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: A reminder of why debate matters

While I haven’t been following the trial in Sudbury around those non-criminal bribery charges related to the provincial by-election, aside from Chris Selley’s columns on the topic, it was something that he tweeted from the courtroom yesterday that piqued my interest because it’s something I deal with a fair amount in writing both about law and politics. Part of the issue raised is that these sections of the law that the trial is proceeding under have never been tested before.

We see these kinds of bills passed not infrequently federally that are passed at all stages with no debate. This is usually where the Senate picks up the slack and does the actual heavy lifting, but not always. Sure, there are a few bills that are relatively non-contentious, related to national parks and such (to think of an example or two off the top of my head), but some that matter – like the changes to royal succession in Canadian law – got no debate in the Commons despite it being a fairly fundamental problem that the law as passed effectively reduced Canada’s status to that of a colony once again.

But the point I make is that the courts will often turn to Parliament for guidance in what it is they should be interpreting. That means looking to debates and committee transcripts to try to divine just what it is that Parliament intended when they passed the bill so that the judge can rule one way or the other in clarifying the meaning. And if you have no such debates – like in this Ontario statute – well, that’s a real problem. It’s also a reason why I will frequently harp on why the Senate matters so much is because they not only will offer some debate in instances where the Commons offers none, but it’s where committee testimony becomes most crucial, especially when it comes to hearing from witnesses that people object to (as happened with the trans rights bill) – because they want it on the record that they heard and dismissed these concerns should they eventually be litigated.

Parliament is supposed to matter, and MPs (and MPPs in this particular instance) do themselves and the province or country they serve a real disservice when they don’t do the job of putting things on the record. And I’ll say that the issue going on in Ontario right now with the bubble law around abortion clinics is another such issue. The provincial Progressive Conservatives offered to pass the bill at all stages – eager to get it off the agenda so that it minimizes the divisions in their ranks on the issue, and the Liberals refused, wanting instead to hear from those it affects. While the cynical calculation is that this is the Liberals playing politics – and to an extent it really is – it’s also the responsible thing to do, so that we get some debate and testimony on the record, so that when this legislation is inevitably challenged, there is a record for the courts to turn to. And yes, that matters beyond the petty politicking.

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Roundup: No, you don’t need a protected nomination

Apparently at the Liberal caucus retreat last week, the subject of the nomination process for the next election came up, and of course, MPs have plenty to say. Not that they’re telling the media, and while this Hill Times piece ended up being pretty thin gruel, mostly retreading their story on the push for protected nominations from early in the summer, I will use it as a chance to re-up my previous piece in Maclean’s about why protected nominations are a very bad thing in our system of government.

I’m sure all MPs like to think that they have very busy and important work to do in Ottawa (and they do!) and that means that they really can’t spare the time and attention that an open nomination would mean, but open nominations are not only a way to engage with the grassroots at the riding level, they’re also an important way of holding the incumbents to account within the party ranks, rather than simply at the ballot box. This means that there are multiple levels of accountability, which is a good thing for democracy. And I get that they need to be careful to delineate their work as MP and as the local party candidate, and that there are an increasing number of rules to enforce the separation between the two, but if they’re doing a good job, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain a healthy membership base that will support them. In fact, I would be concerned if my local MP couldn’t maintain a healthy membership base in the riding association because that means that those grassroots members are not being engaged and that is a very big problem for democracy. In other words, don’t ignore your grassroots, and if you are as an MP, then that means you’re not doing your job.

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Roundup: Disappointment and disengagement

Yesterday being the UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, The Walrus had Robert Jago write a polemic about the sense of betrayal that some Canadian Indigenous people are feeling about the current Liberal government, which promised much but appears to have delivered little. While one could easily argue that much of the litany of complaints are cherry-picking examples and casting some of them in an uncharitable light – many of the promised changes haven’t happened yet because they are complex and systemic, which coupled with a slow-moving bureaucracy that resists change by its very nature, and that means that things take time, not to mention that consultations per Section 35 of the Constitution add time to the process, especially when the government is committing to rebuild many of them from the ground-up. While it’s all well and good to complain that they haven’t poured more money into the system, there are just as many valid reasons for pointing out that pouring money into a broken system is just as likely to exacerbate problems than it will to have any meaningful impact, and we have seen numerous instances of just that – adding money where there is no capacity to effectively spend it has added to burdens being faced by some of these communities.

This, however, wasn’t what bothered me about Jago’s piece, but rather, his recounting of his dipping his toe into the political process and then walking away from it. Buoyed by the soaring Trudeau rhetoric, Jago took out a party membership, tried to get involved, found the party too remote and unresponsive and quickly walked away from the convention he was supposed to attend. What irks me about this is that while I do understand that the disappointment-based disengagement is a Thing, and there is a whole Samara Canada study on the topic, is that this kind of narrative is self-justifying, and Jago goes on a tangent about resistance by refusing participation. Why I find it a problem is that change is difficult, and it generally requires a lot more organisation and agitation within the system than he seems to have offered.

The civics lessons that we’re not taught in this country should include the lesson that if you want to make change, you need to be involved in the process, which means taking out party memberships and organise, organise, organise. Because we’re not taught this, it’s allowed central party leadership, in every party, to amass a great deal of power that leaches power away from the grassroots, and a grassroots that doesn’t know any better doesn’t jealously guard that power. It’s why the Liberals voted overwhelmingly for a new party constitution that absolutely kneecapped the rights of the grassroots in that same convention that Jago refused to attend – because they no longer know their rights, and a slick leader managed to convince them to turn over that power to “modernise” things. And that’s why the party needs active and organised grassroots members to push back and reclaim that power. Walking away at the first sign of resistance just allows the central leadership to hold onto that ill-gotten power. It’s going to take time and a hell of a lot of organisation on the part of grassroots members if we want to start rebalancing the power in this country, but if everyone walks away at the first bit of disappointment, then the party leaders have already won.

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Roundup: Caretakers and emergencies

The situation in BC, where there is an emergency situation of wildfires and evacuations in the midst of a change of government, can be pretty instructive as to how our system of government works. Right now, as with during an election period, the machinery of government goes into “caretaker” mode, and because Christy Clark remains the premier until the moment John Horgan is sworn in, she is able to respond to the situation as she is doing now.

This is why, after Clark’s visit to the lieutenant governor, the statement from the LG was that she “will accept her resignation,” not that Clark has resigned on the spot.

Why is this important? Because the Crown must always have someone to advise them, especially in circumstances like this. Add to that, we have a professional, non-partisan civil service means that they are already in place, and don’t need to have a massive new appointment spree to fill the upper layers like they do in the US. That means that they can respond to these kinds of situations, and while the caretaker government gives the orders, the incoming government’s transition team is being briefed so that they can handoff the files when they form government. It’s an elegant system that we’re lucky to have.

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Roundup: Challenging an unconstitutional law

The saga of Steven Fletcher in Manitoba continues to fascinate and enrage me. The now-former member of the province’s PC caucus, and one-time federal Conservative cabinet minister, has not only run up against a very problematic expulsion from caucus because he dared to have differing opinions (which I wrote about in my column), but now it appears that Fletcher is planning to challenge the province’s law that bans floor-crossing. Not that he wants to cross the floor, but the fact that the law is on the books.

In case it’s not clear, the very notion of a legislated ban on floor-crossing should be unconstitutional. Apparently, Manitoba’s not the only province to have this either – New Brunswick has a law on the books that requires floor-crossers to reimburse their former party for election expenses, which is also legally dubious. The history of these laws is also circumspect at best – in Manitoba, it was allegedly cashing in on the anger around David Emerson crossing the floor to become a federal Conservative cabinet minister in 2006, while in New Brunswick, it was the angry response to a husband-and-wife MLA couple crossed from the provincial Conservatives to the Liberals. The Manitoba case has the added factor that it was an NDP government at the time, and the NDP are particularly hostile to floor-crossers, which one suspects has to do with the fact that they are a party that is big on solidarity and being in constant lock-step, and they aren’t very tolerant of their members stepping out of line. They’re also much more wrapped up in their party identity, which is part of why these laws are such a problem.

The thing with our electoral system is that it gives individual agency to MPs. They are elected as individuals, to fill a single seat in the House of Commons in a separate election. That’s why a general election is 338 separate elections federally, or however many seats are in that province’s legislature during their elections. MPs are not elected a party vote which then gets allocated to that seat, and this is important. Because we elect MPs as individuals, regardless of whatever party colours they may be wearing, it empowers them to make their own decisions in Parliament (or their provincial legislature), and that includes the ability to cross the floor when their conscience is so moved. It’s not a bug in our system – it’s a feature because it means that the individual is more powerful than the party. The NDP doesn’t like this line of thinking at either level of government, and apparently the provincial Liberals in Manitoba are also under the misguided notion that it’s “unconstitutional” (which it most certainly is not). I’m glad that Fletcher is planning to challenge the law, because it is an affront to Westminster democracy. And when it does get struck down, I hope it serves as a warning to other provinces, or the federal NDP in their perpetual quest to enact such laws.

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No, Elizabeth May, that’s not what “loose fish” means

(Note: This had been submitted as an op-ed that wasn’t picked up. I’m posting it here instead).

In Monday’s National Post, a section of Elizabeth May’s chapter in Turning Democracy Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Democracy was republished, in which May called for parties to essentially be abolished, and for the prime minister to be elected from the Commons as a whole at the beginning of each parliament. The problem? That May was wrong in both her history and her understanding of what Responsible Government means, which undermines her argument and spreads dangerous misinformation about how our democratic system is supposed to work.

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Roundup: Holding BC’s horses

The fact that the BC NDP and the provincial Green party has come to a “confidence agreement” has everyone buzzing about what could possibly happen in that province, and whether it spells the end of the BC Liberals’ long reign, and the obligation on the province’s Lieutenant Governor. But because most people – including most of the journalists covering this story – don’t have a clue about government formation in our Westminster system, let me offer a few pointers.

The first point is right now, this agreement changes nothing. Clark is still the premier and has not resigned. The LG can’t simply dismiss her because there is a potentially viable alternate government with an added extra seat in the wings. It doesn’t work that way. All that this changes is that if Clark tests the confidence of the legislature and loses, the LG has an added option to consider when it comes to whether or not to grant dissolution and a new election. While yes, there is this agreement, the LG will also have to consider the stability of an alternate government and you’ll forgive me if I treat the promise of a four-year agreement on the Green supporting supply and confidence votes to be dubious at best.

Why? Because this is politics. First of all, the difference in seats is so slight that once the Speaker is taken into consideration, there may not be an appreciable difference in stability. MLAs will have to have perfect voting attendance lest the government fall on bad math or the inability to come to some kind of “gentleman’s agreement” on paired votes when MLAs are forced to be absent. And let’s face it – the Greens will only abide by this agreement so long as it suits them, and this being politics, the thirst for more influence comes quickly. How long before they decide they don’t like the other items on the NDP agenda? Before they have a personality clash with the NDP leader (which the Green leader made a big deal about during the election campaign, despite their big smiles during their press conference yesterday). How long before the NDP tires of Green demands? The agreement is a political promise, and is easily broken for the sake of politics. The LG likely knows this and would be advised to take the “four year” promise with a shaker full of salt.

It’s also notable that the two parties didn’t enter into a coalition agreement, which is part of what makes stability a real issue. The Greens were unlikely to want to be in a genuine coalition because of the issue of needing to adhere to cabinet solidary (and secrecy). They probably feel that they can throw their weight around more when they can public threaten to hold their breath until their “partners” accede to their demands, and this is significant for the sake of stability, despite the protestations that they want to make this work as a test case for proportional representation (even though PR generally necessitates actual coalitions).

And let’s not forget that Christy Clark is a formidable retail politician, and what’s going to matter is how she sells defeat or a request for dissolution. The narrative she builds will matter in the end, and we can’t underestimate that.

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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: 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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