Why pols use talking points

Professors of journalism or public relations would do well to save a copy of today’s episode of CBC Radio’s “The House” for a classic example of how a politician can use talking points to hornswoggle an overly deferential interviewer.

At about 14 minutes into the program, Evan Solomon asks International Trade Minister Ed Fast an obvious question about the recent spate of US protectionist measures aimed at Canada:

Why are you being caught off guard by these sudden protectionist measures coming out of the US?

Fast responded with a set of talking points so scripted, you can almost hear him rhyming off the bullets:

  • We’re focused on removing trade barriers rather than erecting new ones.
  • Canada and the US have a strong, mature, longstanding trade relationship.
  • It’s the biggest trade success story in the world.
  • And when we see our cousins to the south introducing new barriers to trade, obviously that raises concerns with us.
  • That’s why I’ve been engaging with my counterpart in the US, US trade representative Ron Kirk. I’ve spoken to him on a number of occasions. I’ve spoken to his deputy on a number of occasions.
  • My colleagues in the house of commons have also been engaging with their counterparts in the house of representatives and the senate.
  • We are impressing upon the Americans that trade barriers actually hurt both Canadian businesses and American businesses because out economies and our supply channels are so integrated.

The heavy-handed messaging couldn’t quite obscure one obvious fact: Fast never answered the question. So what did Solomon do? He ignored the omission and moved on to the next question. A better response would have been:

Excuse me but, I didn’t hear why you are being caught off guard by these sudden protectionist measures?

I don’t mean to gang up on Solomon, but I wish he and other press gallery habitues would curb their recent habit of addressing cabinet ministers as “Minister.” We expect this formal obsequiousness from the tribe of ministerial aides who populate The Hill, but when reporters adopt this style, it contributes to the deferential atmosphere that lets responsible cabinet ministers dodge questions and escape obvious follow-ups.

J-school profs will get a bonus from today’s House episode. In the show opener, Solomon questions Defence Minister Peter MacKay about the seemingly endless increases in the cost of those second-hand submarines Canada bought from Britain. Current estimates stand at $1 billion, and could triple before the subs are fully operational. In response, to his credit, MacKay passed up a chance to slang his Liberal predecessors for the buying the subs in the first place, but he couldn’t resist exploiting the recent death of a Canadian soldier for rhetorical effect.

Let’s not forget one important fact, and that is, we have men and women in uniform who literally put their lives on the line in service of Canada to protect our citizens. Men like the gentleman who gave his life, Janick Gilbert, who was a SAR-tech, who gave his life on a rescue mission this week near Hall Bay, Nunavut. These are exceptional citizens, to say the least, and they require extremely sophisticated and, yes, expensive equipment to do that work. When it comes to putting people in harm’s way, but giving them world class protection, and that’s the calculation and that is the measure that we have to make.

This time Solomon did not disappoint:

Well you mentioned, speaking of world class equipment, that the ideal piece of equipment would be a nuclear submarine, not the diesel-electric submarine. Therefore if you want to be committed to the best equipment for the men and women serving, are you considering purchasing nuclear submarines?


No we’re not….We don’t live in an ideal world. My grandmother had a saying that, “If wishes were horses, beggars could ride.” We don’t have unlimited resources and we’re not contemplating nuclear submarines.

Ah, so it turns out that protecting men and women in uniform who “literally put their lives on the line in service of Canada to protect our citizens” is, like everything else in life and government, subject to financial limits and budgetary constraints.

Lastly, points to Solomon for knowing how to pronounce the word “nuclear,” unlike the Minister of National Defence.