The same Ontario professor has been quoted in every single story about the B.C. election

A case study in lazy journalism

Philippe LagasséPhilippe Lagassé is an associate professor at Ottawa’s Carleton university. He is also apparently the only human on the entire planet who has ever studied the Canadian political system or British Columbian politics, since he’s routinely been the sole person asked to offer commentary in a vast number of stories about the political drama that’s consumed B.C. since last month’s indecisive election. In fact, Lagassé has made nearly an appearance-a-day in stories about the politics of a province he lives 4,300 km away from.

May 24, 2017

The final election results of BC election are confirmed.

May 30, 2017

Outlet: CBC Power and Politics (TV)
Headline: The B.C. Greens and B.C. NDP have cut a deal to work together in the provincial legislature
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? No (one other guy).
How is Lagassé described? “Associate Professor of International Affairs at Carleton University”

May 31, 2017

Outlet: Vancouver Sun, The Province
Headline: B.C.’s next political quagmire is electing a Speaker of the legislature
Author: Rob Shaw
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? Yes.
How is Lagassé described? “an associate professor at Carleton University and a specialist on issues involving the Crown.”

June 1, 2017

Outlet: The National Post

Headline:  An MLA with diarrhea could topple the government: A playlist of just how crazy things could get in B.C.
Author: Tristin Hopper
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? Yes.
How is Lagassé described?? “an Ottawa-based expert in the Westminster system”

June 2, 2017

Outlet:  Radio-Canada B.C.-Yukon
Headline: Assemblée législative divisée : l’élection d’un président pourrait s’avérer difficile à Victoria
Author: Nahila Bendali
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? No (one other guy).
How is Lagassé described? “a professor at Carleton University and a specialist in the Crown and Westminster system.”

June 3, 2017

Outlet: CBC News B.C.
Headline: Speaker speculation: why the next step in B.C. politics hinges on one position
Author: Justin McElroy
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? Yes.
How is Lagassé described? “a Carleton University professor who specializes in Canada’s Westminster parliamentary system of government.”

June 4, 2017

Outlet: The Canadian Press
Headline: B.C. legislature in ‘uncharted territory’ as it tussles with Speaker appointment
Author: Geordon Omand
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? No (four other people cited).
How is Lagassé described? “a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who studies the Westminster parliamentary system.”

June 5, 2017

Outlet: Maclean’s
Headline: Why the B.C. Liberals should suck it up and offer a Speaker
Author: Jason Markusoff
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? Yes.
How is Lagassé described? “Carleton University political scientist who specializes in Westminster institutions.”

June 5, 2017

Outlet: Reuters
Headline: Speaker role latest twist in British Columbia political drama
Author: Nicole Mordant
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? Yes.
How is Lagassé described? “international affairs professor at Carleton University”

June 13, 2017

Outlet: Canadaland (podcast)
Headline: Amy Goodman/The Constitutional Clusterf**k
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? Yes.
How is Lagassé described? “Associate Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University”

June 15, 2017

Outlet: The Vancouver Sun
Headline: Horgan, Weaver reaffirm alliance, blast Clark for delays, distraction
Author: Cheryl Chan
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? Yes.
How is Lagassé described? “a parliamentary expert”

June 18, 2017

Outlet: The Vancouver Sun
Headline: Will there be another election? Everything you need to know about what’s going on in B.C. Politics
Author: Stuart Thomson
Is Lagassé the only person offering analysis? Yes.
How is Lagassé described? “a Carleton University professor who studies our parliamentary system”

I suppose it is possible Associate Professor Lagassé is the greatest political mind of our generation and there exists absolutely no one else capable of offering searing insights into B.C. politics on par with “the purpose of the Speaker casting a tie vote is to prevent there from being a total logjam” or “it’s a regrettable situation.”

I suppose it’s also possible a lot of journalists in this country are just deeply lazy people who all call the same guy because they know he’ll answer the phone.

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What was Trump’s crime?

Trump and ComeyThe lines separating the legal from the political are increasingly blurred. Policy questions that used to be resolved through political debate are now litigated through the courts, while political debates now consist of endless allegations of illegal acts. The result is a lot of lawyers who fancy themselves politicians and a lot of politicians who fancy themselves lawyers.

The “obstruction of justice” allegations surrounding President Trump provide an interesting case study.

“Obstruction of justice” means something intuitive in lay English: a conscious act intended to prevent the justice system from functioning properly — specifically, a guilty person attempting to hide the truth of his own guilt by preventing someone else from discovering it.

Anyone is free to reach the political conclusion that Trump has done this. Many find the president’s firing of FBI boss James Comey odd enough to imply Trump is engaged in some sort of cover-up as it relates to the FBI’s ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the last election. Many of those same people find Trump telling Comey he wanted to see the FBI “let Flynn go” when Michael Flynn remains such an important figure in the Russia conspiracy allegations stronger evidence yet. People are equally free to conclude Trump should be impeached for this, since impeachment was always intended to be a political tool to punish presidents for ill behavior as determined by the political branch of government — ie, Congress.

The world we live in today, however, presumes scandals — especially impeach-worthy scandals — are only legitimate if they clear a certain threshold of legal seriousness, which is to say, if they rise to the level of a criminal offense. From this perspective, the obstruction of justice charge is deeply ambiguous, as we can see by considering the arguments of two prominent lawyers who know a lot more about this thing than you or I.

The first is Philip Allen Lacovara, who served as legal counsel to the special prosecutors who investigated President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. In the Washington Post, Lacovara asserted that James Comey’s testimony was “evidence sufficient for a case of obstruction of justice.”

Lacovara alludes to the obstruction of justice section of the US Code (18 § 1503), which defines obstruction of justice quite sweepingly (an offender is described as anyone who “corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice,” to cite but one excerpt). In Lacovara’s mind, Trump’s actions in regards to Comey rise to this level.

However, Lacovara is forced to take a lot of air out of his own argument when he concedes, near the end of his article, that “whether a sitting president may be indicted while in office is an open question.” Lacovara personally believes the answer to that question is “yes” and hopes Robert Muller, the independent counsel in the Russia investigation, will “reach the same conclusion that I reached in the Nixon investigation — that, like everyone else in our system, a president is accountable for committing a federal crime.”

Famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz wrote an editorial in the Washington Examiner that is deeply critical of Lacovara’s conclusion. Dershowitz does not believe a president is “accountable for committing” the 18 § 1503 federal crime of obstruction of justice because the president holds unique powers in the US constitutional system that cannot be constrained by the US Code.

Specifically, Dershowitz notes that because all employees of the United States Department of Justice are subordinate to the authority of the president, including investigators and prosecutors, the president possesses full right to “tell them what to do, whom to prosecute and whom not to prosecute,” as well as fire or pardon them.

Dershowitz doesn’t seem to think this is a great feature of the US system — he speaks affectionately of nations like Britain and Israel where there is more distance between federal prosecutors and the elected head of government — but notes it’s nevertheless America’s reality. He also seems to think a sitting president can be indicted for a criminal offense, or at least has the capacity to commit them. He notes President Nixon directed his aides to “lie to the FBI” which violates a different section of the US Code, namely 18 § 1001, “fraud and false statements” but portrays this as something different, and more prosecutable, than “obstruction of justice,” legally defined.

Trump’s critics, he concludes, “should not be searching for ways to expand already elastic criminal statutes and shrink enduring constitutional safeguards in a dangerous and futile effort to criminalize political disagreements.”

At one time it was assumed a president was almost completely above the law, but in 1997 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled Paula Jones could sue President Clinton for sexual harassment, thus establishing a sitting president’s vulnerability to civil litigation. It is possible to imagine a future Supreme Court ruling that the president doesn’t have immunity from criminal indictment either, yet this is ultimately moot if, in Trump’s case, the president is constitutionally ineligible of committing obstruction of justice in regards to the Justice Department’s Russia investigation because of how the Department of Justice hierarchy works.

Trump’s opponents have chosen to prosecute a political scandal as a legal one, and they seem destined for disappointment as a result.

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Toronto Star writer busted for plagiarizing Vancouver columnist

On Wednesday, May 24 my friend (and former Sun News colleague) Ada Slivinski, a conservative columnist at the Postmedia-owned Vancouver daily 24 Hours, wrote a piece making the case for online voting, using our recent election in British Columbia for context. Four days later, on Sunday, May 28, Jamie Watt wrote an editorial for the Toronto Star under the headline “B.C. election fiasco shows need for online voting.”

Watt’s piece is very similar to Ada’s, and in some areas contains outright plagiarism, with Ada’s exact words repeated without attribution.

Ada wrote:

Estonians have been able to vote online in their national elections since 2007. Brazilians vote using electronic terminals and this move has cut the time it takes to count ballots from a month to six hours. Some local British elections have let people vote by text message.

In Canada? Online voting is available in some Ontario and Nova Scotia municipalities but it has never been offered at the provincial or federal level.

Watt wrote:

Estonians have been able to vote online in their national elections since 2007. Brazilians vote using electronic terminals, cutting the time it takes to count ballots from a month to six hours. In some local British elections, people can vote by text message.

In Canada? Online voting is available in some Ontario and Nova Scotia municipalities, but it has never been offered at the provincial or federal level.

In another part, Ada wrote:

Data collected by EKOS Research in November 2016 found 77% of Canadians say would be likely to vote online should the technology be available.

Watt wrote:

In fact, data collected by EKOS Research in November 2016 found 77 per cent of Canadians say they would be likely to vote online, should the technology be available.

Today, on June 14, the Star‘s public editor formally acknowledged the plagiarism, posting a note on Watt’s column that “This column contains unattributed material from a May 24 article published by 24 Hours Vancouver,” adding that “Mr. Watt apologizes to Star readers for this mistake.”

Will Mr. Watt be allowed to continue contributing content to the paper is the question.

 

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J.J. and Doug on Andrew Scheer and the Conservative leadership race results

ERMap_42 ERMap_42 scheerJJ: So Doug, the Conservative Party now has a new leader, and despite the rapid solidification of  conventional wisdom over the last couple of weeks, it didn’t wind up being Maxime Bernier. I know you were following the race very closely — what are your immediate reactions? Do you think this counts as a dramatic upset?

DOUG: I would say it’s an upset, but not an earth-shattering one. I had been telling friends I thought Scheer had a 20-25% chance to pull it off and so he did — by the narrowest of margins on the 13th ballot! It wouldn’t  have been a strong mandate either way, since Bernier would have presumably won the same way. Remember, Scheer only had 21.82% of the points after the first round, so it’s clear he has some reaching out to do to keep everyone in the fold. Luckily he’s quite congenial and does have appeal to the base at large. Plus, he’ll be running against Trudeau which should further ease the task.

So far I haven’t heard too many genuinely angered people. A few Bernier supporters are obviously very upset as they came so close only to be denied by a margin of less than 2%. I think a lot of that sort of chatter comes from under-30 types who haven’t seen uber-free market conservatives taken behind the woodshed electorally (e.g. Hudak). Conversely, I don’t see too many over-the-moon people either. I think it’s mostly an “alright, this is OK” reaction from the membership.

There were a couple other surprises down the field.

First off, Kevin O’Leary finishing ahead of three other candidates even though he’d dropped out of the race says something about the campaigns of Peterson, Obraih and Saxton. I actually quite liked Saxton (in his speech he mentioned how badly disconnected the party was from its base) so I’m not trashing these guys out of hand. But let’s be honest here: getting around 0.5% of the vote is REALLY bad, and these candidates should have been out of the race a lot earlier. They ate up time at the debates, crowded the ballot, and clogged up email inboxes for no reason.

I expected Alexander, Blaney, and Raitt to have done better. I have a feeling many members just skipped them over for more plausible winners from their “lanes” — e.g. Blaney sympathizers went straight for Scheer or Leitch, Raitt voters went straight to O’Toole and/or Scheer. It’s probably most  disappointing for Raitt who had been portrayed by the media and party as on the fringes of the mainstream contenders, only to finish awkwardly — better than the complete also-rans, but still quite behind Leitch/Lemieux in the second tier.

Trost’s result was much higher than I expected. Maybe I was too regionally biased for Lemieux, who did well in rural Ontario, yet Trost made up for it with strong showings in heavily East Asian ridings all across Canada. I thought Lemieux ran a much better campaign than Trost, and he delivered possibly the best speech of the night at the convention opening. There wasn’t that much space between them — about a 1% margin till Lemieux was knocked out. Coincidentally, this is when we saw the first major “shift” of the balloting, when Trost and Scheer benefitted from Lemieux dropping. Up until then, the fringe candidates and Raitt saw their supporters scatter totally. It’s quite shocking to look at it in chart form — everyone essentially stagnates as the fringe players drop one-by-one — the only exception was Bernier getting a tiny boost when “O’Leary” dropped. In hindsight, I’m surprised we didn’t see more formal deals with the fringe players.

Leitch also finished lower than I’d expected — I’d figured she’d at least stall in the top five. I’m struck again by how her campaign was sort of “half pregnant;” she ran as an immigration populist and proposed the values test, yet never spoke about immigration numbers or any other specific tangent that could have furthered her message. She was always halfway where she needed to be, and thus appealed neither to immigration hawks nor the party establishment. Though interestingly, of the two ridings she did win (not counting her own), two were in Surrey, B.C. — one of the most immigrant-heavy cities in Canada. Is this a sign of how integration is going there?

In a weird way Trost was left flying the banner for the furthest-right wing of the party. Despite the media whining about “abortion” as his single issue, Trost had a comprehensive platform where he came out as the most conservative  (bar possibly Blaney) on a whole host of issues. I mean, Trost basically supported a Muslim immigration ban at one point which is way further than Leitch went.

I wish we had access to the raw numbers instead of just the riding-by-riding “points,” as I suspect that Michael Chong was boosted by the “rotten boroughs.” He seems to have run strongest in downtown ridings that are likely to never vote CPC, even under his leadership. Small turnouts in these ridings almost certainly let him collect way more points than raw votes should have. It would not surprise me at all if he was behind Lemieux and Leitch in overall vote totals.

That leaves O’Toole, who, as I suspected, performed in middling fashion. Despite all the resources poured into his campaign — the endorsements, the money, the positive coverage — he only managed a distant third. His “lane” was too clogged up I think; he had to compete with Raitt, Peterson, Saxton, Obraih, Alexander (even Chong possibly), jamming up the party establishment/moderate-yet-still-centre-right vote. He might have done better in a five person field rather than a 14 person one.

I’ll just conclude by adding that this whole election format was really a mess and the party ran the race as a dog’s breakfast. There were too many candidates, it was too long, the ballot was a mess, and the mail-in portion of the system a nightmare, with some members (like you) not receiving ballots at all while others couldn’t figure out how to fill them out. The in-person voting stations seem to have been selected by dice games — some provinces didn’t have any, others had several within an hour’s drive of one another. With all the donation money this party gets surely they can run a leadership election with some competence. Where does all that donation money go? I almost wonder whether the length of the race was just a quid-pro-quo to get all the party’s consultants and communications people a year of steady work.

What were your impressions of the results, J.J.?

JJ: Well, I have to start by saying it is just flatly unacceptable that the party has not released hard vote totals and expects us to be satisfied with mere vote “percentages” for all the ridings — which are so obviously just a weaselly way to conceal some embarrassingly low turnouts — particularly in those “rotten boroughs” you mentioned. There’s something very Canadian about it all, in the worst sense, because it’s such a brazenly blatant way to conceal from the public deep structural deficiencies about an important part of this country’s democracy — this is how we pick one of two candidates for the extraordinarily powerful office of prime minister, after all — yet I’m sure there will be no real fuss or outrage. The fact that the system produces any result at all is supposed to be sufficient proof that it works, and only crackpots like me ask for closer scrutiny.

On the personal front, yes, you’re right — I never did get a ballot. I guess the onus was on me to keep closer tabs on the party’s timeline for when I was officially supposed to get worried and ask for them to re-mail me a new one, but I also feel it wasn’t excessively naive for me to assume the party would have at least one in-person voting station in British Columbia, the country’s third-largest province. But I guess in some ways not voting was nice, because it gave me a bit of emotional detachment.

Talking of B.C., the results reminded me a bit of our most recent election, in the sense the winner was, for all intents and purposes, in a statistical tie with the runner-up. It’s thus very hard, and probably wrong to, attempt any great narrative from Scheer’s surprise victory, other than, I guess, that Bernier was not able to decisively close the deal.

Where I would push back against you a bit is the idea that Bernier, Scheer, and O’Toole were in different lanes. I think by the end Bernier had been heavily normalized by the press through mostly favorable media coverage, including a narrative that he, as a libertarian French-Canadian, was actually a sort of progressive choice for the party. “Frontrunner” stories and sympathetic columns made him seem unthreatening and establishment-friendly, and there was certainly no high-strung “anyone but Bernier” movement or rhetoric emanating from anywhere. So I think it’s possible Scheer, O’Toole, and Bernier may have been seen as fairly interchangeable safe picks in the eyes of voters who don’t quite follow these things with as much hyper-scrutiny as say, you or I. That would presumably account for at least some of the lack of real movement between ballots.

Leitch definitely comes off as a big loser. Maybe the endless negative press took its toll, maybe she was just never seen as a particularly genuine figure by anyone in the party to begin with. But you’re right that Trost’s strong showing should certainly undermine any tendentious media talking points about how Leitch’s showing “proves” such-and-such sort of politics don’t work in the modern Tory Party/Canada.

Trost was an almost cartoonishly right-wing figure, like Ted Cruz if Ted Cruz stopped trying to be likable. To dismiss him as just “oh, socons” only makes sense if you believe socons are these one-dimensional creatures who will blindly vote for any platform so long as there’s an anti-abortion plank in it somewhere. The fact that the pleasant and likable Lemieux was not more competitive, and that Trost was successful in some non-stereotypically so-con parts of the country — like the entire greater Vancouver area — suggests to me that there’s still an appetite for his watch-me-say-whatever-I-want style. He was the “dissident” candidate who basically rejected the party’s entire Harperite consensus — certainly more so than Leitch and especially more than Bernier — and he remained in stubborn fourth for the entire vote count. He was only ever covered by the press as a sort of clownish villain, and his “surprisingly strong showing” should foster more curiosity about his faction of the base than I expect it will.

I do think it’s worth noting that as much as Scheer is being portrayed as the Harperite continuity choice, his election does represent a shift to the right for the party on some issues, in an election that saw a fair bit of competition in that direction — even as the press exaggerated the clout of moderates like Chong and Raitt.

Scheer has said he supports abolishing the CBC’s news division, he backed Brexit, he’s called for withholding funds from universities that engage in anti-free speech behavior, he wants to amend the constitution to include property rights. He is quite outwardly religious, and whatever moderate position he is taking on abortion now, he was happy to build his brand as a comfortable pro-lifer during the Harper years. He’s taken uniformly socially conservative stands on other moral issues, including opposing the Liberals’ recent legislation on transgender rights and euthanasia. He’s got no love for Trudeau’s carbon tax whatsoever — he says that’s going on day one if he’s prime minister. Basically, pick any issue you want and Scheer’s opinion will run the gamut from centre-right to pragmatically centre-right. That’s significant for a race in which there was so much chatter about the need to “reimagine” conservatism for the Trudeau era.

Of course, all that said, we are again talking about a 13th ballot 50.9% victory based on third, fourth, fifth preferences coming from an unknown numbers of votes from eliminated candidates that have been weighted and biased in all these crazy geographic ways.

DOUG: I feel a bit detached from the results as well. Number one, I felt we were primarily electing the leader of the opposition, and number two, I had Scheer and Bernier ranked 6th and 7th on my ballot, respectively. My main reason for placing Scheer ahead of Bernier was the voter registration scandal back in March, and Bernier’s association with some dubious Patrick Brown confidantes. By the way, this is another big issue I had with the race — while I was glad to hear obviously fraudulent names were spotted and pulled off the voters’ list (the ones that had been ripped straight from the Ontario PC party list, for instance) I felt we didn’t get as much closure on the larger scandal as we should have. It seemed like the party wanted to just push the whole thing under the rug ASAP before it could damage any of the leading contenders. I suspect we’ll get no further inquiries into any of this as the party shamelessly ducks accountability yet again.

In another odd moment, I actually found myself in the Trost camp for a couple of ballots. I’d placed him about halfway down my ballot and yet he wound up finishing much stronger than I suspected, while some of the candidates I liked more were eliminated quickly. I’d honestly only ranked him as high as I did as a way to troll the party establishment and offend what I call the “fainting couch” wing of the party. That said, I was happy with a number of things he did during the campaign. I liked it when he came out in support of the people who attended that rally in Alberta — the infamous “lock her up” one. Some of the other candidates acted like complete hysterical ninnies denouncing a few people obviously having a lark — I found it quite grotesque how quickly the party was willing to throw its own supporters under the bus in order to appease media hack-types. Trost also took a few shots at individuals in the conservative movement I’ve always loathed (e.g. Patrick Brown), and defended the other candidates when they threw out controversial ideas. I guess you could say giving Trost a reasonably high position on my ballot was kind of a guilty pleasure… which is the first and last time I expect the words “guilty pleasure” to be associated with Brad Trost.

I do think Bernier would have been a riskier leader than many in the media and party seemed to think. Maybe I’ve just been too traumatized by the 2014 Tim Hudak defeat in Ontario, but I’ve long suspected that fiscal conservatism is nowhere near as popular as the media and movement portray it as being. I think a lot of Canadians just say they are “fiscally conservative” as a kind of signaling, when in reality they’re drowning in personal debt and routinely vote for parties that burn through cash like crazy. I mean, Trudeau and the Liberals actually went up in the polls after he called for larger deficits than the NDP. It’s for that reason I suspect some of Bernier’s more libertarian economic ideas would have gone down like a lead balloon, particularly given how low interests are right now.

That said, did have his upsides. It was clear he had more appeal to the younger membership (and youth as a whole) than any other candidate. Scheer is a younger man, but comes off as being about a decade older than he actually is.

It’s quite amazing how close Bernier came at some level — the fact that a Francophone Quebecer could win so many ridings in Alberta and come within one point of winning the entire thing says something about the state of the party. Despite the hype, I’m not sure if Bernier was the type of Conservative who would be that competitive in Quebec, particularly the rural seats in the Eastern Townships and Cote Nord-Saguenay regions that the CPC should be targeting. But hopefully if the Conservative’s clear lack of hostility to Quebec filters through to rural Francophone voters perhaps there’s a potential to target maybe 20-25 Quebec seats down the line.

I’m comfortable with the Scheer win. Anyone who read our pre-results dialogue saw our somewhat backhanded endorsements of him as a safe choice to lead us for the next three years, at least. I think he has the potential to get under Trudeau’s skin in a unique way — he’s got a witty sense of humour and is hard to get mad at. He could land subtle and cheeky rhetorical blows on Trudeau without coming across as an angry jerk. It might even prompt a “bozo eruption” or two out of Trudeau, who’s been known to get petulant from time to time. The folksy charm campaign might also get some disillusioned voters back in the fold — I’m thinking of places like rural New Brunswick, parts of the country the CPC really can’t afford to lose if they want to form government.

Of course, we really have no idea what’s going to happen over the next two years. Some shocking event could happen that puts the Conservatives immediately back in the game (e.g. a housing bubble burst or a major scandal) or a good NDP leader. I think I’m going to cheer even more for Jagmeet Singh now, since a more working class Charlie Angus or Pat Stogran-type could appeal to the same types of voters as Scheer. Vote splitting on the left might be the only way Scheer wins in 2019. If I were the Conservatives, though, I’d be mostly targeting the low-hanging fruit that was lost in 2015 in the hopes of getting back to 35% of the vote/125-130 seats and then build on that in the election after.

JJ: Maybe I am just a coward or a conformist but I’m much better at rationalizing outcomes that have happened than cheering for ones that have yet to occur. So I’m able to look at Sheer in the context of him actually being leader of the party, and the binary alternative to Trudeau in the next prime ministerial election, and conclude with greater ease than I could ever muster during the leadership race that, yes, this is a good guy I can support and will feel comfortable defending.

Scheer has the potential to be a sort of Canadian Ben Sasse — the young Nebraska senator who has become one of the GOP’s rising stars by being both consistently conservative, but also a thoughtful, articulate explainer of why conservative principles and virtues are relevant and important for young middle class families in a fast-changing, modern world.

Scheer is a young man with a complicated modern life that he has nevertheless been able to manage in an admirable way. In contrast to a lot of high-level politicians these days, he’s been able to balance having a large family and stable marriage with an ambitious career. Clearly he has a few things figured out, and I hope he is not shy about preaching what he practices. His ability to effectively do so has the potential to productively reframe how we conceptualize social conservatives in this country and justify their relevance in our political debates, which currently feature a decayed-to-non-existent moral vocabulary. I’m not talking about being preachy or self-righteous, but just returning concepts like responsibility and caution and respect for tradition over fad to the way conservatives pitch what they’re selling. Because you’re absolutely right — I don’t think there’s much evidence to suggest what voters are clamoring for is a “let’s cut everything and balance the budget as a good unto itself” platform, and with Bernier out, the party has less reason than ever to head down that path.

That said, Scheer is certainly not a contrarian, critique-of-the-system man like Harper was (or at least young Harper). I get the impression Scheer’s a lot more in love with the romantic mythologies of Ottawa than Reform nostalgists like me, who would like to see critical perspectives on things like official bilingualism, Quebec exceptionalism, and the various anti-democratic deficits of the Canadian parliamentary system exist as more permanent components of the Conservative agenda. But what can you expect from a guy who’s been in the House of Commons since he was 25 and reached his lifelong “political geek” dream of becoming speaker at age 32. At a time when conservative parties around the world are reimagining what it means to be on “the right” in various ways, in Canada we have a leader who still identifies primarily as Reagan-Thatcherite. There’s a lot to like about Reagan-Thatcherism, but in the year 2017 you also want to see some creative instincts.

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The State of the Conservative Leadership Race: a Dialogue

Steven BlaneyJJ: Hey again Doug,

Seeing as how the Tory leadership contest is just a couple weeks away from concluding, I thought it might be fun if we could run through our impressions of some of the candidates.

To open, which candidates have you found the most interesting — not in terms of personal preference necessarily, but just who’s been the most compelling or thought-provoking in some way?

DOUG: One candidate who won’t win but has stood out to me is Pierre Lemieux. I remember when he entered the race I was talking about it with some other conservatives and we were wondering why the heck he’d joined, given the field was already so crowded. I almost have to apologize for that now! He’s actually run one of the best social conservative campaigns I’ve seen. He seems to have struck the right balance in discussing issues important to that part of the base without coming across as a fire-breathing type that would alienate the rest of the party. I don’t think social conservatism would have such a (somewhat undeserved, in my opinion) toxic reputation if more Lemieux-types were its advocates.

He’s hit on some other issues as well — he was ahead of the rest in reaching out on the free speech issues that came up in the campaign, and he offers a compelling personal story of military service coupled with both private sector and government experience. I had to laugh when media-types were “shocked” to hear rumors that he might finish ahead of Trost; they obviously don’t have ears on the ground in the so-con movement and don’t understand it. Most likely they simply view it — at best — as a few unenlightened individuals; at worst, the backwoods people from Deliverance.

Many social conservatives I’ve talked to have said similar things, and Trost has started to rub many the wrong way in just being a little too over-the-top. Lemieux has more presence than Trost as well; he’s a better speaker, a better gentleman, and quite frankly has a much less awkward twinge about him. Scheer seems to be the mainstream candidate of that lane, but I get the feeling he’s touching on social issues as little as possible since he could plausibly win and is probably afraid any so-con stances will be immediately back thrown in his face by the media and Liberals once he becomes leader (they will anyway). That’s probably what’s gave Lemieux so much breathing space for his campaign. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he finished seventh, maybe even sixth.

Another fringe candidate who’s intrigued me is Steven Blaney.

In some ways, I feel like he’s really in the wrong election — he’s running for the CPC leadership when his true calling is running in a French legislative election as a representative of the National Front. I just get this visual image of him stirring up the locals out at a regional festival of some obscure French village. Everyone’s a little too inebriated on Port and bloated from various rich foods. I picture a few confused tourists accidentally stumbling in and getting stared down while awful “regional music” plays in the background. Blaney would emerge from a balcony wearing a sash and fire everyone up with a loud speech blaming the “elites” for closing down the local factory, or some other local grievance, to the delight of the crowd.

Silliness aside, I do suspect he’s the most “nationalist-right” candidate in the field and a genuine ideologue, it’s just that he embodies a more European-style of right-wing thought, which is why some of our friends from the economic wing of the party find him so confusing, or accuse him of being a phony Conservative since he supports supply management. I do agree he’s gone too deep into the weeds on that issue, though he’s hardly alone in that (dairy policy in general has received inordinate attention in this race).

Blaney might have gotten more play had he not been from Quebec, given he’s pretty unknown in English Canada. He might have even eaten into the Leitch vote since he seems more consistent. He’s been saying the same things since his ADQ days, while her previous life as a moderate raises suspicions that she’s running a bait and switch-style campaign, a la Patrick Brown in 2015.

I also found Kevin O’Leary interesting but not in a traditional sense — more in terms of just how poorly he did in a field he really could have dominated had he put in half the effort. I really can’t think of anything he did correctly. Before the race even started he was spouting off with opinions that poisoned the well for his campaign (his comments on ISIS honestly made Trudeau seem informed and balanced in comparison), and made the base instinctively skeptical. He seemed lazy, holding less events than others and campaigning via video link from Florida. For someone who was supposed to be brash and “bold,” he tucked his tail from multiple debates and never really proposed any particularly earth-shattering ideas.

It was almost exactly like Belinda Stronach’s 2003 leadership campaign in many ways, right down to a lot of the people managing it. Both candidates were prominent figures from the world of business whose economic expertise was supposed to be their selling point (in reality, neither was as accomplished as their marketing suggested). Both only had one foot in the Conservative camp, with Stronach eventually defecting to the Liberals and O’Leary having flirted with them before entering. Both had poor French skills, skipped debates, promoted bizarre and idiotic strategies — e.g. O’Leary claiming the party needs “60% of the under 30 vote.” I’m surprised the paraellels didn’t come up more during the campaign, but I guess memories are short.

All that being said, I do think O’Leary’s celebrity combined with the split field could have actually given him a path to victory. As you and I discussed in our previous chat, he probably could have even wound up unifying the party with an aggressive “we don’t like Trudeau”-type appeal. I just have to assume leader of the Conservative Party didn’t wind up coming off as the glamorous job he initially excepted, making him eager to take the first possible out back to the Shark Tank studio and catered meals.

 

JJ: We’re certainly in agreement on O’Leary. I was initially so turned off by his dangerously ignorant comments on ISIS I basically considered myself #neveroleary, but I did soften a bit as he started to seem the most plausibly electable in a general election context. I still do think that.

The chronic underestimating of, if not hostile obliviousness to, the social conservative vote is definitely one of the big stories of this race, in my mind. 90% coverage of Christian-right voters in this country frames them as problem to be solved — if not an actively sinister force – and it’s basically impossible to read any mention of them in the mainstream press that isn’t preceded by a phrase like “need to be kept in check.” Yet they’re clearly not going away, and it’s been revealing that basically every candidate is running to the right of Harper on social issues — not just the “so-con mascots” like Lemiuex and Trost, but even someone like Bernier. Libertarians are stereotyped as being anything-goes when it comes to questions of sexual freedom and Christian moral codes, but by promising to tolerate open parliamentary debate on abortion, Bernier’s already vastly more so-con friendly than the previous Tory government.

As someone who cares a lot about immigration, I can’t help but be preoccupied with the Kellie Leitch campaign. Given multiculturalism is such a sacred cow to the elite class of this country, her candidacy was always destined to be judged the harshest, and bear the heaviest burden of self-justification. In that sense, it’s unfortunate that she, of all people in the world, wound up serving the role of immigrant-skeptic candidate. I’ve been predicting from the very beginning that enormous, enormous significance will read into her campaign if she loses (or is “rejected,” as I imagine the preferred phrasing will go), which will then be moulded into an “immigration/Muslim skepticism doesn’t work in Canada” narrative that will be endlessly recited by the media forevermore.

A lot of the factors working strongest against Letich had little to do with policy and were probably beyond her control — the sorts of things we’re always told not to care about in politics but everyone still does, including her haircut, her twangy accent, her awkwardness with makeup, her lack of a family or interesting life story to humanize her — and of course all these gossipy stories suggesting she’s a total bitch in person. Over the course of the campaign I think her team has done a pretty good job at making her more superficially palatable, but because so many powerful people are rooting for her to fail, no matter what she says or does, obsessive nastiness is the default response — think of the needlessly cruel mocking of her Facebook videos — that’s proven very difficult to overcome.

Policy wise, her proposals haven’t gotten a much fairer reception. She has noted repeatedly and accurately that all of her marquee ideas — the immigrant values tests, face-to-face interviews for would-be citizens, cracking down on illegal border-crossers from the U.S., etc. — are overwhelmingly popular with the public, yet most coverage of her campaign still frames her candidacy as a kind of sinister siren song, trying to lure otherwise decent Conservatives into some dark, sinful place when in reality, if anything, she, the supposed ex-“reddest of Red Tories,” is trying to lead the parade from the back. That’s the paradox, isn’t it? On the one hand, she’s accused of being this previously-moderate, empty vessel of blind ambition who will say whatever it takes to win. On the other hand, her ideas are dismissed as being the crankish ramblings of a mad ideologue with no base whatsoever among right-thinking Canadians.

Increasingly, however, I just respect her as someone who will criticize Maxime Bernier. Bernier is fascinating to me in that the race seems to be unfolding in his favor in an almost organic way. He seems to face very little strong opposition from anyone, even the press, which is curious given he’s also framed as the most “ideological” (which usually means “bad”) candidate. If you want to read pointed criticisms of the man, I don’t know where else to look but Leitch’s campaign emails.

I see Bernier as the sort of the Conservative “id” candidate in a lot of ways.

It’s clear that a lot of conservatives have internalized the idea that their party Must Win Quebec, which really validates something you said in our last dialogue about how all these conservative thought-leader types preach that the party is only morally “allowed” to win power through a certain path. Harper proved it’s entirely possible to win a majority government without Quebec, yet Bernier has done a good job playing up this idea that no, Quebec is actually a must-win province, a task which he, as the Frenchest guy in the race, is uniquely equipped for.

Meanwhile, he also satiates a desire for the party to either move further to the right, or at least become more coherently “principled” in some way. I personally don’t think Bernier’s nearly as principled as this reputation suggests — I think it’s a weird sort of libertarian who gets so defensive about the importance of the CBC, for instance, and the Leitch people have done a good job pointing out his past hypocrisies — but the idea of a candidate who is completely unyielding on certain issues, even if they’re just weird issues like milk policy, is clearly very attractive to those who think the party has become too transactional or cautious.

Bernier’s Quebec-ness and libertarian-ness similarly appeases the media, who are always scolding the Conservative Party that it needs to be more that way. In that sense, he’s calling their bluff — “okay, here I am, a French guy who seems to only care about cutting taxes and shrinking the government. Can I expect a warm reception now?” If he wins, however, I think the press narrative will quickly switch to something about how “Bernier’s harsh slash-and-burn approach to government represents a marked contrast to the compassionate view of the state held by Justin Trudeau — and indeed, most Canadians.” Personally, I think the man has a fundamental “strangeness” problem that will serve as a real handicap to his electability — but we can perhaps get into that later.

What about the rest of the race?

 

DOUG: Let me talk about the candidates I see as the only two possible winners after Bernier — Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole. (Though in fairness I think O’Toole is increasingly at “miracle” odds; Lisa Raitt announcing she prefers Scheer as her second choice was probably the coup de grace of the O’Toole campaign).

O’Toole easily wins runner-up for “most disappointing campaign” after O’Leary. In a lot of party leadership contests — not just in Canada, but elsewhere — there’s always this one establishment candidate who seems to have been focus grouped to the hilt, to the point where they enrage no one particularly, but also appeal to no one explicitly (Marco Rubio’s GOP campaign is exhibit “A”).

I feel as though people like the idea of Erin O’Toole more than they actually like his campaign or policies. He’s a guy who appears to tick all the boxes — veteran, successful lawyer and philanthropist, nice family that strikes everyone as the “friendly neighbours next door” — yet something is still deeply lacking in his candidacy. He seems to strike the middle cord on almost every front, like he’s deliberately choosing the equidistant position from the Blaney/Trost types on one end and Chong on the other. Maybe trying to play the ranked ballot game a little too much? It’s not unheard of for someone to try and garner a whole pile of second and third-place votes, and yet because they simultaneously fail to get enough firsts, they stall out early in this awkward system.

It doesn’t help either that O’Toole sort of comes across as — dare I say — “low energy.” I was practically falling asleep when he spoke at the Atlantic debate. His advisors clearly tried to turn things around with some very awkward attacks on other candidates late in the campaign (see his cringe-worthy attack on Scheer for having “left the field of battle” during his time as speaker).

What’s amazing is the vast amount of resources that have been poured into the O’Toole camp. He’s right up there with Scheer for most caucus endorsements and he’s been very competitive in the donation game, though I’m not seeing a ton of love flowing from the party membership as a result. It’s only because he’s been largely inoffensive that I could see him getting some down ballot support, which is why I consider him one of the three that could still plausibly win.

This caucus endorsement issue is one that’s hard to get a grasp on — we’re told by the party and media about how important these things are, as if the endorsing MP’s are agonizing over tomes of policy documents and psychological assessments before coming up with their heartfelt recommendation. In reality, while I’m sure there’s some genuine reflection, a lot of these endorsements aren’t much more inspired than any normal person’s vote, and could even be biased by proximity.

A number of factors that would be fairly unimportant to voters as a whole clearly go into a politician’s choice. There’s a clear geographic leaning at times — in this race, Scheer’s endorsements lean Western, O’Toole’s learn Eastern, while the other candidates generally only have local support. Personal relationships and returned favors are obviously par the course as well. Then there’s the even more cynical reasons — simple coattail riding is big, particularly near the end of a race when the hand sitters finally hop aboard the leading campaigns. All that being said, a candidate with zero backing from their colleagues could also speak volumes about that candidate’s chances, or even worse, a serious ideological or personality issue (Allison Redford, for instance, only had the support of one MLA when she ran for leader — clearly caucus was onto something).

I have more time for the other establishment candidate, Scheer, who seems to be poised as the “default” option. One large dichotomy between myself and other voters in this race is that most Conservatives seem to think we’re electing someone “who can beat Trudeau” in 2019. I’ve been operating under the assumption we have only a slim chance of doing so — it’s rare for Canadian governments to fall after just one term, and I suspect a lot of the arguments the CPC will make re: Trudeau’s deficits, economic growth etc. won’t come entirely to pass within the next two years and thus won’t be the scale-tippers they hope. I’m not stating it’s impossible — there could always be a housing crash, some horrible scandal etc. — but I think the base needs to be cognizant that this may be just an election to make gains or reduce the Liberals to a minority.

This is where I think someone like Scheer becomes a perfectly plausible candidate to put out there. I can’t imagine a catastrophe occurring under his watch (as could happen under Bernier or Leitch) and he’s young enough that in the case he does make gains or perform well as leader, but not unseat Trudeau, he could still be given another shot in the next election. I think the base would be largely comfortable with him, and he doesn’t exude any terrible qualities that would have the left uber-mobilized against him, nor turn off swing voters. I think the CPC might make gains in 2019 based on lower turnout alone; Trudeau’s lack of action/mistakes on certain files might see the casuals stay at home, and the catastrophic decision of the CPC to run such a long campaign in 2015 — which allowed the Liberals to motivate people who wanted to “ride the wave” — might not be in play this time.

I’m not saying Scheer’d be fantastic. He’s been quite bland at times, which is pretty inexcusable since he actually has quite a congenial personality.  He’s almost playing it a little too safe, which is possibly part of the reason Bernier has the edge on him at the moment. Still, I say Scheer is almost the “get out of jail” card in this race, a sort of acknowledgment the field was flawed, so we’d best just go with Harperite continuity — albeit with a friendlier face than Harper himself — and if things go only OK under Scheer, well, we can always try to find a better leader after the election.

 

JJ: Hearty agreement here. I wrote a piece a while ago arguing the best sort of leader the Tories could pick for 2019 would be someone really boring (at the time, I was thinking about Tony Clement). My logic was basically more or less what you just articulated — an incumbent first term majority government prime minister is not likely to be unseated after just four years in office, and Trudeau is still broadly popular.

An upset of this magnitude could only happen in the dual context of a profound national crisis and an extremely compelling opposition leader — a Reagan unseating Carter-type scenario. If the opposition leader is not compelling, however, and the public is generally defensive towards the incumbent, then running a candidate with any sort of bold or divisive platform becomes very high risk. The press, which is hostile to conservatives by default, will inevitably ignore the incumbent’s various advantages and frame the defeat as a “decisive rejection” of the conservative leader’s agenda or mindset — bet it libertarianism, immigrant skepticism, or whatever else — Johnson defeats Goldwater.

But if the opposition leader is just kind of boring and generic, then it’s hard to avoid the narrative that the losing candidate was simply “uninspiring.” The Dion/Ignatieff/Romney story, basically.

A sort of backhanded endorsement of Scheer, I guess. This all sounds very cynical and calculating, but if you believe the priority is unseating the Liberals while doing minimal ideological damage to the party, this has to be the animating mindset. Or maybe I’m just naturally risk-adverse.

Of course, all this being said, I still wouldn’t put it beyond the realm of possibility that something really bizarre happens as the votes are being tallied, given the loopy electoral system the party is using — maybe Dr. Peterson wins on the 10th ballot or something. We’ll have to reconvene after May 27th and see if our assumptions and predictions need to be revised in the wake of the actual results.

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What’s wrong with conservatives in Canada: a dialogue

My friend Doug Musk is a Conservative Party member living in a rural part of the Niagara West riding. He and I often have insightful discussions about the future of conservatism in Canada, so I thought it might enjoy reading an extended, week-long email dialogue between us.

 

JJ: Hey Doug. I wanted to begin with a fairly open-ended question.

Without getting into any idealized definitions of what a Canadian conservative “should be,” how would you define Canadian conservatives as they exist right now? What sort of people are they and what do they believe?

 

DOUG: The short version: they seem to be a hodgepodge group of interests that stand in opposition to the Liberals — Trudeau most specifically and “the Left” more generally.

The longer version is more complex. I’d say they’re a group of divergent interests with some overarching core areas of agreement, but those areas of agreement are poorly articulated by the base itself, the leadership of the party, and the broader Canadian conservative movement.

Canadian conservatives seem to be an amalgam of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, more “practical” (as in, consequentialist) libertarians, and some other forces, e.g. rural Canadians, all of whom are upset with the massive changes they’ve experienced in Canada over the last 50 years (or their lifetime — whichever is shorter).

There is also another element which is kind of hard to describe, a part of Canada that just doesn’t like the Liberals for reasons they can’t really articulate in ideological terms. They basically see Liberals as as effete and elitist. Justin Trudeau in particular is viewed as a particularly egregious figure, both because he’s seen as owing his job to his dad and an ultra-friendly media, as well as his general cadence and feminine mannerisms (his seating posture is the most visceral example I can give) — all of which just “rub them the wrong way.” This isn’t polite to say in public discourse, which is why these sorts of criticisms are usually reserved for more batty comment sections (or people like me, who are too blunt for their own good).

I think Canadian conservatives have become too obsessed with certain pet issues, which we could get into. I think there’s been a particular tendency to lean into what I call “economy cultism” — a focus on esoteric economic issues that most Canadians don’t understand, care about, or support. The constant harping on deficits is one example — I sympathize with it, but at the same time, if Canadians were really concerned about debt levels we probably wouldn’t be amongst the most personally indebted people on the planet.

Social conservatives have a similarly laser-like focus on certain narrow issues to the exclusion of all others. Sex-ed in Ontario, for instance. Because they fail to properly articulate their underlying core values they just come off as sanctimonious.

Many of these problems have been temporarily papered over by tribal partisan types — the kind who respond to criticism of the right wing parties with cries of “who are you going to vote for — the Liberals!?” It’s the last line of defence for some of the really weak or incompetent provincial leaders like Brown and Baillie.

Uniting this potpourri of groups are some overarching principles, of course. All conservative Canadians seem to share a basic belief that “delayed gratification” is important. They want to preserve a certain hard-earned societal order from perceived threats. It would be nice to have these values articulated better, but the Conservative movement in Canada seems to ignore the forest for the trees. The parties’ Facebook pages seem to reflect this — it isn’t the larger vision or ideas that are shared, but reactions to whatever the ultra-specific issue du jure is.

There are also some simple demographic observations that should probably be made. The Conservative base leans male (I saw a poll a few months back that had Trudeau’s approval at -4% with men but +32% with women, if I recall correctly). They are more likely to be white, east Asian (Chinese, Korean, etc.), and older, as well as more religious — specifically protestant and Jewish. I don’t see anything wrong with this, in fact I’ve argued in favor of driving up this vote rather than chasing down the votes of demographics I consider a lost cause.

 

JJ: I think you hit on something very important when you spoke about the visceral dislike of Trudeau and “the Left” many otherwise not-terribly-ideological people have. I think one of the most complex tasks in modern politics is ideological political parties learning to manage a voting public whose strongest beliefs are animated by mostly non-ideological instincts and identities. They need to figure a way to turn those people into adherents of a more narrow and specific philosophy, and then get them to back an even more specific and narrow policy agenda. I think one of the reasons Canadian politics is quite bad, and seems like an increasing hustle, is because our parties are skipping more and more over the philosophy part, expecting people to leap straight from temperament to backing a policy agenda. To go straight from “I just don’t like that Trudeau” to “we must have free trade with Europe!”

“Economy cult” is a great phrase that I think both captures the psuedo-religious loyalty some conservatives, mostly elite-level ones, have to a rather narrow set of free-market policies, as well as the dogmatic faith they have that these issues, and these alone, will be the saving grace of any politician who champions them. A lot of that I think reflects some of the sociological stuff going on with conservative intellectuals — intellectual life is the sort of thing you do from within a university, or a think tank, or a media job or whatever, and these are overwhelmingly urbanite careers. And because urban centres have generally more left-wing, secular, materialistic cultures, a sheltered resident will naturally assume the flavor of conservative politics that works in those places is the sort of conservative politics that works best everywhere. Though I’m not sure if “economy cult” stuff even works that well in big urban cores. Conservative parties in this country already try to run the most perfectly secular, non-threatening, economy-focused candidates in city ridings and they still usually flop.

A big narrative of the current Tory leadership race has been the need to keep all the various members of the conservative family united under a “big tent,” and I think we’d probably be in agreement that’s a rational course of action. The question is how you unite them, though.

Harper was relatively good at it, because he was a man from a deeply ideological background who I think understood the base well enough to both make credible appeals on the sort of “overarching themes” you talked about (particularly in 2006, when he really articulated the idea that the Liberals had been exposed as morally unsupportable through their corruption) and through targeted policy appeals that seemed to offer a little something for every faction (we’ll abolish the wheat board for the farmers, we’ll stop funding overseas abortions for the so-cons, but we’ll still refer to LGBT rights as a centerpiece of our foreign policy agenda to appease secular urbanites, etc.).

But I also think Harper was a very sui generis character, the sort of ideologue who are dime-a-dozen in American politics but we seem to have only a handful of in Canada. Without his personal credibility, which was built up over such a long time, to keep everything together, I think the very transactional coalition-building his much less ideological successors are engaging in feels more phony and nakedly political, in the crudest sense of the word. The leadership “sun” of any new conservative solar system in Canada is going to have a quite weak pull, which I think is also the trouble with most provincial conservative parties these days.

What’s your sense of conclusions about Canadian conservatism we can draw from the post-Harper age so far?

 

DOUG: When I stop chuckling over “free trade with Europe” I’ll attempt a coherent response. It’s true though, isn’t it — the conservative parties are always plopping “you need to be outraged at Trudeau for-such-and-such” stories in the media, and through their outreach networks, then at the next moment are advocating some obscure policy we’re all supposed to get excited about without telling us what it has to do with conservative principles. I think a deep discussion of “economy cultism” and the unpopularity of fiscal conservatism might be worth getting into down the line, but for now I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in noting that much of it stems from the circles Conservative Party operatives and MP’s emerge from.

I wonder if some sort of feedback loop is being created here: the party demands people foam at the mouth at some real or perceived problem, the base responds in kind, and then the elite faction of the party (and elite society as a whole) “cringes at the dummies,” despite the fact that they created them in the first place by underestimating both the intelligence and overarching values of their own supporters.

Social media could be playing a role here as well. Some of the sites, particularly Twitter, are just not reflective of the demographics the party actually has to deal with. With others, like Facebook, the people most likely to respond to provocation are going to be those already most upset, or those with a vested interest in whatever niche issue is being discussed. I’d love to see someone from the Conservative Party post an interview with William Gairdner or Roger Scruton on social media so we could engage with “first principles,” but I guess that wouldn’t drive instant donations or traffic in the same way.

This practice of Conservatives skirting around larger issues is probably a traumatic legacy of their 2004 election loss, given that was a race where every off-colour comment by every obscure CPC candidate or campaign activist was brought up by Paul Martin and his media sycophants in a truly “scorched earth” campaign that allowed them to salvage a minority government. I think a lot of modern-day Conservative timidity stems from that defeat.

I’m not sure how much we can conclude so far from the post-Harper era. You had a great column recently about how deeply entwined Canadian conservatism had become with him, and how without this avatar the whole movement now seems rather aimless and confused. I think part of this was a byproduct of Harper’s own personal eccentricities, particularly the fact that he seems to have been an utterly terrible judge of the character of others. He failed to give enough responsibility to some of the brighter lights of the movement while simultaneously making some truly horrible appointments.

The current leadership race itself seems to be a weird mix of those running away from the Harper record alongside a handful defending their time in his government. Chong is essentially celebrating his opposition to Harper’s entire agenda. Bernier is half running against his own record as a cabinet minister (which, incidentally, highlights the perils of running a puritanical “economy cult” campaign). Some of the others say we need to go further right than Harper, e.g. Trost, Blaney. Only Scheer, and perhaps O’Toole to a lesser extent, have seemed comfortable portraying themselves as solid heirs to the Harper legacy, though I get the hint that in O’Toole’s case this is more a product of his advisors. And even Scheer has the cover of having been the apolitical speaker of the House for much of the time the CPC was in power.

Aside from Brad Wall’s party in Saskatchewan, I think we can equivocally say that all the provincial conservative parties are complete disasters, either mired in terrible polling numbers or running away from conservatism so fast and hard they can’t be even put into the same ideological category as their supporters. I know things are so bad in your province you don’t even really have an option for your upcoming election (though admittedly I’m also leaning towards sitting at home or voting fringe rather than supporting the Ontario PC in 2018).

 

JJ: I’m glad you brought up B.C. since British Columbia’s election is quite revealing. The official narrative of the press, and even many in the federal Tory Party, is that the B.C. Liberal Party is “centre-right.” I think this is dumb. Premier Clark herself has explicitly said she does not self-identify this way, and I think any objective analysis would conclude her party’s ideological agenda has been conventional big-L Liberalism (they were the first government in Canada to implement a carbon tax, for instance). But the election is nevertheless unfolding as a traditional left-right tribal thing: Mr. Horgan, the NDP leader, is running a fairly one-note campaign against rich people, whose interests Clark is seen to embody, while Clark is running as a cypher of middle class normality, in a campaign that has been likened to Harper’s last one. There is no real philosophy clash or contrasting policy appeals, just “whose side are you on”-style base pandering.

That’s the ironic thing about Canadian politics — you can have very empty debates that are nevertheless very viciously partisan. There was a poll in B.C. recently that said over 20% of NDP voters believe the Liberal Party is “far right.” That’s just objectively insane, but we know it doesn’t mean anything literal, it simply means “I think the party I hate is the worst version of thing I hate.” The right obviously does this too, which is why words like “socialism” have lost all meaning, except as insults.

This reality makes it kind of easy to understand why a party might not necessarily have much interest in becoming more principled or ideological. It suggests ideological coherence is probably a net neutral. To evoke Donald Trump for the first time, his leadership of the Republicans is a particularly sharp example — there have been all sorts of polls suggesting that Republicans will change their minds to support whatever Trump does, presumably because Trump elicits such strong tribal loyalty and trust. I’d like to think that if a Michael Chong or Kevin O’Leary type became head of the CPC it would foster a deep cleavage in the base, and possibly a new party, but maybe that’s a bit naive. I certainly think the base would get over O’Leary’s ideological heresies very quickly because he’s such an effective channeler of tribal anger at Trudeau. Chong might be more problematic just because he “reads” as Liberal in a cultural way. You can be an ideological deviant or a cultural one, but probably not both.

All parties everywhere have to do a bit of a balancing act between ideology and marketing, but I think what frustrates me about Canadian conservative politics is that it increasingly seems like it’s all marketing. In America, it can often be fairly ambiguous as to whether the Republican base is more ideological than the politicians, or vice-versa. It’s ambiguous because there’s a lot of pressure coming from multiple places. Not only the immediate, direct pressure of the Republican electorate — which can be exercised through America’s system of open nominations and primary challenges — but also the voices of the vast American conservative media industrial complex.

In Canada, by contrast, the “conservative movement” seems a lot more ossified because there aren’t these sorts of strong institutional and cultural checks and balances to keep things evolving, dynamic, responsive, and democratic. Since only an extreme minority of Canadians are Conservative Party members, nominations and even leadership contests are a bit of a fraud — they don’t reflect a broad or representative conservative electorate. Conservative media, to the extent it exists here, is either too deferential to the party on the basis that the-left’s-enemy-is-my-friend (The Rebel), or too haughtily aloof about partisan interests altogether (The National Post), while our “right-of-centre” think-tanks are all probably too far off in “economy cult” world to be compelling to Canadians whose interests transcend the hobbyhorse issues.

It’s almost enough to make me want to respect Scott Gilmore. Awful as I find his politics (his perception that the fundamental problem with the Tory party is that it’s too far-right is nuts), he’s at least expressing displeasure with the status quo — which is something few conservatives from any other corner have been willing to do quite so openly and aggressively.

 

DOUG: I think you’re right that O’Leary would (what a difference a week makes!) have found a way to unify most of the Conservative vote behind him, especially with Trudeau as the target of his attacks. The Chong campaign, however, is bizarre — it almost seems to exist as a way of easing his defection into the Liberal Party. I think it’s possible to critique the direction of your party, even from the “left,” but Chong comes across as a sort of sermonizing preacher, proclaiming the whole party and movement as sinful. I really have no idea why he’s a CPC member, let alone an MP and leadership contestant. I have to think it’s simply because that’s what he had to do to get elected in his rural riding.

We could go into this in more detail, but what the high-profile conservative “dissidents” like Chong, Gilmore, Coyne et. al. are actually arguing for is another liberal party, not a conservative one. Anyone who reads their complaints with even the slightest tinge of knowledge about ideology will recognize they’re simply arguing for a party of “classical liberalism.” Its their poor understanding of “conservatism” combined with a genuine desire to sabotage the current Conservative Party that leads them to imagine they’re attacking the party from within “the right.”

Why aren’t these guys attacking the Liberals for being too socialist or too obsessed with identity politics? Why isn’t that regarded as an equally severe threat? It’s because that would be a critique of the left, and in the media these days it’s only fashionable to attack the right for not being left enough — never the left for being too left. Virtually all analysis of the Tory leadership race has taken the form of concern trolling from the left (your column on the narratives surrounding the new Tory leader is already starting to take form).

Speaking of the think tanks and “thought leaders,” I have a great example from the B.C. election. I came across a Manning Centre Facebook post the other day which I think encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the “right” in this country — and it isn’t one of Gilmore’s critiques. The post (April 12, 2017) read as follows:

B.C. election decision summed up:
a) Vote for Christy Clark & economic growth
b) Vote NDP & host the latest stop on their tour of economic destruction

What an absolutely idiotic and asinine thing to post. One, it’s a false binary — you could easily vote for one of the fringe parties on the right, or the Greens on the left, or stay at home, or spoil your ballot etc. But even leaving that aside, there are more fundamental problems with this argument.

The Manning Centre is an organization whose mission statement declares itself to be “dedicated to building Canada’s conservative movement — by strengthening the knowledge, skills, ethical foundations, and networks of political practitioners.” How on earth is a post like this accomplishing that? Where is the Manning Centre on forming a viable B.C. Conservative Party instead of instantly endorsing a pack of Martinite Liberals? Why would Christy Clark even bother appealing to conservatives if she knows she has their vote in the bag?

The Manning Centre should be holding her feet to the fire with statements like, “we might endorse the B.C. Liberals in this election if we really like their plan on this-or-that,” or “while we can’t endorse the B.C. Liberals as a whole, here are some specific candidates we feel are right enough on the issues to earn our endorsement.” Instead they instantly play their hands. You have absolutely no power over someone if they know you will back them at any cost. At least make her work for it! Or make her sweat a little by only dropping the endorsement at the very last minute of the campaign.

Instead B.C. conservatives are given the usual binary choice nonsense (which is especially ironic coming from an organization named after Preston Manning), and the usual reduction of Canadian politics to a bizarre contest over who can put another, what, fifty dollars in your pocket at the end of the year? It’s utterly uninspiring nonsense, and yet these types of think tanks also claim to be worried about low voter turnout? These are our supposed “thought leaders.” Their entire Facebook page is littered with terrible arguments, partisan blather that belongs on flame-throwing meme pages, and articles shared from the hardly conservative-friendly Canadian mainstream media on the rare occasions when they happen to agree with “the right”.

The problem is that these organizations are loaded with professional communications people or students fresh out of university who’ve developed an odd form of conservatism based around reading Hayek and Friedman while skipping out on Burke, Scruton, Eliot, etc.

There are likely logistical explanations at play as well — the salaries for these types of positions are okay, but private sector work is usually far more lucrative. And of course think tanks in the rest of the English-speaking world can easily scoop up good Canadian writers and thinkers. The viciousness of the Canadian media to contrarian voices also surely plays a part — look at the response to your latest column! — and often even sources on the left are attacked in the same manner. Canadaland, pieces for example, are often raked over the coals for not proclaiming everything in Canada to be perfect.

 

JJ: I’ve never understood why classical liberals of the sort you mention — the sort who are always loudly complaining about feeling alienated by the Conservative Party — aren’t just big-L Liberals. Because here’s the thing: these sorts of people always articulate their classical liberalism in a way that’s completely compatible with the political priorities of the mainstream Canadian left.

So they’ll say things like, “I want a fiscally responsible party that also supports climate science and gay marriage.” They’ll never lead with something edgier like “I want a party that supports gay marriage but will also abolish the CBC,” or “I want a pro-choice party that will also crack down on disability fraud,” or “I want a party that supports immigration but will also scrap the Indian Act.”

There are numerous aspects of the Ottawa status quo that should be deeply offensive to anyone who believes first and foremost in individual rights and small government, but the problem is many of the most glaring offenses also revolve around things — including aboriginals, Quebec, immigration, heavily-subsidized “Canadian culture” — that are deeply sanctified and sentimentalized by Canada’s media-political-bureaucratic-academic establishment. I think this is part of what you were getting at when you mentioned the general hostility to “contrarian” ideas — there are a lot of issues in this country that get you quickly branded as a crank for talking about in any way that doesn’t presume the status quo as broadly correct. So the Chongites/Gilmorites steer clear of anything genuinely provocative or challenging in favor of making “the conservative case for carbon taxes,” and so on, which only serves to reenforce the idea that there exists a universal intellectual consensus for the progressive governing agenda. And thus encourages suspicion that all these people really want is a conservative party that won’t embarrass them in front of their progressive friends.

It’s taken me a while to fully appreciate the role that class plays in self-identified conservative political identity as well. There are still a lot of people kicking around who think of the Tories as the “rich people party” — and not in a pejorative way. They view it as the party of wealth and success, of big business and capitalism and nice suits and fancy dinners, while seeing the parties of the left as the parties of poor losers.

I think the phenomenon is less pronounced here in western Canada, where we have more of a history of right wing populism, but it can’t be underrated as an explanation for certain factions of conservative dissent. After all, if you came to the party on a certain pretense (this is the rich successful people party!) and then find that pretext betrayed (what?! This is actually a party of redneck rubes!) then you can understand feelings of betrayal and alienation.

Whenever I meet young, “professional” conservatives — people working in the think tanks or the parties or whatever — I find a lot of them arrived at the party from a sense of class affinity. They’re from wealthy families, and went to good schools, and want to be successful and powerful — or at least sit in close proximity to those who are. They feel they will receive the least amount of judgement or resentment for their privilege from the Tory party, as opposed to the parties on the left, who they see as sort of jealous and Bolshevik-like (I think hatred of communism is, even now, another underrated motive of conservative self-identification).

I think this is a pretty bad misreading of the culture of the parties as they exist today, at least in the sense that the Liberal Party is quite obviously a party comfortable with wealth and status (four of their last five leaders — Trudeau, Rae, Ignatieff, Martin — have all been children of extreme privilege), though I think perspectives can be badly warped in university, where “the left” is likely to be embodied by people like Marxist professors and anti-war protestors who are not really that representative of things outside the college subculture.

I think we have covered a lot of ground here and should probably bring things to a close. Any final thoughts on the state of conservatism in Canada, Doug?

 

Doug: Well, I think you’ve touched upon something profound with your question about why Gilmore and friends aren’t big-L liberals. To get into it briefly, I think it’s because the classical liberal views they hold actually represent a very unpopular ideology amongst the masses (classical liberal parties across the globe tend to be poorly supported, and can usually only survive by morphing into something more socialist, e.g. the Canadian Liberals, or more conservative, i.e., the Liberals in Australia), but one that is nevertheless given disproportionately large breathing space within our broader discourse because its few adherents lean elite and wealthy. In order for classical liberalism to gain support from the public at large, it thus has to “eat itself” in a way, and hijack an existing party and try to bend it towards those views. I think many classical liberals realize the progressive movement is taking the left off a cliff, but they don’t realize it was many of their own ideas that provided the spark.

T.S. Eliot’s critique of classical liberalism in Idea of a Christian Society nails this succinctly, I’ll post part of it here because I think it’s very valuable to my argument and is written more eloquently than I can possibly match.

That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

This is something I worry about a lot with the Conservative Party of Canada — that its upper echelons are actually much further to the left, or much more classically liberal, than the party as a whole. Or are at least deeply culturally out of touch with it, in that “look at all these rubes!” way you mentioned. I think the elitism of the CPC has helped cost us seats in Atlantic Canada and places like Northern Ontario, Manitoba, interior B.C. etc., that often go NDP or Liberal.

The fear is that Conservative Party members are treated as — to put it in wrestling/carnival parlance — marks, from which donations can be easily gathered, with the leaders of the party then getting together with Liberal friends at Ottawa cocktail parties and apologizing profusely that their riding hasn’t embraced the latest radical social progressive idea.

I find the whole “we have to win the 905” arguments to be an encapsulation of this. I think much of it is naked self-interest from elite-types in Canada who just selfishly expect parties should appeal “to them,” or at least their area, because they see their city and community as embodying their preferred idealized version of “what Canada should be” (an assumption I could easily tear apart with data on external migration, levels of public trust, etc.). It might also just be a flat lack of imagination from the types who tend to gather in Canadian politics.

The fact is, it really doesn’t matter where a party wins seats, all that matters is that you win over 170 of them and form a majority government. They can be gathered from anywhere, yet no one talks about how parties “must win” Northern Ontario, or the Cote Nord/Saguenay Region of Quebec, or the 10 ridings of New Brunswick, etc. I could easily assemble combinations of seats in regions of this sort and get to numbers equalling those of suburban cities around Toronto. They might even have less volatile demographics and thereby allow the party to form a larger, more loyal base that turns out more consistently.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy to go around saying “the 905 is important” if you target it ad nauseam while neglecting other regions of the country. You once had a great line about how Canadian political parties view safe seats as a sort of “cheat code” as opposed to an earned success that can be replicated elsewhere.

It’s much the same with demographic arguments. For example, the CPC has spent plenty of time saying “we need to appeal to women more.” While this isn’t false, you never hear the reverse argument — “we need to raise male turnout to the same levels as women.” Turnout amongst female voters was 68% in 2015, male turnout was 64 %. That doesn’t sound like much, but given women were more likely to vote Liberal than men, higher male turnout might have been enough to garner the CPC some swing seats. In 2011, the gap was only +2.5% for women, so it’s easy to ague that extra 1.5% last cycle cost the Conservatives some close ridings. This is just an example off the top of my head, but it would not shock me in the slightest if this has literally never come up in CPC strategy planning sessions.

I find it frustrating that Conservatives are supposed to win “moral” election victories with seats representing some perfect balance of demographics and regions. But it shouldn’t matter — what matters is winning 170+ seats, which usually entails 38-42% of the vote per riding, depending on splits. Heck, you can actually run against a part of the country if you want given our electoral system — that is essentially what Trump did with the Electoral College, he not only wrote off California but attacked it. I know evoking Trump and cynical election strategies won’t be popular with left-wing readers, but many other politicians have done this too. Pierre Trudeau essentially ran against “the West” in his later victories to the delight of some Quebec voters who then broke for him in massive numbers.

I think I’ve trashed the movement enough for now. Readers should know my attacks are directed against those who are leading the Conservative Party astray, or have become stale in their ideas and arguments. I’m not complaining about the party’s core voters, most of whom (aside from a few angry trolls), are salt-of-the-earth types, and very much the engine of Canada. I’m tired of the CPC, the provincial parties, and think tanks who are largely doing a poor job of representing and arguing for them

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How to be controversial in Canada and not lose your job

Prominent pundits across Canada are writing all sorts of stern, thoughtful pieces about Dr. Andrew Potter of the University of McGill at the moment. On March 20, Potter wrote an article for Maclean’s magazine that criticized Quebec society. It generated a backlash from Quebecers, including the premier of the province, and Potter immediately groveled and apologized. His employer publicly denounced him, and then eventually fired him (well, formally “accepted his resignation”) from one of his university jobs.

People are writing about this episode for a number of reasons. Potter seems to be a well-liked guy within the Canadian media establishment, and other media people seem honestly upset that he’s been cajoled out of his “dream job.” The idea of a professor being disciplined by his administration for expressing controversial opinions raises serious questions about academic freedom. But more than anything else, his plight has offered opportunity to take particular issue with Quebecers, and the degree to which they seem prone to extravagant demonstrations of offense in response to rather mild criticism. They say it takes three examples to prove a trend, and Potter’s name is often mentioned alongside Jan Wong and Martin Patriquin — two journalists who were officially denounced by the Canadian parliament for writing things that offended Quebec.

I’m in a unique position to comment on this, because last month I myself was denounced by a unanimous vote of the Quebec legislature for the crime of writing something that offended the province. The Bloc Quebecois almost got a motion denouncing me to sail unanimously through the House of Commons as well, but the Conservatives denied support.

My episode received very little media attention. As far as I’m aware, no one in English Canada wrote a single editorial in my defense (there were several pieces written denouncing me in the Quebec press, however, and I was given a sympathetic interview by the U.S.-based Daily Caller).

On some level, this was predictable. I am not as famous or as well-liked as Dr. Potter, and a conservative writer like me getting in trouble for being offensive is a bit of a dog-bites-man story. On the other hand, I will take some credit for engaging in deliberate tactics that specifically helped minimize the drama of my situation. I didn’t suffer nearly as much for my actions as did Dr. Potter, despite the fact that my article received a much harsher official rebuke.

Why? For starters, I wrote my piece for the Washington Post, an American publication. Americans have the First Amendment, and they value freedom of speech and freedom of the press as fundamental, inalienable rights. The notion that a calmly-argued editorial column deserves any sort of official reprimand is bizarre to American sensibilities. My editors at the Post stood by me 100%, and I am still writing for them to this day. My professional advice to Canadian journalists is that if you want to write something provocative or controversial, consider doing it for someone in the States. Canada simply has a lot fewer people willing to defend free speech as a principle unto itself.

Second, Dr. Potter made the fundamental mistake of apologizing. Any phonebook lawyer will tell you, the absolute worst thing you can do when accused of any serious offense is concede the validity of the accusations. Potter’s first instinct was to not defend the free speech rights he had exercised, it was to admit he went too far in criticizing Quebec and would do things differently in retrospect.

I thought about defending myself when the backlash to my piece began, perhaps clarifying some of the points that I believed were being misunderstood by my critics, but ultimately chose not to. I didn’t say anything about the piece. I didn’t write any follow ups or clarifications. I certainly didn’t concede that I did anything wrong. I won’t concede that now. I wanted the issue to be as clear of distraction as possible, with the issue being I had written an opinion column and a government was denouncing me for it. Defending that big picture will always be a much easier argument than getting into the nitty-gritty about whatever specific thesis you were pushing. That’s for comments threads.

Lastly, Dr. Potter clearly didn’t have the courage of his convictions. As the National Post’s Jen Gerson put it on Canadaland, his piece read like the rant of a man who got caught in a Quebec traffic jam and tried to form a thesis around it, rather than any deeper motive. Potter’s subsequent expressions of regret and remorse revealed a man who worries very much about Quebec’s approval and was genuinely troubled by their rejection. He has some personal history with the province and held a high-profile job at “a Montreal institution that more than most reflects Canada’s language duality” — in the words of Chantal Hebert — which put him in a uniquely defensive place.

I, meanwhile, don’t really care what Quebec thinks of me. Being denounced was weird, and being barraged with swear-filled emails from strangers (which I continue to receive to this day) certainly could be disturbing, but it wasn’t existentially threatening to any part of my identity or lifestyle.

The old saying is true — they can’t take away what you never had.

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Fun Quiz! Match the Andrew Coyne Spluttering With the Budget

The following are quotes Andrew Coyne has used to describe the eight federal budgets released between 2010 and 2017. Can you match the splutter with the year?

  1. “the budget is bloated, cynical, dirigiste and incoherent”
  2. “so innocuous, so inoffensive, so utterly inconsequential”
  3. “almost universally bad ideas.”
  4. “a budget that commits the government to do everything it had ever done, only at fractionally less cost. And I do mean fractionally.”
  5. “ the budget’s whole premise is a fraud.”
  6. “It was to be expected the budget would be inadequate; nothing suggested it would be quite so trivial as this.”
  7. “I cannot recall ever reading one quite as mind-bendingly empty as this one.”
  8. “It’s not a bad budget, overall.”

Answer key coming soon!

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How to Write About Populism in Canada

Greetings Canadian journalists!

As you know, there’s currently a thing called “populism” happening all around the world. This is a fad in which poor people elect little Hitlers to power. I mean, it’s so far only actually happened in the context of Donald Trump (boo!) getting elected in the U.S., but there’s also that Brexit vote thing in the U.K., and that counts too for some reason. I know the iron rule of journalism is that you need three examples before you can claim a trend, so in a pinch just refer vaguely to “recent events in Europe” and that should cover it.

So anyway, having established that the world is in the midst of a populist tidal wave, the important question to ask is why it hasn’t hit Canada. The obvious answer, of course, is that Canada is just better than everywhere else, but you’re not allowed to say that openly if you’re a serious journalist. That’s for columnists like Doug Saunders or John Ibbitson or John Ivision (those are two different guys, right?).

Writing a good populism story in Canada is thus all about reaching the Canada Is Just Better conclusion without making it overtly obvious that’s where you’re heading. Or at least not obvious in the first paragraph. The way you do this is by noting that while Canada has some populist-like things happening, they are all really stupid and dumb and unpopular and meaningless and should be ignored. Because Canada Is Just Better.

What follows is a checklist of points you’ll want to hit:

☐ Find some polling data that suggests Canadians are racist, with “racist” defined as “expressing any reservations about immigration in any way.” Since no one you know has opinions like these, be sure to describe the polls as “surprising.” This will have the added benefit of informing common people that their very common opinions shock people better than them (i.e., journalists), which might help shame them into not thinking that way anymore.

☐ Mention Kellie Leitch. This is absolutely vital. She should be framed as the villain of the piece, which you can do by liberally sprinkling the adjective “Trump-like” around any mention of her name. DO mention how her immigrant “values test” has introduced a “populist element” to the Tory leadership race, but DO NOT mention how her lukewarm reception as a candidate could possibly have anything to do with her perceived inauthenticity on the issue or general dislikability. Kellie Leitch is the beginning and end of populism’s political manifestation in Canada. It will sink or swim on her and her alone.

☐ Mention Kevin O’Leary only to note how despite his own “Trump-like” shtick, he actually loves immigration and is thus not worth cramming into this narrative.

☐ Note that Jason Kenney caused the Conservatives to win the 2011 election with his non-racist magic. Everyone knows that in 2011 all the ethnics voted Conservative. Don’t worry about citing any hard evidence to support this, this is just one of those things everyone knows.

☐ Follow up by noting that in 2015, the Conservatives lost because racism. Again, everyone knows this happened, so don’t kill yourself trying to scrape up an exit poll or something. Just talk airily about “niqabs” and insert a line like “alienated their former base” somewhere.

☐ Find some non-threatening Conservative elder statesman to go on the record agreeing with you. Tom Flanagan always answers his phone, so he’s a good bet. So is Preston Manning. Conservative people hang on his every word, right? How the hell should I know? I don’t have conservative friends. Get off my case!

With all that rock-solid evidence out of the way, feel free to spend the rest of your word count making various freeform assertions about what a great multicultural utopia Canada is, and how much Justin Trudeau warmed the heart of the world with all his Syrian refugees. Take it for granted that because Canada has been getting more diverse in recent decades this means Canadians explicitly wanted that to happen. This is called “circular reasoning” and is considered a very strong style of argument.

Close with a line that sounds kinda cautious, but also kinda not. Maybe like, “and though it would be naive to think Canada is immune to the global populist wave, never forget that Canada is also just way better than other places.”

Bon appétit! It should taste familiar.

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You heard them here first! Conservative leader narratives

These days, being a good reporter/columnist/pundit is all about creating a narrative first, with facts and reality yadda yadda a distant second. With that in mind, I’m excited to announce that I’ve discovered the narratives the press will soon be using to frame the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, whoever it may be.

If Kellie Leitch wins…

Conservatives have abandoned their principles, and very likely their souls, in embracing Trump-style populism and xenophobia. Since Canadians are a fundamentally inclusive, welcoming people, the Tory Party has signed its suicide note, made itself irrelevant, and the only question remaining is how gigantic Justin Trudeau’s re-election victory will be.

Future headlines:

  • “In response to Leitch, Red Tories eyeing Trudeau”
  • “Is Leitch becoming an alt-right hero?”

If Kevin O’Leary wins…

Conservatives have chosen to embrace a Trump-style cult of celebrity rather than a party guided by clear or coherent principles. O’Leary’s ignorance of Canada and Canadian things makes Michael Ignatieff look like John A. Macdonald. That said, O’Leary’s many important differences from Trump — namely his openness to multiculturalism and hostility to social conservatism — shows just how admirably distinct Canada’s political culture is from America’s.

Future headlines:

  • “O’Leary said he looks forward to meeting ‘fellow heads of state;’ we got thirty constitutional experts to explain why he’s wrong.”
  • “Is O’Leary actually the anti-Trump?”

If Maxime Bernier wins…

Conservatives have rejected radicalism — or have they? The distractions of the Leitch and O’Leary campaigns caused many to overlook the fact that the new Tory leader will be running in the next federal election on the most hard-right platform in Canadian history, pushing a cold-hearted agenda of deregulation and privatization topped off by enormous, unaffordable tax cuts for the wealthy.

  • “Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek — meet the extremist philosophers influencing the new Conservative leader”
  • “Could the Conservatives’ first Quebec leader do worse than Harper in Quebec?”

If Andrew Scheer wins…

Conservatives have shown themselves to be deeply cautious and risk-adverse in selecting a young leader offering little ideological distance from the failed Stephen Harper orthodoxy rejected decisively by voters in 2015. Most worryingly, the openly pro-life Scheer possesses none of Harper’s instinctive caution towards the Christian fundamentalist wing of the party, who are now firmly in the driver’s seat at a time when Canada’s debates over social issues have never been more settled.

  • “After years in the wilderness, Canada’s religious right eyes new levels of influence”
  • “Is this Stockwell Day all over again?”

If Lisa Raitt or one of that set wins

Conservatives have rejected the global wave of populism in selecting a calm and moderate leader who stands as a living testament to the fundamentally cautious, centrist instincts of the Canadian people. This new leader is a principled, pragmatic Red Tory in the best tradition of Robert Stanfield or Joe Clark, with an attractive personality and sympathetic backstory that is likely to give Trudeau a run for his money in 2019.

  • “Despite new leader’s moderate appearance, many fear Conservative ‘hidden agenda.'”
  • “Joe Clark offers lessons on how to lose to a Trudeau with dignity.”
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Recent Works

Here’s a piece of writing I have been working on for a while: Why did the Conservatives lose the 2015 election? (Or: is the “Racist Tory Thesis” correct?).

I’ve also written several pieces for the Washington Post recently you may find interesting:

U.S. media saw the Trump-Trudeau summit as a bust. The Canadian press loved it, Feb. 15

Why does ‘progressive’ Quebec have so many massacres?, Feb. 1

Justin Trudeau isn’t the liberal hero the world makes him out to be, Jan. 11

Why the global populist wave hasn’t hit Canada, Dec. 11

I got a fair bit of backslash for that Quebec-themed one, which is quite ironic if you read the piece itself. The Quebec legislature denounced me in a unanimous motion, and the federal parliament in Ottawa nearly did as well, but luckily the Conservative Party denied consent (thanks Conservative Party!). The Daily Caller did a nice interview with me about it.

 

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On the Trump Inaugural

I have drawn a cartoon about the Trump inauguration as well. Check it out on CNN.

***

It was, first and foremost, a very ideological speech. The ideology was not one that’s been heard in Washington in some time, which makes it easy to dismiss as vacuous or irrelevant. Yet his will remain an inaugural of unique dogmatism, an embrace of a particular principle at the expense of convention and cliche.

President Trump laid out the animating philosophy of his government in terms succinct and blunt. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,” he said, later fleshing that out into “two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.”

Globalization, outsourcing, open borders, and even trade were framed as enemies. A portrait was painted of a world where nations struggle for spoils, and America had forgotten how to play. He said “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” and vowed that was all he would do.

Like all unapologetically ideological speeches, Trump’s clarity of thought came at the expense of broader appeal. By definition, a democratic politician will be elected by a relatively homogenous community of voters, shared interest and identity being what inspires block voting in the first place. The challenge of a leader is to honor this mandate while recognizing the moral validity of experiences outside it.

Trump’s base of disillusioned white laborers feels economically depressed, politically ignored, and culturally despised. No doubt many of the communities they inhabit resemble the landscape the President described in vivid, gothic terms, with its “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” and so on. The villains of this world were the villains of the speech.

Since November, Trump’s electorate has been the subject of studious sociological sympathy, yet their perception of suffering can only exist in the context of another America comparatively better off. The United States is still the best-performing G7 economy, and America remains a global fount of innovation, ideas, and culture the rest of the planet envies and follows.  The country’s rapid clip of technological advancement, social change, and global interconnectedness bring challenges, but also joy and inspiration. No one lives a life entirely on the dark half of an era. Historians will find it curious to read a speech written in the early days of 2017 that focuses exclusively on the anxieties of what is, by any objective standard, still a tremendously exciting and interesting time to be alive.

From a purely political perspective, Trump’s inaugural was also rather high-risk, in the sense the President encouraged the American people to use high, subjective standards to judge his rule. While other presidents lay out specific policy goals, implying their success should be judged by an ability to implement, Trump’s promises were vaguer assurances that Americans would simply experience life differently, and perceive the realities of their country less cynically. “The people” will be in charge of Washington’s agenda. Those who feel forgotten “will be forgotten no longer” and “never be ignored again.” And yes, “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” Every single one.

It’s not impossible for a politician to win re-election on the giddy tides of a changed national spirit, but it is difficult, and could be uniquely difficult for Trump, considering the ills he vowed to undo — greedy corporations, out-of-touch politicians, etc. — are some of the most entrenched tropes of American culture. There’s already been much grumbling over whether Trump’s rather conventional cabinet reflects an appropriately “drained swamp” administration, and should he govern as a boringly conventional Republican, or a figurehead to Congress, it will be easy for a Democrat in 2020 to ask voters, in Reagan-like fashion, if they feel as good as Trump promised they would. My sense is the public can be convinced they feel bad with greater ease than they can be convinced various policy victories didn’t occur. Yet these are the terms Trump has set for his fight.

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My favorite articles from 2016

In case you missed them the first time around, here are five things I wrote in 2016 that I am particularly proud of:

Why the global populist wave hasn’t hit Canada, Dec. 11, Washington Post

Our new homophobia, Jun. 13, jjmccullough.com

It will take more than money and politics to heal aboriginal communities, Apr. 22, Loonie Politics

Progressive Belgium offers a terror lesson for Trudeau, Mar. 24, Loonie Politics

When Justin Met Barack: A brief history of belligerence and bromance between Canadian prime ministers and U.S. presidents, Mar. 10, Foreign Policy

2016 was also a year in which I started to do a bit more social media activism, some of which achieved some modest results, particularly #quantumgate and #trudeaueulogies.

Remember that you can always check out my complete archive of recent writing on Loonie Politics. And be sure to follow me on Facebook, where I always post my latest content updates of any sort.

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No one is getting electoral reform because no one really wants it

You are going to read very little accurate commentary on the final report from the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform simply because so many powerful and influential people are deeply vested in denial. We saw a preview of this in the House of Commons the other day with Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef getting piled on from all sides for observing a simple fact: the electoral reform committee was a dumb thing that produced a dumb report.

Conservatives are instinctively hesitant to believe anything a hacky partisan like Monsef says. NDPers and Elizabeth May, who have the most to gain from a new electoral system, take her criticism personally. Pundits across the land — nearly all of whom believe deeply in the cause of electoral reform — need a scapegoat to blame for a dream that’s fast slipping away.

Yet changing Canada’s electoral system in time for the next election was always a wildly implausible promise that was only attractive in the abstract. Preserving the idea’s popularity thus required keeping it abstract as long as humanly possible, which is what the electoral reform committee did quite successfully during their six months of opaque proceedings, and clearly hoped to keep doing in releasing this utterly useless report.

Would you like to know what electoral system the report recommends? Here’s the summary, in total: “a proportional electoral system.” This is less than useless, because as the report’s endless pages of exposition and thinking-out-loud make clear, a “proportional system” doesn’t actually mean anything, it’s merely an aspirational standard in which seats in the legislature are elected in greater sync with the popular vote than they are at present. People like the sound of that, but as Mackenzie King once said of taxes, everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.

If the report offers little formal instruction regarding how government should make the “proportional” dream a reality, it certainly knows what it doesn’t want. The new system must have “a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less,” it demands, referring to a fairness standard too technical to get into here (Canada’s last election got a score of 12, for reference). But so too must this new system not use “pure party lists,” as are common in Europe, “as such systems sever the connection between voters and their MP.” Also: it’s important that “no change to the electoral system must be made that would have the effect of diminishing Quebecer’s [sic] voice in the Canadian political discourse” or “the needs, interests and aspirations of Canada’s two official language minority communities.” They also concede there are a lot of constitutional ambiguities that still need to be sorted out, so get cracking on that too, government.

Thankfully, the report does explicitly acknowledge one piece of reality establishment boosters of electoral reform have been most loathe to admit: swapping Canada’s electoral system will inescapably compromise other aspects of Canadian democracy as currently practiced. My own personal anxiety has long been that adopting an electoral system disposed to yield narrow minority governments, or coalition governments, brings enormous risk of severing voter control over who gets to be prime minister — which is really the only important voter concern in a political system as constitutionally top-heavy as ours. Thus, government must undertake a “comprehensive study of the effects [of a new electoral system] on other aspects of Canada’s ‘governance ecosystem’” before they offer voters any hard proposals, the report concludes.

In sum, the committee’s findings can be reduced to “status quo bad, let’s change it,” which marks no meaningful advancement from the slogans spouted by Justin Trudeau on last year’s campaign trail. The committee should have had the courage to recommend a specific alternative system, but that would have invited the public to immediately begin deconstructing its flaws. A de facto “Vote No” campaign would instantly spring to life, and the uphill battle for the pro-change folks would become more obvious than it was already.

So poor Minister Monsef, already so long suffering, is forced to take the fall for an incompetent government determined to bluff and deny its way through life. Much fire is being disingenuously spat for her completely accurate comment that the electoral committee “did not complete the hard work we had expected,” as if her words were intended as a literal dig at the amount of man-hours its members invested, and not how useless those hours ultimately proved. The only real criticism she deserves is for pretending to anticipate anything different.

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Trump wins cartoon

The CNN people kindly asked me to draw something for their “cartoonists of the world react to Trump winning” special feature. You can check out what I drew here.

I actually drew that cartoon the day before the election. Like everyone in the world, I suspected Hillary would win, but I was not very confident. I expected a long night, and thought she would win very narrowly, barely crossing the 270 threshold, or that Donald would stage a narrow upset. So I drew the Donald-wins cartoon along with a Hillary-wins cartoon, which you can see here, if you are interested in such paralell-universe things.

 

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Election 2016 fun times

coloring-2016

It’s election day, and thus I must honor my over-decade-long tradition of providing a coloring sheet for election night. You can download the higher-res version here, in case you want to print one out and do something creative.

If you’ll be as glued to your computer as me today, may I suggest once again taking a look at my predictor page? I will be updating it throughout the day with all the various websites’ final predictions as they drift in, just so we can see which source was the most spectacularly wrong (so far, the LA Times seems to be in an early lead).

I’ll have a real cartoon done tomorrow to honor the victory of the next president.

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Another election cartoon

Probably the last thing I will draw about this election (not that I’ve drawn a lot).

Here’s a cartoon about the intersection between this election and McDonald’s I did for The Nib.

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Prediction time

Another four years, another occasion to update my site about presidential election predictors.

More updates coming as more news happens, but for now, the page above at least has a handy link to other predictor sites, so you can always check back to see what all the bigshot predictors are predicting over the next two months.

What’s your prediction?

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New cartoon!

Every election cycle, a publication called the Ladies Home Journal does this thing where they get the two would-be first ladies to submit dueling cookie recipes. They both get published, and readers vote on which one they like better. It’s occasionally accurate in predicting the winner.

The tradition began in 1992 and was probably a bit retrograde even then, but given 2016’s dueling “first ladies” this year might be the most cringe-inducing yet.

I drew a cartoon about it for The Nib.

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Just how much anti-Semitism is acceptable, Elizabeth May?

Elizabeth May and Monika Schaefer

Last month, Elizabeth May was ensnared in another one of those embarrassing brouhahas for which her Green Party has become well-known. One of her perennial candidates in Alberta, a woman named Monika Schaefer, was revealed to be quite an ugly anti-semite and Holocaust denier. May described Schaefer’s views as “shocking” but news to her, and moved swiftly to eject her from the party. In an attempt at damage control, it was noted that Schaefer had been “disallowed” to run for the party in the previous two elections, though this proved a less than impressive defense after Elizabeth May admitted Schaefer’s anti-Semitism was “not the reason” for previous vetos of her candidacy.

Thanks to the help of Ben Shachar, a reader of mine and student at York University, I have come across information that proves Elizabeth May was lying in her characterization of Ms. Schaefer’s history with the Green Party, and May’s personal knowledge of Ms. Schaefer’s anti-Semitic views.

Contrary to her claim that Schaefer’s views took her by surprise, Elizabeth May was directly exposed to Schaefer’s anti-Semitism as early as 2014 and was actually involved in negotiations with Schaefer in the run up to a 2014 by-election in which May attempted to get Schaefer to tone down her anti-Semitism to a level that would be publicly palatable. Only when Schaefer refused did May veto her candidacy — which, again, contradicts May’s claim that Schaefer’s anti-Semitism was “not the reason” for her doing so.

Timeline of Events

Much of the information contained in this post comes from a January 4, 2015 article on the anti-Semitic website Radical Press that contains multiple quotes from Monika Schaefer, including portions of emails Ms. Schaefer sent to Elizabeth May in the past.

According to the article, on August 5, 2014 Schaefer sent Elizabeth May an email complaining about the controversy surrounding then-Green Party president Paul Estrin’s conservative views on Israel. Schaefer called Estrin, who is Jewish, “a Zionist shill” who “will destroy the Green Party of Canada from within” and accused him of trying to hijack the Greens “on behalf of a supremacist cult.” She demanded May fire him, saying “it is time to free ourselves of the shackles of Zionism. In the teachings of the Talmud, we the goyim are lower than cattle, and we are quickly becoming enslaved.” (Estrin resigned as party president that same day and has since complained that “many in the Jewish community” are disturbed by the “abuse and unbalance” that animates the Green Party’s attitude towards Israel).

On September 17, 2014 Conservative Yellowhead MP Rob Merrifield announced his resignation from the House of Commons to accept a job working as an Alberta diplomat in Washington DC, forcing a by-election, which was held on Monday, November 17. Schaefer wanted to run for the Greens, as she had run in the riding three times prior, including two times under Elizabeth May’s leadership, in 2008 and 2011 (May became Green Party leader in August of 2006). In the Radical Press article, Schaefer offers this description of what happened:

“Lo-and-behold a by-election was called in my riding of Yellowhead, Alberta in October of 2014 but because of the letter regarding Paul Estrin I was rejected by the GPC as a candidate. Elizabeth May told me I could apologize to Paul for the letter, thereby making it ‘go away’. I refused, because that would have been the beginning of the road to compromise on truth.”

Accordingly, Schaefer did not run for the Greens. It appears that she continued to remain an active figure in the party.

A few months later, on December 30, 2014 Schaefer sent Elizabeth May an email complimenting her for a decision she made earlier that month to present a “truther” petition to the House of Commons and encouraged her to double down. The rambling letter contains several anti-Semitic flourishes, including mention of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and reference to Israeli “foreknowledge” of the 9/11 attacks. May took a lot of flack for the 9/11 petition and eventually more or less disavowed it, defending herself with the factually incorrect claim that MPs “have to” present to the House any petitions their constituents give them. This backdown offended Schaefer, who on July 30, 2015 sent an email to Elizabeth May quitting the Green Party “effective immediately,” citing May’s lack of dedication to the cause of 9/11 Trutherism. It appears this is the reason why Schaefer did not run in the October 19, 2015 general election.

Schaefer’s anti-Semitic video was not published on YouTube until nearly a year later, on June 17, 2016. After the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs expressed outrage and the CBC reported on it on July 15, 2016 Elizabeth May issued an official statement claiming to be “shocked” by Schaefer and her “terribly misguided and untrue statements.”

Later that same day, I, J.J. McCullough, and a guy named Daly de Gagné asked Elizabeth May some questions on Twitter. Our exchange went like this:

Note that while I was incorrect about Schaefer running “three times” under May, Elizabeth May’s response that “1st time she ran I was not leader” is a red herring. While it’s true that Schaefer ran in the 2006 general election before May was appointed head of the party, Schaefer did, as noted above, run under May’s leadership in 2008 and 2011. She did not run in a 2011 by-election or the 2015 general.

New questions for Elizabeth May:

1) When did Monika Schaefer first begin sending you anti-Semitic emails?

2) Monika Schaefer’s 2014 email to you about Paul Estrin was clearly anti-Semitic. Why did you not initiate efforts to expel her from the party at that time?

3) According to Schaefer, you offered her an opportunity to remain a candidate in the 2014 Yellowhead by-election if she apologized to Estrin. This seems preposterous given anti-Semitism is a worldview and not something that can be cleared with a mere apology. Why were you interested in allowing Schaefer to continue to represent the Green Party? Will you release your email exchange with her so we can see the exact terms of any “deal” you offered her?

4) What was Schaefer’s role in the Green party between August 2014 and July 2015?

5) Why did you lie about being “shocked” by Schaefer’s anti-Semitism, given you clearly had been exposed to it multiple times prior to her video?

6) Why did you tell Mr. Gagné that Monika Schaefer was going to be “expelled” from the Green Party when she had already quit? Did she rejoin the party at some point?

7) Why did you say Schaefer’s anti-Semitism was “not the reason” for her candidacy being disallowed in 2014? Did you consider her anti-Semitic criticism of Paul Estrin to be an offense distinct from general anti-Semitism? How anti-Semitic is a Green Party candidate allowed to be?

UPDATE: At an August 22, 2016 press conference in which she stated she would not, contrary to popular opinion, be stepping down as Green leader, Elizabeth May wandered into the topic of anti-Semitism within her party, insisting “I don’t think there are anti-Semitic people within the Green Party” and claiming the party was actually hyper-vigilant on this front. She claimed that the “only” time people have been disallowed to run for the Green Party was over what she called “this issue,” adding “I’m not going to say those people were anti-Semitic, but there was concern.” It again begs the question as to what Elizabeth May considers anti-Semitic.

UPDATE 2: On October 24, 2016 VICE reporter Mack Lamoureux reported that Ms. Schaefer was scheduled to speak at a Canadian neo-Nazi convention known as “Blood and Honour.”

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