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: One bill passed, one deferred

After very little drama, the budget implementation bill passed the Senate, their tempers cooled overnight. Not that it was ever going to be a real constitutional crisis – blame some garden variety torque for that one, but this wasn’t a meek climb down. The Senate did launch one final jab at the Commons, reminding them that while they are passing the budget bill this time, they nevertheless have the authority to amend or veto budget bills if they so choose – a pointed rebuke to the provocative boilerplate language of the Commons’ rejection of their amendments.

This having been said, what the Senate didn’t do was pass Bill S-3, which aims to remove certain types of discrimination from the Indian Act. The Senate amended the bill to remove all of the discrimination, while the Commons nixed said amendments, and the Senate was more willing to dig their heels in this one. By deferring debate and votes on this until September, it puts the government into a particular legal bind because they were under a court deadline of July 3rd to pass this bill in order to comply with a court order. This didn’t happen, and one suspects that it’s because the senators at the centre of this want to put more pressure on the government to accept their amendments and remove that discrimination.

Meanwhile, Dylan Robertson got a copy of the court decision that refused to extend the timeline for the government.

We shall see what the government’s next move is. I suspect it will be another court extension, but whether the summer to think over the amendments in light of the judge’s ruling may prompt a change of heart. Maybe. Time will tell.

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Roundup: BC Speaker drama, part III

While the drama over the coming BC Legislature Speaker election draws closer, and we are faced with more stories of not only the likelihood of a partisan NDP Speaker, but also one who will take off the robes to vote as an MP in committee (which is unconscionable, frankly), we see yet more boneheaded suggestions being thrown into the mix, none more so than our friends at Democracy Watch who want to turn this into an opportunity to turn the Speaker into an independent appointment, like an Officer of Parliament.

Hell. No.

This all having been said, the Speaker is the servant of the House, and to do that, he or she must be a member of it. There’s a reason why when a Speaker is elected, they are “dragged” to the Chair, because Speakers in the 1300s sometimes faced death when Parliament displeased the King. That’s not an inconsequential part of the reason why we have a Parliament in the manner that we do, and it’s important that we keep that in mind as we practice our democracy.

We also need to call out that for a group that purports to be focused on democracy, Democracy Watch is a body that seeks to limit actual democratic accountability with the imposition of innumerable independent Officers of Parliament who are appointed and unaccountable, and which seeks to codify conventions in order that they can be made justiciable with a goal of ensuring that political decisions wind up in the courts rather than at the ballot box. Theirs is not a vision of democracy, but of technocracy, and that’s not something we should aspire to, no matter what you think of our politicians.

Meanwhile, Jason Markusoff thinks that the Liberals should suck it up and put forward one of their own as Speaker for the sake of the institution (and he draws some of the lessons of New Brunswick from 2003-2006), while David Moscrop says the potential to damage the institution is too great, and it’s preferable to have another election to resolve the situation (which I’m sympathetic to). As well, Rob Shaw charts a course for redemption for Christy Clark amidst this chaos.

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Roundup: More BC Speaker cautions

The question of the Speaker of the BC Legislature remains up in the air, and continued word is that the Liberals are keeping their own out of the race lest they lose another seat as they test the confidence of the legislature, and with the Greens ruling out one of their own as well, that leaves the NDP left holding the bag when it comes to electing a Speaker. They’re obviously reluctant to do so, but it also reduces their chances of toppling the government and installing one of their own. And with that reality in mind, there is dark talk about the NDP turning the Speaker into a partisan if that happens.

This kind of comment is a real problem, because in a Westminster system, the conventions are the rules. And when people don’t see an issue with the Speaker breaking the convention that they only vote to break a tie, and in a manner that either keeps debate going or to preserve the status quo, demanding that an NDP Speaker topple the Clark government is a very big problem.

And if an NDP Speaker is elected but doesn’t opt to topple the government (and they very well should not for the sake of our system), it could leave Clark with little ability to govern, especially when it comes to passing supply, but that could be exactly what Clark is waiting for – an ability to go back to the electorate with great public regret. That said, she is under no obligation to simply accept defeat and turn over power to the NDP, especially with a precarious situation (signed confidence agreement or not).

I will add that the BC Liberals are under no obligation to put forward a name for Speaker. Federally, the Conservatives served two minority terms under Peter Milliken, a Liberal Speaker, with no ill-effect. So no, nothing is over or settled on this yet.

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Roundup: The question of the Speaker

The mounting speculation in BC is now starting to focus on the race for Speaker in the legislature – or rather, the lack of a race. Word has it that the Liberals plan on putting no one forward, and the NDP/Greens are making similar noises as well. The lack of a Speaker could mean that the legislature winds up being dissolved and heading back to an election, as precedent from Newfoundland would indicate. But if, by some miracle, the Lieutenant Governor manages to cajole the legislature into at least trying to attempt to elect a Speaker (by trying to avoid a new election at all costs), then there is the possible situation that the Liberals could put forward one of their own, and if Clark is defeated on a confidence vote, have that Speaker then resign and force the NDP to put forward one of their own, which again shifts the balance to 43-43, and possibly hastening the demise of a possible NDP government.

What this means is that Christy Clark is not out of cards to play yet, and that no these are not tricks or games – they’re legitimate exercises of parliamentary authority, and I cannot stress enough that Clark is a very skilled retail politician. She has made the right moves about sounding like she’s willing to do a spell in opposition, and that she’s not looking to go to an election right away, but she can very easily turn around and say that she tried to be reasonable and they didn’t take yes for an answer on any number of issues, and the deadlock would quickly turn into dissolution where she has an NDP-Green agenda laid out before her that she can pick apart in an election campaign. Any suggestion that she simply bow out gracefully and turn over the keys remains premature, and the insistence that an NDP government is inevitable is counting chickens before they’ve hatched. Just because most of the pundit class doesn’t have an understanding of how the system works and the options available to Clark, doesn’t mean that she’s done for. I suspect there will be many surprises left to come, all sold with her skill and charm.

Meanwhile, Clarks’ former press secretary notes that the deal the Green signed actually weakened their ability to exert influence. Andrew Coyne pens a satirical letter from “political strategists” offering cynical (but not necessarily wrong) advice. Colby Cosh looks at the looming Speaker drama and the many other hurdles that would wreck an NDP government, giving it 22 months.

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Roundup: The difficulty with tracking spending

The Parliamentary Budget Officer’s latest analysis shows that it’s difficult to track budgetary spending commitments because they don’t often line up with the Supplementary Estimates. And yes, this is a problem. The solution is something that the government has already committed to, which is to reform the Estimates process. Right now, it is out of sync with the budget, where the Estimates need to be out before the beginning of the new fiscal year, but there is no set time for the budget to be released, meaning that the allocation of budget dollars happens before Parliament sees the budget. Later allocations to match the budget are supposed to then show up in the Supplementary Estimates, but as the PBO shows in his analysis, that’s hard to track. And even harder to track is whether those Estimates wound up being spent properly because the accounting systems used between the Estimates and the Public Accounts at the end of the fiscal year no longer match up, so tracking those dollars is also near-impossible. This has been an ongoing problem for decades, and the Liberals were elected on a promise to fix this problem. They have started to, but in recent months, the Treasury Board president, Scott Brison, says he has encountered resistance from the civil service when it comes to how they time things, and he’s trying to fix it. So that’s the hope, anyway.

What I hope comes from this exercise, however, is increased pressure on Brison and the government to carry on with reforming the Estimates cycle so that it better matches the budget cycle, and that the Estimates match the Public Accounts at the end of the year so that money can actually be tracked. What I hope doesn’t happen is for this to turn into calls to turn over yet more power and authority for scrutinizing the estimates to the PBO because that’s the whole raison d’etre of MPs, and they should be demanding that it be in a format that they can use and understand.

And while we’re on the subject of the PBO, here’s Kevin Milligan on the proposed amendments to the new PBO legislation, and why he still has concerns (as I do) about creating a massively powerful Officer of Parliament with no oversight or accountability.

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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: Scheer in ascendance

As you know by now, Andrew Scheer is the new leader of the Conservative Party, somewhat unexpectedly after he managed to squeak out a win over Maxime Bernier by getting 50.95 percent of the votes on 13 ballots. Scheer is described as “Stephen Harper with a smile” – in fact, no one in the party can recall him actually having anything but that cherubic smile on his face. While the next couple of days will be filled with portraits of Scheer, already many of his supporters note just how “middle class” he is next to Trudeau, though I’m not sure how well it tracks considering that he’s spent most of his adult life in politics, most of his children’s lives has been spent living in official residences (as they move into another one), and they attending private Christian school, while Trudeau’s go to regular public school.  That Scheer has five children is a tangible signal to his social conservatism – and it was mostly the social conservatives who voted for Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux who pushed Scheer over the top.

As for the event, the fact that it was held in the same venue as Anime North made for some excitement, and there were a few crossover attendees (who, surprise, surprise, didn’t like panels on feminism at Anime North). The National Post spoke to eight cosplayers from the convention to see their views. In the speeches, it was noted that Bernier’s fell flatter, while Scheer hit the right notes, in the event that it mattered to any of those party members who were going to vote on-site rather than had mailed in their ballots previously. For his victory speech, Scheer took aim at Trudeau, but also sounded more than a few populist notes that didn’t have a lot of good economic backing. The Liberals, meanwhile, were quick to jump on Scheer’s record of social conservatism, and are already digging up things like his pro-Brexit stance or his desire to defund CBC News because he considers it propaganda when they don’t adopt Conservative terminology for things (such as not calling carbon prices a “tax”). And this is even before we mention his full-throated adoption of the alt-right weaponization of free speech on campus, with his threat to cut off federal research dollars to campuses that “don’t allow free speech” (which seems to largely mean either those who have clashes with Ann Coulter, or who don’t allow pro-life clubs to distribute gore-filled flyers).

In the aftermath, Susan Delacourt wonders about party unity if there are fewer carrots than sticks as the party is not in power. Natalie Pon, the young Conservative who led the party’s charge to change its policy on same-sex marriage, is cautiously optimistic about Scheer. Paul Wells looks at the challenges facing Scheer going forward, while Andrew MacDougall tries to discern what the contest results says about the state of the party. Brent Rathgeber says that Scheer will be beholden to the social conservatives in the party. Andrew Coyne suspects that Scheer’s election means the party is more hostile to new ideas, while Chris Selley wonders if they can be more confident in their diversity of conservatism.

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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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QP: Refusing an answer

On a busy caucus day, with most of the benches full, it was a question as to how much cheap outrage would be wrought in QP. Rona Ambrose led off, railing about the Infrastructure Bank, to which Justin Trudeau insisted that people were eager for infrastructure investment. Ambrose moved onto Bombardier and the loan given to them despite the misgivings about their governance. Trudeau noted that they gave a repayable loan I order to guarantee good paying jobs. Ambrose changed topics again, denouncing government plans to gut a private member’s bill on bail reform (which, I will note, the legal community is against), and Trudeau insisted that he felt for ten widow of the constable the bill was named after, which was why he was pleased the committee took the study of the bill seriously. Ambrose was outraged, but Trudeau reiterated his response. Ambrose gave it an angry third try, but didn’t get a different response. Thomas Mulcair was up next, worrying about media reports that a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister was going to be named as the new Official Languages Commissioner. Trudeau noted that there was an independent process, but didn’t confirm or deny the story, only that there would be an announcement in the coming days and weeks. Mulcair tried again, got the same answer, and then moved onto the job postings for the Infrastructure Bank, which has not yet been created. Trudeau simply talked about the need for new infrastructure, but didn’t address the concerns. Mulcair railed about the problem, and Trudeau noted the broad consultations that they undertook with the design of the Bank.

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