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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Roundup: Manning and the Populists

It’s the Manning Centre conference here in Ottawa, which is the “conservative Woodstock,” as they say, and is pretty much were all of the small-c conservatives come to network, only this year, in the midst of the Trumpocalypse happening south of the border, the flavour of this year’s conference has changed, with much more pandering to the fringe elements, catering to overblown fears of Islamic terrorism and the kinds of populist demagoguery that are suddenly in vogue. Oh, and all fourteen Conservative leadership candidates are also there, and hey, they had a little debate, which allowed them a bit more freedom to actually debate in small groups, but most of it was still their canned talking points, so take it for what it’s worth.

As for conference programming, here’s Kady O’Malley’s recap of the first half including Preston Manning’s speech, and her assessment that fears of a Trumpist takeover appear to be more overblown, as many of the demagogic panels have had less than spectacular attendance. John Geddes recaps the moments of the leadership debate that had the biggest sparks. Geddes also has a conversation with Manning about populism and how it’s shaping debates right now.

Andrew Coyne warns Conservatives at the Manning Conference about the siren song of populist demagoguery. Chris Selley looks at that demagoguery up close in the panel on the “Islamist extremist menace” at the Conference, calling it bonkers. John Ivison looks at the dynamic Kevin O’Leary is bringing to the Conference and the race, and the outsized role he is starting to play, building an “Anyone but O’Leary” vibe. Paul Wells notes the changes in the Conference’s tenor over the years as a result of the political culture of followership, eager to imitate the perceived leaders of their pack.

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Roundup: Obama and his populist rant

So, that speech by Barack Obama was quite something. Canada tends not to be a country of lofty rhetoric or grand and eloquent speechmaking, so it’s nice when we get to borrow it for a bit, but it is a bit of novelty. For all of his complementary rhetoric about Canadians and our progressivity, it was interesting to note the places where people in the Commons weren’t all unanimous with the applause (mentions of climate change and LGBT rights certainly didn’t endear the Conservatives), and he was very clever in the way he couched his criticism of Canada needing to do more to pull its weight with NATO, by timing it so that the applause had already started with is line about the great job that the Canadian Forces do when he finished the thought that the world wants them to do more. Clever that.

What was perhaps even more interesting and less rehearsed was the rant that Obama went off at the conclusion of the Three Amigos summit press conference, where he pushed back against the use of “populism” when it comes to the likes of Trump, Sanders, and the Brexit vote. While Obama was quick to paint Trump in particular with the terms of nativism and xenophobia, I’m not sure that he really addressed the core of the issue with the rise in populist sentiment that gets hijacked by those nativist and xenophobic elements. Why? Because he was quick to try and associate populism with only the positive benefits of helping the working classes to better themselves, and on the face of it, “populism” is about appealing to ordinary people. The problem is that it has a dangerous flipside about making that appeal in contravention to expert opinion and evidence, which is painted as elitist – something that Obama steered clear of. Meanwhile, populism has already overtaken the political discourse in Canada, when our one-time ideological parties on both the left and the right have abandoned their ideologies in favour of left and right-flavoured populism, eschewing that evidence or clear-eyed policy in favour of selling it to ordinary people, never mind that it would actually disproportionately benefit the wealthy (and yes, that applies equally to Conservative and NDP policy in Canada). When that ethos of casting off evidence and expert opinion reaches dangerous levels, you get the kinds of rhetoric you heard in the Brexit campaign, and with Trump and his supporters, but it’s on the same populist road. So you will forgive me if I don’t subscribe to Obama’s embrace of populism as solely a force for good. It has a dark side that needs to be acknowledged, lest it get as out of control as it clearly has been doing of late.

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Roundup: The cheapest ploy

If there is one last bastion of desperation for political parties trying to play the populist card, it’s the “too many politicians” line. We’ve seen it before, with Ontario eliminating seats under the Mike Harris years (eventually aligning provincial and federal ridings with the exception of splitting the Northern Ontario mega-riding in two provincially). We saw the Alberta Party trying to play this card in the last Alberta election. In the previous parliament, we saw the federal Liberals trying to play this card as they argued against increasing the number of MPs as part of seat redistribution. Now, we’re seeing this again courtesy of the Saskatchewan NDP, promising that if they win the election, they’ll reduce the number of provincial seats from 61 to 55. It’s a stupid policy idea, and it’s one that fits into the kinds of populist noise that gives us “tough on crime” policies that generally only exacerbate problems. Why is it stupid? Aside from being desperate, it generally is a signal that you have no other practical ideas for improving any aspect of governance, but rather falls into the narrative trap of “politicians are the problem.” The problem is, is that you can wind up with too few politicians to do what is required of them – particularly in smaller provinces. One of the biggest problems is that when you start reducing the number of backbenchers, you have fewer members to hold the government to account. We’ve seen a few places where the government has tried to go with a smaller cabinet (Alberta, for example), only to wind up having to appoint more ministers to share the workload better. If you reduce the number of total seats, it means that you tend to wind up with a government that has the majority of its seats in cabinet, which is terrible for both governance and for allowing backbenchers to voice dissent – especially if it means that they’re one scandal or screw-up away from a substantial promotion. It means there are fewer bodies for committee work, for dealing with constituents’ issues, and when you’ve got a lot of rural ridings – particularly in places like Saskatchewan – making those ridings bigger to accommodate fewer members becomes impractical, as does the idea of reducing the number of urban members so that they have more population within them so as not to drown of the rural seats (which explains part of the gerrymandering that places like Alberta were terribly adept at for years provincially, and Saskatchewan federally, with no urban seats until this last election). Politicians have important work to do, and having more of them spreads the work around and can make them more effective as they do the job that they were elected to do. Trying to claim that there are too many of them is cheap populism, and in the end, everyone loses as a result of it.

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QP: Senate reform questions from the past

Even thought it was Thursday, half of the desks in the House of Commons were empty, and not one leader was present. Even the Speaker was absent, if that tells you anything. Peter Julian led off pointing to Brian Mulroney’s comments on Senate reform, apparently forgetting the years of drama that led up to the Supreme Court reference on the matter. Paul Calandra reminded him of said reference, and there was another round of the same in English, where Calandra more forcefully reminded him of a thing called the Consititution. Julian tried to wedge in a Duffy reference, at which point Paul Calandra brought up the NDP satellite offices. Niki Aston then got up to demand a national inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and Kellie Leitch gave her standard reply of the action they are taking. Ashton demanded action by the government on First Nations files, to which Mark Strahl read a statement about action the government took with residential school survivors. Carolyn Bennett was up for the Liberals, and wanted a commitment to acting on all of the recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, to which Strahl gave the talking points about thanking the TRC for their work. Emmanuel Dubourg asked the same in French, got the same answer in English. To close the round, Dubourg asked about the slow GDP growth, at which points Pierre Poilievre got up to decry supposed Liberal tax increases.

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