Roundup: Unleashing the two-year markers

With it being the two-year mark since the 2015 election, we’re going to start seeing a wave of thinkpieces and columns over the next few days (I suspect there will be a glut of weekend columns of dubious quality on the topic), but Paul Wells got things off to a good start yesterday with his piece on the matter. And he makes some pretty good points about how the complaints that this government hasn’t done anything are off the mark, because I do believe there are a number of things that we forget with our short attention spans, but there are also things that we don’t see obvious signs of, where the government has reformed a lot of the processes by which things get done – and this is a particularly big issue when it comes to trying to move the various Indigenous files forward. While it looks like there has been halting progress, people ignore that many of the problems are capacity-related, so if the government is moving to address those fundamental issues, it leads to better outcomes later than simply throwing money at problems only to make them worse in the long run – which happens all too often.

But Wells also acknowledges the bad, and just like with any government, there’s a lot of that too – the appointments process is a notable example, and Wells points to the bottleneck in the PMO, which goes along with the glut of rookie ministers (unavoidable with so few experienced MPs in caucus), and the problem with messaging. As I wrote about earlier this week, there is a real problem with the way this government shovels pabulum at everyone, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than under the previous government, when you were treated to non sequiturs rather than vague answers that resembled the topics you were asking about. And it’s this inability to have forthright communications that created much of this tax mess as well (but I will also lay some blame on bad and lazy reporting that was too quick to lean on opposition talking points as examples of accountability rather than reaching out to experts and then using that to push back against the tidal wave of misinformation that came out). And most especially the fact that this government was unwilling to actually fight back against the misinformation is why this mess of their own making has been compounded even more so.

“But it’s hard to be entirely saddened by Trudeau’s current discomfort, which if nothing else might shake his team out of the towering sanctimony that characterizes too much of its action and rhetoric,” Wells writes, and I fully agree. In fact, it’s the moments in the past couple of weeks where Trudeau and his ministers have dropped their pabulum-like talking points and been punchier and more authentic in their fighting back against their attackers that I’ve seen a spike in public responses to my own reporting of those instances. Hopefully they’re seeing that too, and it’ll prompt them to take more risks and to stop being so gods damned scripted. But this is also politics in 2017, and we’ve killed off spontaneity or the ability to debate, so I fear that my hopes for honest communications are doomed.

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Roundup: Cozy think tank takedowns

Over on Maclean’s yesterday was a longread “exposé” of Canada 2020 as an arm of the federal Liberal party which is exerting all manner of influence, and how potentially inappropriate that may be. But after reading the piece, I found it less a convincing exploration of the think tank than it was simply a recitation of names with “links” to the Liberals, followed by Duff Conacher’s railing about how awful it all is.

Pro tip: If your story relies on Duff Conacher’s analysis of government misdeeds, then it’s probably not worth reading. Conacher is a noted crank who has a history of distorting issues and losing court battles, and who has a number of particularly harmful ideological agendas that involve the destruction of the Canadian Crown, the Westminster system, making all prerogatives justiciable, and one supposes the installation of a Parliamentary Thought Police with himself at the head. (Note: I have had to quote Conacher for stories in the past, but have limited those interactions to narrow questions of ethics legislation rather than the breadth of topics that other rely on his analysis for, just as Anne Kingston does here). In other words, it’s the laziest possible journalist trick in Canada if you want to write a story that makes any government look bad, and you won’t get any meaningful analysis of the issue.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t questions that can be raised about Canada 2020’s cozy relationship with the Liberal Party – but I would say that it’s in all likelihood no more nefarious than the kinds of ideological alignment between something like the Fraser Institute and the Conservative Party, and it’s no more incestuous than the Broadbent Institute is with the NDP (to the point where Broadbent’s PressProgress “news” service is simply a branch of the party’s opposition research bureau).

Part of the problem is that political parties in Canada have looked south with this particular kind of envy about the think tank networks in Washington as something that should be emulated, without necessarily realizing that the American think tank network is intrinsically linked to the fact that their civil service is far more partisan than Canada’s, and that the usual cycle is for parties who aren’t in power to send their senior staffers to bide their time in said think tanks, and when they return to power, they fill their upper civil service ranks from those think tanks, while those who’ve lost power fill their own think tank ranks, and on it goes. That’s not how things work in Canada, and the need for said think tanks is not the same. There has also been talk from some partisans about how they need these think tanks to help them develop policies, as thought that wasn’t the job of the parties’ grassroots membership. So I do think we need to rethink the whole “think tank” system in Canada writ-large and what parties are expecting of them – especially when it comes to policy development – but I’m not sure that this story is doing that job.

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Roundup: A failure to communicate

The state of the “debate” around this latest round of tax nonsense in Canada has me despairing for the state of discourse in this country. From the CRA’s opaque memo, to the Conservatives’ disingenuous and frankly incendiary characterization, followed up by terrible government communications and attempts at damage control (Scott Brison doing the rounds on the political shows last night was painful to watch), and throughout it all, shoddy and inadequate reporting on the whole thing has me ready to cast a pox on all of their houses. If anything was more embarrassing than Brison’s inability to explain the issue while reciting well-worn talking points on the middle class, it was David Cochrane quoting the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and asking if MPs need to reconsider their own benefits in light of this.

Hermes wept.

It also wasn’t until yesterday that CTV came up with an actual good fact-check on the issue, what it actually relates to (including how it relates to a 2011 Tax Court decision), and how it’s not targeting the bulk of the retail sector. But that took days to get, during which time we’ve been assaulted by all manner of noise. News stories in the interim that interviewed MPs and the Retail Council of Canada were distinctly unhelpful because they did nothing to dissect the actual proposals, which were technical and difficult to parse, so instead of being informed about the issues, we got rhetoric, which just inflames things. And I get that it’s tough to get tax experts over a long weekend, but Lyndsay Tedds tweeted a bunch of things on it that should have pointed people in the right direction, rather than just being a stenographer for the Conservative hysteria/government “nothing to see here, yay Middle class!” talking points.

Here’s a look at how the government scrambled to get a better message out around the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in order to combat those same media narratives. Because apparently neither side is learning any lessons here.

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Roundup: Normalizing the system’s problems

On Monday night, I got into a bit of a Twitter argument over the issue of Manitoba MLA Steven Fletcher (former of the federal Conservatives) and his ouster from provincial Progressive Conservative caucus because he was *gasp!* doing the actual job of a backbencher and trying to hold the government to account, never mind that he’s a member of the governing party. It’s what he’s supposed to do, and he got punished for it. Why I gave the first punch in said Twitter fight was because of the notion that Fletcher should have shut up and been a good team player, because politics.

This devolved into a bit of tit-for-tat about which legislatures this occurs in, and despite providing Canadian examples, never mind the fact that this is actually the norm in the UK – the mother of our parliament – my dear opponent insisted that this is not the way things work in Canada.

And this irritates me. A lot. Because it’s washing our hands of the problems that have slowly crept into our country’s parliament and legislatures, and normalizes the bastardisations that have occurred over the years, usually under the rubric of “modernisation,” or “making things more democratic.” And the laws of unintended consequences being what they are, things get worse instead of better, and we now have very powerful party leaders in this country that have no accountability – something that should be anathema to a Westminster system.

Why should we be defending the current norms of party and leader-centred politics when it’s not the way our system is supposed to work, and in fact makes our system worse?

We are in an age where message control and leader-centred politics has reduced elected members to drones. We have very nearly reached the point where we could just replace our MPs with battle droids who could do just as effective a job of reading canned speeches into the record and voting the way the whip orders. Is this really the system that we want to normalise and defend? Or would we rather have elected officials who can think for themselves and do the proper job of accountability that the Westminster system is built on. I know which one I’d prefer.

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Roundup: Suspicions about political donations

The Star has a story that shows how a recently appointed judge made donations to the Liberal Party in the past couple of years – $1800 worth over the two fiscal years, in part by attending a fundraising dinner. And after it lays out all of his donations, the story leaves us with this: “It is not unusual for judicial appointees to have made political donations, nor does it break any rules.” Which makes me wonder why they’re making a) an issue out of it, and b) framing the story in such a way that it gives the impression that he bought his appointment, because that’s exactly what the headline screams. Emmett Macfarlane sees an issue, but I’m having a hard time buying it.

Part of my issue is the fact that we’re already at a crisis point in this country when it comes to grassroots democratic engagement, and this current media demonization of any political fundraising hurts that. The more we demand that anyone who has made donations be excluded from jobs, the worse we make the political ecosystem as a whole. Sure, once they’ve been appointed they shouldn’t make further donations – that’s fair. But the fact that he didn’t even make the maximum allowable donation over those two years, and the fact that the amount he’s donated is a couple of billable hours for him, is hardly worth getting exercised over. This isn’t America – we don’t have big money buying candidates here, nor do we have the spectre of elected judges that are entirely interested in getting re-elected. And, might I remind you, the previous government appointed Vic Toews and most of Peter MacKay’s wedding party to the bench, which seems far bigger of an ethical breach. The current government has reformed the judicial advisory committees to broaden the scope of who they’re considering, and considering how slowly the process is going, it’s not believable that they’re simply going through the party donor rolls to find a match. And while Macfarlane insists that it’s not about the dollar amount, but the perception of bias, I am very bothered by the way in which stories like this are framed adds to that perception. It’s driving the perception, not the other way around, and that is a problem when it comes to trying to fix the actual things that are breaking down about our democracy.

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Roundup: Brown’s creepy town hall

A story out of Brockville yesterday is a bit disconcerting, where local Conservative MP Gord Brown held a town hall in the community about the Omar Khadr settlement, saying that he wanted to get people’s views because everywhere he went, it was all people would ask about. He also claimed that it “wasn’t a partisan issue,” but I would be willing to bet actual money that the way in which Brown presented the case was through a deeply partisan lens, regurgitating the party’s disingenuous talking points and legal prevarications that distort the crux of the matter. And what disturbs me the most is that listening to the reactions in the write-up of the event, it starts sounding an awful lot like a Two Mintues Hate than anything, where people recited the completely wrong tropes about Khadr’s situation and situation as it regards the rule of law. It was at least heartening that a local lawyer turned up at the event, brandishing a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and laying down the law about why there was a settlement, and it’s quite the photo that ran with the piece – but I doubt that it would change very many minds, considering the distortions that are continually spread by the partisans (on all sides, to be completely fair, given that many a Liberal partisan conveniently forgets the roles that Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin played in this). Nevertheless, the fact remains that holding a town hall on this issue is deeply creepy.

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Roundup: The Canadian pathology meets Rolling Stone

Justin Trudeau was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine yesterday, which set off the Canadian Twitter sphere along its usual predictable paths. Journalists sniffed at the overly fawning tone of the piece (dismissing it as “political fan fiction”), while also pointing out the factual errors in the piece (apparently, Trudeau leads the “Liberty Party”) and ranking its cringe-worthy moments. The woke crowd railed about how Trudeau really isn’t progressive and how much of a terrible promise-breaking failure he is. And the Conservatives, predictably, acted with usual partisan disdain, so much that it strained credulity (Lisa Raitt in particular took the bizarre track of insisting that this was more damaging to coming NAFTA negotiations than her fellow MPs racing to American media outlets to decry the Khadr settlement). So, really, it was a fairly standard day of social media faux outrage.

This all having been said, the one thing that kept going through my head while this was all going on was just how perfectly this whole thing fit into the particular Canadian pathology of demanding approval from the Americans – especially when it comes to our artists or actors. Until they’ve decamped for the States and make it there, we largely tend to treat them with disdain, that they’re some kind of Podunk bush leaguers who obviously aren’t successful enough to have left Canada yet. And yet, the moment they do go to the States and make it big, we turn around and go all tall poppy syndrome on them and tear them apart for thinking that they’re better than us, and how dare they. And this whole Trudeau-Rolling Stone thing smacked of that entirely. The Americans are noticing him, so yay, we’re on the world stage, let’s mark the occasion by writing wire stories about the story and magazine cover, but how dare he seek the spotlight, and how dare they comment on his looks, and how dare they write a puff piece, etcetera, etcetera. Same pathology entirely. It’s boring, guys. Get a grip.

Meanwhile, here’s Robert Hiltz to throw some more cold water on the whole thing.

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890217322966904832

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890217785137274880

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890218700128874496

Trudeau, incidentally, also appeared on the West Wing Weekly podcast, and John Geddes dissects Trudeau’s responses and what they all portend.

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Roundup: A sudden demand for subsidies

Something that went largely unremarked yesterday was a somewhat bizarre press release that Andrew Scheer put out, bemoaning the lack of cellphone coverage in one region of Quebec, and then wondered why the government had all kind of money to spend on other things but not this, and then lumped it in with softwood lumber and Supply Management as a Quebec priority.

https://twitter.com/journo_dale/status/889841610665730048

While the fact that the Conservative leader was in essence demanding subsidized cellphone coverage in one particular region is strange in and of itself, it should be a reminder that this is no longer a party of actual fiscal conservatism – it’s a party of economic populism that just happens to chant about balanced budgets for the sake of it. To be certain, this is the first time I’ve seen cellphone coverage being listed as a top priority from Scheer or the Conservatives, and as many of my Twitter followers pointed out, there are plenty of places in this country with poor or non-existent coverage, especially along the TransCanada highway – somewhere one might expect that it might be some kind of national priority. But I’m also curious as to what exactly Scheer proposes to do about it that government deficits aren’t taking care of – language that seems to imply that they’re not simply going to demand that companies provide this coverage through regulatory means. Add to that, they were in power for almost a decade and did nothing about these kinds of coverage gaps, so it makes one wonder why it suddenly became a priority unless it just happens to be somewhere that Scheer is hoping to pick up some votes. Crass politicking? Perish the thought!

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Roundup: Divisions of Power at the Council

With the Council of the Federation meeting today in Edmonton, they had a pre-meeting yesterday with some Indigenous leaders – others having opted not to join because they objected to it being “segregated” from broader Council meeting. While I can certainly see their point that they want to be full partners at the table, I have to wonder if this isn’t problematic considering some of the issues that the Council has to deal with – NAFTA renegotiations, inter-provincial trade, marijuana regulations – things that don’t really concern First Nations but that premiers need to hammer out. Two groups did meet – the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (which generally deals with off-reserve and urban Indigenous Canadians) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, citing successful talks, while the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council stayed out of it.

While I’m sympathetic to these Indigenous groups’ desire to have full-fledged meetings with premiers, I’m not sure that the Council is the best place to do it, because they’re not an order of government so much as they’re sovereign organisations that have treaty relationships. While some of their concerns overlap, they don’t have the same constitutional division of powers as the provinces, so a meeting to work on those areas of governance can quickly be sidelined when meetings stay on the topics where areas do overlap with Indigenous groups, like health or child welfare, while issues like interprovincial trade or harmonizing regulations would get left at the sidelines as they’re not areas in which Indigenous governments have any particular constitutional stake. And yes, we need more formalized meetings between Indigenous leaders and premiers, I’m not sure that simply adding them to the Council achieves that, whereas having separate meetings – as was supposed to happen yesterday – would seem to be the ideal forum where they can focus on issues that concern them. Of course, I could be entirely wrong on this and missing something important, but right now, I’m struggling to see how the division of powers aligns in a meaningful way.

Oh, and BC won’t be at the Council table as NDP leader John Horgan is being sworn in as premier today, even though he could have scheduled that date earlier so that he could attend (seeing as this meeting has been planned for months).

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Roundup: A Northern SCC justice?

The government announced yesterday that they have begun the process for searching for the next Supreme Court of Canada justice, which it should be noted is almost record-breaking in how fast they got this particular process started, as normally it takes them six months to a year to get a process even started, by which time the vacancy has happened and terms need to be extended (which isn’t possible in this case). And while this is notable in and of itself, there was something else notable – that they are explicitly looking for a justice from either the West or the North.

Why this is important is because it seems to demonstrate that they learned their lesson from the previous SCC appointment process, when they toyed with finding a justice who was not from Atlantic Canada despite it being a traditionally Atlantic Canadian seat that was vacant, and there was some pretty big uproar which they tried to pooh-pooh with talking points about how some of those federalist notions were perhaps a bit archaic and they were trying to find a bilingual justice (which was difficult for that region, even more so if they were trying to find someone Indigenous or a person of colour). That will be less of a problem in the West, but the fact that they also mentioned the North is a bit curious.

As it stands, some territorial cases, particularly at the appeal level, are heard in courts in provinces like BC or sometimes Ontario, because there simply aren’t enough judges and infrastructure in place to do the job up North. And while it’s not necessary that one be a judge to get a Supreme Court nomination (they must be a member of the bar, but can come from private practice or even a law school), it is a bit peculiar that they have expanded their search in such a way. It is the first time that such a consideration has been made, which is no doubt part of this government’s constant attempts to pat themselves on the back, and their language about the “custom of regional representation” still sounds a bit like they’re making it out to be less of an important deal than it is, which is a problem because the principles of federalism are a pretty big deal given how this country works. I would say that it also raises the possibility of raising hackles in the West because it could open them up to accusations that they’re depriving the West of representation on the Court (the West typically has two seats, one of which is currently held by Justice Brown from Alberta, so no, Alberta has no room to raise a fuss), but one could imagine that BC would very well make an issue of it if they felt like it. Granted, if they do find someone from the North, it could provide some greater perspective on the Court – or it could simply be yet another reason for back-patting. We’ll find out in a few months’ time when the decision is made. (And for the record, the plan is to name the new Chief Justice after the vacancy is filled).

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