The Perestroika phase of Canadian media

I was a guest on Jesse Brown’s popular podcast Canadaland the other day. Please give it a listen. I discuss some of the ideas addressed in this column.

The lesson of Mikhail Gorbachev is that reform isn’t always possible. Just as women can’t be half pregnant and antebellum America couldn’t be half free, an economy cannot survive being half centrally-planned. Perestroika permitted certain sectors of the Soviet economy to be rebuilt according to free market principles, but this only made the remaining closed sectors appear more odious. Talk of “inherent contradictions” within the Soviet model — an economic system promising to serve the interests of the proletariat was clearly doing anything but —  became louder, and culminated in collapse.

Canadian television remains one of the last holdouts of Soviet-style socialism, a description that is accurate despite its sensationalism. Decisions over which shows get made, which shows can be aired at what hour, how stations can raise revenue, and what channels consumers can purchase — and in what combination — are all subordinate to the ideological goals of Ottawa, as opposed to market forces.

It’s for this reason I find myself sympathizing with Bell Canada president Kevin Crull, and his recent temper-tantrum that resulted in Canadian Radio and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC) chairman Jean-Pierre Blais being briefly banned from the airwaves of CTV, a Bell subsidiary (I should note for the record that I collect a regular paycheque from CTV thanks to my weekly appearance on a current events roundtable).

Crull was infuriated at Chairman Blais’ recent decree that cable providers like his can no longer force consumers to subscribe to channels in excessively large minimum bundles, with Blais instead inventing his own $25 “Skinny Bundle” minimum. Since cable companies practice a sort of redistributionist economics in which revenues generated by popular channels subsidize the existence of unpopular ones (excess profits from the hockey channel may prop up the wildlife channel, for instance), a forced breakup of the big bundle system invariably throws the future of smaller channels into question —and thus the cable companies’ bottom line.

Crull’s response was petulant and vindictive, but I imagine it must be maddening to work in an over-regulated industry whose rules are subject to erratic and arbitrary change for erratic and arbitrary reason. Chairman Blais clearly views himself as a democratic folk hero in the Gorbachev mold, a man determined to win popularity and acclaim by proving consumer satisfaction can exist within a closed economic system so long as the central planner-in-chief is creative and compassionate.

The unbundling decision came in the aftermath of similar decrees designed to demonstrate Blais’ self-declared “consumers first” agenda, including the elimination of Canadian content quotas for daytime TV, a requirement that Canada’s two would-be Netflix competitors, Showme and Crave, must be available to all Canadians, not just those who subscribe to their parent cable companies, and — most nakedly populist of all — a demand that Canadian airings of the Superbowl feature the cool American commercials. That last one hit Bell — who owns the Superbowl airing rights in Canada — particularly hard, and the company is now taking the CRTC to court to fight a decision that threatens to rob the network of hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue.

Blais is an all-star for now, but like Gorbachev, in the long term his actions will merely emphasize the internal contradictions of the Soviet economic model rather than mitigate them. The chairman remains officially committed to the ideological assumptions that inspired the creation of his department in the first place — that Canadians need protection from the corrosive cultural influences of American media and that government must actively limit what Canadians can watch and micromanage how cable networks spend their money. It’s an assumption that is simply not shared by the majority of Canadian consumers whose habits indicate they want more American media in their lives and are deeply irritated by the inflated prices required to subsidize the creation of unwanted Canadian alternatives.

Blais wears the mantle of the all-knowing arbitrator of what is or isn’t “fair” or in the “public interest,” but his solutions are motivated by appeasement, not resolution, and are therefore deeply unsatisfying.

Canadians do not want a “skinny bundle” — they want no bundles. They do not want Can-con free mornings, they want Can-con free evenings, too. Industry managers and content producers want a regime of light and stable regulation, not rules that change on a whim in order to placate public resentment with short bursts of populist pandering.

Gorbachev eventually fell, but only after a botched coup by hardliners who realized the existential danger he presented to a fast-crumbling regime. If one of the left-wing parties is elected this fall, will Canada’s progressive cultural nationalists demand similar retaliation against the CRTC’s loose cannon?

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The case against Mulcair

Canadians are free to dislike their prime minister, and doubtless many have fair reason for doing so. But whatever Stephen Harper’s failings, we are presently in an election year, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Canada has rarely faced such unnerving alternatives for the country’s top job.

Elite wisdom dictates we’re to regard Thomas Mulcair as the “respectable” opposition leader, in contrast to Justin Trudeau, whose flaws are so glaringly evident. Yet even in contrast, the NDP boss remains a bizarre figure, defined by little beyond the utter lack of coherent principle, motive, or purpose animating his political career.

When he ran to succeed Jack Layton in 2012, Mulcair gave a hearty “N-O” to the notion of forming a coalition government with the Liberal Party —  which made sense at the time, given NDP poll numbers. Now the NDP’s back in the low 20s and suddenly Tom can’t sing loud enough his enthusiasm for doing whatever it takes to “get rid of Stephen Harper.”

I know to some the idea of a “coalition government” sounds urbane and sophisticated — certainly European — and conjures images of laws being drafted by a non-hierarchical focus group of progressive Canada’s brightest minds. But Canadian government only works one way, and that’s at the direction of an all-powerful prime minister. Any NDP leader who expresses interest in colluding with the Libs while his party languishes in third place is indirectly asserting he has no problem with the Liberal boss running the country.

Mulcair has been perfectly frank about this, bragging that his party was “willing to make Stephane Dion prime minister of Canada” the last time coalition talk was on the table. Today, we’re to assume he has equal faith in the competence of Justin Trudeau.

It’s a curious sort of campaign that promises to install a nominal opponent in power. Then again, partisan loyalty has never been Mulcair’s strong suit.

Mulcair is, after all, the first NDP boss to have started his career in a different party. As a former Liberal minister in the government of Quebec Premier Jean Charest —  himself the former leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives — one could even make the case that Mulcair began his political life on the right (at least by French-Canadian standards).

This might explain why, upon leaving provincial politics, Mulcair initially believed he might fit in best with the federal Tories and partook in high-level talks to join the Harper administration. It remains disputed why negotiations broke down — “money or principle” wondered Tim Harper in the Toronto Star — but Mulcair never denied they took place. It’s certainly amusing to contemplate an alternative universe in which Mulcair rises in the House of Commons every afternoon to deliver lawyerly jeremiads in defense of this government.

The Mulcair approach to foreign policy is no less capricious.

In contrast to his predecessors, Mulcair has admirably minimized the influence of anti-Israeli cranks in the NDP caucus, and during last year’s war in Gaza, was blasted by the fringe for offering a balanced assessment of Middle Eastern realities. A particularly virulent anti-Israel candidate was vetoed in Nanaimo (he’s now running for the Greens, natch) and an MP quit in protest.

Yet as cannier observers have noted, it’s an open question whether this pivot is principled or personal. Mulcair’s wife is Jewish, and though that shouldn’t mean much, we know appeasing family has played a role in dictating his stance on other issues — refusing to surrender his French citizenship, for instance.

Then there’s Canada’s war against ISIS, which will soon be up for renewal. During the first parliamentary debate over airstrikes, Mulcair waxed endlessly about how outrageous it was that the Tories were talking about bombing Iraq when everyone knew the real villains were in Syria. He has since dusted off a whataboutist trope from the Dubya years and demanded to know why we’re not invading the Congo, since their genocide is surely just as bad. On CTV Sunday he suggested he’d be open to backing a war “when it is a UN mission, when it is a NATO mission,” but horrors of horrors, “this is an American-led mission.” For those keeping track, for every war Mulcair arbitrarily opposes, he can imagine four he’d arbitrarily support.

Prime Minister Harper may not always be on the side of the angels but his government at least offers constancy. No one can state with any certainty what sort of prime minister Thomas Mulcair would be, or indeed, if voting for him would even help achieve that end.

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Three frenemies

Understand Canada’s relationship with the United States and you’ll better grasp Israel’s relationship with America. The partnerships are distinct, yet grounded in surprisingly consistent themes of identity, culture, and co-dependence.

Israel’s place in the American political consciousness is comparable to the space America occupies in the minds of Canadian political observers. US politicians and pundits know the difference between Likud and Labor, and grasp the coalition building and horse-trading that defines the country’s chaotic parliamentary system — just as Canadians understand primaries, the Tea Party, and the electoral college.

American political consultants and advisors often freelance for likeminded parties in Israeli campaigns in similar fashion to those ideologically sympathetic Canadians who travel south to assist Democrats or Republicans. When debating everything from gay soldiers to border walls to airport security, Americans cite Israeli precedent just as Canadians utilize America as their all-purpose repository of useful case studies.

Doubtless many Canadians feel a bit jealous that Israel occupies such prioritized space in American political culture, and wish that their country —  which contains four times Israel’s population and shares a 5,500-mile border with the United States — was considered as deserving of attention as a thin sliver of land in the Middle East. But relevance often transcends size or geography.

Israel is a strategic ally of Washington in a way Canada is simply not, and thanks to the continued omnipresence of the War on Terror in American political conversation, properly appreciating Israel has become a foreign policy litmus test for Americans wishing to opine on the subject. Peaceful Canada is esoterica.

Canadians and Israelis, for their part, are so materially reliant on the United States (via trade and aide, respectively) ignorance of the American political process is inexcusable. As a nation of some 30-million odd English speakers with a voracious appetite for American movies, television, music, and literature, Canada is also inescapably culturally reliant on the United States, unlike Hebrew-speaking Israel.

Yet despite this, and the preponderance of Canadian expats in Hollywood and elsewhere, America’s cultural bonds with Israel often appear more emotionally meaningful, given their unique status as the first and second most Jewish countries on earth. A large number of Jews hold positions of high influence in American cultural life, many of whom visit Israel frequently or have family there. Perhaps no man more succinctly summarizes the confluences of all three nations than David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who was born in Canada, moved to America, and has a son serving in the Israeli armed forces.

All this overlap has led successive Canadian and Israeli governments to expect easy diplomacy with Washington, yet in the age of Obama, both find ties strained. Diplomats on all sides routinely complain they’ve never seen worse, in fact.

The president’s spat with Prime Minister Netanyahu is hot, and centers around weighty disputes over how to address Iran’s nuclear program and quell Palestinian unrest. The feud with Harper is colder, and more indifferent.

It took President Obama five years to express any firm opinion on the Alberta-to-Texas Keystone Pipeline, and when he did, it came through vetoing legislation designed to force his hand. The day before Israel held its national election, Obama’s homeland security secretary lamely announced that his government was on track to maybe begin thinking about someday introducing “pre-clearance” customs checkpoints on both sides of the US-Canada border, the first even slightly tangible output of a much-ballyhooed “Beyond the Border” agreement endorsed by Obama in 2011.

Disinterested in foreign policy as an end unto itself, President Obama often appears to regard diplomacy as mere extension of domestic partisanship, making it predictable that right-wingers like Harper and Netanyahu would fall victim to the taboos of the Democratic coalition. Harper’s enthusiasm for oil sands exploration has made him a demonic figure at a time when curbing climate change has become the American left’s defining metric of economic morality, while Bibi’s efforts to assert a specifically Jewish ethno-cultural identity for his nation horrifies modern progressive notions of multicultural postmodernism.

Increasing “daylight” —to quote an Obamism— between the White House and its closest allies is troubling, but if one takes seriously the strength of the underlying strategic, cultural, and emotional foundations on which the relationships are based, it will hopefully prove a transient phenomenon rooted in passing politics, not lasting realignment.

And perhaps one Canada is uniquely positioned to mend.

The closeness of prime ministers Harper and Netanyahu is well-known, after all, and for all their present chilliness, Canada’s relations with the United States are still probably better than Israel’s.

To rebuild the goodwill of three countries so closely intertwined, Prime Minister Harper’s destiny may be to play that supposedly most Canadian of roles — a peace broker.

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British Columbia’s tax revolt

In a word, British Columbia’s best and brightest are confused.

Specifically, they’re confused why polls suggest British Columbians are poised to overwhelmingly vote down a proposed hike to the provincial sales tax, the ballots of which are being mailed out this week. If passed, the .5% rate increase will generate $250 million a year in new revenue to support an ambitious plan to improve bus and train service in the greater Vancouver region, something TransLink, the public transportation authority, insists is badly needed.

If the term “establishment” has any worthwhile definition at all, it’s fair to say that the entire British Columbia establishment supports the tax hike. The ruling Liberal government and the opposition NDP support it. The vast majority of mayors support it. The police officers and firefighters support it. The universities support it. The unions support it. The chamber of commerce supports it. Even the BC golf association is on board.

The pro-tax forces have spent untold millions bombarding British Columbians with pro-tax billboards, flyers, websites, TV commercials, radio spots, newspaper ads, and grinning young people standing on street corners in bright green t-shirts. But no matter how loudly or often they make their case, by a two-to-one margin, the voters ain’t biting.

At root is a massive split in perception.

British Columbia’s elite, in general, have a worldview which places government as the central force of society. They’re likely to work directly for the government, or in industries that are favorably subsidized or regulated by it. Many of their most passionate moral causes are tied to initiatives they believe only government can adquately address: global warming, inequality, discrimination.

The political opinions of the elite tend to center around which party can do government best, as opposed to what government should be doing. They’re likely to support Mayor Robertson because they feel he’s an obedient marionette of an intelligent bureaucracy and equally likely to loathe Premier Clark because they think she’s an erratic rube (though many share her apprehensions about the NDP). Since they have endless faith in government’s capacity to spend money properly, when revenues run dry their instinct is to ask taxpayers for more.

The non-elite, in contrast, are likely to live lives in which government is a more distant presence — quite literally, in the case of suburban residents who dwell far from the power centers of downtown Vancouver. Their understanding of the state is more transactional, with an assumption that what one pays through fees and taxes should correlate with the value of services received. Most do not use public transportation and view the enormous salaries and expense accounts of those who run the transportation authority as evidence government is not starved for cash.

These competing visions are broad generalizations, of course. Doubtless more than a few British Columbians will be voting with the sort of cognitive dissonance common to the boomer generation, in which government is expected to do everything yet cost nothing. But by and large the split in the tax fight is unmistakably rooted in class, and a deep disagreement over how much trust should be afforded to the powerful.

BC’s elite clearly do not have an effective strategy for communicating with their lessers. Lecturing them in the style that works on other elites — citing European case studies to illustrate why TransLink is actually very elegant and cost-efficient, for instance — has flopped, as have increasingly condescending editorials insisting that voting for the tax hike will make you “richer, healthier and happier,” as an urban planning consultant wrote in the National Post last week.

At times, it’s been hard to avoid schadenfreude at the sheer incompetence of the “Yes” campaign, whose profound lack of self-awareness often has a sort of Thurston Howell III quality — how many more chamber of commerce endorsements do you people need? Yet there’s real danger the public’s eagerness to vote down the transportation tax, just as they voted down the equally elite-backed Harmonized Sales Tax in 2011, will ultimately expedite further overclass distrust in democracy. Many in that class are already blaming Premier Clark for allowing the vote to occur in the first place, while others are furious that many of TransLink’s most damaging spending scandals — particularly the ongoing Compass Card boondoggle — were the result of excessive meddling in government business by elected politicians.

Because government has been allowed to become the central force of BC society, with a mandate that has ballooned to encompass not just causes practical or functional, but moral, the long-term project of those who take government’s divine mission most seriously will be to minimize input opportunities for those who don’t.

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Tories trying to protect the cultural common good

We are indisputably going through a phase of dark viciousness in Canadian politics at the moment, much of it rooted in the hysterical, Pavlovian thrashing that occurs whenever the realities of immigration are acknowledged even slightly critically.

Progressives are churning out sombre columns and somewhat less sombre social media campaigns in response to Prime Minister Harper’s ongoing efforts to ban burka-clad immigrants from reciting the citizenship oath, and related claims that this costume is “anti-women.” The plight of a Pakistani immigrant who had trouble at a Quebec courtroom on account of her headscarf — something Harper had nothing to do with, for whoever cares — is usually shoehorned into this same narrative of creeping “Islamophobia,” an evil that also featured prominently in Justin Trudeau’s big “liberty” speech earlier this week.

Progressive thought leaders see only bigotry and fear animating such distaste, but it is not irrational to be concerned about women wearing burkas in this country. Tenting up women as radioactively shameful or seductive creatures is a profoundly alien custom from a particularly regressive part of the planet, and one that will undermine Canada’s hereto understood norms of openness, civility, dignity, and equality if permitted to popularize. Whatever we think of veil-wearing as a case study in constitutional rights, it’s cultural consequences are undeniably corrosive, but the left has long ago abandoned interest in promoting the cultural common good in favor of identity politics — in which the uninhibited promotion and protection of diverse identities is the only principle worth defending.

Even the Conservative Party appears unable to operate entirely outside this intellectual lockbox. In an interview with Maclean’s the day after the Trudeau speech, Minister Kenney attempted damage control on the Islamophobe front by noting that his government has imported nearly 300,000 Muslim immigrants since coming to power. Who exactly, is such a statement intended to inspire, beyond other members of the elite who value the endless diversification of Canada as a positive unto itself? Polls suggest most of us think the country’s diverse enough already.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick MP John Williamson has been subject to a whole other demonization campaign for publicly musing that “it makes no sense to pay ‘whities’ to stay home while we bring in brown people to work in these jobs” — with “these jobs” being those of the traditional working-class.

In shrieking down such comments as “racist,” Williamson’s critics have consciously turned off their brains in a very particular way, since the (literally) colorful terms employed by the MP are well-worn phrases with highly appropriate meaning in the context in which he used them.

“Brown people” is an intentionally condescending turn of phrase used mostly by progressives to mock what they imagine to be paranoid bigots. Just the other day, I was listening to Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast, for instance, and his impeccably progressive guest made fun of the idea, supposedly deeply held by conservatives, that “only brown people are terrorists.” Brown, in this case, is a bland adjective, chosen to emphasize the inconsequential nature of race. For this reason, when someone speaks of “brown people,” they are invariably speaking of victims, or subjects of unreasonable scorn and suspicion.

“Whitey,” in contrast, is a phrase never used anything but pejoratively, and has its origins in the ultrajudgmental rhetoric of black power militants in the 1960s (my favorite example being Gil Scott-Heron’s wonderfully snarky poem: “Whitey on the Moon”). The whites MP Williamson was describing were undeniably of the “trash” variety — entitled slugs content to sit back and collect EI while the state imports low wage migrants from the third world to perform labor considered beneath caucasian standards.

The fact that it’s increasingly rare to see white people working menial minimum wage jobs in Canada’s big cities is a distressing cultural phenomena, and one worth bluntly observing. Yet elite groupthink demands we describe immigration as presenting no moral challenges whatsoever; their mantra cries diversity uber alles.

Immigration in Canada is often spoken of as a force of nature, like the wind or rain, for which the proper reaction is endurance without complaint. But of course immigration is simply a government program like taxes or CRTC regulations, and something that can and should bend to whatever needs and priorities the voting public deems appropriate.

The voting public, for its part, has expressed rather clear opinions on the matter, and the Harper government, in its own imperfect way, is heeding their wishes better than the press or opposition.

At that, many are enraged.

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Women World Leaders

I drew a big new comic for the good folks over at Medium about a topic I’ve long been interested in: female rulers.

Women world leaders

If you’d like to see some in-depth stats on female heads of state, check out my epic chart of female world leaders.

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Rule by pseudo-intellectual

Justin Trudeau is not intelligent — but he thinks he is. There’s no other explanation for his long, rambling speech at the McGill Institute yesterday, a speech he doubtlessly believed proved he was a man capable of grappling with deep questions of political philosophy, but was in practice an incoherent mess of fashionable truisms, politically-correct bromides, and circular logic.

Its purported topic was “liberty,” but since liberty is a complicated abstract concept with a long pedigree, Trudeau mostly just talked about things he likes.

Trudeau likes multiculturalism. Therefore, “Liberty means inclusion.” Not-liberty means discrimination, as manifest by various historic morality plays — the internment of the Japanese during World War II, for instance.

Why did Mackenzie King intern the Japanese? “He did it because people were afraid.” Why were people afraid? Trudeau doesn’t get into that, but presumedly it’s because we were at war with Japan at the time and many felt — wrongly of course — that Canadians of Japanese origin might engage in terrorism or sabotage to destroy the nation’s liberty.

Such is one of the great tensions of democratic society: to what extent can we justifiably restrain the freedom of a dangerous (seeming) minority in order to preserve the safety of the majority? This is essentially the anxiety Canadians feel about Muslim immigrants today — the concern is less about their personal faith than the extent to which fundamentalist Islam seems to correlate with domestic terror.

In Trudeau’s mind, alas, there is never rational motive on the other side. The political arena simply contains nice people and nasty people, and the nasty people do what’s wrong and the nice people do what’s right. Justice is achieved by hammering down the nasties.

He provides his own abortion policy as an illustrative case-study.

“Forcing a Liberal MP to vote against [his or her] conscience on a matter of morality is an unjust restriction of [his or her] liberty,” he posits rhetorically. “It sounds like a reasonable argument.”

But of course it isn’t, since “the right of a woman to control her body is more important than the right of a legislator to restrict her freedom with [his or her] vote.”

Importance, in this context, does not seem to be determined by any metric beyond what liberal politicians believe wins elections. As a practicing Catholic, one might expect Trudeau to at least be dimly aware that abortion opponents believe restricting the “right of a woman to control her body” is entirely justifiable when the exercise of that control entails ending the life (and thus rights) of another body inside her.

He continues, even more preposterously, that “for me, Canadian liberty is not about the freedom of powerful people to exercise that freedom according to the dictates of their conscience. It is about Canadians’ rights not to have their freedom unduly restricted, especially by the state.”

Trudeau may be surprised to learn that freedom of conscience is not a treat for him to dole out as he sees fit, but rather a protection guaranteed to everyone by Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — regardless of how “powerful” their job happens to be. Likewise, when the state is found to have unduly restricted a right, it is the government as collective that’s liable, not individual legislators or their principles.

A few paragraphs later, when the conversation turns to banning burkas, Trudeau gets incredulous at the tactics he just finished endorsing. “Whatever happened to a free society’s requirement that we can disagree with a person’s choices, but must defend their right to make them?” Indeed.

What Monday’s speech makes most apparent is that Trudeau’s doctrine of liberty is less coherent ideology than a string of improvised defenses for policy positions he’s inherited from individuals much smarter than himself. Beyond a dispositional instinct that everything his party supports is right and everything conservatives — or people in the olden days —believe in isn’t, his ideas are not united by any overarching philosophy, a fact best reflected by what he identifies as the most “fundamental” disagreement between himself and the Prime Minister: “Leading this country should mean you bring Canadians together. You do not divide them against one another.”

A democratic polity will always be divided, and its reasons for division are rarely frivolous or petty. Ours is a society polarized by significant disagreement on deep legal, moral, and cultural questions, and we elect politicians to accurately represent our competing opinions. For all his patriotic bluster, Trudeau does not grasp this basic reality of the country he wants to lead, and instead furrows his brow at the perplexing existence of people who don’t think exactly like him, whom he can only analogize as the spiritual successors of racists and anti-semites.

The most frightening figures in politics are not the ideologues or demagogues, for the rigidity of their beliefs makes them boring and predictable. It’s leaders who lack firm intellectual grounding, since their exercise of power is destined to be confused, erratic, and arbitrary — the very antithesis of stable, safe government.

Trudeau spends a great deal of time scolding the Prime Minister for sowing fear, then turns around and encourages us to “shudder” at this government.

I shudder at him.

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Trudeau’s choice

There’s really only one reason to go around saying the debate over some contentious political issue is “closed” — you don’t like debating it.

By definition, a debate is a deep disagreement among sides who resist reconciliation. A century and a half after General Lee’s surrender people are still debating who started the Civil War (or was that the War of Northern Aggression?).

At best, a debate may simply lose its intellectual challenge over time, thanks to the emergence of facts that overwhelmingly endorse one side’s conclusions. The debate over the desirability of Soviet Communism, for instance. Or whether inhaling tobacco smoke damages your lungs.

The abortion debate, which asks deep questions of humanity and individualism, isn’t quite at that level.

When Canadians — particularly Canadian politicians — declare the abortion debate “over,” or warn against “re-opening” it, they’re not conceding to an abundance of evidence on one side so much as acknowledging their own nervousness about the conversation — and their own unease about where they stand.

The aggressively pro-life and pro-choice, in contrast, are more than happy to keep the discussion going. They’re so supremely self-confident of the philosophical, emotional, and scientific merit of their argument they’ll gladly debate you to sunrise until you’re similarly persuaded.

#No2Trudeau has ambitions of being the “Biggest Pro-life Campaign in Canadian History.” Led by the country’s two largest pro-life organizations, the Campaign for Life Coalition and the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, it kicks off this weekend with a cross-country speaking tour set to run throughout the spring, then conclude with several months of summer leafletting.

As the name suggests, it is an explicitly partisan endeavor, determined to decry what the campaign describes as Justin Trudeau’s “extremist” pro-choice position, in which the Liberal leader is not merely an enthusiastic supporter of the anything-goes legal vacuum that is Canadian abortion law, but officially opposed to the presence of pro-life politicians within his parliamentary caucus.

The activists behind #No2Trudeau are not subtle. Their poster depicts the party boss with bloodied hands, and one imagines photographs of mangled fetuses — a mainstay of both groups involved — will be in ample abundance as they criss-cross the nation. Whether such tactics change minds is an open question, but if the goal is to remind the would-be PM that there still exist an awful lot of Canadians for whom the abortion question is hardly settled, and who resent a politician who uses blunt force to pretend otherwise, the campaign could prove more than mere annoyance.

Over the last few years, Canada’s pro-life subculture has been undergoing what the Toronto Star dubbed a “slick, youthful rebranding” as the movement’s longtime vanguard of elderly, Catholic leaders begin to slowly give way to a younger, more aggressive generation buoyed by the adversarial, proselytizing culture of Evangelical protestantism that has become such a domineering force in activist Christianity.

A leading figure of this renaissance has been my good friend Jonathon Van Maren, who, although largely unknown to mainstream tastemakers, is an enormously popular columnist, radio personality, and lecturer in Canada’s so-con underground. Like many of the millennial-aged foot soldiers in Canada’s 2.0 pro-life movement, Jonathon is a man who often seems as frustrated with the shabby state of Canadian antiabortion activism as abortion itself, and the #No2Trudeau campaign — in which he will play a leading role — represents an unapologetic effort to force abortion back into the national consciousness after years on the periphery.

Canada’s political elite is largely single-minded on the abortion question, and it’s not difficult to argue Prime Minister Harper — who tolerates pro-life members in caucus, but denies them opportunity to act on their convictions — offers an alternative to Trudeau that’s more symbolic than consequential. Yet Trudeau’s decision to make the pro-choice position an outright Liberal sacrament — a major policy decision he appears (not for the first time) to have made up on the spot — could well prove the spark of something larger.

The awkward peace that’s come to define Canada’s abortion wars has long been fragile, and was a product of multiple variables, including a submissive pro-life opposition and a string of party leaders who felt no need to provoke it.

Should #No2Trudeau prove remotely effective, it’s entirely possible voters will wind up punishing Justin for his abortion position. Not because they disagree with it, but for inviting this uncomfortable topic back into their lives.

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The media myth that will not die: Conservatives and the ethnic vote

Michael Den Tandt, the syndicated National Post columnist, wrote an otherwise defensible editorial the other day describing the delicate balancing act faced by Canadian politicians who take a stance against fundamentalist Islam —basically, they have to look opposed without looking bigoted.

I say “otherwise,” because Den Tandt’s piece also thoughtlessly dropped one of the Canadian punditsphere’s most tired and fact-free clichés. Analyzing the dangers of xenophobia for the Conservative Party in particular, he stated matter-of-factly that “the Conservative party’s 2011 majority was built on support from new Canadians.”

This conclusion has become one of the most unchallenged truisms of the Canadian press, though there’s scant evidence to support it.

Here’s what we actually know. In 2011, Ipos-Reid released an exit poll (an unusual thing, by Canadian standards) of voters in that year’s federal election. I’ll reproduce it here, just because it’s hard to find online these days:


As you can see, the Conservatives did win a plurality of the immigrant vote, but — and this is a huge, enormously qualifying but — they did not win a plurality of votes from immigrants who arrived in Canada less than 10 years ago (ie; “new” ones), nor a plurality of votes from visible minorities (for whom “new Canadians” has become a synonym, given immigration trends).

Put somewhat less obtusely, the Tories lost the recent immigrant vote 28-to-62 to the left-wing parties, and lost the nonwhite vote 31-to-61. Considering that the Conservatives won nearly 40% of the popular vote overall, this means they significantly underperformed with these two groups, in contrast to the NDP and Liberals, who were more popular with both recent immigrants and nonwhites than they were with voters overall.

As a category of Canadian, “immigrant” is fairly useless. Looking skeptically at the preposterous Canadian Immigrant magazine, another National Post columnist, Jonathan Kay, once said it would make about as much sense to have a magazine called “Canadian Human,” so broad and meaningless is that designation.

It’s easy to forget, for instance, that Canada has a rather large population of white immigrants. About 2.5 million came to this country from Europe, Britain, America, or Australia —  most prior to 1980 — and today comprise nearly 35% of Canada’s total immigrant population. Thoroughly versed in the cultural norms of Canada’s Anglo-European heritage, it would be hardly remarkable if the Tory party was able to win their votes, which is why they probably do, and dilute the notability of that “42% of the immigrant vote” figure in the process.

The fact that the Tories could only win 28% of the votes of immigrants who have spent less than a decade in the country, by contrast, and only 31% of nonwhites overall, suggests that the votes of these groups, while surely helpful, are a great deal more marginal to the Conservative coalition than media lore suggests.

With a few headline-grabbing exceptions, the Conservatives’ won few seats in Canada’s downtown urban centers where nonwhite immigrants are most numerous, but did vastly better in considerably whiter, less immigrant-heavy suburbs and rural communities — as a casual glance at the 2011 electoral map will surely indicate. Of Jason Kenney’s 10 infamous “very ethnic” ridings, the Conservatives won eight, but they could have won zero and would have still eked out a majority in the House of Commons.

Where this media obsession with overstating Conservative skill at winning the ethnic vote originates is hard to discern.

Like many Canadian delusions, it may have its roots in anti-American pettiness, and a smug desire to believe our conservative party is more compassionate than theirs—  or it may simply be evidence of a press so thoroughly razzle-dazzeld by the high-profile ethnic pandering of Minister Kenney they’re willing to uncritically parrot whatever self-aggrandizing claim of talent he asserts.

Many are also under the mistaken belief that the Big Shift, a much-discussed 2013 book by Jon Ibbitson and Darrel Bricker that loudly asserted the ethnic vote thesis, contains compelling data, which it does not (relevant footnotes cite only “confidential sources”), while others cling to stereotypes about third world immigrants as incurably backwards in their disposition towards women and homosexuals, making the designation “natural Conservatives” more of an intended pejorative than compliment.

The most egregious bias of the press is not an ideological tilt towards right or left, but rather a tendency to substitute easy or compelling storylines in place of a more difficult reality. Race plays a compelling role in Canadian politics, and one hopes it will someday be investigated seriously.

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Costly decisions in campaign financing

A few years ago I gave my phone number to the NDP and the Mormon Church. No prizes for guessing whose phone calls have proven more incessant and obnoxious.

If Canadian politics seems to have gotten more shrill and annoying in recent years, with parties obsessed with matters pointless and petty in reverse proportion to how melodramatic and apocalyptic their rhetoric has become, it’s in considerable part because of perverse incentives brought about by changes to the way our politicians raise their money.

In his devil-may-care final days in office, Prime Minister Chretien pushed through changes to the Canada Elections Act that capped the amount of cash corporations and unions could give to federal political parties at $1,000 apiece. Whether this was a selfless act of non-partisan principle or just one more scheme to screw Paul Martin, it proved a brazen act of self-sabotage — in 2004, the first year the reforms took effect, the Liberals collected nearly $20 million less than the year prior. They have yet to fully recover.

In 2006, Prime Minister Harper went even further, outlawing corporate and union donations entirely and capping the amount individuals could donate to the party or candidate of their choice at $1,200 each (in 2014, the limit was hiked slightly to $1,500).

Unlike the Liberal reforms, Harper’s caps were objectively self-interested — his Conservatives were always far less dependent on corporate and union handouts than their opponents — as was his subsequent decision to abolish the other great compromise of the Chretien reforms:  a regime of public subsidies in which political parties get yearly grants based on how many votes they won in the last election.

The chief benefactors of this system have been the Green Party and Bloc Quebecois, who, despite overwhelming unpopularity with voters, have collectively been kept alive with over $40 million in federal welfare since 2004. After a long period of phase-out, come April of this year the subsidy tap will officially run dry.

Ottawa is not entirely out of the business of party financing, mind you. Thanks to a generous tax credit regime that grants a maximum rebate of $650 per political donation —with a 75% rebate for the first $400 alone — the national treasury has surrendered around $250 million over the last decade incentivizing citizens to give money to politicians.

The notion that money of wealth and industry should play no role in politics has become a progressive shibboleth, with Canadian liberals particularly fond of looking in horror at the United States, where we supposedly “see” what happens when untamed amounts of cash are allowed to flow into party coffers. Exactly what is supposed to instigate our outrage is rarely clear, however.

A fascinating 2014 column by the New York Times’ Binyamin Appelbaum looked at the evidence and concluded — contrary to popular lore — that even the largest campaign donations in America are rarely transactional, in the sense of offering money with an expectation of something in return. To many in the donor class, a donation is simply “a form of consumption, akin to making a charitable contribution.”

There are similarly countless cases in which one candidate dramatically outspent the other to no clear electoral benefit, perhaps most vividly in the 2010 race for California governor, where billionaire Meg Whitman outspent her rival five-to-one, yet lost by more than 1.3 million votes. Moneyed interests do exert ample influence over the governing process, to be sure, but largely through lobbying, which is considerably less regulated.

Money sustains the expensive enterprise of running for office (when critics complain it costs “too much,” I’m always curious how much they think it should cost to persuade thousands, if not millions, of strangers to like you), yet evidence suggests the process through campaign cash is obtained influences the tenor of politics more than the output of government.

In shifting to a campaign finance regime based around the collection of small amounts of money from the largest numbers of donors, Canadians have resigned themselves to a political culture dominated by simplistic storylines designed to manipulate the basest emotions of those who part most easily with their dollars.

Policy debates are reduced to whatever cliches can fit comfortably in a three-sentence spam email or thirty second telemarketer pitch, with the state of the nation portrayed according to whatever lunatic caricature marketing experts think voters want to believe. Obsessive partisan pandering to the crudest fears and dopiest fantasies of the most furiously ideological becomes the norm.

This is why the two most pressing political issues of the moment involve a Mississauga woman who won’t take off her burka and a supposed Conservative conspiracy to establish an Orwellian police state.

In politics everything has a cost.

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