Agenda Setting 101 (What, no Ministry of Truth?)

One thing the current national government does very well is to occupy rhetorical terrain. I am thinking in particular of how the government deploys short form titles for its legislation. This week we are hearing a lot about the Truth in Sentencing Act. Last week it was Victims Bill of Rights Act. And for months now, the Fair Elections Act. In my little corner of the world, the latest legislation is called the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, and before that, the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act and the Balanced Refugee Reform Act.

There are days when I think what I most resent about this legislative agenda is that as a law teacher, I am required to stand up and say these things aloud.

What is more, even as Canadians engage in a public, private, Parliamentary, and scholarly debate about these laws, these short form titles get repeated over and over. (Yes, that’s redundancy on purpose). Even as we critique this agenda, we end up turning it into a mantra.

An obvious way to fight back would be to simply refuse. But that tactic is difficult to deploy. It’s hard to develop a national consensus on alternate titles for legislation. And besides, somewhere deep in the federal bureaucracy, someone is doing an incredibly good job with this task. George Orwell would be proud.

In my classroom I have labeled the legislation about the immigration system the Reduction of Human Rights Act. My colleague has christened that removal legislation the Faster Removal of Due Process Act. On the ‘balancing’ piece, we could go for the Some Refugees are More Equal Than Others Act.

You can see how it’s difficult to get something that hits just the right note. Also, while the current government’s immigration agenda is remarkably active and reasonably draconian, it remains a sideshow, rarely in the middle of the front page.

In order to truly do battle in the centre ring here, one has to tackle the headline items. Instead of the Truth in Sentencing Act, we could call this legislation Rebuild the Poor Houses Act. Rather than the Victims Bill of Rights we could speak of the Offer Words Not Deeds Act. Candidate titles for renaming the election law are many including: Increasing Advantages for the Rich Act; the Election Rigging Act; and the Vote Suppression Act. Perhaps the most likely to catch-on is that which can roll off the tongue as easily as its antecedent: the Unfair Elections Act.

The government launched this unprecedented rhetorical assault on the Canadian public and our Parliamentary tradition with no fanfare at all. It’s incredibly clever politics. Amazing that is has been done without an official Ministry of Truth.

Next stop, my analysis of the Supreme Court of Canada’s response to the Rebuild the Poor Houses Act.

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