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 few notes on Calandragate

Paul Calandra just cried on the floor of the House of Commons – in the process, I hasten to add, of apologizing for his disgraceful performance on Tuesday. A few comments on this ridiculous series of events:

-Calandra wouldn’t have given that Tuesday performance unless instructed to in the first place. Whether these instructions came directly from the PMO or from the Tory whips or from the government House Leader is irrelevant. The point is, a member of the governing party who is not actually a member of the government (Parliamentary Secretaries aren’t technically in cabinet) was ordered to do something transparently stupid, and he obeyed.

-Similarly, I don’t think he would have given a tearful apology unless instructed to do so following the backlash since Tuesday. Conclusion? The Supreme Soviet of the Conservative Party is once again callously instrumentalizing its own MPs for partisan purposes.

-It’s true that Paul Calandra is an adult capable of making his own decisions. But it’s still very hard not to feel sorry for him. MPs, particularly government MPs, are subject to enormous pressures. Had Calandra refused to comply, he might have found himself excluded from a government announcement in his riding or lacking party financial support at the next election.

If you ask me, a governing party which treats its own MPs in this way is probably unfit to govern.

And, by the way, nothing in this disgraceful series of events has involved the Prime Minister informing Parliament about a possible military engagement in the Middle East. In that sense, Calandragate has succeeded in its original purpose: obfuscation.

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