Roundup: The “good parts” of populism?

I will confess that the eleventy different appearances on every conceivable political show over the past week by Preston Manning to coincide with his eponymous institute’s networking conference over the weekend has had me a bit preoccupied. Everyone is eager to talk about the rise in populism, and whether Trumpism will make its way to Canada in a more visible form (not that we haven’t seen in here before already, with Rob Ford as the most obvious example), but what gets me is when Manning starts waxing about harnessing the “good parts” of populism rather than the ugly side that has led to things like Brexit and the Trumpocalypse, and he goes on at length about history of prairie populism and how he perceives that to be a positive thing. Granted, his particular perspective on that is more than a little biased, considering that his father’s brand of prairie populism made him premier of Alberta for a number of years, and Manning’s crafting that into the Reform Party got him to Ottawa for several more years. But reading some of the accounts of some of that prairie populism years later – in particular this account of the rise of the CCF in Saskatchewan and how they became another craven political party by the time of Tommy Douglas’ provincial demise – makes me think of growing up gay in Alberta, where that “prairie populism” left its mark in a province that was far less socially progressive and with parties that were less willing to be so, being dragged kicking and screaming to the Supreme Court of Canada. I didn’t grow up seeing the “good” side of prairie populism, which is why I struggle to reconcile with Manning trying to find the good parts of populist sentiment to embrace. I am having a hard time trying to find the “good parts” of breeding cynical distrust in institutions, and this narrative of “pure” people versus “corrupt elites,” and in waging wars against the media that follows that narrative’s lead. You wouldn’t think that politicians would want to play with the fire that is distrust, and yet they keep reaching for the lighter. I think Manning may be playing things a bit too optimistically, and may be a bit too naively, for my comfort level.

Chris Selley looks at the Manning Conference and some Conservative behaviour in recent weeks, and wonders if the party no longer stands for anything other than a series of shared grievances as opposed to some actual policy or ideology. (One could argue that they ditched ideology a while ago and have simply become right-flavoured populists, made most especially manifest when they went ahead with the GST cut that every single economist told them not to do). Kady O’Malley leaves us with a warning about drawing too many conclusions based on the Manning Conference’s schedule alone rather than the discussions that people were having on the floor of the event, which not only saw some of its biggest draw ever, but also seemed to be very much more about the leadership race than it was about those panels about “radical Islamic terrorism” and so on.

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Roundup: Manning and the Populists

It’s the Manning Centre conference here in Ottawa, which is the “conservative Woodstock,” as they say, and is pretty much were all of the small-c conservatives come to network, only this year, in the midst of the Trumpocalypse happening south of the border, the flavour of this year’s conference has changed, with much more pandering to the fringe elements, catering to overblown fears of Islamic terrorism and the kinds of populist demagoguery that are suddenly in vogue. Oh, and all fourteen Conservative leadership candidates are also there, and hey, they had a little debate, which allowed them a bit more freedom to actually debate in small groups, but most of it was still their canned talking points, so take it for what it’s worth.

As for conference programming, here’s Kady O’Malley’s recap of the first half including Preston Manning’s speech, and her assessment that fears of a Trumpist takeover appear to be more overblown, as many of the demagogic panels have had less than spectacular attendance. John Geddes recaps the moments of the leadership debate that had the biggest sparks. Geddes also has a conversation with Manning about populism and how it’s shaping debates right now.

Andrew Coyne warns Conservatives at the Manning Conference about the siren song of populist demagoguery. Chris Selley looks at that demagoguery up close in the panel on the “Islamist extremist menace” at the Conference, calling it bonkers. John Ivison looks at the dynamic Kevin O’Leary is bringing to the Conference and the race, and the outsized role he is starting to play, building an “Anyone but O’Leary” vibe. Paul Wells notes the changes in the Conference’s tenor over the years as a result of the political culture of followership, eager to imitate the perceived leaders of their pack.

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Roundup: Estimates still a mess

The Main Estimates were released yesterday in advance of the budget, and if you don’t know why this is a bad thing that keeps happening, then you need a better understanding of why this is such a big deal in our parliamentary system. The Estimates are the way in which parliament authorizes the government to spend money, and they should be there for MPs to scrutinize before the money goes out the door. The problem is that we’ve divorced the estimates from the budget cycle, which means that they are now documents that reflect the status quo of the previous year rather than any new measures, and we have to wait for the Supplementary Estimates to be tabled later in the year. With the Main Estimates reduced to a formality, it’s reduced any study of the Supplementary Estimates to a kind of shrug and quick vote to pass, leaving the Senate to do any actual scrutiny, which is a problem. Why? It’s the job of MPs to hold government to account by controlling the public purse – hence the Estimates – and if they can’t do that, they can’t do their jobs. To make this worse, successive governments have allowed the accounting of the Estimates to become virtually unreadable, and when the Public Accounts are released a year later – which shows how that money was spent – they’re reported in a different accounting system, so you can’t really track if money was properly spent or not. It’s an abomination to how parliament is supposed to work (and yes, this is one of those things I talk about in The Unbroken Machine).

To their credit, the Liberals have vowed to fix this, and Scott Brison seems to be at least showing a bit of contrition and frustration that fixing this is taking so long. Part of this is bureaucratic, with departments not speeding up their processes. Part of this is political, where the Commons hasn’t amended the Standing Orders to allow the Estimates to be tabled by May 1st instead of March 1st so that it can follow the budget. But seriously – this is actually the most important job of MPs, and they have shown a complete disregard for this for years now. Their most fundamental duty is to control the public purse and the Estimates are the heart of that process, and they can’t be arsed to take them seriously. Watching them speed through Estimates votes without proper scrutiny happens more often than not, and we saw last year a case where they voted through a flawed version of the bill that the Senate caught and had to send back. It’s a disgrace, and while I applaud Brison for trying to make changes, the fact that the rest of the Commons can’t get on board is utterly shameful.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has a good look at the country’s fiscal picture in the lead up to the budget, while Paul Wells gets more hints about the budget, which looks to be a lot more wait-and-see given the unfolding Trumpocalypse south of the border.

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QP: Vote for my bill

Despite being in town (and just having a completed a call with the White House), Justin Trudeau was absent for QP today, for which I will scowl. Thomas Mulcair was still away as well, part of the GG’s state visit to Sweden, leaving only Rona Ambrose the only major leader present. She led off, trolling for support for her private member’s bill on mandatory sexual assault training for judges — something that is not asking about the administrative responsibilities of the government. Jody Wilson-Raybould said that it was an important topic and that she would review the bill as it came to the Commons. After another round of asking in French and repeating the answer in English, Ambrose raised the case of Justin Bourque to demand that consecutive sentencing laws remain in place. Wilson-Raybould reminded her that they are conducting a broad-based review, and that there are already the highest mandatory penalties on the books for murder. Ambrose asked about that Chinese company that bought that nursing home chain and wondered if they figured out the ownership yet, but Navdeep Bains repeated this assurances from yesterday about the review of the sale. Ambrose finished off her round asking about the government refusing to release information on their carbon price cost projections, and Catherine McKenna reminded her that there are also costs for not tackling climate change. Nathan Cullen led off for the NDP, spinning a small conspiracy theory about fundraising by the chairman of Apotex, for which Bardish Chagger reminded her that the Lobbying Commissioner found nothing amiss. Karine Trudel asked the same in French, got the same answer, and then spun another question about the government’s ethics, and Chagger reiterated her same points. Nathan Cullen then railed about the government caring only about billionaires and not average Canadians, and Chagger chastised him for ignoring the ways in which the government has been listening to Canadians.

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Roundup: Asylum conundrum

The debate over illegal refugee crossings into Canada is at a bit of a roadblock given the impossibility of the situation from a great many perspectives. Without any kind of physical barrier at the border – say, a fence or a wall – there’s not a lot that we can do to stop them from coming over because, well, that’s American territory and our border guards and RCMP aren’t going to cross the border to prevent crossings, nor can they anticipate every crossing point and physically prevent them from crossing into Canada, despite the tautology that Tony Clement seems to be clinging to.

Ralph Goodale has been quite lucid in answering questions on the subject and saying that additional resources will be deployed as needed, but again points to the physical impossibility of keeping them out, so we have to simply follow our processes once they’re here. And for as much as people talk about dissuading these migrants from making a crossing, we can’t exactly buy up American ad space telling them not to come because they’re already freaked out by the Trumpocalypse and I’m not sure that many of them are acting rationally, which makes “dissuading” them a difficult prospect, particularly given our international obligations.

One tool that the government is not in any hurry to implement is a 2012 law around designating irregular arrivals in order to take additional detention measures and would prevent them from sponsoring other family for five years, but again, I’m sure that many would rather be in immigration detention in Canada for a few weeks as opposed to facing the prospect of immigration crackdowns and travel bans in the United States. This law was drafted largely in response to the arrival of boatloads of Tamils seeking asylum, but it also needs to be pointed out that the number of those claimants were small, and I remember more than a few columns around the time that it happened where people were saying that these people willing to brave a crossing and survive on a diet spiders during the crossing were the kinds of resilient people that we want in this country. But the previous government was also one that was trying to solve the refugee backlog “crisis” that they created by not filling IRB positions for an extended period, and when they did accept refugees, tried to prioritize groups they felt they could get some political advantage out of (such as Christians from Iraq). I would also add that stepping up detention and other punitive measures would go against the brand that the current government is trying to sell to the world, which would make their reluctance all the more apparent, but one supposes that we’ll have to wait and see if there is a bigger spike in claims once the weather gets warmer.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne grapples with the difficult conundrum of what to do with those asylum seekers, while Scott Gilmore says that while we can’t stop them from arriving, we can do better once they’re here, starting with more staff at Citizenship and Immigration and making more of an effort to make them feel welcome because we need them.

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QP: Pink shirts against Trump

With it being caucus day, most of the desks were filled in the Commons, and MPs were ready to go. Rona Ambrose led off, asking about the sale of some BC retirement homes to a Chinese firm with murky ownership. Justin Trudeau reminded her that we are a trading nation, and that means allowing foreign investment in our interests. Ambrose pressed about the Chinese’s firm’s murky ownership, and Trudeau took the rare move of pulling out a note to read off some of the provisions of the deal including provincial oversight and job guarantees. Ambrose turned to the issue of consecutive sentences and demanded that they remain in place. Trudeau reiterated his previous day’s response about supporting judges while doing the broad-based Criminal Code review. Ambrose asked again, and got the same answer, before she turned again to the lack of full-time job growth, and Trudeau retreated to his well-worn talking points about tax cuts and the Canada Child Benefits. Jenny Kwan led off for the NDP, railing about a massive immigration crackdown in the United States and and asked if the PM still thought the US was a safe country for refugees. Trudeau noted that the expectation of this government is to work well with the Americans. Matthew Dubé pressed about refugees heading for our border, and Trudeau noted that he was surprised that the NDP, who are concerned about the rights of workers, would look to jeopardize our economic relationship with the States. Dubé then asked about Canadians turned back from the US border and worried that the pre-clearance bill would make it worse. Trudeau reminded him that pre-clearance means that they still get Charter protections that they wouldn’t have on US soil. Jenny Kwan demanded that Trudeau stand up to the bully Trump on Pink Shirt Day, but Trudeau repeated his answer.

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Roundup: Tracking the dissenters

The CBC’s Éric Grenier has posted an analysis of free votes in the Commons in the current parliament, determining which party’s MPs dissent the most often. Part of this kind of analysis bothers me in part because it’s quantitative rather than qualitative, in part with how it was carried out. Rather than actually going through each vote to see a) what kind of vote it was, and b) the substance of the vote, he relied on the measure of how the cabinet voted to determine if it was a whipped vote or not, which is a poor measure, seeing as this would capture all manner of procedural votes (albeit, there haven’t been nearly as many in the current parliament as there were in the previous one). I’m not sure that there are any particular surprises in here in that the Liberals have been given a freer hand with their free votes, which was largely the case with the Conservatives in the previous parliament as well – having a majority usually lets a give their backbenchers a little added room to blow off a bit of steam when necessary. It’s also not unexpected in the fact that the Liberals are a party that doesn’t have a core ideology that they feel compelled to adhere to in the way that most Conservatives and the NDP most certainly do. It also shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that leadership candidates in the Conservatives are breaking ranks more often, given that they’re trying to put their own stamp on the party, so this is their latitude to start doing that. And as for the top “dissenting” voters, the top two are Liberals Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who have a history of being a bit…naïve, if I may be blunt, in some of the positions they’ve taken to date. Erskine-Smith, if you recall, recently got pulled from a committee because his attempts to do more consensus-building wound up getting him manipulated by Tony Clement into voting against his own party’s interests when it came to amendments to a government bill, and Ouellette is often seen saying…not terribly thought-out things in the media. So, does it surprise me that they’re the two who voted against their party the most? No, not really. But Grenier doesn’t have any kind of context around this numbers, and that’s all he does – post numbers because he’s the numbers guy, which can be interesting in reporting, but it also only tells a fraction of the actual story, which is why stories like these do rub me the wrong way.

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QP: Praise for border communities

After a Family Day off, the bulk of MPs were back on the Hill, ready for the daily inquest of the nation. Rona Ambrose led off, raising the sentencing of Douglas Garland in Alberta thanks to their consecutive sentencing laws the previous government implemented, and wanted a guarantee that they would not touch them as part of their sentencing reviews. Justin Trudeau assured her that they were reviewing the system broadly, and that he had confidence in the justice minister. Ambrose wanted clarity on that answer, but Trudeau repeated his statement. Ambrose worried that the government planned to nickel-and-dime Canadians to get any bits of cash they could out of them, but Trudeau reminded her that that her party voted against their middle-class tax cut. Ambrose listed off the usual disingenuous examples of raised taxes, but Trudeau reminded her that the previous government was more interested in tax breaks for the wealthy as opposed to help for those who needed it. Ambrose repeated the question in French, and Trudeau repeated his own answer in the other official language. With Thomas Mulcair off in Sweden, Hélène Laverdière led off for the NDP, demanding the suspension of the safe third country agreement, to which Trudeau reminded her that while they accept refugees, they can only do so if Canadians have confidence in the system, which was why they were trying to strike a balance. Jenny Kwan wanted more support for border communities and those refugees, but Trudeau repeated his answer. Kwan raised Brian Mulroney’s serenade and demanded Trudeau to denounce Trump, while Trudeau reminded her that Canadians expect him to have a strong working relationship with the American administration given the economic ties. Laverdière said the government was putting their head in the sand on the issue, but Trudeau’s answer didn’t change.

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Roundup: About that two percent

Part of the preoccupying discussion over the weekend has been comments that Donald Trump made regarding the two percent of GDP spending target as a NATO obligation, and his threats to be less responsive to the alliance unless countries pony up to that level. Never mind that it’s not an actual obligation (Article 5 – the notion that an attack on one member country is an attack on all – is the actual core of the alliance), it’s become a fixation, and that could be a problem for Canada, no matter the fact that we actually show up and do the heavy lifting. To translate heavy lifting, it means that we haven’t been afraid of doing the dirty work, and getting involved in the actual fighting, as with Afghanistan, in part because we have a system of government that allows the government of the day to authorise it without bogging it down in legislative votes or in coalition negotiations where the reluctance to put troops into harm’s way means that most NATO countries wind up deploying troops with very restrictive caveats as to what they can and can’t do, and deploying them to areas where they are less likely to see active combat. (This, incidentally, is generally another caution about PR governments, but I’m sure there are those who would say that this is a feature and not a bug. Those people would be overly idealistic). That heavy lifting should count for something beyond just spending levels.

Paul Wells walks us through some of the history of the two percent target, and why it’s a poor measure of results, as well as some theorizing about why Donald Trump is fixating on that target as much as he is. Likewise, NATO scholar Stephen Saideman engages in some two percent myth-busting here. And Philippe Lagassé offers some additional thoughts about those spending targets and what could be a better measure.

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Roundup: M-103’s ongoing morass

Some of the nonsense around M-103 and the Conservatives’ competing supply day motion that “all lives matters” the Islamophobia debate, continues to churn, with the Peel Regional Police announcing that they have added patrols and additional protection to MP Iqra Khalid following the revelation of the level of threats and harassment that she’s received over tabling the motion – basically proving her own point about the problem of Islamophobia that needs to be addressed before we have a repeat of the Quebec City shooting. But adding to the morass is when one of her Liberal colleagues, Chandra Arya, said that what happened with the Quebec City shooting was a “direct result” of the kind of dog whistle politics that the Conservatives and the Parti Québécois have been engaging in, with talks of niqab bans and barbaric cultural practices tip lines. That, obviously, has yet more people up in arms over the whole debate – a debate which prompted a “protest” outside of a Toronto mosque yesterday where people demonstrated that they were totally concerned about the vague language of “Islamophobia” and were really concerned with free speech rights, as they held up signs calling for Muslims to be banned from Canada – once again, proving the whole point of M-103.

Susan Delacourt contrasts the Conservatives’ two faces, cooperative on trade, but feeding demagoguery when it suits their needs. Paul Wells notes the Liberals’ ability to force Conservatives to deal with dilemmas like the one of M-103. Adam Radwanski chronicles the party’s collapsing big tent in the face of the rise in populist demagoguery. Andrew MacDougall warns the Conservatives about the dangers of peddling cynicism instead of building trust. Andrew Coyne writes about the importance of free speech and the problems with government-sponsored chills on it – which M-103 is not, by the way.

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