Roundup: Reading the constitution and a map

The constitutional lunacy taking place in Alberta shows no signs of abating, especially now that Jason Kenney has taken his seat in the legislature. Already they have debated a motion to back the province’s fight for pipeline access in BC, but the demands they’re making that Justin Trudeau invoke Section 92(10)(c) of the Constitution are wrong and bogus. Why? That section applies to projects that are of the national interest but are only within a single province’s boundaries – which this pipeline is not. So here’s Andrew Leach to pour some necessary scorn onto the whole thing, while Carissima Mathen, a constitutional law professor, backs him up.

Meanwhile, Kenney is playing an utterly disingenuous game of semantics with his objection to the province’s carbon tax, insisting that it didn’t give them the “social licence” to get their pipelines approved. But to suggest that was the only value of such a tax is to be deliberately misleading. The real purpose of a carbon price is to provide a market signal for industry to reduce their emissions, by providing them a financial incentive for them to do so. It’s proven the most efficient way to reduce emissions in the most cost-effective manner possible, and while correlation may not be causation, it has bene pointed out that those jurisdictions in the country that have implemented carbon pricing have roaring economies, while those resisting one (such as Saskatchewan) don’t. Whether there is a correlation or not, provinces like BC have shown that the carbon tax allows them to lower other taxes which are generally less efficient taxes regardless. As for social licence, it’s part of the overall balancing act to show that there is a sufficient plan to achieve reductions as part of transitioning to a low-carbon future, but I’m not sure that anyone suggested that it would magically end all protests (and if they did, they were fools for doing so). But for Kenney to claim that this was the promise is utter nonsense.

Like the bogus calls to invoke Section 92(10)(c), it’s all about putting forward a plausible-sounding argument in the hopes that the public doesn’t bother to actually read it to see that it’s actually bullshit. But that is apparently how political debate works these days – disingenuous points that don’t actually resemble reality, or lies constructed to look plausible and hoping that nobody calls you on it, and if they do, well, they’re just apologists or carrying water for your opponents. This isn’t constructive or helpful, and it just feeds the politics of anger and resentment, which in turn poisons the discourse. They all know better, but keep doing it because it’s so addictive, but never mind that the house is burning down around them.

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Roundup: Notley’s unconstitutional threats

In Alberta, Rachel Notley’s NDP government had a Throne Speech yesterday that promised all manner of action to try to pressure BC’s NDP government when it comes to the Trans Mountain pipeline problem. Notley, however, decided to take some of Jason Kenney’s bluster and make it her own, promising the ability to block oil shipments to BC that they need for their domestic use. The problem? The Trans Mountain pipeline is regulated by the National Energy Board, meaning it’s federal jurisdiction, and that neither province can do anything to block it or affect what it carries. She’s also echoing the comments that the federal government needs to lean harder on BC, never mind that the NEB has quasi-judicial authority on the issue, and the fact that all BC has done to date is announce a study, or that the federal government has repeated “This pipeline will get built.” It’s a bunch of chest-thumping and borrowed demagoguery that ignores the historical context of what Peter Lougheed threatened in the 1980s, and is rank hypocrisy in that they’re threatening unconstitutional action to combat BC’s threatened unconstitutional action. It’s time for everyone to grow up.

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Roundup: Demanding Trudeau take a stand…on a press release

We’re barely a couple of days into the “trade war” between BC and Alberta, and already the rhetoric has cranked the ridiculousness up to eleven. While Trudeau has tried to calm nerves and insist that he and his officials are speaking to the premiers involved and their officials, you have Andrew Scheer going before the microphones to demand that the PM cancel his trip to the United States to deal with this escalating crisis (err, thus far a press release has been issued by BC – that’s it), and Jagmeet Singh is lamenting that Trudeau isn’t showing enough leadership. One remains curious about what kind of “leadership” Trudeau should be showing on this, given that he has declared that the pipeline will get built because it’s in the national interest (and even went so far as to deploy anonymous senior government sources to assure the media that yes, they won’t allow any province to impinge on federal jurisdiction). And you know that if Trudeau did actually cancel his US trip that the Conservatives would pillory him for not taking NAFTA renegotiations seriously enough. It was also pointed out yesterday that when Christy Clark tried to impose conditions on pipelines, the previous government pretty much let her go ahead with it with very few complaints, so their insistence that Trudeau escalate this to what one presumes to be the use of federal disallowance powers is curious in the extreme.

Meanwhile, the pundits are weighing in. Chantal Hébert notes that Trudeau lacks any kind of constitutional mechanism to force a timeout between the premiers. Andrew Leach reminds us that the only reason Alberta got the approval for the pipelines was because they did the hard work of getting a credible environmental regime in place beforehand. Jen Gerson argues that Trudeau’s job is to avoid these kinds of interprovincial disputes, and that Notley’s real goal with the wine blockade is to pressure Trudeau. Colby Cosh says that the wine blockade was a predictable turn of events given Notley’s flirting with craft beer protectionism already.

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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: Fun with populist proposals

As the new United Conservative Party in Alberta starts to take shape, some familiar populist tropes have been tossed around, which the leadership candidates – Brian Jean especially – don’t seem to actually think through before proposing it. Colby Cosh, on the other hand, did think through some of those proposals and the problems that they would cause, particularly when it comes to thinks like local referendums on photo radar (which I will remind you is ridiculous – if you don’t want to get a ticket, then don’t speed. It’s your own damn fault if you get one), but the big one is promised recall legislation. People keep bringing this particular idea up time and again, enamoured with American examples thereof, without actually thinking through the consequences of how it would work in our particular system, especially when there are more than two parties on the ballot, making thresholds an important consideration. In BC, the one province where recall legislation exists, it’s set at 40 percent of eligible voters, making it high enough to never actually be used, but the Wildrose had previously proposed a twenty percent threshold, which would set up a constant flow of recall initiatives, at which point it becomes comical. Suffice to say, populism is not democracy, and people who treat them as interchangeable are asking for trouble.

Meanwhile, as could be expected, old Wildrose holdouts are looking to revive their now moribund party in one form or another, likely with a new name but the same policies and party constitution, given that they resolutely remain opposed to uniting. At the same time, former PC operatives and the provinces’ hipster centrists, the Alberta Party, are holding “Alberta Together” meetings, to apparently try and solidify the centrist vote in the province, for what it’s worth.

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Roundup: Principle over circumstance

After a weekend of yet more wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Omar Khadr settlement, and despite detailed explanations from the ministers of justice and public safety, and Justin Trudeau reminding everyone that this is not about the individual circumstances of Khadr himself but rather the price of successive governments who have ignored the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we’re still seeing a number of disingenuous talking points and facile legal analysis from players who know better. Here is some of the better commentary from the weekend.

A number of people over social media have insisted that treatment of Khadr, including the “frequent flier” sleep deprivation technique used to “soften him up” before CSIS agents arrived to question him, or the fact that he was strung up for hours to the point of urinating himself (and then used as a human mop to wipe it up) or being threatened with gang rape didn’t constitute torture.

There was some particularly petulant legal analysis from former Conservative cabinet ministers that got pushback.

And of course, the broader principle remains.

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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: Once again, the problem is not PMQs

Apparently the topic hasn’t been exhausted, so here we go with round thirty-seven (or thereabouts). We start with Aaron Wherry comparing what happened in Westminster last Wednesday, where Prime Minister Theresa May was on her feet in the Commons for some three-and-a-half hours as she went directly from PMQs to announcing the Brexit plans, to taking questions on it, in a way that the rules in our own House of Commons doesn’t allow. And bully for Wherry that he acknowledged that such a thing couldn’t happen here under our present Standing Orders, but doesn’t quite get to the crux of the issue that our parliamentary culture is so diminished and bastardised when it comes to speaking and debate that even if we changed the rules to allow for such things, that it likely wouldn’t help. He does, however, acknowledge that Trudeau could start making changes around taking all questions one day a week, or announcing more policy in the Commons, if he really wanted to, without having to change the rules.

Chantal Hébert, meanwhile, notes that Trudeau has not really made himself at home in the Commons, starting with doing the bare minimum as an opposition leader, to not really engaging meaningfully when he does show up now, he and his ministers answering in bland pabulum delivered with a smile. From there, she wonders if this disinterest has manifested itself into a kind of tone-deafness as they try to push the proposed changes to the Standing Orders in as poor a manner as they tried to handle the electoral reform debate.

The Globe and Mail’s unsigned editorial on the proposed changes, however, is thin gruel when it comes to engaging on the issue, buying into these notions that the proposed changes are all about crushing the rights of the opposition, not quite articulating the actual role of parliament, while also not grasping what “programming motions” actually are, while propagating this notion that QP only counts if the PM is there, as though the rest of the Cabinet is unworthy of media attention (which really says more about their own perceptions than it does the PM if you ask me). But I’ve said my piece on this again and again, so I’ll let Wherry field this one, because he hits the nail on the head exactly with why this pervasive opinion is part of the problem.

In other words, Globe and Mail, you’re part of the problem, so stop pointing fingers. As for the UK’s practice of ministerial questions, there’s this:

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Roundup: Carrying Russia’s water

The big story that had a number of people salivating yesterday was the screaming headline in the Globe and Mail that Chrystia Freeland knew her grandfather was the editor of a Nazi newspaper, which Freeland’s own uncle had researched, and to whom Freeland had contributed assistance to. VICE printed their own version of the story, making it clear that Russian officials have been shopping this story around for a while – remember that Freeland is persona non grata in Russia and target of sanctions – and added a tonne of context to the circumstances that Freeland’s grandfather would have found himself in, most of which was absent from the Globe piece because, well, it’s less sensational that way. And then cue some of the bellyaching that Freeland’s office wasn’t very forthcoming about some of this information when asked, the accusations that this somehow undermines her credibility, and whether or not this should be properly characterised as a smear when most of the facts are, in broad strokes, true (though again, context mitigates a lot of this).

The Russian connection, however, is what is of most concern to observers. Professor Stephen Saideman for one is cranky that the Globe very much seems to be compromising its editorial standards and is now carrying Russia’s water for the sensationalism and the sake of clicks. Terry Glavin is even more outraged because of the ways in which this plays into Russian hands, and any belief that we’re immune to the kinds of machinations they’ve exhibited in destabilizing the American electoral process (and now administration) and what they’re up to with far-right parties in Europe should be cause for concern. And to that end, Scott Gilmore says that we can’t expect to be immune from these kinds of Russian attacks. So should we be concerned? By all appearances, yes. And maybe we should remember that context is important to stories, and not the sensationalism, because that’s where the populist outrage starts to build, causing us bigger headaches in the long run.

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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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