Congress, Commons, and the institutionalist fallacy

It’s something of a truism when people discuss US politics that the American system is uniquely obstructionist.

For Canadians especially, there’s an obvious truth to this: under our own parliamentary system, institutional power is less diffused between various branches of government and single-party rule (even without a strict popular majority) is very much the norm. Contrasted with the American model, with its two elected houses, separate executive branch, and a general cultural ethos more prone to referenda and direct democracy, ours is one in which it should be relatively easy to get things done and make sweeping legislative changes. (There’s also the matter of Canada’s campaign finance system, which is infinitely cleaner than its American equivalent in banning outright corporate donations at the federal level and putting strict caps on individual donations.)

I don’t bring any of this up for wonkish reasons, but because it’s so frequent in the American context to see liberals put conservative political outcomes down to the institutional constraints placed on their own side’s lawmakers by (small-r) republican governance. This is still a hallmark of how some discuss the Obama presidency and its supposed policy “failings” despite two years of nominal majority before the 2010 midterms. The implication, whether the issue at hand is the administration’s rather conservative healthcare reforms or the relatively meagre regulations it placed on Wall Street in the wake of the biggest single economic crisis since the Great Depression, is invariably that Obama and his allies would have somehow pushed further with fewer institutional impediments.

The Canadian model, which gives our own L/liberals a good deal more latitude, strongly suggests otherwise. I could begin this argument from basically anywhere, but let’s consider anecdotally the infamous 1993 Liberal campaign promise to create a universal, public childcare system (which, incidentally, was roughly synchronous with the Clinton administration’s retreat on healthcare). Across successive parliamentary majorities it simply never came, nor did any other significant new social program. (It did briefly resurface in 2006 when the Liberals under Paul Martin, reduced to an insecure minority and mired in a major ethics scandal, rather opportunistically became its greatest champions before losing the federal election later that year). All the national goodwill and enthusiasm that accompanied its formation in 2015 didn’t inspire Justin Trudeau to do anything transformative, despite his big legislative majority (just as the Liberals did after 1993, in fact, his government has in some areas moved in quite a different direction…).

I think these examples and innumerable others like them, all-too familiar to Canadian politics (where the Liberal Party has historically been dominant), seriously call into question the institutionalist premise so common among American progressives and liberals. (They should also, I think, serve as a corrective to Canadians who see electoral reform or similar institutional changes as silver bullet solutions that will inevitably lead to more progressive outcomes.)

If this sounds like a cynical observation, it shouldn’t. Because the crux of what I’m getting at isn’t that progress is impossible, just that we need to be a whole lot clearer both about its source and the things that stand in its way, which are less institutional hurdles than they are political impediments.

Ongoing actions by our postal workers are a good occasion to remember how public sector workers won maternity leave during the 1980s (hint: it wasn’t by electing a Liberal government then waiting for it to do Good Things™). Medicare certainly didn’t become our most cherished national institution because the niceties of our parliamentary system allowed it to glide frictionlessly through the House of Commons courtesy of a Liberal majority government.

Which is all to say, if you’re a progressively-minded American (or Canadian) frustrated with your liberal class’s failure to make life greener, fairer, or less cripplingly unequal, don’t let its standard bearers get away with telling you they’d do more if only the system allowed. We have decades of Liberal triangulation to suggest the problem is a political rather than an institutional one.

Image via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License. 

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All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

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Since there’s an election looming in Ontario, I think it’s pretty safe to bet we’re about to experience the start of a very familiar arc, which goes a little something like this:

Having spent the past 3 and a half years overseeing the privatization of Hydro One and genuflecting to Bay Street, the Ontario Liberals will again discover that they’re on the side of workers and progressive activists after all. Miraculously, canned corporatist talking points about “asset redeployment” will be replaced, as if by magic, with refrains about social justice and the power of the state to be an equalizing force in our society.

The submerged social consciences of every cabinet minister will suddenly resurface from the deep, with little bits of money (no doubt mostly promised for some hypothetical future) announced for every progressive and civil society cause under the sun. Labour leaders will be courted to speak glowingly about the rectitude of the Liberal project and its pro-worker virtues. Attempts to seduce the urban middle class with the language of civic solidarity and activist government will commence at the eleventh hour, coupled with the usual refrains about the mortal threat posed by the PCs.

Like clockwork, Kathleen Wynne will be transformed from a centrist technocrat into a soft version of Sandersesque populist. Meanwhile, the smallest and most superficial gestures from the Premier and her lieutenants will be showered with praise by a gushing centrist wonkosphere, while the right wing press goes into meltdown mode and warns about the threat of creeping socialism (in effect, doing its part to shore up Liberal messaging).

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

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Everything is communism

Spend any sizeable portion of time in the right wing blogosphere and its associated mediums and you quickly notice that just about everything is communism.

Same-sex marriage? Communism. Soup kitchens that serve the homeless? Establishments of the deepest crimson. Anti-discrimination laws? Bolshevism, pure and simple. Taxes that subject janitors to different rates than Fortune 500 CEOS? Surely, this must be the Frankfurt School at work.

Earlier this week I spent some time investigating organized conservative opposition to a new sex-ed curriculum. Most striking, apart from all of the oozing sexual insecurity at play, was the way a primal fear of socialism always seemed to be lingering in the background. At one rally, for example, a speaker denounced the use of gender neutral language in classrooms by complaining that the word “comrade” had allegedly appeared on a school board list of gender neutral terms.

This is silly and anecdotal, sure. But there’s a lot more where it came from.

According to senior figures in Canada’s conservative movement: Mary Poppins is communist propaganda; minimum wages are communist, as is “the language of equality” when applied to marriage. In the midst of the 2015 federal election, Conservative MP Larry Miller tweeted an old warning (in fact, an infamous fake meme on the right) of the “communist rules for revolution.”

Fake as it may be, note the range of conservative pathologies represented here:
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No special insight here, except that this particular conservative tick seems to affirm Corey Robin’s thesis that the right is less a strict set of ideas than it is a fluid series of reactions to any push for equality.

 

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The great Canadian CEO tax heist

Every so often I’m reminded there’s a ridiculous loophole in Canada under which individuals can deduct 50% of the income earned through stock options (in other words, people compensated with stock options pay tax on *only half* that income.)

The loophole is predominantly taken advantage of by highly compensated people, often high-ranking executives at large firms (in 2014, for example, three quarters of all deductions claimed through the loophole were from 8,000 very high-income Canadians).

We’ve effectively created a system in which people who quite literally earn 200x the average income don’t have to pay taxes on their total earnings.

The chart below shows what Canada’s highest paid executives made in 2017. Now compare the base salaries to the actual take home pay (which often includes stock options). I don’t have a figure for how much the deduction was used in 2017, but in 2014 the loss of tax revenue from this loophole alone was $750 million.

Rank Name Company Base Salary Other Compensation* Total
1 Michael Pearson Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. $182,902,189 $182,902,189
2 Donald Walker Magna International Inc. $415,462 $26,124,238 $26,539,700
3 Hunter Harrison Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. $2,803,522 $17,098,931 $19,902,453
4 Steven Hudson Element Financial Corp. $1,200,000 $18,077,385 $19,277,385
5 Mark Barrenechea Open Text Corp. $981,787 $16,988,255 $17,970,042
6 Donald Guloien Manulife Financial Corp. $1,723,671 $13,889,848 $15,613,519
7 Brian Hannasch Alimentation Couche-Tard $1,356,260 $13,458,456 $14,814,716
8 Linda Hasenfratz Linamar Corp. $605,839 $13,608,995 $14,214,834
9 James Smith Thomson Reuters Corp. $1,981,433 $11,730,709 $13,712,142
10 Bradley Shaw Shaw Communications Inc. $2,500,000 $10,641,235 $13,141,235

It’s an obvious point (made forcefully by Quebec writer Alain Denault) but one that somehow eludes a lot of public discussions around taxation:

Every dollar of tax revenue not collected from a CEO means a longer hospital queue, another pothole; another day a toddler has to wait before receiving a critical operation; another delayed renovation in a public housing unit; another15 minutes a worker has to stand at the bus stop before she can be at home, spending time with her kids and enjoying her life.

Chart source: CCPA

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Punditry and the Canada syndrome

It’s pretty widely understood that one of the consequences of being a small country like Canada – inundated with news and entertainment from larger countries, particularly the United States – is that a disproportionate number of cultural signifiers and reference points are, in a sense, imported from elsewhere. One area where I think this is particularly acute – and I sense that this is less well understood – is politics and political commentary.

Take the recent Conservative leadership race.

The whole thing happened in the shadow of Trumpism, with various candidates positioning themselves in relation to recent developments south of the border. As such, all Kellie Leitch had to do was make certain gestures and tweet “Sad!” once or twice and she became “The Canadian Trump”, with the cover of a prominent national magazine issuing the sweeping proclamation that she had “touched off a culture war”. As it turned out, Leitch was very much a candidate of the CPC establishment with little grassroots support. Both her campaign and the media that covered it basically got the whole thing wrong.

And I think this phenomenon is also visible in how pundits talk about Canada’s parliamentary left.

Things tend to be posed in relation to familiar and lazy frames (“pragmatism vs principle”/”party of government vs party of protest”/”centrism vs leftism” etc) that largely ignore the actual experience of the NDP over the past few decades (which is quite different from either British Labour or the American Democrats). To take one recent example, I think there’s been a tendency to view the ongoing leadership race in relation to the experiences of other countries as if the party is simply going to reproduce what’s happening elsewhere, either through an embrace or a repudiation of it.

From what I’ve seen so far, there seems to be a reasonably strong consensus among all the candidates around a variety of pretty major issues with some scattered disagreements (around the OAS issue, for example) and differences in emphasis/degree. Every candidate has postured to the left in one way or another and no right-leaning current is represented. The debate being held simply isn’t a repeat of UK Labour’s 2015 race or the 2015-2016 Democratic primaries.

Not to say, of course, that there’s no debate going on or that there isn’t plenty to discuss or disagree about. But wherever one stands on the race, both the New Democratic Party and Canadian politics more broadly have their own histories and internal dynamics.

These are what should be at the forefronts of our minds when we’re trying to understand what’s going on in either.

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A modest proposal: Abolish the House of Commons

Canada’s new government is making good on its promise to create an independent, non-partisan Senate and I couldn’t be happier.

Just yesterday, Prime Minister Trudeau announced his first seven appointees to the Upper Chamber: a veritable smorgasbord of the best and the brightest recommended, no less, by a non-partisan committee that chooses prospective Senators based on merit rather than party affiliation. What a novel concept!

According to the Ministry of Democratic Reform candidates for Senate appointments must meet several criteria, including:

  • Demonstrated a record of achievement and leadership in community service or professional expertise.
  • Proven record of “outstanding” ethics and integrity.
  • Bring perspective that Senate is an independent, non-partisan institution.
  • Understand the Senate’s role in Canada’s constitutional framework.

What’s more: in theory any Canadian can apply to be a Senator, meaning that ordinary citizens will finally have a chamber that represents them (at last!).

And so, finally, the Senate – that repository for party bagmen and patronage going back to the days of Sir John A. – will become a place where intelligent Canadians meet to discuss the issues of the day in an evidence-based environment, free of partisanship and vituperative tribal bickering.

Like a healing, postpartisan balm applied to the deep wounds that have crippled our nation, the new Senate clearly demonstrates Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to Real Change; to focusing on the things which unite, rather than divide.

Unfortunately, his work isn’t done. Because, nestled only a short hallway’s walk away from the now harmonious Red Chamber, is a place where the foul reign of partisanship and division continues unencumbered.

That’s why I’d like Prime Minister Trudeau to consider a modest proposal: Abolish the House of Commons.

Tune in any day of the week to the proceedings and what do you see? Argument, disagreement, and debate – to name just three of the ailments. Sometimes the Speaker must remind Honourable Members not to clap for too long. Sometimes there is partisanship. Sometimes voices are even raised.

The physical design of the place alone is nauseating: Two sets of benches counterposed to one another in antagonistic contrast, with government on one side and opposition on the other. Does anyone seriously believe this helps create sober discussion amongst adults? Do the shareholders at a company sit like this at the annual general meeting? Would you model your seating at Christmas dinner on the Lower House? Ummm, I think not.

As for the ever-petulant members who occupy the chamber, what even needs to be said? Unlike the Senate, they are not chosen on merit by a committee independent of partisanship and their seating arrangements are dictated by colour. In 2016. ‘Nuff. Said.

The answer seems clear: the House of Commons – an anachronism from the age of partisan bickering – should be immediately dissolved. It’s time public policy was made solely by grownups accountable to no constituencies except their own consciences.

Because it’s 2016.

 

 

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The permanent campaign

On the 100-day anniversary of Canada’s new government, both Chantal Hebert and Andrew Coyne seem to agree: symbolism and marketing have quite overwhelmingly trumped substance.

Coyne, who is less sympathetic than Hebert, goes further:

Three months in, the governing style of Justin Trudeau’s government is coming into focus. It is one part not being Stephen Harper, one part symbolic gesture, one part wriggling out of campaign promises, and one part saying yes to everybody. You thought the Harper government was all about the permanent campaign? Get used to it.

If we ignore Coyne’s obviously conservative bent on some issues (the new government was right to get rid of income splitting and CPC laws targeting unions and First Nations, for God’s sake) the general thrust of his argument is correct: the Liberals are waging a kind of permanent campaign built around a series of carefully choreographed gestures – the real contours of their vision remain obscure, and it’s probably going to stay that way.

And that makes perfect sense, given how they fought the election.

The Liberal campaign was, after all, one which left concern-trolled the NDP by promising modest deficits while also attacking its $15/hour federal minimum wage proposal and saying proposed hikes to corporate taxes were anti-business; that trotted out arch-austerian Paul Martin to give lachrymose sermons about the dangers of austerity; that appropriated the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street to bait the right and neutralize the left, while simultaneously proposing to cut taxes for most of the top 10% of income earners; that criticized the CPC for attacking Canada’s social programs while opposing the NDP’s proposals to create any new ones; it was (*is) both for and against the building of oil pipelines, the mission in Iraq and Syria, substantively changing the electoral system, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, reform of the Senate, Bill C-51, universal social programs…the list goes on.

It was a sunny new approach to politics that involved repeatedly steamrolling local Liberal riding associations and their activists to protect the leadership’s preferred candidates; that happily recruited people like Conservative MP Eve Adams, Bill Blair, and a former Chair of one of the country’s leading right wing think tanks to the cause – not to mention longtime Harper apparatchik Dimitris Soudas.

The overriding theme here is branding: the Liberals propose to “do politics differently”, but their efforts to substantiate this [stated] goal are primarily aesthetic. Reform, where is has happened or will happen, has largely been restorative rather than transformative – Canada is modernizing its way back to circa 2007.

Watching Question Period the past two weeks it’s striking how little the tone of the debate between the government and the official opposition actually reflects any meaningful disagreement. The Tories may bleat about the Liberal plan (yet to be fulfilled) to withdraw Canada’s CF-18s from Syria or Justin Trudeau’s neutralist language around the Energy East pipeline, but the disagreements have more to do with rhetoric than they do with significant disagreement about major issues. Canada’s jets continue to be involved in air strikes (despite an unequivocal campaign promise there is as of yet no timetable for their withdrawal…it’s quite possible they will remain past the CPC’s original timetable or that the mission will simply continue in other forms), and the government proudly trumpets its desire to “get Canadian resources to market”. The disagreement, if you can even call it that, has to do with how openly partisan the government should be about particular issues (the CPC approach is more ideologically honest, though the Liberal one is probably more politically effective).

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Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson. Used under Creative Commons license.

Again, branding is the key here.

As a part of its Sunny Ways™, the government has displayed a visible fondness for the affirmation of process. It is “pro-trade” and appears to be pro-TPP, but it will “broadly consult”; it is pro-electoral reform but non-specific about what that reform will be (consultation first); it was elected around a very specific and widely trumpeted set of economic proposals, but it has yet to put these into a budget or even schedule one because it has to consult first.

This will become more difficult to sustain when major decisions actually have to be made, but the Liberals have already proven miraculously adept at political management. With so much energy invested beforehand in legitimizing the process of consultation itself, even unpopular moves can be deemed the product of sincere public outreach.

The political dexterity this approach affords the Liberals is staggering, as these past 100 days have already demonstrated. Justin Trudeau and his party espouse no ideology, and contend to embody the political preferences of all. It is an approach to politics which, to quote Peter C. Newman, promises “as little as possible but as much as necessary”.

The campaign never ends.

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