Roundup: A northern populism

Every time I see someone writing about Canadian populist movements and the dismissive concerns that it could never happen here, I always shake my head because it does happen. To an extent, we are living through it right now. The Canadian Press has been doing some surveys to try and discover what the “northern populism” might look like, and while it’s not quite the same as the forces that brought Donald Trump into power, it nevertheless exists here.

Part of the difference we see is that in Canada, those populist forces are less white than they are in the States or in Europe, but the focus remains the same, which are the perceived ills of the liberal (big or small L, take your pick) “elites.” It’s not a secret that the way that Conservatives like Jason Kenney targeted ethno-cultural minority communities was by focusing on socially conservative issues, whether it was their reticence to embrace same-sex marriage, or things like marijuana, those were cues that helped them tap into those communities the ways that other populist movements haven’t, who are too busy dog-whistling to appeal to the more blatant racists. And while there are those undercurrents in Canadian populist movements, for which things like immigration remains a bugaboo, Canadian conservatives have managed to tap into a particular vein of “it’s not our immigrant community that’s the problem, it’s those other immigrants that are,” and that set up a kind of justification that “hey, we can’t be racists because these immigrants don’t approve of that immigration policy,” never mind that yes, immigrants can be intolerant of other racial or ethno-cultural minority groups that aren’t their own.

But populism is not a spent force in Canada. We saw how it operated with Rob Ford, and it’s alive and well in Alberta as they try to harness it into an anti-NDP political party. To an extent, the federal Conservatives and NDP have largely abandoned their own ideological underpinnings to be right or left-flavoured populists, and yes, there is a great deal of populist rhetoric underpinning the Liberal electoral platform, with appeals to this nebulous middle class that has no data to back up their claims (like stagnant wages for one spectacular example). Was Justin Trudeau able to harness it more effectively than his opponents? Yes. Does that mean that the scourge of populism that gave the Americans the Trumpocalypse is absent here? Not at all. That the composition is slightly different is an academic difference, but not reassuring in the least.

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Roundup: Stop berating members for doing their jobs

It’s not often that I write about provincial matters, and especially not from Manitoba, but this one I felt like I should make a remark because of the way in which the story is framed, which infuriates me to no end. The headline is “Stephen Fletcher criticizes his own government’s bill in Manitoba.” Fletcher, a former Conservative MP and one-time cabinet minister, is currently an MLA in the province, and a backbencher in the governing caucus.

Because I know that the vast majority of Canadians didn’t get a quality civics education, let me spell it out – it’s a backbencher’s job to hold the government to account. Yes, even if they’re from the same party. And in this case, Fletcher had concerns about a bill and has been asking questions about it at committee meetings late into the night. In other words, he’s doing his job. We should be encouraging this.

But what does the local Canadian Press reporter ask the premier? Whether Fletcher should be removed from caucus.

Great Cyllenian Hermes, luck-bringing messenger of the deathless gods, give me strength before my head explodes.

We The Media keep insisting that we want more independent elected officials, and we constantly fetishise things like free votes, and the moment an MP or MLA starts asking tough questions of their own party or steps out of line, we freak out and start wondering if the leader is losing control of their party, or in this case, whether they need to be kicked out of the party. In this particular case, the article goes on to say that this is the first crack in party unity. Are you kidding me?

When we elect members under the First-Past-the-Post system, we are imbuing them with individual agency. That’s why we elect them to single seats and not giving votes to parties to apportion those seats out to their MPs. We privilege the independence of MPs and empower them to do their jobs. Whether or not they choose to do so is the bigger part of the battle, because of the pressures of looking like a team player, but We The Media make it worse because we pull bullshit like this all the time. Our insistence on these ridiculous narratives and demands that our elected members all act in lockstep constantly while at the same time demanding independence is doing the system in. It’s driving the need for message control which is poisoning our democracy, because our own journalists have a tendency to be too ignorant of how the system is supposed to work.

Let MPs and MLAs do their actual work of holding governments to account, and stop causing trouble. Seriously. You’re actively hurting democracy with this kind of bullshit.

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Roundup: On foreign money in federal elections

Yesterday I mentioned a certain moral panic disguised as “journalism” authored by former Calgary Herald opinion editor Licia Corbella when it came to accusations about foreign money trying to influence the 2015 election. Anyone reading the piece should have clued into the fact that it was a hit-job, from the sympathetic portrayal of Joan Crockatt, the lack of corroborating evidence, the one-sided sources, oh, and the fact that it repeated the canard that the Tides Foundation was some kind of influence clearing house without actually digging into those numbers beyond their top-lines. And too many outlets ran with the story as is on the first day, and really only started to question it yesterday. VICE did a pretty good takedown of the claims, and when some of the other outlets started asking questions about that “report” with the accusations, the excuses for why it couldn’t be produced were…dubious to say the least.

This notion that there is a problem with foreign money influencing elections via third parties is also dubious, and while the Commissioner of Elections said he wanted the legislation tightened during a Senate committee hearing, a former lawyer form Elections Canada disputes some of the Commissioner’s interpretation of the law.

If more people had closely read Corbella’s piece in the first place, I think we could have avoided the pile on of hot takes that swiftly resulted on Monday. As a columnist, Corbella was a known fabulist, which is why this piece of “journalism” should have been treated with utter suspicion from the start.

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Roundup: Wrongheaded notions about party policy-making

Over at Policy Options yesterday, Stephen Harper’s former policy director, Rachel Curren, lamented the policy-making process of the Conservative Party, sighing about the fact that the majority of the leadership candidates were just retreads of Harper-era policies. But sweet Rhea mother of Zeus was her op-ed full of so many mistruths about the Westminster parliamentary system, that my head about exploded.

While Curran was disingenuous about how the Conservatives were the party of grassroots policy-making that the Liberals were top-down (that has not been the case until they changed their policy process just last year, which is a problem), the crux of her article rested on this notion that the party needed some outside policy groups or think-tanks to do the heavy policy lifting for them because they were just too cautious a group to do it otherwise.

No.

The notion that it’s not the role of the party itself to engage in policy development, but rather to fight and win elections, is complete and utter bullshit. Likewise, it’s not up to the civil service to come up with policy either – they can offer advice and options for implementation, but political policy is certainly not their job.

It is absolutely the role of the grassroots to engage in policy development because that’s their job. Politics is supposed to be about bottom-up engagement, both in terms of policy development and in the selection of candidates (and removal of incumbents when necessary). And what utterly boggles my mind is the notion that Curran is peddling that we should take away what little power the grassroots has left and pass it off to these third-party think-tanks that can access the kind of funding that parties can’t, and have little accountability. If we take this away from the grassroots, then what good are they? Continuing the farce of our illegitimate leadership selection process to coronate unaccountable presidential figures who can then dictate top-down policy and control over the party (and if you don’t think they’re not dictating policy, then why the hell are they running on it in this gong show of a leadership contest)? These contests actively disenfranchise the grassroots (despite all appearance to the contrary), so taking away what policy powers they have left leaves the grassroots with what? Being donors with no say in what they’re donating to? How is that any way to run our political system?

This kind of stuff infuriates me because it’s not the way politics is supposed to happen. The grassroots are supposed to be empowered, and leaders are supposed to be responsive to them – not the other way around like it is now. It’s a problem and it’s one we need to fix, and hey, I just happened to have written a book all about these kinds of issues, which I would suggest that Curran read, because she might learn a thing or two.

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Roundup: The curious PCO-PBO turf war

There is an interesting piece out from Kathryn May on iPolitics about the turf war going on between the Privy Council Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and how that is playing out in the provisions of the budget implementation bill that would create an independent PBO. The PBO blames senior bureaucrats for trying to hobble its future role, and much of it seems to be down to an existential difference of opinion, between whether or not the PBO should exist to give advice to parliamentarians, or to be a watchdog of the government. PCO takes the view that the PBO was designed to offer advice and independent analysis, while the first PBO, Kevin Page, was certainly taking the latter view, which his successor has largely followed suit with. One of the other interesting notes was that the public service would rather the PBO act in more of a fashion like the Auditor General, where he goes back to departments with his figures to check for factual errors, and that it gives them a chance to respond to the report, rather than feeling like they are being constantly “ambushed.”

I am of the view that we run the risk of creating bigger problems if we continue to give the PBO too broad of a mandate, while being unaccountable and only able to be terminated for cause, meaning seven year terms by which they can self-initiate all manner of investigations with no constraints. That will be a problem, given that we already have at least one Independent Officer of Parliament who is going about making problematic declarations and giving reports of dubious quality without anyone calling him to task on it (and by this I mean the Auditor General). And I do think that PCO has a point in that the intent of the PBO was to give independent analysis, particularly of economic forecasts, and I do think that there is some merit to the criticisms that Kevin Page had become something of a showboat and was far exceeding his mandate before his term was not renewed. We have a serious problem in our parliament where we are handing too much power to these independent officers (and other appointed bodies for that matter) while MPs are doing less and less actual work – especially the work that they’re supposed to be doing.

While PCO says that the provisions in the budget bill were to try to “strike a balance” with the role of the PBO, I fear that he’s already become too popular with the media – and by extension the general public – to try and constrain his role, and the government will be forced to back down. Because We The Media are too keen to be deferential to watchdogs (like the Auditor General) and not call them out when they go wrong (like the AG did with the Senate report), I fear that the pattern will repeat itself with the PBO, as it already is with the demands from the pundit class that he be given overly broad powers with his new office. Because why let Parliament do the job it’s supposed to do when we can have Independent Officers do it for them?

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Roundup: Exit Meredith, at long last

It is perhaps not entirely surprising, but it seems that soon-to-be former Senator Don Meredith had the tiniest shred of shame left in him after all, and he announced yesterday that he would be resigning from the Senate. Well, sort of. He wrote a letter where he implied that he was resigning but didn’t actually say it, and made himself out to be a hero for not putting the Senate through a Constitutional challenge around its powers to expel a member. It took calls to Meredith’s lawyer to confirm that yes, he was resigning, and then more calls to confirm that yes, the letter stating that had been sent to the Governor General (who has to get it and then inform the Senate Speaker of that fact) but just hadn’t arrived during the evening political shows.

So now there are a couple of questions remaining. One of them is what happens to the two ongoing investigations into harassment in his office, which would normally be suspended given that they are considered moot given that he’s no longer there. That could change, however, if the Senate Ethics committee decides to let them continue in order for everything to be aired. Given the current mood, that may still happen.

The other question, and we’ll hear no end of sanctimony about it, is about Meredith’s pension. That’s the one thing that most reporters immediately glommed onto yesterday, because of course they did. Apparently, Treasury Board gets to make this call, and they’ve apparently reached out to PMO on the issue, so I’m sure we’ll get some kind of a political determination around it within a couple of days. At that point, we’ll see if Meredith decides that it’s a fight he wants to take on, despite the fact that he’ll have popular opinion against him. He may, however, have the law on his side, but more to the point, the desire to preserve one’s pension has been a driving force for getting bad actors to resign gracefully. Taking that option away will disincentivise future bad actors to do so, which is a bigger problem long-term than the public outrage about this one public figure.

Meanwhile, this means that the Senate’s powers to expel one of its own members will remain untested, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure that it’s preferable for them to have gone ahead with it, even as a test case, given the historical message that it sends. Regardless, here’s James Bowden laying out the case for why the Senate does have the power to expel its own members, should it become necessary once again in the future.

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Roundup: Rejected amendments on C-4

It looks like we may have another bit of drama between the Commons and the Senate with respect to the amendments on Bill C-4, which is the government’s repeal of two private members’ bills from the previous parliament that sought to limit unionisation. While the portions of the bill related to the repeal of the one bill on financial reporting for unions went through, there were amendments to retain the portions of the former bill on ensuring that union drives are subject to a secret ballot instead of the card-check system. The government has signalled that they plan to reject those amendments, which was not unexpected.

The insistence on secret ballots for unionization was a very fraught issue, and having covered the private members’ bills in the previous parliament, I spoke to a number of labour relations experts who said that not only did this was a problematic change because it put the system out of step with much of the legislation around it, but the process for making those changes – a private members’ bill – upset a lot of the balance in the system and because it had the Conservative government’s support, it shifted the role of the government from promoting settlements and giving parties mediators or arbitrators to one of being openly against the unions. None of that goes away with the Senate’s amendment process. This isn’t by any means to say that I’m trying to shill for the unionization side of things – I’m not. But this is one of those issues where process does matter, and the previous parliament upset the usual process by which these issues are agreed to.

And if the Commons rejects the amendments and sends it back to the Senate? Will they accept the judgment of the Commons? Likely. While the Conservatives in the Senate will likely try to fight this tooth and nail – seeing it as a legacy of their time in government – I’m sure there will be some pressure (and no small amount of admonition from Senator Peter Harder) to bend to the will of the elected members. If the Senate didn’t go to war with the Commons over the assisted dying bill, I have a hard time seeing why they would over this one, particularly as there is a good chance it would not survive a Charter challenge.

ETA: I confused C-4 and C-6 with regards to the call for a free vote. Those sections have been excised.

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Roundup: An unconstitutional motion

As stated for their upcoming Supply Day motion (currently scheduled for Monday, the Conservatives have drafted a resolution that would see the House of Commons express non-confidence in Minister Sajjan and Minister Sajjan alone. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to bash my head into a wall before my head explodes because it’s so very boneheaded from start to finish.

First of all, you should read this post by James Bowden, who takes apart the motion to and shows that it is unconstitutional. What is more interesting is the fact that the NDP tried this tactic before when Rona Ambrose was minister of the environment, and the Speaker ruled it out of order then, just as Speaker Regan should this time. Why? Because one of the fundamental tenets of Responsible Government is that of Cabinet solidarity. Cabinet lives and dies as a single body – there is no dispensation given to ministers we like, or to simply cull the prime minister from the rest of them in these kinds of votes. It’s an important feature of why the system works the way it does, and trying to cherry pick it for the sake of political tactics makes one a bit queasy because this is our very system of government that we’re talking about and they should bloody well know better.

Look, I get that they’re trying to exploit what they see as low-hanging fruit with Sajjan, but along the way, they’ve been dangerously blurring the lines of civil-military relations by asserting that the troops want him gone (do they aside from a few cranks? Never mind that it’s not these soldiers’ call), and by referencing Sajjan’s actions in military terms rather than political ones. Trying to use the term “stolen valour” is also offensive, not only because it’s generally reserved for someone who dons a uniform or medals without having been in combat (which is not the case with Sajjan), but because they’re co-opting it from the military for political benefit. But now they’re trying to go against the fundamentals of Responsible Government to score what they hope will be a cheap win.

That Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is trying to burn the system to the ground to score a couple of points is a very serious problem, and one indicative of a party that is more focused on populist spin than they are in being principled. It’s  a disturbing pattern, and one that they should knock off before they go too far down this garden path.

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Roundup: Seriously, civilian control of the military is a Thing

If three incidents makes a trend, then we may have a serious problem with civil-military relations on our hands in this country. After the allegations that Mark Norman leaked Cabinet confidences to publicly pressure the government to run a procurement his way, and calls by soldiers in uniform for the defence minister to resign, we now have a retiring general who wants less political control over combat missions (on top of greater resources). Because apparently civilian control over the military isn’t a Thing and we should just let them run their own show.

Oh, wait. This is a problem because it’s looking to weaken that civilian control. No one can deny that there were a lot of problems with the way that things were run in Afghanistan because of some rather spectacular bureaucratic bungling, but that doesn’t mean that we should simply turn over operational control to the military. Madness – and coups – lie that way. And if serving members of our military can’t see that, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Meanwhile, as Harjit Sajjan issued yet another apology for characterizing his role in Operation Medusa, we also saw a letter released from General Fraser on Sajjan’s role was at the time. The more that this drags on, and the more we hear military voices chirping on about this, the more I’m seeing another problem with the way in which Sajjan was given the role as minister, while he was still an active member of the Canadian Forces Reserves (and indeed, the point was made upon his appointment that he had to resign because he was still technically subordinate to the Chief of Defence Staff owing to his rank). This is a problem for civilian control of the military, when we put recently retired members into the civilian role of oversight – they’re too close to the culture for one, and as we’re seeing with this particular incident, the soldiers still serving have different expectations of the minister because they’re still seeing him through the lens of being a “good soldier” rather than a politician, which he is now. We’re also seeing this problem in the States with appointments of recently retired military personnel into Trump’s cabinet, where they are blurring lines around civilian control. And We The Media aren’t helping by treating Sajjan as a former soldier instead of a politician in how this whole thing is being handled, which is only amplifying the problems. Neither, frankly, are the Conservatives, who keep trying to insist that the military be left to handle their own procurement (particularly around fighter jets), apparently forgetting about the problems they had with those same files when they were in government when the military’s wish lists were unrealistic, and the fact that just turning it over again undermines civilian control. This is really serious business, and I fear that we’re letting this get out of hand, with not enough voices pushing back against this creeping problem.

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Roundup: Ontario’s “basic income” scheme a bit suspect

The province of Ontario decided that it was going ahead with a three-year pilot project around basic incomes in three municipalities around the province – Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay, each testing different circumstances and local conditions. But there are problems with the way this is all designed, which Kevin Milligan (who has been studying this issue) outlines:

In other words, this isn’t really basic income, which makes it all that much harder to actually evaluate its efficacy, and if it’s not displacing existing welfare or benefit programmes, then it’s not really recouping those costs which makes this hideously expensive. And that’s really been the biggest problem with basic income proposals – the cost. While the idea is that they would displace current benefit programmes, there is less money to be had in cutting the red tape and bureaucracy than one might think, and I’m pretty sure that Bill Gates’ idea of taxing robots to pay for basic income for the workers they displace isn’t really feasible either.

Oh, and then there are the political considerations.

With an election not too far off in this province, we’ve seen a few moves by this government to try and out-left the NDP in places, hoping to cobble together the same sort of winning voter base that they managed to in their last election, and which their federal counterparts similarly managed in 2015. While I get the merits of basic income, I remain dubious of its feasibility, especially when this pilot project appears to be so poorly designed. But then again, I’m not an economist.

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