MONTREAL — The woman to my left probably wants me removed from the premises. Ten people have already tried to steal my seat and I’m not even grateful for the view. I’m drawing whales and giraffes in my notebook, pausing only to yawn and to check that no one’s swiped my bag. I gave up on listening 15 minutes ago when the French soprano inexplicably began eating spaghetti onstage. Unfortunately for me, that particular debacle marked the start of the night, and there’s a good two hours left.
Meanwhile, the woman couldn’t be more attentive. She’s decked out in Michael Ignatieff buttons and wears an earpiece that translates French into English. She’s beside me in the first place because she simply shrugged it off when told that her chair was reserved for someone else. “You gave me the courage to do that, when I saw you sitting here by yourself,” she leaned in and told me.
I’m at the Liberal leadership convention in Montreal, enduring tonight’s tribute to former prime minister Paul Martin. There’s an Ignatieff delegate beside me, three frat-boy type Gerard Kennedy supporters behind, and a man in a Team Brison jacket is crouching on the floor in front. Nevertheless, I’m hoping, vainly, to find a kindred spirit among the thousands in this main hall. Someone who’s here because she has to be. Someone who balks at descriptions of Martin as hero, outstanding Canadian and close personal friend to worldleaders. Most importantly, someone whose idea of a good time doesn’t involve listening to Colin James.
But tonight, just as every other day at the Palais des Congrès, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer mass of overenthusiastic Liberals. They’re everywhere. Trying to get around the Palais at any given moment is like walking down a New York City street — the noise is excessive and my hands are shoved full of papers and promotional flyers in mere minutes.
Of course, there’s good reason to be excited. These delegates and supporters have come from all over Canada to choose a new leader for the Liberal Party, something they’ve lacked since Martin stepped down in February. The date and rules for this convention were announced one month later, leading to the prolonged but civil campaign. By the time the Convention officially began on November 28, stories about the eight candidates still in the running — Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy, Ken Dryden, Joe Volpe, Scott Brison and Martha Hall Findlay — had been all but exhausted. “People have been trying for months to make it interesting,” says Murray Campbell, Queen’s Park columnist for The Globe and Mail. “The party gets more press out of this than a whole year’s worth of Question Periods.”
Luckily, I don’t have to look for a good story in all the empty sign-wavings, speeches and organized delegate marches. I’m here to see how other journalists do it.
• • •
“Essentially, this is close to our Olympic Games. It’s the place to be for us,” says CBC/RDI assignment editor Denis Ferland, who has reported on leadership conventions since Brian Mulroney’s win in 1983. “Physically it’s demanding. You have to be prepared.”
And the reporters here are. Television crews stay up all night, people blog past midnight and it looks like some journalists have spent all weekend in the media room. “We tag-team and share a lot of information,” says Toronto Life writer Philip Preville. “It’s crazy because you don’t know who will win and there’s different stories everywhere. You have to try to keep your tentacles out at all times.”
Oddly, the one I expected to be the most stressed is the one calmly perched on the edge of her desk in the media room. As the Ottawa Citizen’s invariably busy Juliet O’Neill feverishly types one row over, Toronto Starcolumnist Chantal Hébert says, “I have zero pressure.” Hébert, along with the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, are part of a regular team for Peter Mansbridge’s CBC roundtable discussions throughout the convention. But as for her next file deadline, she says, “My next story is about who the next leader is. I don’t have to worry about who’s saying what.”
Naturally, though, most reporters are keen to find out that very thing. Not only will it determine who comes out the victor in this convention, it will also likely mean a new prime minister and dealing with the new rules regarding media access that he will presumably implement.
“Stephen Harper really has hostility towards the media. It’s always been difficult, but he’s made it more difficult,” says Madelaine Drohan, The Economist’s Ottawa correspondent. “The Liberals don’t look on us as the enemy, but it’s worth noting that all opposition parties have a better relationship with the media. A mutual partnership develops out of the common interest in taking on the government. And then once they get in power, they’re the ones the media are taking on.”
Most of the journalists I talk to enjoy covering conventions, but gathering delegates together from across the country under one roof for a weekend convention is the old-fashioned, expensive way of electing a leader. Most other parties, the Conservatives included, now conduct their leadership contests via the ‘one-member, one-vote’ system. In this method, a leader is elected through individual votes as opposed to a big assembly. When Harper was elected leader of his party in 2004, about 250,000 registered party members voted and the convention that followed was simply a congratulatory one. When the decision to decide whether or not to adopt this new method came before the Liberal delegates here, though, they went for the status quo over the high-tech.
This is disappointing for Hébert, who favours the one-member, one-vote system. She believes it makes the candidate work harder for individual votes, thus strengthening the entire party. But, she says, “I’ll still be sorry when we stop doing this, and this one is less of a dog-and-pony show than the other conventions I’ve been to.”
CPAC reporter Ken Rockburn also says that a convention makes for a more exciting weekend. We’re in the middle of a conversation in the Palais lobby when he gets a call on his BlackBerry — young Dion delegate Annie Donolo, whose progress he is following, has just voted in the second round and is at the top of the big escalator. Does he want to come and find her for an interview? It takes us a few minutes to locate his cameraman and boom mike operator in the throng of people surrounding us. It takes about the same amount of time for Rockburn to ask Donolo his questions, none of which he had written down beforehand. “The best convention story is finding delegates who will be honest with you, and not just say their lines over and over,” he says. Donolo says she’ll phone him again for another interview later in the day.
• • •
Unfortunately, even this dedicated mass of reporters can’t keep pace with the rapidity of events on the final day. Jan Davis, a Dion delegate from Montreal, says that’s why he doesn’t trust the newspapers. “If you read this morning’s paper,” he says, “it’s out of date by 10 a.m.” He’s right. A Saturday Toronto Star headline reads “Leadership is still up for grabs: Rae best positioned to catch Ignatieff in today’s voting,” but Rae was knocked out of the race shortly after 3 p.m. when Davis picked up his copy of the paper. He held it up high above his head to a roomful of delegates. “Everyone laughed because he’d just been eliminated,” Davis said.
But up on the fourth floor sit a dozen people who are never behind on the news. They’re the official bloggers of the convention, the first to be accorded this status at a leadership convention. When I arrive at their headquarters, they’re watching Rick Mercer’s interview with Rae on CBC and discussing whether or not Belinda Stronach’s newly dyed hair makes her more attractive (yes). I count 11 men and one woman, but am told that no one really knows how many bloggers are working this convention — they come and go, spend some time on the floor, come back, and go again. CPAC’s Rockburn says the blogging room is “more intense than being at any of the speeches.”
Each blogger is a registered member of Liblogs and is invited here because of his or her work on the blog network. Ignatieff delegate Devin Maxwell comes from Halifax and upkeepsMaxwell’s House, a blog that received between 250-300 hits a day during the convention. To his right is Miranda Hussey, a second-year forensic science student at Trent University. She sports bright green Dion gear and maintainsA View From The Left. “People like reading blogs,” she says, “because they know where our biases are. If you read a newspaper you’re always trying to find the writer’s bias, but we make no attempt at neutrality.”
They’re a close-knit, friendly group who often posted comments on each other’s blogs before meeting for the first time at the convention. “We have fun,” Hussey says. “We sit around and watch the news, and then we all argue about what it means.”
Indeed, in the hour or so that I spend with them, they fall silent only when the second poll results are about to be announced. At 11:34 a.m., Maxwell readies his blog by typing in each candidate’s name. The results are broadcast at 11:51 a.m., and Maxwell hurriedly inputs the figures. Three minutes later, he pushes his chair back. “All right, I’m going to eat.”
But Hussey is still hunched over the table, punching numbers into her calculator. She compares these results to the first round figures, which were announced shortly after midnight, following the candidates’ speeches. “It looks like, from these numbers, that Iggy and Kennedy have basically stalled,” she writes, posting at noon. She updates the blog five minutes later to write that Dryden has moved to Rae’s camp (“What the HELL is Rae offering people?”), and she throws her green Dion baseball cap at the keyboard in frustration.
For a few moments it looks like Kennedy won’t be giving up his position, despite his dismal fourth-place finish in the second poll. Hussey is still angry. I ask her what it’s like to have to blog about such an upsetting event that she has a vested interest in, but she doesn’t look away from the footage of Kennedy mincing across the floor. I don’t think she heard my question. “I can’t… I can’t believe he’s not dropping,” is all she says.
But then he does. At 12:17 p.m., when Kennedy throws his support to Dion, Hussey jumps from her chair to clap and post a short entry filled with exclamation marks about the good news. She abruptly shuts down her laptop two minutes later. “We need all the Kennedy supporters we can get,” Hussey says. She grabs the only two Dion scarves she has left. “I’m going to hand these out on the floor.” She’s already given one to me.
• • •
Down in the media room, Toronto Life’s Preville is nervously eyeing the latest figures on CBC. “If Dion wins, I don’t have a story,” he says. “I came here looking for a story that is pertinent to Toronto Life. I had a bet that with six out of the eight candidates coming from the Toronto area, they could pull it off.”
He had the stories already outlined. If the former NDP Premier of Ontario won, Preville planned to write about the relationship that would unfold in Parliament between Rae and NDP leader Jack Layton. If Kennedy won, the article would have focused on how the Liberal party was so weak that it needed a former minister from Queen’s Park to come in and take over. “I knew what the story would be with Rae, Ignatieff, and Kennedy,” says Preville. “Not Dion.”
Dion wins a few hours later, besting Ignatieff by 437 votes. Fireworks explode in the room and I narrowly avoid accidental bludgeoning by ecstatic Dion sign-wavers. Journalists start making their way back to the media room, and I follow them to find the same scene — the scrum around the television, O’Neill rapidly typing away, and reporters settling in behind their own laptops for what will likely be a long night.
Nobody ever said that covering an event of Olympic proportions would be easy. Nor is observing it. After spending two and a half days at this convention, with its packed halls, sloganeering and speech after speech of what will undoubtedly become empty promises, the life of a political-issues reporter has never seemed less appealing. But at least, in the words of CBC-TV Montreal reporter Dan Halton, “It beats doing a cold-weather story outside.”