Roundup: Forcing a narrative onto Petronas’ facts

Over the past few days, we’ve seen a spike in concern trolling editorials about the state of natural resources projects in Canada, predicated by Petronas’ decision to cancel the Pacific NorthWest LNG plant in BC. And reading through these editorials, be they from John Ivison, the National Post editorial board, or Licia Corbella (well, that one I’m not bothering to read or link to because she’s a fabulist who doesn’t deserve clicks), but the effect is the same – woe is Canada’s energy sector because of too much government regulation. They also claim that the excuse of market conditions is just political cover.

The problem with that, however, is that it doesn’t actually take the facts into account – it’s merely asserting their pre-existing narrative onto the situation, which is why it’s well worth your time to read Andrew Leach’s exploration of the economic case and conditions for why Pacific NorthWest didn’t go ahead. And when people like Ivison say that projects are going ahead in the US and Australia, Leach explains why (and it has a lot to do with pre-existing infrastructure that BC doesn’t have). So yes, there is a very big market reason why the project was cancelled, and perhaps these editorialists should actually read up on just what that is before they make facile pronouncements, because trying to force a narrative onto the facts is doing a disservice to Canadians.

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Roundup: The great Alberta merger

Following 95 percent results on both Progressive Conservative and Wildrose Alliance party referendums, it looks like the new United Conservative Party in Alberta is a go, with the big question being who will be the interim leader while they formalize the process and start an actual leadership selection process. And hey, that could mean some internecine warfare right off the start. The death of the PC party in that province is a bit of an odd thing, but not entirely out of keeping with Alberta’s political history of single-party dynasties for long runs that eventually peter out and die, but what is left in the wake will be the big question.

Where the more centrist voters will go is the big question, because I’m not entirely certain that they’ll all migrate to the UCP, especially with the Wildrose component playing such a big role in it. While Jason Kenney spent the last year trying to convince people that a PC and a Wildrose vote would equal two against the NDP, I’m not sure the math is actually that solid. Why? Aside from the fact that it glosses over some of the history of the last provincial election, what the merger papers over in particular is the growing gap between rural and urban voters in the province, where riding redistribution has meant that the gerrymandered rural ridings no longer hold the weight that they once did. Make no mistake, there was a very big urban/rural divide between the PC and Wildrose parties, and much of that is along the social conservatism issue. Wildrose voters weren’t only outraged about the fiscal profligacy of later PC governments as they were about the fact that they capitulated on social issues, particularly around LGBT rights that they remain firmly opposed to. It’s why they pushed Danielle Smith out of the party (leading her to cross the floor to Prentice’s PCs at the time), and Jason Kenney and Brian Jean are going to have a hell of a time trying to square this particular circle when they try to build their “free enterprise coalition” as though the social conservative issues won’t rear their heads. What this merger may end up doing is regenerating the centrist parties in the province (take your pick between the Alberta Liberals, who have a new, credible leader, and the Alberta Party) now that the amorphous, centrist PC party is no more.

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Roundup: Government vs opposition duties

While I’ve written on the topic before, comments made by Government House Leader Bardish Chagger on her tabled “discussion paper” on trying to make the House of Commons more “efficient” really rankled over the weekend. In particular, Chagger said the proposals were trying to find the balance between the government’s “duty to pass legislation and the opposition’s right to be heard.”

No. Just no. And here’s Philippe Lagassé to explain why.

The whole point of Parliament is not to ensure that government passes legislation. The point is to hold it to account, and that often means slowing it down and ensuring that it doesn’t overstep its bounds, which it is wont to do. Already it’s a problem that government backbenchers don’t do their duty and due diligence when it comes to keeping a check on the government – most are happy to toe the line in order to be considered for a cabinet post, which is a problem in and of itself, and we’ve seen this attitude of being “team players” amplify in the last number of years, particularly after the minority government years, when message discipline became paramount above all else, which is why I worry about how the backbenches will react to this proposition by the government. Will they willingly surrender their responsibilities of accountability because they want to be seen as being onside with Cabinet (particularly after the recent defeats of cabinet on those private members’ bills and Senate public bills?) Maybe.

What worries me more is the way that Chagger phrased the opposition’s “right to be heard.” We’re seeing increasingly that with this government and their insistence on constant broad consultations, they will listen, then go ahead with their original plans. I worry that this is how they are starting to feel about parliament – that they’ll hear the concerns of the opposition or the Senate, and then bully through regardless. Parliament is not a focus group to “consult” with, and I’m not sure that they’re quite getting that, particularly given Chagger’s statement. Accountability is not just politely listening, and the opposition is not there to just deliver an opposing viewpoint. There needs to be a tension and counter-balance, and right now I’m not sure that this government quite gets the need for that tension, particularly when they keep mouthing platitudes about working together collaboratively and whatnot. Then again, I’m not sure that the opposition necessarily gets the extent of their responsibilities either, which is depressing. Regardless, Chagger’s case for these reforms is built on a foundation of sand. Most should be fully opposed and defeated soundly for the sake of the very existential nature of our parliament.

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Roundup: The “good parts” of populism?

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

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

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Roundup: Butchered applause lines

Now that the French “debate” has passed, it looks like today is the day that Kevin O’Leary will announce his candidacy for the Conservative leadership – something most of the other candidates will probably welcome given that it will divert everyone’s attention from the embarrassing debacle that was the “debate,” and I do use the term loosely. As with previous events in this contest, there was no debate, just a line-up of talking points, only this time it was mostly in mangled French, some of which was utterly incomprehensible.

Not to say that there wasn’t some artificial drama during the horror show. Kellie Leitch in full butchered French and Steven Blaney both had their sight set on Maxime Bernier and attacked him out of the gate (while Erin O’Toole, in very slow sentences, pleaded with them not to fight), and for the first 45 minutes at least, all anyone could talk about was supply management, before the moved onto softwood lumber – because apparently dairy and forestry are Quebec’s only two industries. And then when it came to questions of national security, it was all manner of fumbled pearl-clutching (and it was like you could watch them grasping for that strand of pearls and missing it every time) as a number of them insisted that they were for immigration but wanted to ensure that they weren’t letting in terrorists. Brad Trost decided to go full-Trump and declare that we ban immigration from “pro-radical Islamist” regions (but don’t worry, he doesn’t hate all immigrants – he married one!).

If you’re looking for a professional evaluation of everyone’s proficiency in French, CBC assembled an expert panel to grade everyone, and based on my own personal observations, Lisa Raitt did better than most expectations (but was still mostly reading her responses), and Chris Alexander, for all of his other weaknesses in this race, had one of the best grasps of the language of any of them. Rick Petersen, the other also-ran who doesn’t have a seat, also had a really great grasp of French and was one of the only people speaking off the cuff – doubly impressive given that he’s an Anglo and not Francophone. And as for Deepak Obhrai, people keep saying “points for trying!” or “At least he showed up, unlike O’Leary!” well, there were actual times when he was just uttering phonetic gibberish – and pointing while doing it.

But, as Martin Patriquin writes, none of this is going to matter after a few hours today because once O’Leary is in the race, none of it is going to matter.

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Roundup: A questionable path forward

Two former senators, Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal, got together to write a report on how they see a move to a more independent Senate should go, and offered a number of suggestions along the way. (They summarise the report in an op-ed here, as does Susan Delacourt in her column here). The highlights of the report are that they feel that the Parliament of Canada Act be amended so that the Senate is no longer dependent on recognized party lines to organise themselves, that they instead be organised into four regional caucuses (Newfoundland and Labrador apparently being lumped in with the Maritime region, and the territories being given a choice as to which region they want to sit with) that would form a “senior council” to decide things like committee selection. They also suggest changes to Senate Question Period, that the absolute veto be self-limited to a six-month suspensive veto, and that the minimum age of 30 be dropped as with the net worth qualification of $4000 (but not property, as it helps to determine residency requirement).

While I will no doubt discuss these recommendations in more depth elsewhere, I will first preface my comments by saying that the Senate Modernisation Committee will have their own report out in a few weeks, and we will likely get a better sense of how things are headed on the ground from there. As for these recommendations, while changes to the Parliament of Canada Act need to happen in order to break the party oligopoly now in place, I fail to see the value-added of regional caucuses. Current committee selection already looks at regional as well as gender balance, so creating a “council” to determine this seems frivolous, and the current seat allocation on committees will rebalance as more unaffiliated senators are appointed and start feeling comfortable enough to take on committee work. I’m not sure that enforcing regional lines is really what the Fathers of Confederation had in mind (as Segal and Kirby keep going back to) because I think it has the potential to create balkanization. Breaking the oligopoly and giving the unaligned senators more of a voice in organization and logistics can happen without needing to completely freeze out parties. The post-2008 excesses were not necessarily the fault of partisanship per se as it was an overly controlling PMO manipulating new senators, who didn’t know any better, to get their way. The suggested changes to Senate QP (like asking questions of committee chairs) make no sense as there is little accountability to be had from them, which is the point of QP. The change to a suspensive veto I am wary of because the point of the Senate is to be able to check the powers of a prime minister with a majority, and saying that the Lords in the UK has been like this since 1911 ignores the history or temperament of that chamber as it differs from our Senate. As for dropping the minimum age, if I had my druthers I would raise it a decade if not two, but if we can’t do that, then leave it as is. We have no need to appoint twentysomethings to be there until age 75. Sorry.

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Roundup: Sound the independent thought alarm

Every time I read these headlines, I sigh and shake my head a little, because here we go again. “Indigenous Liberal MP breaks ranks with government on BC’s Site C Dam” it reads. The MP is Robert-Falcon Ouellette, and by “breaking ranks,” he has questions for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans – who grants approvals for these kinds of things – and he plans to ask him in caucus next week. Oooh, someone had better sound the independent thought alarm!

It seems that most of my fellow journalists have forgotten that it’s the job of backbenchers – even those of the governing party – to hold the government (meaning cabinet) to account. They’re supposed to ask questions and to not just give them a pass. Ouellette is doing his job. But by sensationalizing it (which this headline clearly does), and portraying it as “breaking ranks” (which he’s not – there have been no votes that he’s gone off-side with) is both demeaning to his job, and it reinforces the notion that MPs are supposed to be drones parroting the lines of their leaders, which is absurd. Not only that, but We The Media nevertheless insist that MPs are supposed to do their jobs and represent their constituents and address issues and not just parrot talking points, and yet we call them out the moment that they do just that. Why? Seriously – why are we doing this? We’re actively being destructive to our democratic system when we pull this kind of nonsense. There are far better and more effective ways that this story could have been framed that don’t privilege party discipline (which again, not actually being broken here) and this notion that MPs must be in lockstep. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do. And yet here we are.

Honestly, we need to do better if we expect better democratic outcomes in this country. We are part of the problem, and we should stop being just that.

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Roundup: Quality over quantity

Every time I see a piece that presents the shockingly low numbers of women in politics in our country, I tense up a little. Not because the numbers are terrible – because let’s face it, they are – but because almost always, these tend to be quantitative lists trying to talk about a qualitative problem. Lo and behold, we have yet another of these in the Ottawa Citizen this morning, but there are a few figures in there that need to be unpacked a little more.

The one that really bothers me and deserves to be contextualized is the one percent change between number of women in this parliament and the previous one, and this is where the quantitative/qualitative aspect really comes into play. First of all, the House of Commons is larger in the current parliament by 30 MPs. This means that a one percent gain in a larger Commons means more women on an absolute numbers basis, and that matters. The other, more important fact, however, is the quality of the female MPs we elected this time around. In 2011, let’s face it – much of the increase came from the number of NDP MPs who were accidentally elected following the “Orange Wave” – candidates who hadn’t been properly nominated, had never been to their ridings, never campaigned in them, and were just names on a list that the party put there in order to ensure that they could max out their spending limits. When a wave of sentimentality overcame the Quebec electorate, they got elected. Much was made of the number of young women that were elected, but qualitatively, most of them were underwhelming MPs, whose only real skillset was in reading the scripts that were put in front of them and throwing tantrums in the media when they needed some attention. Most of them, fortunately, didn’t get elected again. That said, for the 2015 election, the Liberals put into place a system to seek out and encourage more women to seek the nomination and to support them in winning it. Qualitatively, you got better MPs who were not just names on lists, who proved they could fight and win both a nomination race and an election by doing the work of door-knocking and being engaged, and more of them wound up in the Commons. It’s a qualitative improvement that can grow further in the next election.

This is why suggestions about changing our electoral system to incorporate lists in order to get more women and minorities into the Commons frustrates me, because there is an implicit message that women and visible minority candidates can’t fight and win elections on an equal basis. I think that’s wrong, and targets the wrong problem because it ignores the complexities and realities of our nomination system and ways that it needs to be improved – such as how the Liberals started doing – and how that changes the game on the ground. The problems in our system when it comes to getting women elected are cultural, not mechanical. Simply changing the electoral system to artificially inflate the numbers of women won’t solve the underlying problems, but merely mask them. We should remember that every time these quantitative lists are released.

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Roundup: Referendum lies and demagoguery

So, the electoral reform committee was back again yesterday, and they heard from two academics – one was an avid proponent of proportional representation that Elizabeth May fangirled over so hard, while the other was a former Quebec MNA who spearheaded that province’s failed attempt at moving to a multi-member PR system. There wasn’t much takeaway from either, other than Arend Lijphart (the former of the two) was a big fan of multi-member ridings in Canada (because apparently the problem of enormous rural ridings escapes him), and the fact that he felt that we should avoid a referendum because like Brexit, it would fall victim to demagoguery and “outright lies.”

To which I immediately have to ask – whose lies? The proponents of the status quo, or those of the advocates of PR? Because having seen both in the state of the debate so far, they’re equally odious. How about the lies that majority governments formed under our system are “illegitimate?” Because Lijphart was peddling that one. Or the lies about “38 percent of the vote gets 100 percent of the power”? Because a) the popular vote figure doesn’t actually exist (it’s a logical fallacy based on a misreading of our elections as a single event when they’re 338 separate but simultaneous events), and b) even in proportional systems, parties don’t get a share of power equal to their share of the vote, particularly if they are not part of the governing coalition and even if they are, the “share” of power will not be equal to their vote share. How about the lies about how voter turnout will suddenly blossom under PR? Because research has demonstrated that the most increase we might see is maybe three percent (because declining turnout in Western democracies is a widespread problem that has nothing to do with the electoral systems but rather a great many other factors). How about the common lies of PR advocates that votes are “wasted” and that they don’t count if the person they voted for doesn’t win, and that they system is so unfair? Are those lies any better than the ones about how a PR system would turn us into Israel or Italy and we would have nothing but unstable governments, and the sun would become black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon become as blood? Or are the lies that PR advocates tell okay because they’re well intentioned and lies about a future full of rainbows, gumdrops and unicorns better than lies about doom and destruction? Is pro-PR demagoguery morally superior to the demagoguery of status-quo doomsayers? That’s what I’d like to know.

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Roundup: Counter-radicalism and reality checks

In the wake of the Aaron Driver near-miss last week, public safety minister Ralph Goodale is set to announce that the government is moving ahead with a counter-radicalization programme, but it looks like the details are still a little ways out. That said, Goodale has been pretty frank that our current counter-radicalisation programmes have little coherence and that’s what he aims to fix over the course of this year. And while we get the musings about what kind of leader Trudeau will be in the face of terrorism, we get his former foreign policy advisor Roland Paris reminding us of what he has done to date (which is not nothing, as his critics have stated). More importantly, however, we need to remind ourselves of the reality of the situation, and for that, I would turn your attention to Stephanie Carvin’s piece in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, which explains why counter-terrorism and counter-radicalism is not as easy as you might think, and provides a good reality check for the kinds of rhetoric out there, and why saying things like “connecting the dots” isn’t actually helpful to any kind of conversation around the subject.

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