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: Feeding the fear industry

The Conservatives’ final Supply Day motion of the year, and they chose to use it to both demand that the government bring any returning ISIS fighters to Canada to justice, while simultaneously condemning them for the Omar Khadr settlement – you know, the issue that they were going to hammer the government hard on back in September which didn’t materialize.

As you can expect, the arguments were not terribly illuminating, and lacking in any particular nuance that the topic should merit, but that’s not exactly surprising. Still, some of the lines were particularly baffling in their ham-fistedness.

Amidst this, the CBC published a piece about Canada’s refusal to engage in extrajudicial killings of our own foreign fighters out of the country, asking lawyers whether Canadian law actually prevents it, which not unreasonably has been accused of creating a debate out of nothing.

And this is really the key point. Treating issues like this one in a ham-fisted manner, whether it’s with a Supply Day motion designed to fail, or a debate created out of nothingness, is playing into the fear industry that we really should be trying to avoid. This is not the kind of nuanced debate that we should be having, which hurts everyone in the long run.

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Senate QP: Assurances that there is a comprehensive plan

While the fall economic update was getting underway in the Other Place, justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was over in the Red Chamber to answer questions that senators may have of her. Senator Larry Smith led off, raising Bill S-3 and the Senate’s proposed amendments to it, reminding her of a speech she made in 2010 about doing away with all inequities in the Act. Wilson-Raybould said that she was aware and noted that they did have a deadline of December, but that Ministers Bennett and Philpott had a comprehensive plan in place. Smith rose on a supplemental to reiterate the question about the plan, and Wilson-Raybould again noted that they did have a plan to eliminate inequities.

Senator McIntyre asked about the rejection of mandatory minimums under C-46 on impaired driving. Wilson-Raybould said that while she noted the seriousness of impaired driving, mandatory minimums were not a deterrence, but mandatory screening was, which is why they were going ahead with it.

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QP: Equating Khadr with First Nations

Wednesday, caucus day, and not only was the prime minister in attendance, but we also saw NDP MP Guy Caron named as the party’s “parliamentary leader” in lieu of Jagmeet Singh while he remains seatless (and you can bet that I have a very big problem with this). Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading an exhortation about the proposed tax changes in French, condemning the defeat of their Supply Day motion on extending the consultations. Justin Trudeau responded with his usual points about being elected to raise taxes on the wealthy, and that they have listened to Canadians’ concerns as they move ahead with a bill. Andrew Scheer tried to turn the issue into one of touching the PM’s own family fortune, but Trudeau reiterated his talking points. Scheer insisted that the proposals would mean the wealthiest pay less while the middle class pay more — an extremely dubious claim — and Trudeau sounded a bit weary having to repeat himself about their plans to make the tax system fairer. Scheer then moved onto the topic of Omar Khadr, claiming that repatriation was his compensation and that the excuse of saving legal fees didn’t stack up in the face of the court case of that First Nations girls who needed braces. Trudeau reminded Scheer that they don’t only get to defend Canadians’ rights when it’s popular. Scheer asked again in French, and Trudeau responded with prepared points about the programme for uninsured care and that these services would be improved under the new Indigenous Services department. Guy Caron was up next to lead off for the NDP, and he asked about the Environment Commissioner’s report in French, and Trudeau responded first with congratulations to the new NDP leader and Caron’s new role, before giving a brief and bland assurance about the report. Caron asked again in English, and Trudeau gave a longer response about the environment and the economy and they have an ambitious carbon pricing plan coming in. Caron then railed about the Netflix deal and the outsourcing of Canadian culture to American companies. Trudeau assured him that they had faith in our content creators, and when Caron asked again in French, noting the condemnation of the Quebec National Assembly, Trudeau noted that they promised not to raise taxes on the middle class so they wouldn’t go ahead with additional levies.

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QP: The Morneau-Shepell conspiracy

Shortly after a fire alarm emptied out the Centre Block, and MPs made their way back into the building, Question Period got underway. Andrew Scheer led off, reading a stilted question about the Omar Khadr settlement in French. Justin Trudeau took the chance to take a partisan shot, saying that this was because the previous violated his rights — not mentioning that it was also the fault of previous Liberal governments — and reiterated his previous speech about how he was outraged and hopefully that outrage would ensure that future governments would not violate rights again. Scheer called out that the Liberals were at fault too, and Trudeau modified his response that it was about previous governments (plural) but added that this was not about Khadr, but about the government’s action and they should stand up for rights even when it’s not popular. Scheer then pivoted to the tax change issue, got the usual talking points from Trudeau, and when Scheer tried to skewer this as being one more cost to the middle class, and Trudeau reeled out his points about cutting taxes on the middle class. Scheer made a few digs at Trudeau’s own numbered corporation and his speaking fees before he was made party leader, but Trudeau didn’t take the bait. Pierre Nantel was up for the NDP, and railed about the announcements on cultural industries. Trudeau read a statement that assured him that they had unprecedented investment from Netflix, and that they would ensure that Canadian creators would benefit. Rachel Blaney asked in English, decrying that Facebook and Google were not being made to pay, but Trudeau reiterated his assurances that Canadian producers would benefit from these funds. Nantel repeated the question in scripted English, Trudeau reiterated that this was great news for Canadian cultural industries, and Alexandre Boulerice closed the round by railing that other media companies weren’t being taxed. Trudeau repeated that they were looking to support the industry as it transitions.

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QP: Trudeau starts hitting back

With a storm on the horizon, the House of Commons assembled after caucus meetings, ready for another day of baying at the moon over proposed tax changes. Just before QP, Andrew Scheer have a member’s statement about the emergency debate on the plight of the Rohingya, after which he crossed the floor to have a quick chat with Justin Trudeau. When QP got underway, Scheer led off by noting that he would be at the dedication for the National Holocaust Memorial and invited the PM to discuss why it’s important. Trudeau got up to make a statement on just that, and he read a statement on the horrors of the Holocaust and to offer the statement of “Never again.” Scheer then switched to French and back to his tax change straw men, wanting confirmation that Trudeau’s family fortune would not be affected. Trudeau note the issue of ensuring that the wealthiest Canadians pay their share of taxes. Scheer asked the same again in English, and got the same answer, with Trudeau stressing that this was not about people not following the rules, but that the rules favoured the wealthy. Scheer insisted that the litany of cancelled tax credits amounted to tax hikes as his condemnation of these changes, Trudeau noted that Scheer was trying to re-fight the 2015 election. Scheer insisted that they were the voice of the “millions” that would be hurt by these changes and then kicked at the PM for meeting Chinese Billionaires™, to which Trudeau listed all of the businesses who were looking for access to the Chinese market. Thomas Mulcair was up next, worried about the duties the US placed on Bombardier, and demanded that those jobs be saved. Trudeau noted that Chrystia Freeland raised that with her American counterpart earlier this morning, and that they would fight for those jobs. Mulcair groused about Trudeau’s inability to deal with Trump, and got much the same response. Mulcair then railed that the government was failing on Access to Information, and Trudeau read a list of ways that they were making things more transparent, before they went for another round of the very same in French.

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QP: Snide asides and Harder drama

Another sweltering day, but all of the party leaders were present today, so it promised to be a better day for exchanges. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading his standard alarmist questions about the proposed tax changes and how they will devastate “local businesses.” Justin Trudeau responded with his usual points about how the system currently incentivises the wealthy to use corporations to avoid taxes. Scheer tried to use the framing device that that this was a revenue generator, but Trudeau didn’t give him a dollar figure. Scheer quipped that the Liberals were so incompetent that they couldn’t even raise taxes properly, and then threw out the straw men about the PM’s family fortunes. Trudeau responded that the report Scheer mentioned and noted that it ignored the introduction of the Canada Child Benefit. Scheer retorted about Trudeau’s nannies, and returned to the point about the changes as revenue generator to deal with his spending problem. Trudeau responded that they raised taxes on the wealthiest and the Conservatives voted against it. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and raised the new ministerial directive that would allow use of information possibly obtained by torture under limited circumstances. Trudeau reminded him that torture is prohibited and abhorrent, and it was why the strengthened ministerial directive made that more clear. Mulcair asked again in English, got the same answer, before he moved onto the delays in appointing new officers of Parliament, insinuating that the government is looking for lapdogs. Trudeau reminded him that they put in a new process that better reflects diversity, and then they went another round of the same in English, Trudeau getting in a few digs about the opposition not opening up their fundraising books along the way.

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QP: Tightly scripted tax concerns

On a sweltering Monday, Justin Trudeau was off in Toronto meeting business leaders, leaving the rest of us in Ottawa to suffer through the 40 degree humidex. Andrew Scheer led off with his now standard plaintive wail about how the proposed tax changes would kill “local businesses.” Bill Morneau reminded him that they were looking to restore fairness to the tax system, and after another stilted round of the same, Scheer read his script that since the PM wouldn’t answer, he would try the finance minister instead. In a word, pathetic. Alain Rayes was up next to reiterate the questions in French, and Morneau offered his very same points in French for another two rounds. Tracey Ramsey left for the NDP, complaining that the Americans haven’t brought forward any demands, particularly with the auto sector. Chrystia Freeland wanted people in the sector to know that they were looking out for their interests, and that autos were top-of-mind. Ruth Ellen Brosseau was up next and asked about the same in French, and she got much the same answer in French. Brosseau then moved onto the usual concerns about Supply Management, and Freeland assured her, once again, that they would protect it. Ramsey then repeated that exact same question in English, and Freeland repeated her previous answer.

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Roundup: An indefensible communications strategy

If you’ve been wondering what the Conservative communications strategy around the planned changes to private corporation taxation, then it’s your lucky day as VICE got a copy of the talking points and then fact-checked them. In short, it’s predicated on a combination of extreme cases, lies of omission, and misdirection – so pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve been paying attention these past few weeks.

All of this is being further exacerbated by a growing number of Liberal MPs who have become victim to their own government being unable to actually articulate what these changes really mean and who have come up with a communications strategy that is more interested in sloganeering than it is on correcting the active misinformation campaign that has been going on, and which isn’t actually fighting back against said misinformation through a series of pointed questions like “How exactly is income sprinkling the thing that’s spurring entrepreneurship/growth/investment?” like keeps being brought up, or “You read the proposal where reinvesting in the business isn’t being additionally taxed, right?” And while sure, there may be some issues with family farms when it comes to capital gains for passing it on from generation to generation, or with the potential compliance burden to ensuring that any of these ongoing measures are actually above-board, those aren’t what we’re hearing. Instead, it’s this nonsensical braying about how small business “deserves” these tax breaks for “risk” (false – risk was never why these differential tax breaks were introduced, but rather, a lower small business tax rate was introduced in 1972 because at the time, they had difficulty getting bank loans). Braying that nobody is pushing back against, and that’s part of the problem.

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Roundup: Unveiling the critics

Andrew Scheer unveiled his list of critics – err, “shadow cabinet” yesterday, and all of the attention is on how leadership rivals fared. All eyes were of course on Maxime Bernier, who didn’t get the finance portfolio that he was publicly lobbying for – which was rather impolitic of him to have done so it needs to be said. Instead Bernier got the industry portfolio, which is still a major economic portfolio and one where he will get to rail about corporate welfare to his heart’s content. And the finance role that he so coveted? That went to Pierre Poilievre, which is something that Liberal partisans everywhere were salivating over, seeing as Poilievre is not exactly someone with poise and tact, and will be in the media a lot (though I will note that he’s better than he used to be).

And those other leadership rivals (who are still in the caucus)? Well, Erin O’Toole got Foreign Affairs, Steven Blaney gets veterans affairs, Michael Chong gets infrastructure, and Tony Clement (for his short-lived leadership ambitions) gets public services and procurement. (Lisa Raitt, meanwhile, already got the coveted deputy leader position, you will recall). But Kellie Leitch, Brad Trost and Deepak Obhrai were all left off the list – all while insisting that they’re happy with things, and that there are no hard feelings, etcetera, etcetera.

But all of this makes me wonder once again why so many of these no hope leadership candidates bothered to stay in the race to the bitter end, as if it was going to mean good standing in the party going forward. I’m not seeing a lot of “good standing” coming out of this, despite the way that it’s being parsed as healing divisions in the party, especially as the more extreme voices of Leitch and Trost being kept on the outside. Leitch, and to a certain extent Trost, humiliated themselves by running terrible campaigns that got them lots of attention but little else, and they are further marginalized by being kept away from the front bench going forward. This justifies those campaigns in what way? It’s why I find the whole exercise of the leadership campaign even more mystifying (beyond the fact that the way in which we conduct them is part of what is wrong with the way our system has been bastardized). The return for no hope campaigns is so limited that I’m can’t see the rationale, but maybe that’s just me.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne each parse what the picks mean about the kind of face that Scheer is trying to put on the party, and the ways in which he is trying to make a mark in the post-Harper era.

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