May 24, 2024
ANALYSIS | In videos and podcasts, Poilievre and Trudeau are eager to explain themselves — at length | CBC News

ANALYSIS | In videos and podcasts, Poilievre and Trudeau are eager to explain themselves — at length | CBC News

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the Liberal MP who made a name for himself as a backbencher with his own voice, posted a nine-minute video to YouTube this week about the federal government’s carbon pricing policy.

It would be an exaggeration to say the video is setting the internet on fire. As of Friday afternoon, it had a grand total of 329 views. But it’s enough to say that Erskine-Smith has contributed to the hottest new trend in Canadian politics: talking at length, and in some detail, online.

Nate Erskine-Smith
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith jumped on the ‘explainer’ video trend with his piece on carbon pricing. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Videos like Erskine-Smith’s weren’t completely unheard of before now — the Liberals, for instance, released a seven-and-a-half minute video about their economic vision in 2014. And long-windedness in politics is hardly a new phenomenon. But Erskine-Smith’s video follows the 15-minute video on housing that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre posted in December — a video that seemed like a novelty at the time.

The Liberals responded to Poilievre’s video with a three-minute video of their own. Poilievre’s Conservatives have since posted an eight-minute video about plastics and a 13-minute video about corporate concentration, and Poilievre has narrated two videos about public debt that each run more than 15 minutes.

Poilievre’s fondness for data and number-heavy videos filled with charts and graphs and references to news reports seems to follow from a central theory of political communication he articulated several years ago. He’s a politician who loves a snappy slogan (especially if it rhymes) but he also loves facts.

“All of us in politics these days make the mistake of focusing too much on getting the right lines. We say, well, we’ve got to have the right message,” he told me in an interview in 2014. “Actually, what people want are the right facts.”

The sheer volume of numbers in Poilievre’s presentations also seems to be part of his appeal.

When the Toronto Star’s Stephanie Levitz attended a Conservative rally near Ottawa in March, she reported back that several in attendance said they “love how he peppers speeches with specific facts — not just political platitudes.” These voters trusted him because, as one told Levitz, “he does his homework.”

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks during a rally in Ottawa, on Sunday, March 24, 2024.
Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks during a rally in Ottawa on Sunday, March 24, 2024. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Poilievre’s fondness for numbers also creates an added burden for whoever he is debating — and it distinguishes him from a Liberal government that does not excel at specifics.

Trudeau’s Liberals may be adept at summarizing the values they uphold and the ideas they’re trying to realize, but explaining what they’ve done or why they did it has never been their strong suit (with some notable exceptions, such as Trudeau’s appearance before the Emergencies Act commission in 2022).

The complicated math behind one fact

No matter how many facts a politician seems to have at hand, it’s still necessary to ask whether those facts are being described fairly and whether they add up to the story the politician is trying to tell. Whether Canada is faced with a looming debt crisis is, for instance, at least debatable.

In his latest video on public debt, Poilievre looks at the large deficits run by the federal government during the pandemic, but then says that “even during the Covid crisis, much of the Trudeau government’s spending had nothing to do with the crisis and therefore cannot be blamed on Covid alone.” (That comment plays over a clip of what appears to be someone using the ArriveCan app.)

He then points viewers to a report released by the parliamentary budget officer in 2022 — specifically the PBO’s conclusion that 35.5 per cent of new spending added to the fiscal framework since the start of the pandemic was not related to Covid. Poilievre then points to the size of the deficit in 2020-2021.

But the PBO’s analysis covers a time period that runs beyond the pandemic — it starts with fiscal year 2019-2020 and ends with 2026-2027. And a chart at page 10 of the report shows that the vast majority of the “non-Covid” spending was expected to occur from 2022-2023 to 2026-2027.

During the fiscal years 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, when the pandemic was at its peak and the government’s deficits were highest, Covid-related spending accounted for 85 per cent of all new spending. In 2020-2021, when the federal deficit hit $328 billion, Covid-related spending was $261.8 billion.

Poilievre might still disagree with the federal government’s spending decisions, but it’s fair to ask whether the PBO’s numbers back up the claim that “much” of the spending “during” the pandemic was not related to the pandemic. (Poilievre’s office did not respond to an email asking about his claim and the PBO’s numbers.)

Still, given how much these videos focus on complaints about government spending, they might be viewed as candid statements on Poilievre’s political worldview.

Does the public want more than 10-word answers?

A cynic might view explainer videos as just another way for politicians to promote their visions and set the agenda, without having to deal with the input of journalists. In a splintered media environment, there might be even more room to do so.

But these videos might be addressing a real public appetite for depth, explanation and understanding — the same sort of desire that has, in part, driven the rise of podcasts. When Pew surveyed Americans about their podcast habits in 2022, 55 per cent of respondents said a “major reason” for listening was “to learn” — the second most-cited reason. 

So it’s worth noting that while the Conservatives are rolling out video explainers, the prime minister is on a podcast tour. In the past week, Trudeau has appeared on Today, Explained by Vox, the Freakonomics podcast and The Big Story. (He appeared on CBC’s Frontburner last fall.) Each of the resulting interviews has run about a half hour in length.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in an interview at the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in an interview at the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

At the end of Trudeau’s appearance on The Big Story, host Jordan Heath-Rawlings had the bright idea to simply ask the prime minister why he was doing these interviews. Trudeau replied that his favourite kind of interview involves sitting down with a radio host for 15 or 20 minutes and having a “real conversation.”

Podcasts, Trudeau said, represent the kind of “thoughtful conversation that most Canadians end up having in their daily lives with their friends, their co-workers, their family about big issues.”

Trudeau said he wanted to get past the soundbites that tend to drive the political discussion. He invoked both former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and his desire for “politics in full sentences” and fictional president Jed Bartlet’s quip about ten-word answers.

Of course, all the podcast interviews he can do between now and October 2025 might not be enough to change the polls. And even long answers can be lacking.

But if Canada’s political leaders want to explain themselves at greater length and in greater detail, it would seem churlish to complain. Even if it’s still important to check their math.

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