Roundup: A cynical membership ploy

Oh, Alberta politics. For the place where I first got cut my political chops, you continue to fill me with such…outrage, particularly with how you’ve so bastardized the way in which leadership contests are supposed to run. The former Progressive Conservative party was a good example of how our system could be so debased as to turn those leadership contests into quasi-primaries that they became a direct election of the premier through instant party memberships, and usually block votes to groups such as teachers, for whom leaders like Alison Redford became indebted to. This time, it’s the antics of the upstart Alberta Party that has me fuming.

For those of you who don’t know, the Alberta Party is a centrist party of mostly hipsters and academics that aims to try and find the sweet spot of the province’s political pulse, while also not being associated with the heretofore tainted Liberal brand. (Disclosure: I was friends with one of the leadership hopefuls in the previous contest, and am friends with a previous candidate for the party in the last election; both, incidentally, are academics). And with the demise of the amorphous PC brand and its quasi-centrism in favour of Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party and its decidedly more right-leaning brand, there is optimism within the Alberta Party that hey, maybe they can attract some of the former PC types fleeting for greener pastures. And so with that in mind, the current leader (and up until a week ago, holder of their only seat in the legislature, until an NDP defector joined the ranks) decided he was going to resign.

But – and here’s the catch – he just might run for the position again. And admitted yesterday that his resignation is a ploy to drive party memberships. And this is the part that makes me crazy, because it reinforces this sick notion that has infected our body politic that the only real reason that the grassroots membership exists any longer is for the purpose of leadership contests. And while sure, that’s important, it continues do drive this growing push that makes these contests into quasi-presidential primaries that centralises power in the leader’s office because the selection (and subsequent ability to remove said leader) rests outside of the caucus – though I will grant you that for Greg Clark, that was a caucus of one until just now.

And I get that at this point, the Alberta Party is one that isn’t as centrally-driven as other parties, and where there is trust in candidates about policy matters that they’re not just parroting talking points (so says my friend who ran for them), and that’s great. But it’s also indicative of a party without seats (which they had none until the last election), and without a taste of power. But it nevertheless follows the pattern that memberships – which Clark is trying to drive – is all about the leadership, and not about the nominations, or the grassroots policy development, or being the interlocutor between civic life and the legislature. And if they do manage to attract a bunch of former PCers, that could be either great for them, or their own demise as that party’s former culture takes over the party (which isn’t necessarily a great thing). It’s a risky move that Clark made, and it may present a change for the political landscape…or it becomes one more cynical exercise in bastardizing the meaning of grassroots party memberships. I guess we’ll have to see.

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Roundup: Trying to score dangerous points

In amidst all of the really bad takes on Governor General Julie Payette’s commentary the other night, I find myself more than a little horrified that the Conservatives have decided to play political games around this. More specifically, they are attacking Payette obliquely by directing their comments at the prime minister, who didn’t leave well enough alone when he said it was great that the GG stood up for science. And great that she did, but this was also in the context of there being a willingness to torque the comments into a bit of a scandal, and to blow them completely out of proportion.

So what did the Conservatives do? It started with a Members’ Statement before QP, where MP Ziad Aboultaif denounced the supposed attack by the PM on people of faith (which isn’t what happened), and was followed up by a Facebook post by Andrew Scheer who said much the same thing – entirely ignoring that Trudeau is a practicing Catholic who has been public about the value that he places on his faith.

But what irks me the most about all of this is that it’s an example where our elected officials keep being cute about our most vital institutions – the Crown – and politicising them in subtle ways. When the Conservatives were in power, it was aggressively giving things a royal re-brand (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of), but the manner in which it was handled, along with the abdication on the opposition benches of similarly owning the fact that this country is a constitutional monarchy, allowed the media to paint the exercise as a Conservative nostalgia for the days of colonialism, and to tar the whole of our monarchical institutions with a partisan taint. And I fear that Scheer is going down the same path here in trying to stir up controversy around these largely innocuous statements by the GG in order to try and whip up his base. It’s a very dangerous game, especially because Scheer and his entourage have proven themselves to be ham-fisted in pretty much everything that they do, and that increases the chances of this blowing up in everyone’s faces, and the very last thing we need to do is try to politicize the Crown or the GG in this country. So seriously – knock it the hell off. This is not something that’s worth scoring a few cheap partisan points off of. You’ll only hurt everyone in the process.

Meanwhile, Colby Cosh has made one of the only reasonable takes on the Payette comments in noting that we don’t have rulebooks for Governors General, so they should stick to principles about appearing to arbitrate impartially, particularly because of the powers she possesses. And he’s right. And I would also add that it’s why I find the furore overblown – the existence of climate change and evolution are not partisan issues in Canada, so she’s not actually crossing any partisan lines in her comments. My own weekend column delves further into that aspect, as well as the reminder that she’s not actually a figurehead like so many of the pearl clutchers seem to be demanding from their fainting couches.

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Roundup: Not headed for a debt bomb

In light of the fall economic update, and the myriad of concerns about the level of the deficit and lack of a plan to get to balance in the near term, economist Kevin Milligan took us all to school over Twitter yesterday. The main message – that it’s not 1995, and we can’t keep talking about the deficit as though it were.

Later on, Milligan took exception to the notion that the government has backtracked on their tax reform promises and made the situation worse. Not so, he tells us.

So there you have it. Armchair punditry on deficits or tax changes (even from some economists) doesn’t necessarily stack up.

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Roundup: A surprise by-election win

In the two federal by-elections that took place last night, it was no surprise that the Conservatives won handily in Sturgeon River–Parkland riding that Rona Ambrose used to hold. Mind you, the newly elected MP there, Dane Lloyd, may prove to be uncomfortable given his past history of saying some fairly controversial things, but that’s now Andrew Scheer’s problem to manage. The real surprise, however, was that the Liberals won the Quebec riding of Lac Saint-Jean, the former riding of Denis Lebel. Why is it so surprising? Because for a Conservative riding where the NDP were a close second in the 2015 election, this time around it was a Liberal victory, with the Conservatives barely managing second place, the Bloc in a close third, and the NDP a distant fourth. And this was the Liberals’ weakest Quebec showing in 2015 and a riding that they haven’t held since 1980.

So can we draw any conclusion from these results? Probably not yet – it’ll probably take a few days to suss out the data and get a sense of what happened on the ground, but it does bear mentioning that the of the three opposition parties, all of them had new leaders, and each of them spent a fair bit of time in the riding over the past couple of weeks, hoping to drum up support. That the Conservatives lost the riding may simply be indicative that the riding was more loyal to Lebel himself than the party he ran for (remember that he was a former mayor from the region), but it can’t be a ringing endorsement of Scheer either. And while the pollsters are all out in force talking about the Liberals’ fall from grace in their polling numbers lately, the fact that the Liberals still managed to win a seat that the Conservatives held, even amidst weeks of headlines about tax changes and Bill Morneau’s assets, in a region where they didn’t have any historic strength, probably still says something about the party’s appeal nationally. Maybe it’s about the collapse of the NDP vote in Quebec, which could possibly be a harbinger of things to come under Jagmeet Singh? Maybe it’s the appeal of sock diplomacy and selfies? Suffice to say, it’s going to be an interesting few days for all of the parties as they figure out what happened, and prepare for the next round of by-elections.

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Roundup: Another CRA overreach?

It came up in QP at the end of the week, and then on a rare Sunday afternoon press conference, where the Conservatives are accusing the government of going after the disability tax credit, particularly when it comes to diabetics. I’m not sure that this is “the government” per se, and not CRA wielding its authority, especially when you add in the recent furore over the folio on employee discounts, where they were looking to enforce some Tax Court decisions, but not necessarily communicating the specifics in the best way possible. Now, the CRA says that nothing has changed with this particular tax credit, and that they’re in fact trying to make it easier by re-hiring nurses that had previously been fired in order to process these claims, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see if there is a decent response from the government on this (as opposed to some more pabulum around tax fairness for the middle class and so on), but one would trust that they would want to get on top of their messaging for a change, rather than letting the Conservatives keep up with this drip-drip-drip narrative. That said, I’m not sure that “this is another tax grab to pay for Trudeau’s out-of-control spending” is the best message, since most of what these measures collect are mere rounding errors. That said, this might also be CRA flexing its muscles now that it has more resource to do this kind of work, when they were merely treading water beforehand.

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Roundup: A stake through the grassroots

Congratulations Liberals, you have once again made things awful for the proper functioning on Canadian democracy, as you so often do. In fact, most of our democratic ills in this country can be traced directly back to Liberal “innovations,” like delegated leadership conventions, which removed caucus accountability of the party leader, to the “supporter class” of leadership selection – removing any and all accountability the leader had – and now you’ve decided to eliminate party memberships to further erode what accountability was left in the party system so that all of the remaining power can be centralised in the leader’s office and Big Data can be used to justify any and all policy decisions rather than allowing them to come from the grassroots. Well done! Oh, but no need to worry – Justin Trudeau totally promised that this wasn’t about centralizing power and taking it away from the grassroots (just the regional power brokers, natch), so no need to worry! Absent from that assurance was anything about accountability, which isn’t surprising given the way the history of these attempts to “democratize” things happen in this country. I’m not saying that the party didn’t need to update its various constitutions into a single body. That’s fine. But memberships are actually an important thing for the role of a political party in our democratic system. And while I get that the “supporter” category during the leadership was instrumental in populating the database that they’re so very proud of for their new digital future, it doesn’t erase the role that grassroots members play. While the Liberals are trying to “deconstruct” what a political party is and turn it into a “movement,” it can’t escape that political parties are not just “private clubs,” as the rhetoric around the new constitution has been trying to paint them as (and indeed, rhetoric used going back to the introduction of the “supporter” category during the leadership). And beyond just offering organizational structure within Parliament (which is in itself a Very Big Deal), parties have an interlocutory role to play between the parliamentary caucus and the public at large. It’s why people are supposed to be joining parties – to provide bottom-up ideas and policies, to nominate candidates, and in return, the riding associations act as interfaces to bring local concerns to caucus if there is no local representative. But we’re not taught about the importance of joining riding associations in school, and when the grassroots has weak structures and little power, then it only empowers the apparatchiks in Ottawa at the centre of the party. I fail to see how Trudeau’s new “movement” is going to empower the grassroots when riding associations will be hollowed out in favour of “streamlining” policy proposals via Big Data. The social and community aspects of riding associations are gone because there is no longer anything there for them to do, other than organise nominations every few years. And not only does it weaken the grassroots, it further diminishes the power of MPs (as Peter Lowen writes here) because that power gets centralized in the leader’s office – just as the power of MPs started being eroded when we took away their ability to select and remove leaders. But because we’re not being taught civic literacy, we’re not learning these lessons, and power continues to be centralized. Trudeau has consolidated a great deal of power now, owing to his popularity, and he is accountable to nobody, and the party structures that would place any kind of check on that power are now gone. I don’t see this as a great day for the Liberal party, but one that harkens worse things to come for our country’s political system as a whole.

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Roundup: Munk debate a success

The Munk Debate on foreign policy was actually really well done – probably the best and most substantive debate we’ve had so far during this election, with a good format, good moderation, and bilingualism that more or less worked out (though there could have been a bit more effort into the French). (Kady’s liveblog here). We also started to see a bit more of a change in the leaders. Harper was more or less his usual self, and in foreign policy, well, he’s got ten years of experience, but he also has a record to defence. Trudeau stepped up his game in this debate, and was the most confident and self-assured he’s been of any debate. The improvement was marked, and given the low expectations going in, where people figured that foreign policy was his weakest area (especially as it’s where most of his notable gaffes going into the election were), but those fears were largely put to rest. As for Mulcair, people expecting a statesmanlike performance were largely dashed as he tended to more personal attacks and swipes, while avoiding a number of answers – possibly because his party’s foreign policy platform is the thinnest of the three. Trudeau also defended his father’s record from attacks by Mulcair, and seemed to have a few of his best moments doing so, and it did get notice over the Twitter Machine. (It was also, he noted the fifteenth anniversary of his father’s death, so that certainly did weigh on his mind at the time). Here is some debate reaction from Michael Den Tandt, the Ottawa Citizen’s panel, and over Twitter, Bob Rae (who was subject of another of Mulcair’s swipes on stage). Oh, and audience polls seem to indicate that Trudeau was the big winner. Make of that what you will.

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Roundup: An questionable call to the Governor

While I often cringe about the media’s reluctance to refer to Stephen Harper as prime minister during the writ period (as he remains prime minister and will until he offers the Governor General his resignation) out of an exaggerated sense of fairness, there was an incident yesterday where Harper himself blurred that line between being prime minister, and being the Conservative leader campaigning for his own ends. For the first time that I can recall, we got a press release that mentioned that the Prime Minister called up the Governor of the Bank of Canada. While the text was pretty banal, talking about “ongoing developments” in the global economy and the recent declines in the markets, it was still unusual because we never get these kinds of releases. Ever. There is a very clear separation between government fiscal policy and the monetary policy set by the Bank of Canada, and the two should never meet – in fact, there is an issue in Canadian history where the Prime Minister tried to interfere with the Bank of Canada, and the Governor of the day ended up resigning in protest as a result. While the purpose of Harper’s call to Governor Poloz is not mentioned, the fact that it came on the day where Harper’s campaign message was all about how only his party could be trusted to weather this global economic turbulence, well, it’s pretty icky. Harper subtly politicizes Poloz by using him as a campaign prop – look at my economic credentials! I’m talking to the Bank of Canada Governor, like an economic boss! For all we know, Harper and Poloz have a weekly call where they talk trends and forecasts, and so on, but if that’s the case, we never hear about it. This time, Harper made sure that we knew about it. I’m having a hard time trying to see how this is acceptable in any way.

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Roundup: And now the environmental policy

Justin Trudeau was out in Vancouver yesterday to unveil the next plank in his party’s platform, filling out his previous environmental proposal to sit down with the provinces to allow them to collectively come up with a climate plan in the short time between the election and the Paris climate conference in December. Trudeau’s new announcements included phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, putting more money into clean tech jobs, restoring the environmental assessment process and adding more teeth to the National Energy Board and its review processes, increasing the amount of protected coastal areas, and cancelling fees at national parks in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Overall, his message was that there will be a price on carbon if the Liberals form government. Predictably, the Conservatives came out with cries of “carbon tax!” while the NDP rolled their eyes and muttered about vague targets with no actual named carbon price. Paul Wells notes that one really can’t criticise Trudeau for being devoid of policy any longer, and that it may force voters to give him and his party a second look.

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Roundup: The problem with SIRC

Of the many hats that Bob Rae has worn over his long and storied careers in Canadian politics, one of them was as a member of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee for a period of five years. Remember, this is the body that the government claims is providing oversight to CSIS, and that they’re “robust,” “doing a good job,” and “are the envy of the world.” No, seriously – they have said all of those things. Rae, meanwhile, notes that SIRC has limited resources for the size of the job they have, but more than that, they haven’t been paid attention to by the government itself. In other words, no matter what their reports say, and how scathing they are, the government’s response is pretty much to pat them on the head, say thanks, and ignore them. Issues like the limited mandate and compartmentalisation of what they’re supposed to be reviewing makes their jobs almost impossible to get a proper picture. The Privacy Commissioner has pointed out that the silos make their own job difficult to do because they can’t see what’s going on either. And then there are security agencies like CBSA – which gained a lost of powers post-9/11 – who have no independent oversight at all. But hey, any oversight is just “needless red tape” – also a phrase this government has used – and would somehow detract from trying to fight terrorists. All of this just adds to the fact that giving CSIS new powers without any additional oversight sounds like a more alarming proposition all the time.

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