I am a big fan of Mike Moffat’s – I follow him on Twitter and read his Economy Lab column regularly. Today he posted an article about Justin Trudeau – someone else of whom I am a big fan – suggesting that the less than stellar environmental plans of a provincial Liberal cousin in Nova Scotia might rub off on him. Because Trudeau has been light on policy in the lead up to the beginning of the Liberal leadership race, we can only look to clues like these to discern what his future policies may be. Moffat’s reaction is only natural for someone trying to evaluate economic policy from a neutral position. That said, the tacit endorsement of his presence is a far cry from the actual endorsement of adopting those policies. I’ve met Trudeau and heard him speak on several occasions; from what I know, I do not think there is any danger of Trudeau adopting these particular policies. If that’s the case, this leads to the much more interesting question: what does Trudeau’s support of, in his words, “Stephen McNeil and the Nova Scotia Liberals” mean?
McNeil has “vowed to remove an ‘efficiency tax’ from the bills of Nova Scotia Power consumers” in a plan that sounds very similar to the federal NDP’s plan to remove the HST from home heating. I’ve mentioned before that this NDP plan was populist and purely ideological so it, and plans of its ilk like McNeil’s, would be completely out of step with Trudeau’s post-ideological message. That said, it’s no secret that the federal Liberal party is in a period of rebuilding and that the Maritimes are key to building any kind of electoral coalition for the Liberal party. Having access to an organization and allies on the ground, at the provincial level, will be a major boost to any federal campaign. Simply put, to win (however we might define that term) Trudeau needs allies within the Nova Scotia provincial Liberals.
It is likely, as two Liberals, that Trudeau and McNeil have quite a bit of common ground but it’s rare in politics to have two people, let alone two leaders, who agree on everything. At a time when many progressives in the United States are deeply disappointed in Obama, it’s important to remember that compromising is a learned skill that it is impossible to govern without. If Trudeau is so ideologically firm that he can’t deal with the MacNeils of the world, his supporters are going to be as disappointed as Obama’s. In evaluating two competing ideas, it would appear Trudeau has compromised. But rather than see this as a crack in Trudeau the Idealist’s facade, we should view this as a preview of Trudeau the Leader.
As the young and idealistic opposition member, Justin Trudeau has had many opportunities to work on the issues he’s passionate about and believes in. What he’s had are very few opportunities to show that he can make the type of compromises and sacrifices that are demanded of a Prime Minister. On the environment, the federal government has a much greater lever to pull than the provinces do so briefly lending your popularity to a provincial leader, with whom you have a particular disagreement that is unlikely to be resolved, in the service of a better federal plan sounds like a good trade off to make. Idealism is great for a third party; statesmanship is what is required for government.
The NDP feted May 2nd, 2011 as a great victory for progressives, in light of their electoral performance, and so after more than a year in it seems worthwhile to review their progress. Since they have never legislated nor formed government federally, all we have available to judge the NDP is their record as the Official Opposition. If we cast an eye back to shortly after the last election, Brian Topp, a prominent NDP strategist and failed leadership candidate, gave us a preview of what the NDP opposition would look like as the “new sheriff in town”.
Another session of Parliament has begun and it already feels quite familiar; it brings a disheartening sense of déjà vu. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives are planning on serving up another omnibus bill which, if the last sitting of Parliament was any indication, will go unread, undebated, and thoroughly unchecked. Though the NDP has promised that they will make every effort to see that the proper work of Parliament is done, it seems unlikely that the eventual juggernaut of a bill will even be slowed down. Among other things, Topp promised that the NDP “will work, within the rules of our democracy and long into the night, to shine a light on misjudgments and misgovernment.” However, since then, the NDP has done nothing to curb the instances of committees being brought in camera or the use of closure to force through bills; Elizabeth May made a solid argument that the last omnibus was illegitimate and the NDP couldn’t even debate it, let alone break it up or slow it down. Aside from taking a beating on their various socialist policies, it’s hard to point to a single accomplishment of theirs since the last election.
Before I am accused of judging the NDP too harshly, keep in mind another quote from Topp: “[b]efore May 2, there would have been relatively little debate on Mr. Harper’s intervention, since the Conservatives found a like-minded partner in the former Liberal opposition.” Topp knows as well as I do that the Liberal party was no great fan of the Conservative government (given that he was one of the main architects of the failed coalition with the Liberal party in 2008), so then he must mean that Liberals were guilty of allowing Conservative legislation to pass. If this is the standard that the NDP was planning on surpassing, then we could reasonably expect them to do something in that direction though this is not the case. Even on the issue Topp mentions in his article, “whether or not people have the right to withhold their labour”, progress is the same. Topp mentions labour being legislated back to work at Canada Post, a failure for the NDP, and implies that the next time, the NDP will be there to help. But when the same issue came up with Air Canada, the Conservatives were able to walk all over organized labour again, a thorough beating under the NDP’s watch. Even if we hold the NDP to the low bar of simply having to “shine on light on issues like this” (Topp again), they have not even been able to do that. The last time we talked about organized labour in Parliament was a joke about legislating the NHL back to work.
Just as a we judge a government’s performance based on its election promises, we judge the NDP based on their promises when they took over their current role. As Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery reporter Dale Smith points out, the NDP does not seem to fully understand the role and function of the Official Opposition. According to Topp this what “a real Parliament looks like”, a characterization that would be hilarious if it wasn’t tragic. At its best, the Official Opposition should oppose bad policy and improve legislation; judged against that bar, the NDP is far from ready to form government.
“Attack, attack, attack. Whitaker said, ‘You can’t wage a defensive campaign and win!'”
In light of that quote from The New Yorker, I would like to shift from my last two articles, which were decidedly defensive, and go on the offensive somewhat against the NDP.
In my last post, I discussed the need to distinguish the Liberal party from the NDP as a prerequisite for our party returning to power. Unfortunately, any such discussion will be hampered by the specter of a merger between our two parties. The “merger question” has the potential to be just as damaging to our electability in 2015 as the “coalition question” was in 2011. It is important to put this issue to rest as soon as possible and now, with our leadership race imminent, we have the perfect opportunity to do so.
Over eight months, the Liberal party is going to choose its next leader. Though there has been much talk about moving the party away from being completely leader-driven in our agenda, the supporter class will almost guarantee that this remains unchanged. By opening up the voting to anyone, the traditional power structures and power bases will be circumvented – anyone among the public who so chooses will vote – and since the leader has enormous power under the Elections Act, they will have enormous power within the party. Moreover, the voices of the Liberals who stayed loyal and worked hard during the dark days of 2006 to 2012 (or thereabouts), will have their voices drowned out by the throngs of new fair-weather supporters eager to have their opinions counted. Though the temptation is to take a hipster-like attitude towards the party (“Oh, I volunteered during the 2011 election when we had no chance under Ignatieff. You probably haven’t heard of him.”) we need to accept this situation as the opportunity that it truly is: all of our ideas will now be vetted by the engaged segment of the liberal-leaning public. Elections are decided by the undecideds; we’re lucky enough that our leadership candidates will now endure a trial by fire.
Though I have (clearly) not always been in favour of the idea of a supporter class of Liberals, the role that supporters will play in the next leadership race has the potential to help us a great deal in the quest to kill the “merger question”. With this in mind, it becomes vital that we have a pro-merger candidate participate in this race, who then makes their case to the country and is defeated soundly. Should this happen, we can fairly say that the idea of a merger has been put to the general public, since anyone can vote in our race. As credibly as Stephen Harper can say that voters have rejected the Green Shift, the Liberal party will be able to say that voters have rejected a merger.* At that point, we’ll be in a much better position to talk about Liberal values and positions relative to the other parties and specifically the NDP.
The Liberal party will not return to power until it has properly made its case for its necessity. The call to merge, in a lot of ways, has muddled this discussion. It is difficult to view the Liberal party as a necessary entity when the plausibility of a merger implies that our similarities are more salient than our differences. Just as the NDP elected a candidate who has made it clear that a merger is off the table, the Liberal party would be wise to make a great show of doing the same thing.
*should the pro-merger candidate win, well, maybe us anti-merger Liberals were wrong…
In 2015 (or thereabouts; fixed election dates are apparently anything but), Canadians will have the opportunity to reaffirm their support for this government or choose a new one. As a member of the third party, I would certainly prefer to see the Liberal party considered as that alternative option. To get there, we need to not only distinguish ourselves from the Conservatives but from the NDP as well. This is a difficult conversation to have; the media refers to “the progressive vote” as a single block and the NDP has taken a pitch to the right recently. The NDP has the advantage of being the Official Opposition and the de facto “government in waiting” so Liberals need to be able to articulate what makes us different than the NDP first and foremost.
For many Liberals, this distinction is a very personal one. For me, the two main points of differentiation between the Liberal party and the NDP come down to populism and realism. The NDP is a populist party; the Liberal party I support is not. I want to see a Liberal party that is a party of realism because I do not see this in the NDP. Populism is a point that I have addressed in the past and, in fact, the two are closely related. When I addressed removing the HST from home heating as populist nonsense, it’s nonsense because of the lack of consideration for real world consequences (prominent economist Stephen Gordon mockingly referred to it as “The Black Shift”). We both may be progressives, but we’re certainly different kinds.
Once we’ve established that there are different shades of progressiveness, it will be much easier to deal with the crowding around the centre that both the NDP and the Conservatives have attempted in the last few election cycles. With better positioning relative to the NDP, we will be much more able to carve out a niche relative to the other parties. As I said on Twitter, regarding David Suzuki’s comments that conventional economics is a “form of brain damage” and “not a science”: there has to be a place in Canadian politics for people who both believe in man-made climate change and who think Suzuki’s comments are idiotic. We Liberals get ourselves in trouble by claiming to not be ideological, but in this case that claim can be borne out.
From the economy to foreign policy, this type of analysis could be conducted on any issue. The Liberal party should be the party that offers non-ideological solutions to all of our problems, not just the current hot-button issue that is the environment. I believe our obstacles are interrelated and that as we solve each one, the other problems will become easier and easier to solve in turn. There are challenges, to be sure, but if we address them properly, I do believe we can put ourselves in the position to be considered the credible alternative in the next election. Liberals are attacked by both the right and the left; surely that means we’re doing something right.
In the National Post, Chris Selley writes that “it is time to retire the word “ideological” from Canada’s political lexicon. It doesn’t seem to mean anything anymore.” He goes on to explain that while we may call the actions of the Harper government hypocritical it is a far cry to call them ideological, since they have very little in the way of logical consistency. This is where Selley loses me; I don’t think “ideology” means what he seems to think it means, even though he takes the time to list the Oxford definition of it. His position seems to be that logical inconsistency is the opposite of ideology, rather than the hallmark of it. This is not true at all; ideology smooths out contradictions, allows us to ignore evidence and is irrefutable.
As an example, in both the last elections in Ontario and at the federal level, the NDP put forward a plan to remove the HST from home heating. Their position was that it would help the poor and the middle class, for whom utilities bills can be quite expensive. The plan was little more than knee-jerk populism; not only are there better ways to provide assistance to low income households, outside of a subsidy for everyone, but lowering prices would encourage consumption and conflict with the NDP’s environmental agenda. Logically, the plan was a nonstarter but they championed it, campaigned on it and defended it. Their ideology is that they are the defenders of the poor and the middle class so they did something that someone who believed in those things would do. It didn’t matter that their plan was not thought out and self-defeating; the point is that it be ideologically, as opposed to logically, consistent.
Returning to Selley’s piece, he centers on Jason Kenney’s arguments about immigration. While he is willing to grant that Kenney might be mean-spirited on the file, he asks, “Is he pursuing an ‘ideological’ agenda on migration? If so, it’s tough to tell what the ideology is.” What Selley seems to be looking for is a plan, i.e. “we’re going to (increase/limit/stop/etc.) immigration”, and what he’s getting is an ideology. It is not difficult to discern a streak of xenophobia, of scaremongering, of Islamophobia, in the Conservative’s words and actions. These are all ideologies and they are the ideologies that forgive the logical inconsistencies that Selley is so happy to point out. Worse than that, we’re being led to think we should take the word “ideology” as a substitute for the term “secret agenda.” Throughout the text, the two terms could be interchangeable (and, in fact, Selley’s piece would make quite a bit more sense if the two terms were interchanged). Viewed in this way, the piece fits in well with the already established political conversation as a nice flank cover for the Conservative government. With the same indignation that they have claimed they do not have a secret agenda, they can now claim that they are not ideological even though this is clearly not the case.
Perhaps this is the lesson that Liberals should take from this whole debate; that we should have led with accusations of ideology rather of a secret agenda. By any reasonable definition of ideological, the Harper government is nothing but. With this accusation, you can (correctly) predict they will ignore evidence, contradict themselves and violate unwritten rules. In fact, had we lead with an accusation of an “ideology” rather than of a “secret agenda” we could have accomplished both goals at once. It is only with ideology, the firm belief in a cause higher than a single issue, that a secret agenda can be born.
Dan Gardner had a very good article about the irrational hatred people feel towards Stephen Harper. Harper did something Obama does regularly – spoke very highly of his hometown – and progressives attacked him for it. Gardner, exploring why, explains that Harper’s hyper-partisanship has been very polarizing and that these are the types of reactions he provokes from people. This is a common answer but he comes to an uncommon conclusion, that this is the “product of a broader phenomenon that will outlive the prime minister.” This is an interesting point, worth discussing if we want to reverse the political trend towards polarization and hyper-partisanship.We are fooling ourselves if we believe it will simply end with the end of the Harper Government.
When we discuss poisonous rhetoric in Canada it is often referred to as the “Americanization” of our politics. With this in mind, it bears reviewing the current situation in the United States. Obama’s opponents have questioned his citizenship, called him a socialist and a fascist, and generally made it as hard as possible for him to accomplish or implement any part of his agenda. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that the United States has become more polarized now than at any other time since the Civil War. How the political situation in the US has become so untenably partisan is a subject of great debate.
Looking back a little, to their 2004 election, Bush, with the help of Karl Rove, had developed a well-deserved reputation for taking cheap shots against his enemies and the campaign had managed to turn John Kerry’s honorable military service into a political liability. Bush’s enemies fought back; they insulted his intelligence, called him a fascist and worse, and used such memorable slogans as “No Blood for Oil!” Bush went on to win the election with more than 50% of the popular vote, gathering more votes for president than any candidate in history. Reviewing the election in retrospect, it is not unlikely that the refrain of “Not my president!” alienated the ever important undecideds who eventually decide elections.
That fighting partisanship with partisanship alienates voters is not the issue; in 2008, the anti-Bush sentiment was so high that the Republic party was thoroughly defeated. The issue is that all of that partisanship does not simply dissipate after an election. Every person who compared Bush to Hitler, every “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!”, every hyperbolic claim; these all helped feed the flames. The political culture had been thoroughly tainted and the partisanship was so strong it became self-sustaining. It is therefore disingenuous to blame everything on Karl Rove or George Bush or even Fox News. If progressives had really opposed this type of politics, they should have displayed the political courage to not respond in kind.
In Canada, we are approaching a similar situation. It is tempting to simply wring our hands and lament the state of political discourse; it’s easy and, generally, satisfying. But powerful as Stephen Harper may be, he cannot dictate our entire political conversation. In his article, Gardner mentions the influence of the echo chamber of social media and how it ratchets up the rhetoric. This hypothesis would seem to be borne out by a quick Twitter search of the hashtag #DenounceHarper, used to complain about Harper’s various misdeeds.
When we do something as simple as denounce Harper, by pointing to a decision of his we disagree with, I would argue this is the wrong approach. Gardner mentions the fact that Harper ignored the anniversary of the Charter and that progressives got upset. What he didn’t mention was what we could have done instead: talked more about why it was worth celebrating. It’s a minor example, of course, but if we’re going to try and learn from our American cousins and actually make an effort to reverse this trend, we each need to be honest about our own side’s culpability. Harper has turned up the rhetoric and progressives have responded in kind. While fighting fire with fire seems logical, one has to wonder if this approach is doing more harm than good to the progressive cause.
Some pundits have suggested that a country polarized between left and right would help the NDP, so they might have come to believe that it is advantageous for them to help that polarization along. Recently, we got a taste of what the next election might look like with the first of what promise to be many NDP attack ads. If the NDP believes that one attack ad should necessarily beget another, they should look to the mess Obama inherited. They might find they’re poisoning the chalice before they get their first sip.
Reading the Globe and Mail recently, I came across this article. It begins:
“It has been a year since the Conservatives won a majority government, a year in which there have been plenty of ups and downs, the latter including the robo-calls controversy and the Auditor-General’s scathing report of mismanagement and a lack of accountability on the F-35 purchase. But on most of the issues that matter…”
But on most of the issues that matter?
Regarding the law, the Harper government has been quite consistently black and white. Whatever is within the law is acceptable and permitted. If they have not broken the law, they will make no apology for their actions, even if that action might be construed as an abuse of trust. In their minds, they are required to follow the law, nothing more and nothing less. Unfortunately, this narrative has apparently been adopted by the media, who now seem reticent to directly challenge the Conservatives on anything less than a formal crime. I would argue that this narrative erodes our trust in our elected officials and contributes to the troubling national trend of civic disengagement.
A democracy functions on both written and unwritten rules. The written rules are laws, enforced by the police and the courts, and are assumed to be well known to all citizens. These are created by elected officials, put into place by voting. Unwritten rules, on the other hand, are largely implied and consist, among other things, of tradition and convention. They are enforced by the media and, if necessary, by citizens through civil disobedience including protests. This is why we understand that a free press and the right to assembly are both vital to a free and open democratic society. By the same token, it is a truism that in a Westminster system (like ours), more is unwritten than written. While this may seem like a deficiency, it means that convention is an integral part of our democratic conversation. At its best, our system means that popular mores and expectation will force our politicians to obey, not only the letter, but the spirit of our laws. At its worst, it leaves our democracy open to a wide variety of abuses.
Recent examples abound. Stephen Harper’s decision to call an early election in 2008, while not necessarily a violation of the letter of his fixed election law, it was a clear violation of that law’s spirit. Particularly troubling was the media response to this transgression: gentle musing regarding potential political fall-out. This was followed by concluding that this was a non-issue as their reading of political polls showed no evidence of any backlash. The event soon fell out of public consciousness and eventually, the Conservative government was re-elected with a strengthened minority which turned into an eventual majority. What could a concerned citizen do but despair? Our media tells us, repeatedly, that our fellow citizens do not care about abuses of democracy. Similarly unpunished examples abound: Minister Clement’s undermining of Canadian democracy by misleading parliament on a money bill (a confidence vote); Prime Minister Harper’s re-appointment of failed MP candidates to the Senate; and of course the multiple prorogations of parliament to avoid accountability. That we are now in process of forgetting about a robo-call scandal can only undermine confidence in democracy even further.
What was lacking, in each case, was a firm denunciation from the media – particularly from those in the media who are referred to as ‘socially progressive’. Instead, they responded by attempting to frame the issue in a balanced way; weighing the pros and cons, working to establish if it was right or wrong. The result: government misdeeds presented to the public as a moral grey area. I would argue that this treatment is, in fact, too non-partisan. A lie is wrong; whether the public cares or not and whether the public agrees or not. At one point, the CBC asked in its “Question of the Day,” “Was it appropriate for the government to redirect previously approved funds for use in the G8 Legacy Fund?” That is an example of non-partisanship taken to a level where it is pathological. It was, beyond a doubt, inappropriate for the government to redirect previously approved funds. Mr. Clement’s behaviour in concealing his actions through personal email, skirting the proper channels of approval and avoiding accountability make it resoundingly clear that, at the very least, one unwritten rule has been broken.
Is it any wonder that more and more average, middle-class people have tuned out politics in Canada? 2008 saw a historic low in terms of voter registration and turn-out. In the 2011 Ontario provincial election, the most populous province in Confederation saw its lowest turnout ever. In response, critics of the recent student protests in Quebec (and the “Occupy” protests before that) have suggested that if change is desired, protestors had only to vote in one of the many recent elections. Political pundits can’t seem to explain why these same people, apparently turned off of democracy, are instead resorting to street protests en masse.
If the media tells voters, again and again, that unwritten rules are being broken but that no one cares and that they will not be enforced, what reaction can we have but voiceless rage? Politicians will not follow unwritten rules if we, as a society and with the help of the media, do not enforce them; no matter who we vote for. In this light, the media’s refrain that the protesters have only to vote rings hollow, and signals that the progressive media has more or less abdicated their responsibility as keepers of political decorum.
The National Post ran an excerpt of a talk Andrew Coyne gave which concluded with the rhetorical question: “Suppose we did have a Watergate. How would we know?” Mr. Coyne is a journalist with a national audience, a representative of the very body tasked, as a vital function in a free democracy, with uncovering the very corruption he claims would not be uncovered. In this context, his speech seems almost to be taunting us. He mentions many of the examples of abuses above, but unfortunately what he doesn’t mention is who has the power to peacefully stop them.
As far as introducing a blog, I’m of the opinion that explaining what it’s about is the best place to start. I grew up in a Martin-loving household and so, as a teenager, I heard many times that he would be a great Prime Minister. With my family and extended family, politics was always part of the conversation. The 2004 elections was the first time I voted (for Peter Miliken, the former Speaker of the House, a fact I am quite proud of). While I was dismayed with the result of the general election, I was not overly concerned. The Liberal government I had grown up with was relatively intact and the NDP was there to offer them the leftward push they sometimes needed to enact their more progressive legislation. All in all, there was no real cause for consternation.
In 2006, I watched the Liberal government fall. Minority governments tend not to last, but what was surprising was that the NDP had supported the Conservatives in bringing down the government. I was attending York University at the time and voted for Judy Sgro (MP, York West). This time, the election results were a bit more concerning. Stephen Harper, the new Prime Minister, was the former head of the National Citizens’ Coalition, an organization that I understood to have been founded to dismantle health care, primarily, with the larger goal of dismantling as much of our social safety net as possible. How he had been elected with that background was beyond me.
In 2008, I voted for Lui Temelkovski (former MP, Oak Ridges-Markham). He lost the election by 545 votes. My grandfather had helped put up signs for him and I just happened to be visiting when it was time to take them down. We rounded them up and then went to return them to Lui. When we got there, Lui invited us into his home for a cup of coffee. There, I met an intelligent, affable and principled man. I was disappointed that he had lost and became much more so after meeting him. I decided to get involved.
Over the next three years, I helped out when I could: making calls, knocking on doors and putting up signs. We were determined to take back the riding in the next election. That did not happen, unfortunately; the Conservatives crushed us, increasing their vote total significantly.
In 2008, I was upset I hadn’t done enough when I had the chance. In 2011, I was left wondering what I could do. Political work seemed, quite frankly, pointless when a party could get placeholder candidates elected, like the NDP did in Quebec. They hadn’t knocked on doors, recruited volunteers or solicited donations. Based on a handful of polls showing that Quebec, overall, had a favourable view of the NDP after the debate, the entire election shifted. My attention turned to the media.
In my opinion, elections are won and lost based on the portrayal of our political parties in the media. Our democracy is designed to include a free press to act as a counterbalance; it should provide commentary, analysis and investigation. It is a subject of occasional lamentation by members of our media that the press has devolved into a kind of political scorekeeper. Rather than investigate and discuss the relative platforms of the parties, the media is generally more occupied with speculating on how each party’s policy will be received and on how many political points their actions might cost them. Commentary we are privy to is generally unbalanced and partisan, or worse, it is assumed to be and ignored.
The calculation of political points is what I am most interested in. This political arithmetic is based on preconceived and generally accepted dominate narratives. A narrative might be something as simple as “Conservatives are good with money” or it could be something as specific as “Stéphane Dion is not a leader.” They are the assumptions that go into calculating one’s relative political success or failure and as long as they exist, we can only act within them. As an example, it is only in retrospect that I understand that Mr. Harper’s past leadership of the NCC is rarely discussed in the media because it has been subsumed and nullified by the “Secret Agenda” narrative (that is, “Progressives always think the PM has a secret agenda. He has proved he doesn’t so don’t talk about dismantling healthcare/abortions/gay marriage/etc.”). Paul Martin overplayed his demonization of Stephen Harper; the “Secret Agenda” narrative was born; now we can’t discuss his long-term plan for Canada. Analyzing the life cycle of a narrative, understanding how it came to be and the assumptions that support it, is the only way out of this trap.
The goal of this blog is therefore simple and quixotic. I plan to analyze, to the best of my abilities, the media narratives that I see at play in our political dialogue, with the intent of starting a new conversation about politics in Canada.
This is going to be a political blog. Soon.