightly more often negative than positive (58 percent negative compared to 42 percent positive). However, on CBC, assessments of Alberta's actions were twice as often negative as positive, and on CTV three times as often negative as positive.

How TV looks at spending

Fifty-one percent of both CBC's and CTV's attention to Ontario examined increased spending (figure B). Seventy-two percent of CBC's and 65 percent of CTV's coverage on Alberta focused on spending cuts (figure C).

Spending cuts most undesirable option

The spending cuts in Alberta were presented as being more controversial than the ballooning deficit in Ontario.

Coverage of Ontario's escalating government deficit was framed as its need to fight the recession. As such, CBC television gave slightly more positive than negative assessments of this policy decision (54 percent positive). For example, Bob Rae presented his position on a May 16, 1991 "National" story: "To have done anything other than we have done, in the circumstances of the recession, we would have ended up hurting people far more than helping them." CTV was balanced in its assessments of increased spending.

In contrast, assessments of Alberta's spending cuts were almost always critical. Ninety-two percent of CBC's and 88 percent of CTV's assessments of Alberta's spending cuts were unfavourable. In a December 6, 1994 interview with Ralph Klein, Pamela Wallin portrayed the cuts as mean-spirited: "But a lot of people seem to be saying, Premier, that there is a difference between cuts and spending smarter, and maybe some of the consultation process that you're involved in now, if that was given some time, people would be able to come up with some cuts that wouldn't hurt so much."

Alberta's negative coverage clearly indicates a media perception that cutting spending is more detrimental to the economy and the well-being of Canadians than increasing deficits. The networks presented deficit cutting as a personalized story, at the expense of substantive economic analysis. Two subjects dominated discussion of Klein's first budget: health care and cuts to education. For example, on the January 10, 1994 CBC Prime Time, Peter Mansbridge introduced a sinister sounding story on Alberta saying: "A group of nurses in Edmonton say they can't stay silent any longer. In an exclusive interview with CBC News, they say something frightening is happening in hospital operating rooms in Alberta." While there was something frightening happening in Alberta hospital operating rooms, the problem had more to do with the union's rules of seniority than with cuts to health care. Similarly, on December 20, 1993, Lloyd Robertson introduced a story on protestors demonstrating against the Alberta government: "One province, Alberta, has already taken drastic steps to balance its budget. Premier Ralph Klein is determined to eliminate the deficit in just three years. And his wide cuts in health and education have brought strong protests."

Alberta's privatization plans attacked

The Alberta government's restructuring and privatization plans also came under intense scrutiny. Fifteen percent of CBC's and 20 percent of CTV's attention to Alberta examined its restructuring plans (figure C). Unlike the attention to spending cuts, restructuring plans received more balanced treatment. CBC presented almost twice as many and CTV presented an equal number of arguments supporting restructuring as opposing it.

While the arguments were relatively balanced for and against restructuring, and in the case of CBC favourable to it, the concrete results of restructuring were negative. CBC presented slightly more negative than positive, and CTV three times as many negative as positive evaluations of the restructuring plans in action.

The privatization of some health services in Alberta as well as that of the retail liquor business was the centre piece of media attention to restructuring. For example, in a September 10, 1994 report by CTV's Mark Sikstrom, the problems with Alberta's liquor store privatization were outlined: "Gordon Laxer is one of the four professors commissioned by the National Union of Provincial Employees to study the impact of liquor privatization. Their report concludes that the exercise was not well thought out, implemented in haste, and has led to higher costs, less selection, and could lead to lower revenues if liquor sales drop in the face of higher prices."

Klein's deficit crisis ignored by TV

In an address to a Vancouver Fraser Institute audience on January 6, 1995, Ralph Klein explained how he viewed the deficit: "In discussing how Alberta was going to deal with the debt and deficit crisis, our first task was to convince Albertans that the situation was indeed critical. That there wasn't a problem, that there wasn't a situation--that indeed there was a crisis." Ralph Klein, "The Alberta Advantage: How One Province is Dealing with the Debt and Deficit Crisis," address to the Fraser Institute, January 6, Vancouver, B.C., reprinted in Fraser Forum, March 1995.Note

While the premier convinced Albertans that there was a crisis, for national television the debt/deficit was not a crisis at all. Only 4 statements on CBC relayed the actual size of both the debt and deficit in Alberta. CTV never did give these statistics. This lack of attention to the specifics, combined with images of individuals and groups hurting under the spending cuts, seriously undermined Klein's position on national television that Alberta was facing a debt crisis. In contrast, 9 percent of CBC's and 10 percent CTV's attention to Ontario's NDP government spoke of the actual size of the Ontario debt and deficit (figure B).

Sources agree debt/deficit have to be tackled

On those infrequent occasions when sources were asked to offer an opinion as to whether deficits needed to be reduced, there was nearly complete agreement. However, only 8 percent of CBC's and 12 percent of CTV's attention to Alberta actually debated the need for deficit reduction (figure C). The only departure from this trend was CBC's coverage of the Ontario budget, where twice as many statements were an argument for an increased deficit. No doubt this is reflective of the Ontario government being able to present its arguments unfettered (see below).

Opposition to tax increases high

In its second budget, the Ontario government increased taxes. These tax increases comprised 4 percent of CBC's and 15 percent of CTV's attention to the fiscal management of the province (figure B). Of that coverage, both networks provided more critical than supportive commentary on the taxation measures.

Only 1 percent of CBC's and 2 percent of CTV's coverage of Alberta presented the fact that there were no tax increases in that province (figure C). Of that attention, sources again were nearly unanimous that taxes should not be increased.

Interestingly, while sources were in agreement that higher taxes were a negative, television news failed to cast the "no new taxes approach" of Alberta positively. Alberta's favourable tax climate was downplayed, despite the repeated boasting of its premier. For example, in a December 6, 1993 CBC Prime Time interview, Klein argued: "Right now we have the lowest corporate tax rate, we have the lowest personal income tax rate, we are the only province without a sales tax. We don't have a lot of the other taxes that provinces have. That is what is going to make this province attractive."

In place of repeating Klein's arguments in favour of low taxation, some stories improperly connected taxes to user fees. In a February 24, 1994 CBC Prime Time story, Kelly Crowe quoted the opposition Liberals as saying: "the claim that there are no new taxes is false because the increase in user fees amounts to a hidden tax."

How accurately does television depict popularity?

Perhaps the most damming indictment of the media in presenting a realistic portrayal of popular opinion is the contradictory relationship between the poll ratings of the two premiers and their respective media coverage. By focusing on the negative, TV news has seriously misrepresented Klein's support in his province. The fact that their coverage was more than 70 percent negative indicates gross partisanship and, in fact, may indicate that the media have crossed the boundary from news reporting to news advocacy.

Klein's TV coverage negative

More than three-quarters of all televised comments about Ralph Klein's performance were negative. On news items featuring Alberta the audience was routinely regaled with horror stories and a parade of human tragedy, ranging from the deterioration of public education to bleeding patients unattended because of hospital cut-backs. Klein's agenda to scale back entitlements made him a lightening rod for special-interest criticism and earned him the epithet "heartless." For example, on a July 14, 1993 story Pat Wocknitz, a union representative said on CBC Prime Time: "And the premier has said, `you know we'll listen, we care about the people.' Like crazy he cares about the people. He doesn't care about anybody. And that's the way I'm feeling this morning. And I'm really angry about it."

Klein maintains public support

Despite the negative image crafted by the media through its selective use of sources, Klein enjoys enormous support. For example, an Angus Reid poll published in November 1994

indicates 61 percent support for the premier among Albertans. [Patrick Nagle, "Premier Scissorhands' popularity still strong despite deficit cutting," Calgary Herald, November 19, 1994, p. 2.]

The premier's broad-based support has been given little more than footnote coverage. Although in the introduction of a August 24, 1994 CBC Prime Time news story Pamela Wallin started with a positive comment, saying, "a new poll suggests the government is actually gaining support by cutting back," Kelly Crowe belied Wallin's introduction. Most of Crowe's sources were critical of the cuts, including political scientist David Taras, who charged, "when the suffering is greater, when there's more blood on the floor, then the politics might be different."

Rae's popularity plunging

The polarity between the public's support for Klein and media's presentation of the Alberta premier as a deficit-obsessed-conservative is in stark contrast to the media's relatively benign treatment of Bob Rae's fiscal policies. The presentation of Rae's policies were qualitatively more even-handed and impersonal than the assessments presented of Klein. This is peculiar considering Rae's lower ratings in the polls. For example, on a July 31, 1991 CTV News story Pamela Wallin noted Bob Rae's plunging popularity: "The Ontario New Democrats' short term in office has been marred by budget woes, ministerial mistakes, and plunging polls. Today, Premier Bob Rae tried to stem the damage with a cabinet shuffle."

In newscasts of the NDP government there are no medical casualties or victims offered up for public inspection. The only "victims" in Ontario are business men and middle class tax protestors, hardly the images that invoke the sympathy of the viewers. For example, in a May 16, 1991 "National" story, Floyd Laughren's response to protesting taxpayers was: "I really think I'm more concerned about all those people who don't have a fax machine." The sources for these stories talk about "political mistakes" and "ministerial blunders" in tones that lack the harshness of those discussing Klein and Alberta.

One is left with the impression that the Rae government may be incompetent, perhaps inexperienced, but it is certainly not "mean" in the sense that the Alberta government is.

Ontario government speaks for itself

As figure D shows, Ontario's provincial government itself provided the most statements on its fiscal situation. This could explain why the Ontario government's media profile was more positive than that of the Alberta government. Almost one-half of CBC's and nearly one-third of CTV's sources' statements about Ontario originated from government representatives.

Those individuals critical of the NDP's approach were economists and other academics. One-quarter of CBC's and one-tenth of CTV's sources' statements originated with these individuals. However, on CTV, business groups received more prominence than did academics. Nearly one-fifth of the sources' statements on CTV came from financial groups whereas, on CBC, only 7 percent of the sources were business groups. For example, in a report on a Bay Street protest on May 16, 1991, CTV's Paul Rogers generally presented the facts and refrained from showing emotionally-charged scenes from the protests: "As Bay Street was giving the government an earful outside, Wall Street was levelling a blow inside. Pointing to the Ontario government's new direction and projected high deficits, Moody's of New York is the first of four rating services to downgrade Ontario's coveted `Triple-A' credit rating to a less prestigious `Double-A2.'"

CBC's interest group sources favour increasing spending

On CBC, twice as many interest groups in favour of increasing the Ontario deficit were presented as those opposed. On CTV, the exact opposite was the case as it presented nearly twice as many interest groups who opposed increasing the deficit as those who were supportive of the increase.

While Rae's government was criticized by the financial community, Klein's government was besieged by negative stories on the public outcry over the budget cuts. Figure E illustrates that critics of the Alberta government received more attention than the government itself. Over two-fifths of CBC's and one-third of CTV's sources' statements originated with groups who opposed deficit reduction. This tier of sources included students, educators, unions, health care practitioners, civil servants, and municipal workers. In addition, private citizens who offered personal hardship stories comprised 15 percent of CBC's and 24 percent of CTV's sources' statements. These two groups of critics alone comprised 57 percent of both CBC's and CTV's sources' statements.

Rae's critics impassive and factual; Klein's critics emotional and personal

The economists and business groups who responded to the Ontario deficit increase talked in general, impassive tones, while the protestors who opposed Alberta's deficit reduction used emotionally-charged language in detailing stories of personal hardship. Contrasting Ontario's Bay Street protests with Alberta's demonstrators, the tone was demonstrably different. For example, in a September 18, 1993 CTV report on the Alberta protests, Sandie Rinaldo said, "More than 2,000 demonstrators marched on the Alberta legislature. They represented unions and social action groups. Some broke down as they spoke of personal hardships they will face."


According to a Gallup poll released on January 30, 1995: "concern over government debts and deficits rivals concern over unemployment in Canada." [Gallup Canada, "Increased Concern over Government deficits, debt." Results are based on 1003 telephone interviews with adults, 18 years of age and older, conducted January 9-15, 1995. A sample of this size is accurate within a 3.1 percentage point margin of error, 19 in 20 times.] Moreover, according to a COMPAS poll conducted in December, "Eighty-six per cent of the 2,638 adult respondents, regardless of income or education, believed that controlling taxes, spending, and the debt were either `extremely important' or `very important.' Canadians with household incomes of $30,000 per year or less felt just as strongly about the necessity for debt, tax, and spending controls as did Canadians with household incomes of more than $70,000." [Diane Francis, "The need for laws to limit spending," Maclean's, February 13, 1995, p. 13.]

In their coverage of Alberta and Ontario television news has seriously misrepresented the public mood. By focusing on the well-staged protests, they missed the biggest story of the year, namely, that Canadians support spending cuts and welcome deficit-fighting governments. The media's failure to capture this mood indicates a serious malaise in Canadian journalistic circles.


Results of the Ontario study are based on 2 CBC Prime Time, 19 "The National," 3 "Journal," 1 "Sunday Report," and 1 "Saturday Report" stories as well as 18 CTV News stories from the date of the Rae government's first budget on April 29, 1991, to December 30, 1992. All stories appearing during that time on the government's fiscal performance were coded, representing a total population rather than a random sample of stories.

Results of the Alberta study are based on 31 CBC Prime Time, 3 "Sunday Report," and 2 "Saturday Report" stories as well as 23 CTV News stories from the date of the Klein government's first budget, May 7, 1993, to December 31, 1994. All stories appearing during that time on the government's fiscal performance were coded, representing a total population rather than a random sample of stories.

Further information or details on the coding design and methods may be obtained by contacting the National Media Archive.

Summary of findings

Nearly three-quarters of CBC's and half of CTV's stories on Ontario's fiscal management mentioned national repercussions. Even though Ontario's budget affected the country's interest rates, bond markets, and international investor confidence, television news still paid more attention to Alberta.

Assessments of Ontario's policies were slightly more often negative than positive (58 percent negative compared to 42 percent positive). However, on CBC, assessments of Alberta's policies were twice as often negative as positive, and on CTV, were three times more often negative as positive.

The spending cuts in Alberta were presented as more controversial than the ballooning deficit in Ontario. Coverage of Ontario's escalating government deficit was framed as a need to fight the recession. As such, CBC television gave slightly more positive than negative assessments of this policy decision (54 percent positive). In contrast, assessments of Alberta's spending cuts were almost always critical. Ninety-two percent of CBC's and 88 percent of CTV's assessments of Alberta's spending cuts were unfavourable.

Rhetoric of "Meanness"

THE IMBALANCED ATTENTION ACCORDED DEFICIT-incurring politicians and deficit-cutting politicians is not unique to television. Indeed, national television's coverage of Klein is tame compared to how both the Canadian and American press are reporting debt and deficit issues. Charges of nastiness are, for the most part, being levelled against all fiscal conservatives. Included in this rogue's gallery with Ralph Klein is the new Republican Congress in the U.S. Politicians who have made it their agenda to reduce spending and roll back entitlements are the media's main targets. Thus, Klein has been cast in the role of "Scissorhands" by a Calgary Herald reporter, Patrick Nagle.

The following is a list of headlines for stories reporting on the Alberta government in the Calgary Herald during November, 1994.

• Campaign takes aim against Klein, November 2, 1994, p. B2.

• There's more to life than a balanced budget, November 9, 1994, p. A5.

• Moving too fast: when government is in a hurry major mistakes will be made, November 12, 1994, p. A4.

• Scary solutions win awards, November 17, 1994, p. A4.

• Ralph's Revolution: Premier Scissorhands' popularity still sharp despite deficit cutting, November 19, 1994, p. A5.

• Rich starting point gave Klein an edge, November 19, 1994, p. A5.

• Klein boasts; Axe is popular, November 22, 1994, p. A2.

• Klein's policies a flop elsewhere, November 23, 1994, p. A4.

• Mitchell claims Tories failing Alberta, November 25, 1994, p. A14.

• Hallelujah: When the budget is balanced, spare a thought for the children who helped make it possible, November 28, 1994, p. A4.

Fiscal Conservatives typecast as practising "brutal politics"

Local papers were not alone in their attacks on the premier. In a December 6, 1994 Vancouver Sun opinion piece, the Edmonton Journal's Allan Chambers writes that Klein practices "brutal politics" and that "a certain meanness has entered the air." He invokes the spectre of class by alleging that Klein is "polarizing the strong and the weak and siding with the strong."

Calgary Herald columnist Catherine Ford expands on the theme of "meanness" in a guest column for the Montreal Gazette on January 3, 1995. In her harsh critique, "Real Change: The Americanization of Canada has already begun," she presents her views on the epidemiology of "meanness." According to Ford, "meanness" is a culturally derived "capitalist" contagion, American in origin, that is polluting Canada's body politic. She lambastes Klein and decries his lack of sensibility. She writes, "Ralph Klein not only promised, he delivered. And if you don't think about the people his Tory government dismissed without much of a thought, if you shut your eyes and your heart then Klein's government is just what is needed in this sloppy, lackadaisical, disorderly country. . . . The means were calculated and brutal." In a like-minded article in the Globe and Mail on December 14, 1994, Scott Feschuk quotes Neil Reimer, president of the Alberta Council on Aging, as saying: "the bottom line is that there's no human dimension to the government's budget strategy . . . they just have a dollar-and-cents vision of the world."

Perhaps the greatest single factor tipping the scales in a negative direction has been the Calgary Herald's frequent use of quotes from special interest groups, especially labour. Quotes from a coalition of union groups, unified under the banner "Defend the Rose" set the negative tone of the Herald's coverage. Their descriptions of Klein printed in the pages of the Herald were: "scary, short-sighted, reckless, immoral, unethical, lunatic, and self-interested."

Spendthrift politicians described as compassionate by the press

Two jurisdictions over from the Province of Mean is the Province of Nice. In the Province of Nice, social democrat Premier Bob Rae receives much positive coverage for his "sensitive and compassionate politics" (Martin Mittelstaedt, Globe and Mail, December 20, 1994).

For the purposes of comparison, we analyzed Ontario premier Bob Rae's newspaper coverage to that of Premier Klein's for November 1994. We limited our focus to two newspapers, the Calgary Herald and the Toronto Star. Our findings indicate that while Klein received the most attention, and most of that was negative, Bob Rae was virtually ignored. The lack of attention to Rae was so conspicuous that in order to find any stories on the Ontario government's fiscal performance, our researchers had to expand the analysis to include the Globe and Mail.

In the Province of Nice, social democrat Premier Bob Rae receives much positive coverage for his "sensitive and compassionate politics"

In contrast to the volume of negative attention accorded Klein in November, the two articles on Rae in the Globe and Mail enabled Rae to express his compassion. According to the two December 20, 1994, Globe and Mail articles, all Bob Rae wants "is for the province to be a caring society in which market forces and capitalism still have a place." He philosophizes, "We have tried our level best to maintain the compassion in our society and to extend it. A society has to more than just about competitiveness."

Clearly, this review illustrates that high-spending politicians enjoy an almost sacrosanct status among the press. Because they "care" so deeply, their motives and character are rarely scrutinized by the mainstream media. Our analysis shows that politicians who preserve the status quo and stick to a pattern of taxation and spending can escape the media's poison pen. In contrast, politicians who dare to break ranks from the trend of spending and actually tackle the debt/deficit crisis by restraining government are vilified.

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