Roundup: Oprah and the rot of populist politics

As a rule, I don’t really comment on American politics, but this issue of Americans clamouring for Oprah Winfrey to run for president in 2020 has been getting a lot of press lately. Colby Cosh runs through why it was probably a trial balloon that fortunately deflated, while Rachel Giese worries that the dismissal of the possibility amounts to more racism and sexism rather than dealing with some of Oprah’s ability to connect with people. And she does have that – I used to darkly muse that Oprah could almost certainly run for president and win because back when I worked in book stores during my undergrad years, and every time Oprah mentioned a book, we would be inundated with calls and demands for said tome. Early on we weren’t given advance notice, and it was a gong show, and after she alerted publishers beforehand and we were sent ample shipments of said volumes in time for the show to air, it was more manageable chaos, but it never failed to surprise me with how much she had an ability to influence the viewing public’s shopping choices, and made me wonder how far that power could be extended.

But the fascination with celebrities running for office is not new or novel, and is part of a sign of the deeper rot of populism within our political discourse. The distrust of the political class and career politicians has long been sown by populists, and Canada is no exception. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel penned her own op-ed to talk about this urge for celebrities to be political saviours, and outlined her own particular list of what it takes to make good political leaders (including a few subtle digs at Justin Trudeau in there, naturally), but while she talks about the disconnect that people have between their ability to examine government as its role in our lives has expanded exponentially over the past seventy years, she misses one key point – that Canadians aren’t taught how to engage with the system.

Because we aren’t taught anything other than the fact that you mark a ballot every three or four years, we don’t know how to nominate candidates that speak to our values or that better reflect the diversity in our communities. We don’t understand how the role of joining parties creates a relationship with the caucus because the party creates an interlocutor role between those who are serving in Parliament or in government and those on the ground. We aren’t taught how the act of joining parties entitles us to take part in policy discussions that shape where we want the party and the country to go. All of those are huge ways of engaging in our system of government, but we’re largely not taught them in school, which fuels the disconnect that people feel, which drives people to populists, whoever they may be. Because celebrities are comforting, familiar figures, people will flock to their siren calls, oblivious to the danger of smashing against the rocks they perch upon. It’s why we need proper civics education, so that we can combat the ignorance that fuels the willingness to entertain this celebrity nonsense.

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Roundup: Ethics committee theatre incoming

We can look forward to a heap of bad political theatre next week as the Commons’ ethics committee plans to sit on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to demand that the PM appear before them to answer questions in regards to the Ethics Commissioner’s report into his Xmas vacation with the Aga Khan, and to hear from the now-former Commissioner on the report the following day. And you can expect that it’s going to be nothing short of howls of sanctimonious indignation. Oh, and there may be legitimate procedural roadblocks to their plans given that the report hasn’t been presented to the Commons yet, according to a former Commons procedural clerk.

Regarding the demands that Trudeau appear, it would be highly unlikely that the Liberals on the committee will let that go ahead (and they have the votes to block it if necessary). And if the Conservatives cry foul, they can turn around and point to the fact that they blocked an attempt by the committee in the last Parliament to have Stephen Harper appear before them to answer questions related to the ClusterDuff Affair, and fair is fair, besides which, Trudeau has answered in Question Period and the media on this issue. And really, why would a PM expose himself to an hour of MPs trying to play Matlock, asking questions that are all traps designed to get him to incriminate himself, and then baying at the moon when he refuses to answer. It would be worse than the performances we see in Question Period these days (which are generally terrible), and we’d get the same quality of answers from Trudeau, which will be some fairly pat and trite lines unless they trip him up (which is the whole point).

Oh, one might say (and Althia Raj did on Power & Politics last night), if they want to show that this is really a new era of accountability and transparency, they it might be in their best interests to go ahead and have him go before the committee, to which I remind people what happened when Thomas Mulcair appeared before a committee to answer questions related to the satellite offices issue. Mulcair blustered, obfuscated, and then proffered a fiction that Conservatives did it too (they didn’t – the “evidence” was a riding office and a party office in the same mini-mall but several doors down from one another, but hey, they were on the same sign by the parking lot), and as he did so, all of his partisans flooded social media praising that “this is what accountability looks like.” I’m not really sure that this is the kind of thing we want to revisit.

As for Dawson’s appearance, it’s “as an individual” since she will be officially retired by then, and we can imagine that it will be much the same – each side fishing for a media clip that fits their established narrative, which they will then flood social media with – assuming that she can answer, given the procedural issue identified. And we can imagine how many questions about Bill Morneau will be asked, followed by the Liberals asking how many investigations she conducted on Conservative ministers, and on and on it will go. It won’t be a constructive use of anyone’s time, but why does that matter when you’ve got cheap political theatre to perform?

Speaking of Dawson, here’s her exit interview with the Globe and Mail in which she defends how much time she took to write that report, confirms that she didn’t discuss Bill C-27 with Morneau (never mind that doing so would violate cabinet confidence and cabinet secrecy – funny how the Globe continually ignores that fact), and defends the advice she gave to Morneau about a blind trust (“You know what the hell’s in there. That’s a defect on a blind trust”).

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Roundup: Lagging CBSA oversight

A report commissioned by PCO advises for the creation of a new oversight body for both the CBSA and the RCMP, given the amount of overlap between the two bodies when it comes to law enforcement. Currently, CBSA has no civilian oversight, though its national security functions are just now getting some oversight under the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, and those functions would likely fall under the creation of the new intelligence commissioner created in Bill C-59 – but those don’t deal with the day-to-day interactions at the borders, or with some of their other functions, like immigration detention.

What the Canadian Press story doesn’t mention is that there is right now a Senate bill sitting on the Order Paper, which passed the Senate unanimously, to create a CBSA Inspector General. In fact, it passed in October 2016, and has been sitting there ever since, as no MP has bothered to sign up to sponsor it (which is unusual in the extreme). More unusual is the fact that Ralph Goodale had previously signed up to sponsor the version of the bill that was being debated in the previous parliament, but now that he’s public safety minister, he’s become much more gun-shy, saying that they need to do more consultation and will come out with their own bill. But almost a year-and-a-half later, it’s still sitting there, when it could be amended by the government to make whatever technical fixes they deem necessary and swiftly passed. (I last wrote about this for the Law Times a year ago).

Of course, if they wanted to go that route, the government would need to give the bill a Royal Recommendation and put in implementation language into the bill – something that it currently lacks to get around the requirement that it can’t spend money. In other words, it’s a framework but nothing more at this point. But if the government were serious about oversight for CBSA, they could do something to ensure that it happens expeditiously. But that commitment to oversight seems to be a bit more academic at this point, given that they haven’t moved on this in all this time. And that should be mentioned in these more recent stories, but haven’t been.

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QP: Infrastructure Bank blues

It was a grey day in the Nation’s Capital, and outside of the Centre Block, the lawn was littered with Catholic high school students bussed up to the Hill for the March for Life, with a couple of Conservative leadership candidates in the mix. Rona Ambrose led off, concerned about potential waste and duplication created by the Infrastructure Bank, and cited a KPMG report that the government commissioned (highlighted by a Globe and Mail story, of course). Amarjeet Sohi defended the Bank as delivering funds after a decade of inconsistent investment by the previous government. Ambrose suggested that the Bank was simply giving money to billionaires, but Sohi insisted that they were delivering for communities. Ambrose tried a third time, but Sohi listed possible projects the Bank could fund. Alain Rayes picked up the line of questioning in French, considering it “Sponsorship Scandal 2.0.” Sohi carried on with his points about what it could fund. Rayes railed about redacted documents around consultations conducted about the Bank, but Sohi insisted that the documents given to investors were all online. Matthew Dubé and Rachel Blaney worried about tolls associated with projects funded by the Bank in both official languages (Sohi: Your party has no plan for infrastructure), and then both turned to the KPMG report (Sohi: Here are some Canadian funds who want to invest in infrastructure).

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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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QP: Rage over $2000 worth of cardboard

With the weather finally taking a turn for the better, and the floodwaters across the river receding, things in the House of Commons carried on in the usual fashion. Rona Ambrose led off, wondering why the Infrastructure Investment Bank was necessary. Trudeau pointed out how they had consulted widely on the Bank, and that it was going to be helpful for growth. Ambrose called it a vanity project to help Bay Street and Wall Street friends, and made a dig about Broadway tickets along the way, and Trudeau reiterated the points about the need for infrastructure projects like the Bank would help provide. Ambrose brought up potential conflicts with the Bank, and Trudeau rebuffed by slagging off the previous government’s underfunding of infrastructure. Ambrose took another dig at the Broadway tickets, and Trudeau expounded on how great and important the play “Come From Away” is. For her final question, Ambrose asked about the government ordering cardboard cutouts of the PM — and made a bunch of lame puns along the way — and Trudeau said that individual missions abroad make their own decisions. Thomas Mulcair was up next, worried that the government hadn’t spelled out how private investors in the Infrastructure Bank would profit from their infrastructure. Trudeau talked about the great things that the Bank could invest in, but didn’t specify that there would be tolls on everything. Mulcair wondered how the Liberals would have reacted if the Conservatives promoted the idea, and Trudeau insisted that they consulted widely on the Bank, not just hedge funds. Mulcair changed topics and worried about tech stories that it was Jared Kushner who reached out to Trudeau to convince President Trump not to rip up NAFTA. Trudeau reassured him that they were working to strengthen trade and relations with the Americans. Mulcair went onto suggest that Trudeau was taking orders from Kushner, and Trudeau insisted that he was doing everything he could to resolve issues like softwood.

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QP: No responsible path forward

After the prime minister spent his morning hearing from youth about their issues (and, interesting enough, electoral reform was not brought up), he was in QP, ready for the grand inquest of the nation. Rona Ambrose led off, bringing up the Globe and Mail investigation on “unfounded” sexual assault complaints in the country, and about ensuring that the RCMP have sufficient training to deal with it. Trudeau said that they were working to address gender-based violence and sexual assault and making changes at the institutional level. Ambrose changed topics to fears that jobs would end sent south for lower taxes and slashed regulations, to which Trudeau pointed out their record of tax cuts and enhanced child benefits. Ambrose pressed the topic on trade issues, and Trudeau pointed out how many American jobs depended on trade with Canada. Denis Lebel went for another round in French, got the same answer, and for his last question, Lebel worried about softwood lumber. Trudeau noted that he has talked about it with the Americans constantly, and that they remain engaged on the topic. Nathan Cullen led off for the NDP, wailing about proportional representation. Trudeau reminded him that there was no consensus and no responsible path forward. Cullen railed about broken promises, and Trudeau pointed about other progress on the democracy file before reiterating that there was no consensus. Alexander Boulerice picked up to give the angry denunciations in French, and Trudeau hit back by talking about working in the best interests of the country. He then tried to insinuate that the PM was lying and got cautioned by the Speaker for it, not that Trudeau’s response changed.

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Roundup: For fear of extremists rising

In damage control mode, the Liberals have sent out senior sources to talk about why they pulled the plug on electoral reform, and have brought up the relatively new talking point about concerns for the rise of extremist parties, while cabinet was opposed to a referendum (not surprisingly given the referenda we’ve seen globally lately) and to a PR system in general. I say relatively new talking point because it was raised as part of the MyDemocracy survey, but as Paul Wells stated on Power & Politics last night, for a government that purports to be eloquent, they never made the case. I also suspect there was the added problem that in making it known that he was open to being convinced, Justin Trudeau allowed Nathan Cullen and others to steal the narrative away from him, which is a big reason why the Liberals completely lost the plot on that file.

Colby Cosh goes through the promise and given the choice as to whether Trudeau was being sleazy or stupid in making that promise, Cosh goes on the side of stupid – for which I would agree – and notes that a retreat was the best he could hope for rather than some truly unsavoury outcomes, particularly with regard to a referendum or a more purely proportional system. And here we get back to the rise of extremist parties.

Canada is not immune to this rabid and toxic populism that is going around globally, and we’ve seen examples of it manifesting in this country, from the election of Rob Ford, to some of the identity politics being attempted in previous elections both federally and provincially. Just because it has been relatively contained and not entirely successful doesn’t mean it can’t succeed in the future, particularly with its proponents feeling emboldened by what’s happening south of the border. And while Nathan Cullen insists that the rise of alt-right parties is “a load of crap,” he is blinkered by this notion, primarily coming from the left-wing, that a PR system would incentivise all of these left-wing and progressive parties that would somehow always form nice coalition governments. Right now we’re seeing something very different playing out in Europe, with all of their myriad of PR systems producing growing hard-right parties on the verge of winning power in several countries. Trudeau has every right to be concerned about that in Canada, and we have demonstrated proof that our current system has blunted their growth because they can’t command enough broad-based support to dominate our big-tent brokerage parties. That’s not a bad thing.

https://twitter.com/benjaminokinsey/status/827582598109069312

Oh, PR proponents claim. We’ll just raise thresholds so that these parties can’t get seats! But that’s just as problematic because if the thresholds are too low – say below three percent – you’re likely to cut off the Greens and the Bloc, for which they would cry bloody murder. (Their self-interested insistence that more people would vote for them if they knew they were guaranteed PR seats doesn’t help their case). It’s also another way of saying that you want to game the system to produce party configurations that you like, which again is self-interested, and doesn’t make the case for how it makes the system better.

In related news, Paul Wells looks at Karina Gould’s new mandate of cyber-security for our electoral system now that electoral reform is out of the question, and no, it’s not a trivial matter even if we don’t use any kind of electronic ballots in this country. Both Elections Canada and the various parties all have databases, and the party databases most especially are vulnerable, in part because they aren’t subject to any federal legislation which deals with privacy or information security, and that could prove to be a problem in the future.

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Roundup: Dragging in the GG

The performative outrage against Trudeau’s Castro comments reached a new low yesterday with the announcement that the Governor General would be attending the commemoration in Havana as the Canadian representative. Despite not being a leadership candidate (thus far), Conservative MP Michelle Rempel took to Twitter to perform some more outrage, and dropped these particular gems.

It wasn’t so much that my head exploded. More like a piece of my soul died in utter exasperation because I know for a fact that she knows better. Misrepresenting the role of the Governor General is a particularly terrible thing to do, particularly giving the impression that you can write to him (or worse, the Queen) and he’ll somehow override the Prime Minister and the government of the day for your own partisan benefit. No, it doesn’t work that way, and its antithetical to the entire foundation of our system of government. And giving your follows completely the wrong impression about how Responsible Government works for the sake of some temporary passing performative outrage for the issue of the day is particularly heinous because it poisons the well. And this is what trying to stir up populist outrage does – it poisons the well for all of politics, particularly when you misrepresent things for temporary advantage. I get that there is political theatre, and that in the age of social media you need to be performative to a degree, but for the love of all the gods on Olympus stop undermining the whole system. When you stir up this hornet’s nest, it will come and bite you just as much as it does the government of the day, and we will all be left with a giant mess like we’re seeing south of the border. This is not something we want to import or emulate, no matter how many points you think it will win you temporarily. Only madness lies along this path, and the damage is insidious and incalculable, particularly when it comes from people who actually know better. It’s not a game. Stop treating it like it is.

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Roundup: No need for a turf war

The possibility of committee allocations in the Senate turning into a turf war is something that I’m not sure is an imminent issue, but Kady O’Malley nevertheless faithfully explores in her weekend column, including some potential procedural manoeuvres that Senator Peter Harder could attempt to employ to force the modernization committee report to come to fruition as government business (which it currently is not), but as is not unexpected, she got some pushback from Senator Leo Housakos.

Just to add my own two cents, I have indeed heard some concerns from both the Conservatives and Senate Liberals that the Non-Aligned Senators have not yet been able to fill their committee spots, which may also have been why Senator Peter Harder has been organizing to “help” the new independent senators out, essentially big footing the efforts of the Independent Senators Group, but one has to add that they’re building their own processes and organization from scratch.

So we’ll see. I still think that the newly appointed 21 senators shouldn’t be in any hurry to get committee spots, but take the time to get adjusted to their new environment as the committees are currently operating okay and we aren’t seeing a lot of cases where senators are doing triple duty just to keep committees filled (as was the case with the Conservatives pre-2008, when Harper was obstinately refusing to fill seats the first time around). And as I’ve said previously, they can spend some time participating in committees as they have the right to now – they just can’t be voting members, which is probably just as well in terms of getting them acquainted to the place. So everyone should relax because there is no actual crisis.

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