Anyone who follows my Twitter account may have noticed that it recently got its first rebrand in its existence. This is the result of my having taken over Andray Domise’s campaign for Ward 2.
From what I understand of running a campaign, it is usually inadvisable to publish your election strategy, but I feel that it is necessary to provide some clarity into our thought process as we continue to solicit donations. When we started this campaign, we were running against a field of unknown candidates. Doug Ford had committed not to run again and there was a rumour that Mikey Ford may join the race. Despite the lack of Fords in the race, we were upfront and clear with everyone we asked for support: We will most likely be running against a Ford.
Since Mikey’s candidacy materialized, we have worked hard to position ourselves as the natural front runner that the Fords will need to keep down. I am writing in part to thank every single person who has supported us thus far, be in through donations, volunteering, or simply helping to signal boost on social media. The response has been overwhelming and we can’t show our appreciation enough.
In politics, as any donor, volunteer, or supporter will know, the asks never end. We always need a little bit more. So before I ask again, I will do what I did at the beginning of the campaign and make clear the obstacle we are now facing: We’re running against Rob Ford.
Rob Ford is now out of the mayoral race. This is good news for those who look forward to a brighter future with a mayor willing to work with council, but it may be very bad news for the residents of Ward 2. For fourteen years, Etobicoke North has been run like a fiefdom by the Fords, who have stymied growth, denied service upgrades, a generally kept its residents dependent on their patronizing benevolence. Rob Ford has obviously developed a taste for being a politician and he’s not going to give it up.
Andray is currently working on some exciting policy platforms:
- Local bus loops designed to get people to their grocery stores and places of worship in a timely and dignified manner.
- Etobicoke is chronically under-served for youth services and we’re working to build a youth centre to support families and young people.
- Toronto is a leading world city in innovation and technology and we’re bridging partnerships with local businesses and non-profits to bring an innovation hub and the accompanying jobs and infrastructure to Rexdale.
- The collapse of the Woodbine Live project left a literally gaping whole in the ground and Andray intends to be the responsible city partner this area needs to see the benefits of development that have mostly skipped over Ward 2 entirely.
We have a plan and we’re asking for help to make it happen. We need people to canvass the neighbourhood, to make calls, to get our message out, and we need donations. But you have to know what you’re getting yourself into if you sign on. It means a race against Rob Ford.
Yesterday, Paul Wells wrote a column about Stephen Harper’s recent penchant for taking credit for the decline of separatism. This column, judging by Wells’ mentions on Twitter, appears to have annoyed more than a few Liberals. As a Liberal myself, though neither senior nor anonymous, I would like to extend a Liberal olive branch towards Wells. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the article was excellent and exactly the kind of piece we should want to see more of in the public discourse. On top of being a worthwhile piece in its own right, the piece is also valuable from a Liberal perspective for its analysis of Quebec.
Wells mentions explicitly and more than once that Harper taking credit for separatism’s decline is a counter-intuitive assertion. It is not a controversial statement to suggest that Canadian political media is rather consensus-driven, with each journalist either trying to define themselves as the prophet of the current consensus (say Peter Newman on the death of the Liberal Party), in opposition to the consensus (Ezra Levant’s ridiculous “media party” attacks), or, somehow, both (John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker in The Big Shift). Wells’ thought experiment doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories and I’m willing to give full credit to Wells for what I can only assume is a glibly self-conscious nod to Ibbitson and Bricker when he mentions their pet term, the “Laurentian elite”. I read this less as an endorsement of their nonsensical phrase and more as a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of how out of place his analysis is in our current political conversation. There is very little room for serious political thinking for its own sake. That Wells has done just that is certainly laudable.
Beyond Wells’ piece as an interesting contribution to a wonky discussion, the piece is also an interesting attack on a self-perceived Liberal strength. Personally, I was impressed by Justin Trudeau for helping out in the Quebec election, not simply because working against a separatist party is a good in itself (from a national unity perspective), but because it was easy to argue that he was working against his own electoral self-interest. Liberals are perceived as strong on the national unity front and Trudeau working against the separatist parties takes away that electoral boogeyman. Rather than being able to tell the ROC that Trudeau would be the only one able to keep the country together, the Liberals now have to win on their own merits. Wells’ piece challenges that logic in two ways – first, whether, they deserve that reputation, and second, whether the Liberals would be wise to do so. On the first point, I have no intention of minimizing the contribution to our federation made by our Liberal forbearers, but I think the second point is a much more interesting debate.
Going into the next federal election, the Liberals will need to prove that they are the natural alternative to Stephen Harper’s governing Conservatives. While a big part of that will involve working against the Conservatives, the age old wisdom is that governments defeat themselves. If that logic holds, the Liberals big task, beyond working against the Conservatives, will be jockeying for position with the NDP. There is an argument to be made that the NDP is the most separatist federal party ever – they oppose the Clarity Act, they have committed to reopen the Constitution (since that is what would be required to get rid of the Senate), they have committed to get Quebec’s signature on the Constitution if it’s ever opened, and, worst of all, they could form government (unlike the Bloc!). The NDP, with a little analysis, could be presented as a walking Constitutional crisis. The question becomes whether that is an argument worth making.
Harper’s approach to separatism has been akin to The Simpsons’ when the ads came to life in The Treehouse of Horrors: just don’t look. Whether or not you credit Harper for the decline of separatism at both levels, Wells’ point is valid – it looks like it’s working. Only history will show whether Harper has been successful in this regard, but Quebec may now be a province that makes its demands like any other – by voting for its MPs rather than on sovereignty. Liberals have learned a lot in the past eight years about what parts of our party need to be left in the 80s and 90s, and our tactics regarding separatism may well be one of them. We should be very careful to write off Wells’ analysis, lest we open a wound that is finally beginning to heal.
The Senate, a favorite fundraising punching bag for both the NDP and the Conservatives, is back in the news. This time, rather than an expense scandal or an unearned patronage or just general senatorial bad behaviour, the Senate is in the news for what seems like a rather innocuous reason: it’s starting to empty out. The debate now is whether Harper is constitutionally required to appoint Senators since, according to Rosemary Barton, the PMO has said “that as long as the Senate continues to be able to deal with government legislation there is no plan to fill any of those seats”. While most would consider an arcane constitutional discussion relatively mild in comparison to the drama that has played out in the Upper House until recently, I would argue that this is in fact much worse. Rather than our Government showing us that a lesson has been learned from their last mess, all of the conditions that lead to the Senate Scandal are being repeated, almost exactly, despite the benefit of hindsight.
Aside from a cavalier attitude towards public monies and what one assumes is a fraternal bond among criminals, what Duffy, Wallin, and Brazeau have in common is that they were all appointed to the Senate at the beginning of January 2009. If we recall, at that point, the opposition parties were in the process of organizing themselves into a coalition to bring down the Government. As many people have pointed out since then, Harper was in real danger of losing his status as Prime Minister and, as a consequence, his ability to appoint Senators. Even though this democratically legitimate coalition did not come to govern, the possibility at the time was very real. At the same time, Harper was playing the same game he is now, letting vacancies in the Senate accumulate showing off his Reform roots to pander to a specific segment of his base. The problem became, that if he lost Government, the next PM would likely be able to take back the Senate quickly by filling those vacancies. According to Mark Kennedy, “Harper feared a Liberal-NDP coalition would stack dozens of vacant Senate seats with his political foes.” As a result, Harper appointed a whole slate of Senators to prevent a hypothetical Prime Minister Dion from doing so after assuming the PM’s mantle. Skip ahead a few years and you have the main players in the Senate scandal. It is not a stretch to argue that in the rush to have them appointed, these incoming Senators faced less than adequate vetting.
All of these conditions – Senate vacancies, the possibility of the balance of power changing, rushed appointments – are being repeated. Even if the Liberals weren’t out-polling the Tories, the results of an election are never preordained. There is a real possibility Harper will not be our Prime Minister within the next year and a half, give or take. If that is to happen and the Senate vacuum still exists, we’re left with two possibilities: either Harper will leave dozens of empty Senate seats for his successor to fill or we’ll see a repeat of January 2009. Because we’re in what could be a constitutionally untenable situation, we have only Harper’s past behaviour to go on to evaluate which situation seems more likely.
There are good, honest, hardworking, and intelligent people in the Conservative Party of Canada. Harper has the time, the resources, and the mandate to empower them to serve their country in the Senate. As experts much more qualified than I have argued, he probably has the responsibility to do so as well. But on a practical level, Senate appointments are a tangible and visible part of the legacy of a Prime Minister’s time in office. The Senate scandal has been a glimpse into what Harper’s legacy could have been if he had stepped down in 2009. These new vacancies will be filled and, in all likelihood, they will be filled by Harper. It is not a matter of “if” it is a matter of “how”. And that “how” will be, for better or worse, a part of the legacy of Harper’s time in office.
Matt Gurney has an interesting piece (with an excellent URL) in the National Post regarding Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais’ letter to NDP MP Charmaine Borg. Gurney suggests that the letter was not misogynistic, as the NDP claim, and that the NDP’s reaction itself is the real problem. I would argue that misogyny is not always as obvious as Gurney would like it to be and that his column reinforces some unfortunate myths regarding calling out systematic discrimination.
This exchange was not “an opportunity for a female MP to take on a well-established (male) politician and fight for what she believes in on an equal footing.” Certainly Borg had the opportunity to take on a male politician, but to claim it was on an equal footing ignores not only the systematic gender discrimination at play in our political conversation, it ignores the fact that a Senator, from the governing party who will never have to face the electorate again, making off-side remarks is much more powerful than a first term MP without critic portfolio.
Gurney suggests that the letter was “insulting, rude, over the top and uncalled for” but not misogyny, which “is defined as ‘a hatred of women.’” Hatred, as defined in that same dictionary is either “a very strong feeling of dislike” or “prejudiced hostility or animosity.” Judging by the NDP’s reaction, we could then reasonably infer their meaning as “prejudiced hostility or animosity towards women” without violating the dictionary definition. Moreover, neither definition includes any reference to intentionality or deliberateness, so it’s clear that hatred, and therefore misogyny, can be expressed unconsciously. Gurney has already established the hostility and animosity within that definition, so our task remains to establish that Dagenais’ remarks were prejudiced and directed towards women more generally than at Borg specifically.
The NDP is often praised for having the most female MPs by percentage out of any party in the current Parliament (and for scoring top marks for diversity generally among their current MPs), but the sad truth of the matter is that all parties nominate minority candidates in ridings that they don’t expect to win. This is why, in the same list I just cited, the reduced Liberal caucus scored the lowest marks for diversity: the safest ridings are most often given to white men. Dagenais, in his remarks, suggested that Borg was only elected because of Jack Layton, and that she would not have been elected otherwise. This comment, according to popular wisdom, would be correct; she ran in a sacrificial riding and won, like most of her Quebecois colleagues, male or female, because of Layton’s surging popularity. Ridings like Trinity-Spadina in 2008 and Toronto Centre in 2013, where two competent, qualified women both have excellent shots at winning get to battle it out on their own merits are unfortunate rarities. Dagenais’ comments attacked a woman on the basis of systematic discrimination against women. Without digressing into systematic ways in which women are excluded from the political conversation, or the fact that he thought he could get away with an attack that was “uncalled for” on a woman, using prejudice against women to attack a woman is misogynistic.
Now, whether we agree or not that Dagenais’ comments were misogynistic, the most troubling part of Gurney’s article was when he stated that:
Accusing Sen. Dagenais of misogyny is like calling someone racist or homophobic. It is a very serious allegation that Ms. Borg and Mr. Cullen have made, and it is not even remotely supported by the evidence. He probably has grounds for legal action (though, for optics, he should probably hire a female lawyer, and praise her effusively in public).
I am a white straight man. Calling me racist, or homophobic, or misogynistic is not grounds for legal action, nor is it really an insult; it’s suggesting that I made a (grave) mistake. None of these words imply that your prejudices are intentional; in fact, it implies the opposite because even the most die-hard bigots at least think they are in the right. We collectively have to come to the understanding that even with the best of intentions, we can be bigoted. Even if Dagenais made his comments without the slightest trace of malice, he is responsible for the context into which they intervene. This logic is already at place in Gurney’s piece when he suggests Cullen’s intervention was itself almost “paternalistic.” Gurney correctly identifies that Cullen’s best intentions are not a defense against a sexist misstep.
(Though in this case, I would argue Cullen was completely in the right. I’d rather have my House Leader taking on Senators than my backbenchers.)
To conclude with a remark on Gurney’s conclusion: it is neither the NDP’s, nor Borg’s responsibility to speak for women, nor do I think they would claim so. Moreover, it is not “unbecoming” to call out a colleague on their sexist behaviour, nor is it victim-crying to suggest that sexism undermines our female MPs’ abilities to do their jobs.
Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Scott Reid has an interesting piece on shame as it relates to the current degraded state of Canadian politics. His observations are apt, but I believe that further context is required to discuss shame as it relates to our contemporary political situation. I would argue that shame is primarily the responsibility, not of politicians, but of voters.
Reid states that “we need to restore shame to its central and valued place in our politics. Because shame works. And without it, not much else can.” He is correct in his argument that shame is a central mechanism of the functioning of our democracy, or in fact any democracy, because a shared sense of values are a necessary basis for any political consensus. At its core, any political system relies on the good will of its citizens (whether voluntarily given, e.g. in a democracy, or coerced, e.g. in a dictatorship). But I would argue shame still plays a central role in the functioning of our democracy and in our elections. It’s not that shame has gone away, or that there has been a “deliberate and gradual extinction of shame” from our political conversation; rather, shame is something that voters experience as opposed to politicians. We are responsible for the people that we trust enough to elect, and when they abuse that trust it is us, as voters, who should feel ashamed. When politicians resign in shame, it is for abusing that trust. They may feel ashamed for their actions, but the act of resigning is to spare us further shame.
I would argue two factors make this less common: hyper-partisanship and the move away from voter responsibility. In the first case, as politics becomes more and more partisan, we identify more strongly with politicians who share our partisan affiliations, and therefore are less likely to view their actions as shameful. In the second case, since we have been taught more and more to expect politicians to do things for us, rather than on our behalf, we feel less and less responsible for their actions, and therefore, less likely to be ashamed of ourselves (and thus them). Ironically, telling politicians that they should be ashamed, rather than voters, is likely only to exacerbate the problem, rather than alleviate it, because it is only perceived as an attack on the tribe.
It is only when both of these are overcome that shame can function in contemporary politics. As an example, I’d point to the 2008 election in the United States, where even Republicans were campaigning against George Bush. They were ashamed. Republican voters were ashamed. In the following midterm, Democrats were ashamed of having squandered their power, and they lost. Likewise in Canada, after the Sponsorship Scandal, Liberals were ashamed of their party and their leadership. When conservative voters finally abandon Harper, it will likely be out of shame as well. Personal shame. Rather than tell Rob Ford he should be ashamed, we should be asking Ford Nation if this is who they want representing them.
If we want to combat this growing lack of shamelessness of our politicians, we need only to look in the mirror (partisans especially). We are responsible for the politicians we elect and they will only improve if we demand it. If we want to change the system we can’t be so afraid to blame voters that we absolve them of any responsibility whatsoever.
Leading up the next election, Senate reform is shaping up to become a key issue. Between housing allowance scandals and criminal charges, no serious party can assemble a platform without a Senate-related policy. Unfortunately, it is precisely these types of conditions that lead to knee-jerk reactions, unworkable solutions, and broken promises. With the three main parties shaping up to represent some version of each of elections, abolition, or minor changes to the status quo, opting for the latter carries with it the inherit risk of being branded “tired”, “corrupt”, and worse. It is only by reviewing the redeemable qualities of the current Senate, while keeping in mind democratic and related practical objections, that we can come to a workable model and a policy that we can take into the next election. I will argue that party affiliations have no place in an appointed body and that removing them from the Senate seems to be neither dramatic, nor difficult to achieve, and is the best expression of the democratic potential of the Upper House.
Objections to an elected Senate are well-worn ground. If senators were elected with a democratic mandate, they would feel empowered to weigh in on every single piece of legislation, and not just for reasons of sober second thought, but for partisan reasons as well. If they were elected and then circumvented, as is the current power of the Commons, the outcry would be both loud and justified. An elected Senate would encourage deadlock or require usurpation; both are undesirable. That said the Senate is an extremely powerful partisan body that’s current incarnation, a group of partisan operatives drawing a public salary while electioneering, is all but impossible to defend. Refuting elections thus seems to lead naturally into the argument for abolition.
If reasons of democracy demand we abolish the Senate, however, they can paradoxically justify its existence as well. Any democracy is built on a series of checks and balances. The House of Commons is incredibly powerful and, as a result of party discipline, a great deal of that power is concentrated in the Prime Minister. A plurality of voters elected Stephen Harper, and, if we believe the polls, a plurality of voters could elect Justin Trudeau. But speaking as a supporter of the latter, I know that there are people who are more comfortable with the idea of voting for him because his powers will be less than absolute. Our current government has drafted legislation whose effects were not studied by Parliament (or even completely known to them) which is why our leaders get elected with the understanding that there will be checks on their power, of which the Senate is an example. The democratic legitimacy of these checks flows from the fact that they were in place when, and a condition under which, we elected our current government. This means that rather than regarding the feasibility of an idea or course of action as an outside factor when considering whether a decision is democratic, it must be considered as part of our political calculation because of the very democratic necessity of checks and balances.
Each election is a double reaffirmation of our system; first, because it is a condition that leads to our voting for the current government, and second, because we can change any individual part therein with sufficient political will. So when Andrew Coyne argues against the Senate by opposing it to the Supreme Court, which he argues is legitimate because they are “restricted to comparing one piece of legislation, the law in question, with another: the constitution [, and b]oth were passed by democratic legislatures”, the Senate is legitimated by the same process but in reverse: those same democratic legislatures (Parliament and the provinces) have within them the power to abolish the Senate but have not done so. The Senate, as it exists, is democratic. The only question is whether it is likely to remain so in going into the next election.
Since democratic and political reasons are interchangeable with practical reasons when considering elections or abolition, it bears mentioning as well: either would be extremely difficult to undertake. This is where thoughtful, meaningful reform comes in. In a recent piece in the Star, former MPP Greg Sorbara suggested a potential Liberal vision for reform that “would require no new legislation” and “could be accomplished by a thorough rewriting of the standing orders that govern the operation of the Senate along with the elimination of the public funds that support the caucus structure within the Senate.”
When our opposing options require opening the Constitution and unanimous consent of the provinces, how feasible your plan is becomes a key democratic concern. Sorbara’s plan is two-pronged: reform the appointment process, and remove party designations from senators. I would argue the first point is taken care of by the second: taking the decision out of the Prime Minister’s hands to ensure non-partisan appointments is to me, unnecessary. The Prime Minister already appoints the Governor General and the Supreme Court; the trust is already there to make non-partisan appointments as necessary. Moreover, the Senate already has a moderating effect on its members; one can only assume this would be more so if parties were abolished there, as a convention was established that demanded non-partisanship. So, ignoring the first part of his proposal as redundant, the second part is much more attractive:
No longer would senators sit as members of one political caucus or another. All 104 would be independent members. There would be no government leader of the Senate, no opposition leader. No more “whipping” senators into lock-stepping. Senators would not be permitted to attend or participate in the party caucuses of the House of Commons even if they choose to maintain a personal political affiliation.
To me, this is an apt description of sobriety. It also doesn’t preclude further reformations undertaken later on. To test this proposal, let’s return to Andrew Coyne. Where I do agree with Coyne is when he defends appointments, for some positions, by comparing senators to judges:
Judges train in the law for many years, and are selected for their impartiality. Senators may have no training whatever, and are selected for their partisanship.
Here we have ground that we can work with; appointments are acceptable under certain circumstances. On the lack of training, I’ll refer to my standard answer during the Liberal leadership, when Garneau was attempting to frame the contest as a squaring off of résumés: there is no résumé in the world that automatically qualifies you to be a legislator. There is nothing that objectively prepares you to accept the highest calling of representing the will of the people. Any suggested qualification would have to be subjective, unfortunately; this is why the criterion most often bandied about is “eminence” (a criterion, I might add, that is perfectly acceptable and effective for choosing our Governor General). On his second point, impartiality, I could not agree more.
We witnessed what was worth saving of our Senate in the impressive display put on by Conservative senators, gutting Bill C-377 and sending it back to the House of Commons. Love or hate the Senate, abolish, reform, or improve, we’re united in our surprise at a group of senators acting against their own partisan interests in a political climate where doing so is a minor miracle. This is the embodiment of sober second thought; so, for the sake of sobriety, let’s abolish parties in the Upper House.
I can’t help but look at the electoral reform plans put forward by Andrew Coyne and Joyce Murray and wonder what they’re thinking. Cooperating to win power to enact electoral reform is a huge suggestion that has very clearly not been properly thought through by either of them. By framing cooperation as an electoral reform issue, rather than simply as a method for replacing the Harper government, these plans are not only misguided but they actually weaken both of the positions that they appear to advance.
Coyne states, regarding the Conservatives, that: “the longer they stay in power, the more opportunity they will have to change the rules to their advantage, and the harder it will be for any opposition party to dislodge them.” Looking back, at the Conservative record, this is true; whenever they’re given the opportunity to change the rules to benefit themselves – like when they reduced the cap on individual political contributions, or when they eliminated the per vote subsidy – they take it. But this is precisely why we must not follow Coyne’s plan: because it follows the Conservative pattern exactly. Instead, we need to break the cycle of each party changing the rules to entrench themselves once they take power. If anything, following suit legitimizes what the conservatives are doing. We can’t change the rules as a way of crying foul because somebody else changed the rules.
My concerns with Coyne’s plan are the ethical issues that surround such an idea, which he skates over quite quickly in establishing his case. He writes:
It will be objected that much of this is merely an expression of the parties’ self interest, or more charitably that their principles show a remarkable tendency to align with their self-interest: under proportional representation the Greens would win many more seats than the one they have now, as until recently would the NDP, while the alternative vote tends to favour middle of the road parties like the Liberals. Fair enough. I happen to think these are also useful reforms in the public interest. But it is to those parties’ supporters I address myself here: to their self-interest as much as their ideals.
This is not a point that can be skirted, it must be addressed directly: I can think of nothing worse than changing the rules of a game with the express intention of handicapping one participant. The subject of electoral reform has attracted many intelligent, thoughtful people to discuss its merits; perverting it into another partisan ploy will undo all of that effort if, as we’re claiming to improve the system, we are seen to be penalizing the Tories. If electoral reform comes to Canada it must be at the insistence of Canadians, through a referendum, or with the cooperation of all parties. The idea of explicitly excluding the Conservatives from the process of reform cannot be condemned in harsh enough terms; that we might even consider at all it is a damning indictment of our political conversation.
Aaron Wherry does a very good job, in Maclean’s, dealing with the logistical issues with the Coyne/Murray plan, but even if it’s practically untenable, its proponents will still tout it as a plan that is sound in theory. It’s not enough that this plan will never be enacted, we need to put to rest the notion that electoral reform can solve petty, temporary problems. Suggesting that we undertake electoral reform with an explicitly partisan intent is to taint the very foundation of our democracy.
The conversation about rebuilding the Liberal party has been dominated by two different narratives. The first is that there is no shortcut to power and that a sustained renewal will take modesty, hard work, and time, rather than just a new leader and more divisive partisanship. The second is that while we have to pay lip service to the first position, Harper has forced our politics into a presidential mode; since people voted for Harper or “Jack”, we can do nothing without a name of equal measure to put on the ballot. That second position, one which I have generally favoured, took a beating yesterday with the allegations surrounding the attempted recruitment of Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney. This is a bad situation so we should take this as an opportunity to redefine our rebuilding conversation so that something like this does not happen again.
I can understand, completely, the impulse to recruit Carney; from the Globe piece on the subject: “Mark Carney was cast as the perfect alternative to Justin Trudeau.” He is a substantial figure, trusted nationally and internationally, and he covered just about every flank the Liberal party needed shored up with his combination of Western roots, fiscal credentials, and charisma and likeability. Even better than his impressive résumé is the trust that he inspired in Canadians. In a relatively recent piece by Andrew Coyne, titled In Canada, credibility trumps power. And it isn’t even close, he writes that people trust Carney in a way that they wouldn’t trust a Prime Minister. This trust is “partly personal, partly institutional” and it means that we recognize Carney as a man of principle who puts public service above his own interests. And, much of this is true; Canadians do have a high opinion of Carney, likely much higher than their opinion of Harper, making him a very attractive candidate for leader (on paper). The problem that his Liberal boosters didn’t seem to consider was how fragile that trust could turn out to be.
Partisan politics has become very ugly and with that has come a need to keep certain institutions above the fray. The courts, the Governor General, the Bank of Canada; all of these need to be kept beyond reproach for our political conversation to function. And while our history has been by no means perfect when it comes to keeping these institutions non-partisan, generally they function as such and enjoy the credibility that Andrew Coyne outlined. It is difficult to overstate how bad a politicized Bank of Canada could have been and so after the piece in the Globe ran, the reactions were predictably strong. One of the best was the sustained (but completely lucid) outrage from Mike Moffatt on Twitter:
Why central bank independence is important. Carney, IMO, has been too tight with policy. Honest mistake or is he trying to sabotage the CPC?
— Mike Moffatt (@MikePMoffatt) December 15, 2012
If I’m the NDP, I’m questioning how non-partisan Carney’s Dutch Disease comments were.
— Mike Moffatt (@MikePMoffatt) December 15, 2012
We’ve seen what happens when monetary policy is used for partisan ends.It’s a disaster.As such needs to be avoided at all costs.
— Mike Moffatt (@MikePMoffatt) December 15, 2012
I know the LPC want to reform, but trying to become like the sleazier parts of the Nixon Administration is not a great direction.
— Mike Moffatt (@MikePMoffatt) December 15, 2012
It’s important to include the last point, the Nixon comparison, because of just how damning that accusation could have been. Stephen Gordon, writing in Maclean’s, took a similar position to Moffatt’s about the damage this could do, saying flatly, “if we are extremely lucky, this episode will be quickly forgotten.” To be clear here, I think this is the most likely outcome; Canadians seem to be forgiving about attempted shenanigans and I predict the response generally will be “no harm, no foul.” So I’m speaking to Liberals when I say we need to accept and understand just how bad this could have been. We’re reacting here to the possibility of a recruitment; an actual recruitment could have been a disaster.
From the Globe article, Carney is alleged to have be Frank McKenna’s choice for leader. That needs to sink in because that means we’re talking about the Messiah’s Messiah. But instead of the second coming, we’re left with pre-made attacks from both sides just waiting for him. Rather than a new direction with a Liberal saviour, there would be a direct link that could be made between him and every sin of which the Liberal party has ever been accused. In context, an attempt to rise above the ugliness of partisan politics may have succeeded only at tarring another good man with the same ugly brush. And this is the lesson: there’s no rising above it.
As much as I hate to see the Liberal party pulled through the mud on account of some “unnamed senior Liberals” (again), on balance, I would say the controversy that is emerging around the party’s failed recruitment of Mark Carney gives us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. We are not going to get past the leader-driven reality of our political conversation but we also can’t short-circuit it; credibility is not all that transferable. There is no eminent Canadian, beyond reproach, who can step forward and lead us back to the promised land. They will get pulled down into it. That’s why, if Carney is the anti-Trudeau, I support Justin Trudeau now more than ever. Our only hope is a fighter who can get in the mud and get dirty, clashing with the other parties, who at the end of the day will remember their principles after they win. That, right now, is the best we can offer Canadians.
This is the counter-intuitive lesson of this whole experience: if we want to be non-partisan, we have to be partisan first. If we want peace and electoral reform and cooperation, we have to fight for it first. The Liberal party is full of good people, passionate about their ideals, who want to do good for this country, but so are the other parties. We’ll keep having these kinds of problems, as long as we keep pretending.
We’re not above partisanship.
In early 2011, Justin Trudeau got himself into trouble by denouncing the use of the word “barbaric” in the citizenship guide, something he had also done in 2009 when it was added. This time, however, under pressure from always effective right/left team of the NDP and the Conservative party, Mr. Trudeau apologized and was forced to retract his remark. According to then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff: “If you want to use the word barbaric, use the word barbaric. Mr. Trudeau has already made a statement about that so the matter is closed.” And yet, here we are entering the race to replace Mr. Ignatieff over a year and a half later and we’re treated to the following from Andrew Coyne:
We don’t know a great deal about [Trudeau’s] character or judgment — though what glimpses we have been given raise doubts about both: his bizarre objections to a government document’s description of female genital mutilation as a “barbaric” practice; his scatology in Parliament; his musings that a Canada led by Stephen Harper might cause him to support the separation of Quebec, and his petulant performance when called out on it.
Leaving aside Trudeau’s separatism (which I will return to in a later piece), perhaps, with respect to Mr. Ignatieff, the “barbaric” matter is not fully closed. There are those of us who supported his remarks when he made them and continue to support them now; speaking on my own behalf, Trudeau’s retraction was to me, an offer of truce rather than an admission of fault. This government has proven itself, time and time again, completely and intentionally incapable of understanding nuance; Trudeau gave up trying to engage this government at the intellectual level required for this debate and relented. If this truce is not going to be respected, however, it becomes necessary to explain exactly why the use of the word “barbaric” in a Canadian citizenship guide is wholly unacceptable.
The offending line:
Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence.
Allowing myself to wade into the same “semiotic weeds” that Trudeau found himself in, I’m going to address the problems with this section in two parts: the structure of the passage and the word itself.
Rather than saying simply “female genital mutilation is barbaric”, as it has been implied, they structure this line in a much more problematic way. We are condemning “barbaric cultural practices that tolerate” violence against women, rather than practices that are violence against women. It is not the commission of those crimes that is forbidden in this sentence, but the tolerance of them. This is no less than the intentional indictment of an entire culture; in fact, because of the structure of the sentence, it cannot be claimed that “barbaric” here is used simply as a pejorative version of the word “cruel” (or, as in Trudeau’s comments “absolutely unacceptable”) because it is specifically making a judgement about the culture and its practices, rather than the crimes themselves. It is the culture that tolerates the violence and it is the culture the “neutral” citizenship guide is condemning.
Regarding the word itself, “barbaric” is obviously a loaded term but it’s worth exploring why. Just like “cold” cannot be defined except as the absence of “heat”, “barbaric” cannot be defined without a “civilized” reference point. Trying to pretend that Canada is the civilized referent when determining one’s achievement and levels of sophistication when it comes to women’s rights and violence against women is setting the bar too low. It bears repeating that ours is the government responsible for the maternal health initiative designed to reduce women abroad to a function of their biology and to deny them safe abortions. Even ignoring overt examples of discrimination, Canadian women still face so many examples of passive sexism in their daily lives that our culture tolerates. But, with the choice available of any word (abhorrent, cruel, etc.) they settle on barbaric, insisting on setting themselves up as the standard. Canada, even more broadly than the Harper Government, should be sufficiently cognizant of its own failings on women’s rights to avoid the implication that it is the civilized opposite of those barbarians.
Overall, this sentence positions Canada as a magnanimous, civilized nation warning the savages who wish to pollute our country with their barbaric culture that they will not be welcomed here. This sentence needs to be changed, first to condemn the acts, properly, rather than the culture and second to stop pretending that we have nothing to be ashamed of.
Canada’s openness and acceptance do not extend to cruel cultural practices like spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence.
In all of this, it’s easy to forget that the real issue is violence against women. Ironically, overshadowed in all of this was Trudeau’s plea that the government “introduce a national strategy to combat violence against women.” That he can do so without the racism and self-aggrandizement displayed by our government certainly tells me something about his character and judgment.
Despite Stephen Harper’s insistence that he had no intention of reopening the abortion debate, he signed the nomination papers of someone who did. Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth sponsored Motion 312 to study when a human life begins; though innocuous sounding enough, M-312 was a kind of dog whistle, bringing out troops on all sides of the debate, ready with their usual rhetoric. As I see it, in this debate, there are three main parties: the social conservatives, eager to finally achieve this legislative Holy Grail, their opponents, who declare the debate closed and settled, and (what I’ll call) the moderators, generally against restrictions on a women’s freedoms in practice but in theory open to debate. Why this debate keeps being reopened seems, with glaring obviousness, to be the fault of the social conservatives but I would argue that this is not the case. I believe, in their desire to be fair and balanced, it is the fault of the moderators that we have not been able to bring this argument to a close.
Quickly surveying the conversation in the Twitter echo chamber, various prominent and generally neutral political commentators and watchers have aligned themselves with the view that this debate should be open for debate. None more so than Andrew Coyne, who spent the better part of the evening of the vote on M-312 tweeting in frustration, mentioning his articles on the subject from Maclean’s and the National Post.
Overall Coyne’s point is that we should be having the debate so that we can finally settle the issue. On this, we agree. Settling the debate would avoid situations like Harper’s maternal health initiative, which defunded abortions abroad. Because the debate is not completely settled in Canada, Harper was able to deny women abroad access to what is often lifesaving medical services.
Where Coyne loses me is the way that he frames how we should be having the debate. If order to have this debate, it must be framed in such a way to put the moral argument that social conservatives make on a continuum with the more pragmatic position that their opponents take. The way Coyne presents the argument is helpfully summed up in his National Post piece in four points (which I have numbered):
Any honest defence of the status quo must concede:
 that whatever its merits, the status quo — abortion on demand at any stage of the pregnancy — is at one end of the possible legal regimens surrounding abortion, with absolute prohibition at the other. That is, it is objectively extreme.
 that it is the result neither of any judgment of the Supreme Court nor the decision of any elected legislature. In fact, the House of Commons accepted the court’s invitation to redraft the law and, after two years of debate, passed one. It died by a tie vote of the Senate.
 that the legal vacuum that prevails in Canada is unique in the democratic world. Every other democratic country imposes some conditions on the right to abortion, with greater restrictions in the later stages of pregnancy.
 that polls have consistently shown the Canadian public is divided over the question, with the largest proportion somewhere between the two extremes.
I will address each argument in turn.
Coyne’s first argument has two parts: first, that our law is objectively extreme and second, that it is counterbalanced by absolute prohibition as its opposite. The appeal to objectivity and reason is, in my opinion, disingenuous (especially since he expects us to concede this point before we can defend the status quo) and it crumbles under the simplest of logical scrutiny. To be glib, by his measure, our laws regarding breathing are objectively extreme since there is no restriction whatsoever on the practice. Likewise with theft, murder and so on; each of these laws would be deemed extreme, in one direction or the other. Glibness aside, the Canadian laws regarding abortion are not extreme, they are simply as far in one direction as any country is currently willing to go. This is an important distinction; absolute prohibition leads to back alley abortions and the deaths of pregnant women so an equally extreme position would be, say, allowing anyone to perform an abortion at any time. Since the procedure must be performed in a regulated medical environment by trained medical professionals, there are clearly some regulations in place.
Claiming that the status quo is extreme is a rhetorical trick to muddle the meaning of the word ‘extreme’ so that it can no longer be used as an effective weapon against those in favour of absolute prohibition. If we accept that both sides are being extreme, we simply need to calm down and have a rational debate. This argument is an accepted narrative that has to be presupposed for the current debate to happen in the first place. This is why it is so dangerous; if we concede to have a debate on these terms, we concede the debate in advance.
It’s important here to note, because Coyne uses the word ‘extreme’ as a covert way to denounce the status quo; in his plea for moderation, he is implicitly supporting some restrictions on abortions. Deploying the word ‘objectively’ as he does is making an argument in itself (which further cheapens his use of the word).
For his second argument, Coyne appeals to the higher ideals of our democracy. Love the status quo or not, surely we must concede that the method by which it was reached is unbecoming of a country such as ours. It was never properly codified in law and was reached by an accident of the Senate. That it was the Senate that led us here is particularly odious to Coyne; he goes out of his way to mention that this was “the non-decision of an un-democratic [house]” (Maclean’s).
Coyne’s error here is two fold: first, that the method by which it was achieved is undemocratic and second, that we have arrived here by accident. A law was struck down by the Supreme Court and no law has ever managed to take its place. At a glance, this would seem to be a problem, as if it had happened by neglect. But Coyne, explaining the history at length in Maclean’s, makes it very clear that this is not the case; the Mulroney government made several attempts to put in a law and subsequent governments made their positions clear when they faced voters. That Mulroney was unable to get a law passed is not a failure of democracy, it is a victory of our checks and balances. It’s not as if they couldn’t have tried again if a law was so necessary and the support for it overwhelming. On the subject of Liberals demonizing their rightwing opponents for their pro-life positions, surely we can recognize that, even if Liberals were being dishonest by casting themselves as the defenders of the status quo (as Coyne in Maclean’s implies), gaining votes for doing so should be considered support for the status quo. Every party to get elected after 1988 campaigned on maintaining the status quo; if this is not enough to consider it deliberate and democratic, I’m not sure how else we can prove it.
In the framing of his second point, Coyne privileges the Supreme Court over the Senate, allowing his personal bias to cloud his argument. Claiming that the status quo is somehow not valid because the Senate itself is undemocratic is an argument that could be applied to any law, passed or not. Coyne has made himself clear that he is in favour of reforming the Senate several times but trying to apply this to specific arguments is absurd.
Here Coyne mentions that Canada is unique in having a legal void where an abortion law might sit. Why we should take seriously the “everyone else is doing it” argument is not made clear (e.g. someone had to be the first to ban slavery etc.). He takes care to mention that other countries generally restrict abortion more as a pregnancy progresses and, in his Maclean’s article, mentions that opponents of the status quo are right to point out that, in Canada, abortion is legal at all stages of a pregnancy. He is alluding here to the fact that in Canada, late term abortions are technically legal, which allows for the hypothetical potential for viable, healthy fetuses to be terminated. Ignoring the fact that this is a solution looking for a problem, that is a policy issue and one that we can’t get to until we stop having the debate in this way.
Coyne saves his best point for last: opinion on the matter is divided. Polling shows quite regularly that a great deal of people would be open to a law that restricted abortions in certain cases. This is a difficult assertion to address directly, except to say that a poll is a poll and a vote is a vote and the parties that promise to keep the status quo are parties that get elected. Beyond that, it’s difficult to dismiss an appetite for change.
In explaining that opinion is divided, Coyne mentions respondents to the poll were offered three possible answers to the abortion question: no restrictions, some restrictions, and complete prohibition. The problem here (aside from privileging complete prohibitions as a reasonable position) is that this is two questions conflated into one. The first question is the moral question, “Should we allow abortions?” The second question is applicable only if we answer “Yes” to the first question and is “Since abortion is legal in Canada, what’s the best way to handle it?” The second question is a policy question, not a moral one. This is where the useful conversation begins; we get answers like support for single mothers, improving the adoption system, and better sex education for teenagers, just to name a few. The problem is that as long as the first question is open for debate, the second question will be drowned out. As long as we are still talking about pro-choice versus pro-life, every argument will be reduced to one category or another. Right now, it’s difficult to even suggest offering emotional support to women who have abortions, for fear that the implications that abortions can be traumatic might be construed as a pro-life argument.
As a man, I don’t have any more of a stake in the abortion debate than wanting to see the best possible outcome and I get the impression that Mr. Coyne is arguing from a similar position. The problem as far as I see it, is in trying to be a fair moderator between two irreconcilable positions; social conservatives are trying to engage in a moral debate and their opponents are approaching the problem more practically. A useful analogy is that at one point, opinion was deeply divided on the subject of the legalization of alcohol because at its core, it was a debate on legislating morality. Once we took morality out of the debate, it became a policy issue. Now we try to moderate the harm of alcohol, we offer support and treatment for alcoholism, and we have reasonable restrictions in place. There is a glimmer of that now, in Canada with abortion; in Maclean’s, Coyne explains that “even without an abortion law, the incidence of abortion is falling, and has been for a decade” and that “[i]f the objective is fewer abortions” the status quo might be the way to achieve that. We should be building on that success.
There is a vested interest in resolving this debate but we must do it from a position where we explicitly avoid making the concessions that Coyne insists we do. It’s not enough that Motion 312 was voted down; we need to stop having this discussion this way. Until we do, every debate is going to be taken as a thin wedge, a slippery slope or a dog whistle. The debate is more in the framing rather than in the argument itself; frame it properly and we can finally stop worrying long enough to have a productive conversation.