Senate Reform and Its Discontents

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.

Trudeau the Diplomat

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.

Framing the Abortion Debate

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:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

Strange Bedfellows

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.

Where do the Liberals sit?

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.

Maybe we shouldn’t #DenounceHarper

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.

Why narratives?

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.

First post

This is going to be a political blog. Soon.