Roundup: A shambolic process delivering Ford

It was a shambolic affair from start to finish, from the court challenge around the deadlines, the problems with the voting itself, and in the end, thousands of misallocated ballots and a result where Christine Elliott won more votes in more ridings, but Doug Ford managed to get more of the allocated points and won the leadership on a narrow victory. Elliott did not concede for the better part of a day later, and the feeling is that this all could very well be Kathleen Wynne’s “lifeline,” though one probably shouldn’t count Ford out the way that people counted Donald Trump out.

And lo, we will be inundated with Ford/Trump comparisons for the coming weeks, and analyses of whether these comparisons are fair or not.

Chris Selley notes the big risk that the Ontario PC party takes with Ford, while Paul Wells notes how Ontario conservatism is a bigger tent and stranger coalition than most people may take for granted.

I’m hoping that out of this, we finally start having a real conversation about how leadership contests are run, because it’s ridiculous. Sure, the partisans will close ranks around this, and we’ll get the voices that insist that this is the best way to grow the party, but it just perpetuates the same cycle. You’re not actually growing the party – you’re creating a number used for shock and awe purposes, and giving an even bigger “democratic mandate” to a leader who will then abuse it to consolidate power. It happens time and again, and we need to have a real conversation about restoring accountability to our politics. Maybe Ford will be the last straw, but I find myself pessimistic that it will change much.

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Roundup: Trudeau’s concern trolls

Thursday night, Canadian journalists and pundits started making a big deal out of the fact that the Daily Mail, the most widely-read newspaper in the UK, posted a hit-job on Justin Trudeau. What they didn’t bother to post was that the Mail is a tabloid rag that literally makes stuff up all the time, and lo and behold, it turns out that not only did they get a number of facts wrong in their piece, but they even posted photos that were not of Trudeau, but someone else entirely. And while those same pundits seemed to think that this was an honest mistake rather than the kind of trash “journalism” that is their stock in trade.

And then comes the concern trolling, lumping this kind of thing in with Pierce Morgan’s railing about Trudeau’s “peoplekind” joke (also in the Daily Mail), and other negative press from the India trip. Apparently, this is the fault of Trudeau’s senior staff, who should have given him firmer advice to “rein in his worst impulses,” but reading the analysis seems a bit…facile, and frankly blinkered. One would think that the pundit class in Canada would have the ability to try and see context around the press that Trudeau receives, but apparently not. For example, Piers Morgan is a Donald Trump ass-kisser who has a history of misogynistic comments, for whom Trudeau’s avowed feminism would rankle his sensibilities. And the Daily Mail is a rabidly homophobic publication for whom Trudeau’s tendency to do things like show emotion in public is anathema to their worldview of alpha males. They were never going to praise Trudeau, and he certainly hasn’t “lost them,” so I’m puzzled as to why our pundits are acting like he did. Likewise, many of the Indian publications that criticized Trudeau on his trip were of a stratified slice of society who have a particular agenda when it comes to foreigners. But there is also something particularly white male about this kind of concern trolling as well, which doesn’t look to why Trudeau makes some of the choices he does because those choices aren’t speaking to them as an audience. The traditional garb in India, for example (which was apparently five events in eight days), was showcasing Indo-Canadian designers and targeted both the Indo-Canadian community, but also the classes in India who weren’t the rarified elites in the media (and in India, these are actual elites rather than the just populists referring to us as such in Canada), and those rarified elites have particular denigrating views of their own diasporic communities. Not that a white male pundit who doesn’t look outside his own circle will pick up on these things.

This isn’t to say that Trudeau’s senior staff don’t still have problems on their hands, because clearly they do. Their ability to manage crises is still shambolic, and we’ve seen time and again where they let their opponents come up with a narrative and box them into it before they start fighting back, and they’ve done it again with this India trip. And yeah, Trudeau keeps making bad jokes that he finds funny but not everyone else does (and the Canadian press gallery are notoriously humourless). But there is a hell of a lot of myopia going on in the criticism and concern trolling, and we need to recognize it and call it out for what it is.

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Roundup: Scheer unveils more reheated policy

While at the Manning Centre Networking Conference in Ottawa yesterday, Andrew Scheer unveiled another policy plank – that he was going to support a free trade deal with the United Kingdom, post-Brexit. And a short while later, put out a press release and “backgrounder” (which was a bit content-free) to say that he was going to travel to the UK next month to start talking about just this.

Scheer is behind the times on this, because Justin Trudeau announced that he and Theresa May were already having this discussion back when she visited in September, and Scheer knows this. So he’s reiterating this for a couple of reasons, beyond the fact that he’s trying to paint the picture of Trudeau being unable to adequately handle trade negotiations (never mind that his government concluded CETA that was in danger of going off the rails, and similarly extracted concessions from TPP talks, and they haven’t rolled over on NAFTA talks).

  1. Scheer is a Brexit supporter, and his trip to the UK is at a time where the UK Parliament is dealing with their Brexit legislation and not doing very well with it. One suspects that this trip is more about offering Canadian support for Brexit from his position as Leader of the Opposition, never mind that I suspect that the vast majority of Canadians would oppose Brexit (and hell, the number of Britons who regret voting for it seems to be growing daily). But Scheer does seem to want to offer that encouragement from his position.
  2. This announcement was to a crowd of small-c conservatives who feel a great deal of affection for the Anglosphere, and suspicion for other trade deals, particularly with China. It doesn’t seem to be out of the realm of possibility that this is a bit of red meat for that base.

Suffice to say, if this is a new bit of policy, this awfully thin gruel.

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Roundup: On “luxury” flights

Over the weekend, Andrew Scheer tweeted about how the defence minister had spent last year taking “luxury flights” as part of government business – twenty of them, for 206 flying hours. The horror!

Of course, the notion that Canadian Forces Airbus jets are “luxury flights” is beyond ridiculous. These planes are so old that they still have ashtrays at the seats, and part of the fleet was retired because they couldn’t get any spare parts any longer. There is nothing “luxurious” about them. Not to mention the fact that for most of these trips, they weren’t to destinations that could be taken commercially with any particular ease, such as a few fact-finding missions to Mali along with key military brass. But hey, why should facts or context matter when you can tweet out outrageous spin in order to drum up a bunch of faux outrage?

But why is Scheer pushing this ridiculous notion? Partly, it’s the constant drone of cheap outrage that ensures that Canadians can’t have nice things (and We The Media can share a lot of blame for this particular problem). Partially, it’s because he’s made it his mission to treat the viewing audience like idiots. But mostly it’s to try and create this narrative that the Liberals are so entitled that they spend profligately on themselves (not actually true) as opposed to those who need it. And to try and enforce that narrative, they will repeat it ad nauseum until people start thinking that it’s true. I keep waiting for the “positive politics” and “change of tone” that Scheer promised to actual start to manifest itself, but nope.

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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: Sticking to vapid promises

Because I’m not ready to let go of this topic of the Liberals plans around the Standing Orders, Maclean’s had an interview with deputy House Leader Kevin Lamoureux about why the government is so keen on trying to make these changes. Lamoureux has two answers – that the rules should be modernized (with no explanation as to why), and that they made an election promise to do so. Oh, and some too-cute-by-half insistence that even if they changed Question Period that Trudeau would show up more than once a week, despite the fact that he promised in that same election that he wanted to be out on the road more than just being stuck in Ottawa. So yeah, that seems to indicate that he’s looking for an excuse to only be there one day a week.

As with electoral reform, the Liberals came out early on with this facile talking point about the need to “modernize.” There’s no justification as to why or no explanation as to what’s not working (just the rather pedestrian observation that it’s not – draw your own conclusion) and then doing some jazz hands and saying “modernize!”

And like with electoral reform, promising “modernization” without saying why, is kind of a stupid promise, and you know how I feel about stupid promises – they should be owned up to as being stupid before they are broken. In this case, I’m not sure if it was just the vapid need to promise to modernize everything, or if they think there’s a real issue that they want to solve – regardless of what it is, it’s obvious that anything they’ve proposed to date won’t actually solve the problems that they have because the problem is cultural in this place, and the way to solve it isn’t by changing the rules that they’re proposing to. Either way, they need to say “Stupid promise. Real life proved to be different than we imagined it was,” and abandon these plans in favour of maybe, just maybe, tackling the deeper cultural issues that are the real cause of dysfunction in our Parliament.

Meanwhile, I was on AM 770 in Calgary yesterday to talk about my Maclean’s op-ed on the fact that we don’t need to modernize the House of Commons, which you can listen to here.

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Senate QP: Karina Gould brings the vague

After the House of Commons voted down the NDP motion to condemn the government for abandoning their electoral reform promise, minister of democratic institutions Karina Gould headed down the hall to the Other Place to answer questions there. Senator Carignan led off, asking about her new mandate letter, and Gould answered in generalities. Carignan followed-up asking about her plans for reforming the Senate, and Gould mentioned the new appointment system put into her place by her predecessor, and that she was waiting to read the report of the Senate Modernisation committee and to work together.

Senator Frum asked about loopholes that allow foreign money to be used in elections by registered third parties, and Gould spoke circles around financing laws but didn’t give much in the way of an answer regarding a loophole. Frum pushed on the notion that there was a possibility of foreign funds getting into the system, and Gould said she would look into it but it wasn’t something she had really come across.

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Roundup: A painful lesson in committee cooperation

News broke yesterday morning that rogue Liberal backbencher Nate Erskine-Smith had been reassigned from the public safety committee by the party whip, and immediately everyone was all “uh oh, this is totally because he spoke out against his party.” Yes, Erskine-Smith has been making all kinds of waves, talking about his disagreement with the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, advocating for the decriminalisation of all illegal drugs to treat them as a public health as opposed to a criminal law issue, and most recently, prostrating himself before his electorate to decry his government’s decision to abandon electoral reform (and using the curious tactic of using language that both undermines his government’s legitimacy and advocates for a system that undermines the very agency he has as an MP to stand apart from his party, but whatever).

Of course, it also appears that none of those commenters from the peanut gallery actually bothered to read the story about why Erskine-Smith was yanked from the committee, and it had little to do with his outspokenness than the fact that he was overly naïve as a newbie MP if trying to make parliament a nicer place. In this case, he wanted to operate by consensus on the committee and tried to get the other parties onside for amending the bill on establishing a national security committee of parliamentarians. The problem was that in the process, he was manipulated by Tony Clement into deleting some of his government’s own provisions because, you know, consensus and working together! So yeah, painful lesson, and maybe he’ll learn to be a little less trusting the next time. I get that you want parliament to be a nicer place and politics to be done better, but if you’re not careful, your opponents will (metaphorically) shiv you because they have their own goals, and they don’t necessarily want to buy into your platform. And let’s not forget that the competition of ideas is part of what keeps our system vital and accountable.

Of course, the fact that the whip could take this step has the usual suspects up in arms about how too much power is in the hands of the leader (by way of the whip), and the standard calls about reforming committees were trotted out. The Liberal Party’s promises on committee reform – more resources, electing chairs by secret ballot, and ensuring parliamentary secretaries are no longer voting members – were pretty much accomplished, but Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong has his own reform ideas (try to look surprised), but reading them over, I have doubts. In particular, his plan to take away the power to assign MPs to committees and replacing it with a secret ballot process is dubious, in particular because a) I can’t imagine trying to count those ballots, b) it won’t solve the problems of MPs all trying to get onto the “sexier” committees while leaving some of the less exciting ones to be scrounging for members, c) critics – which the leader assigns – are on those committees, so for a party like the NDP, the secret balloting process would be useless, and d) this is a typical Chong suggestion of a solution in search of a problem. MPs like to bitch and moan about being assigned to committees they don’t like, but rarely actually ask for committee assignments, nor do they seem to have an appreciation that sometimes the party has to spread out their talent to places where it’s needed as opposed to where MPs want to go.

I’m also not keen on Chong’s plan to merge five committees to bring down the total number because there’s no actual need. We have 338 MPs and we don’t have a super-sized cabinet with a bloated parliamentary secretary brigade to match it, and in the previous parliament, they already reduced committees from 12 to 10 members apiece. There are enough MPs to go around, and merging the mandates of committees overloads them rather than letting them undertake studies of their own accord, which they should be doing. There’s no real crisis of overloading MPs with work right now (which was not always the case), so this particular suggestion seems gratuitous.

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Roundup: Dealing with disappointment

As the tears and recriminations continue over Justin Trudeau’s decision to scrap his electoral reform pledge, we’re seeing a number of pretty dubious messages emerging from those doing the wailing and gnashing of teeth. For as much as Elizabeth May shed tears about how this was a betrayal of youth voters, Justin Trudeau went before a crowd of university students yesterday and nary a word was spoken from those “betrayed” youths about electoral reform. Oops. I’m also a little disturbed by the point that has been made repeatedly by the likes of May, and Ed Broadbent on national television, that somehow the feminist Trudeau was shoving young women ministers “under the bus” over his broken pledge. One has to point out, however, that there is a bit of a sexist undertone to that bit of concern trolling, implying that neither minister was capable of handling themselves on this file, and it ignores that Maryam Monsef was effectively promoted for her performance, going from a make-work office out of PCO to a line department with a big agenda along with added responsibilities for assisting the minister of heritage, while Karina Gould was handed a pretty big new file to tackle in the democratic institutions portfolio, being the very real concerns about cyber-security in our electoral system. And if you don’t think that’s a problem, look at the fact that the BC Liberals suffered a major data breach over the weekend that compromised the files of countless voters.

And then there’s the cynicism argument. Not only have the youth been betrayed by this move, but this breeds cynicism because the rug has been pulled out from those who were engaged in the process, and we have studies that show that people get disengaged when they have bad experiences. But I’m going to challenge that a bit, because as much as you had a group of people that were engaged by the process, the vast majority who have been vocal about it have been selective in their reading about what went on. People insist there was consensus in the report, but the fact that every party walked back on what it said shows that it was not actually consensus. PR advocates not only stacked the witness lists, but most over-read the mandate of the committee and gave some particularly creative interpretations of just what Trudeau’s electoral promise was, deciding that it meant that their preferred system was the only acceptable outcome – in other words, they have only been hearing what they want to hear. When they don’t get it, they blame others for breeding cynicism. As for the disengagement brought on by disappointment, I’ve read those studies too and the common denominator that I found was that much of that disappointment is brought on by the fact that people don’t know how the system works. They get discouraged because they approach the wrong level of government to deal with a particular problem, or that they are simply impatient to deal with the waiting lists caused by limited resources. I get that unrealistic promises might be disappointing when they don’t happen, but people need to be better educated to know when promises are disappointed so that their expectations can be tempered (though politicians should know better than to make stupid promises in the first place).

Meanwhile, I will point you to a must-read, which is a post by UBC political scientist Christopher Kam, who writes a spectacular takedown of an NDP ten-percenter extolling the virtues of proportional representation. It not only takes it apart piece by piece, but provides a good fact-check on some of the PR talking points that were circulating during the electoral reform committee hearings, including debunking some of the studies that were cited continuously to “prove” the points about how great PR governments are.

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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.

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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