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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Notes on movement conservatism and MNC 2016

The largest annual gathering of the Canadian conservative movement has come to a close and, for the second time in three years, I had the pleasure of joining in.

Here are a few thoughts hastily written as I ride the train back to Toronto.

State of the movement

This year’s conference was the first to take place in a political context without the Conservative Party in government.

While delegates certainly didn’t give off an aura of defeat or surrender, attendance appeared to be much smaller than the last time I visited (in 2014). If their recent electoral defeat has wrought any particular change among Canadian conservatives, it’s something besides an ideological one: Participants at all of the panels and sessions I attended seemed to have full confidence in the rectitude of their ideas and philosophy and, with only a few exceptions, intra ideological debate was visibly less than at the last incarnation of the conference I attended.

Instead, the conservative movement appears preoccupied with aesthetic and logistical issues. Over and over again during panels and their accompanying Q and As I heard variations of the following: “How do we communicate better?”, “How can we articulate a conservative message to people who don’t identify as conservatives?”, “How do we relate better to young people/journalists?”. There was an overwhelming sense that the Conservative Party fought the election on the basis of more or less the correct ideas, but failed to communicate them adequately.

Though the ghost of Stephen Harper – who remains the first and only leader of the united Conservative Party – looms over the movement, both his legacy and the challenges that follow from his defeat were repeatedly discussed in cloaked and evasive terms. His name was very rarely mentioned (often substituted for “our government”).

While no one ascribed blame to Harper for it, there appeared to be an overriding sense that the true motivations and aspirations of conservatism had been buried; that the party had overwhelmed the movement, become insular, and excluded potential members and activists.

All the familiar themes were present – “Personal responsibility”, related emphases on security and order; the entrepreneurial narrative and its accompanying condemnations of the state as an economic oppressor, etc. – but they emerged in a less guarded fashion than they might have during a meeting of the now deceased Harper cabinet.

Having said this, the conference’s preoccupation with the cosmetics of conservatism (rather than the ideology or philosophy of conservatism) seems to me a symptom of confusion and atrophy rather than renewal.

The path to the conservative utopia does not run through more effective use of Facebook or Twitter, or a more effective application of modern campaign techniques. An interest in value-neutral political technology may be necessary for the success of any ideological project. But, when it starts to override intellectual and spiritual introspection and debate, the movement clearly has a problem.

The view from stage left

As a left wing observer at the conference, it was a real treat to listen to my ideological opposites reflecting on their politics and the state of their movement. The right’s frustration with the status quo and its desire to produce transformative change are qualities I admire, at least in the abstract. The maintenance and nourishment of a movement takes considerable labour, as does the pursuit of ideas which run contrary to apolitical wasteland of late capitalism.

But neither my admiration or agreement survive beyond this abstract terrain. The conservative movement’s historical sense is anemic and its political-economic analysis even worse.

Its continued sense of victimization and marginalization is unwarranted, given that we’re currently living in the world the new right of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s created: conservatism may need to retain this psychological outlook to remain viable, but it lacks historical perspective and fails to take into account the near-ubiquitous triumph of neoliberalism as the ideological spirit of the times.

Movement conservatism also misinterprets and misunderstands its political opponents. “The left” and “liberalism” are repeatedly conflated (sometimes under the nonspecific umbrella term “progressive”). There seems virtually zero awareness of the difference between liberalism and social democracy, let alone anything to the left of the latter. The bogeymen du jour are messieur Trudeau and madame Wynne (Tony Clement referred to Ontario under the Liberals as “the People’s Republic of…”), who are taken to be great champions of “activist Big Government” that seek to “tax and spend” (both mortal insults in conservative circles).

Again, a little perspective here might be warranted. The Wynne administration, which certainly postured around the motif of “activist government” during the 2014 provincial election, just commenced the privatization of Hydro One, having spent its last several mandates repeatedly slashing the corporate tax rate. It may pursue social initiatives like sex ed that offend the sensibilities of the social conservative fringe, but its claims to even lean slightly to the left are shoddy at best.

Ditto for Canada’s new prime minister. His proposition, outside of a deceptively shallow emphasis on “tone”, is essentially to restore some of the programs cut under the previous Conservative government. There is nothing remotely radical about his tax plan, which has already cut taxes for most of the richest 10% of earners (it raised them slightly for the very richest, with a net loss in revenue for the federal government) and does nothing to reverse the repeated cuts to corporate taxes which took place under Stephen Harper (during the campaign, Trudeau even derided the NDP plan to raise the CIT as anti-business). His program for deficit spending is nowhere near the one undertaken by the Conservatives themselves in scale and is quite explicitly branded as an economically-necessary one-off rather than an attempt to increase structural program spending. Finally, his social policy embraces the neoliberal mould of means-testing. During the campaign, Trudeau attacked proposals to create new universal social programs and committed to addressing Canada’s childcare challenges using the same underlying logic as the Conservatives (only with more generous benefits and with the means-testing performed in advance rather than retroactively through the tax system).

That the political centre represented by the Liberals now exists on this terrain is something the right should celebrate as a sign of its ongoing victory. In caricaturing mainstream liberals like Trudeau and Wynne as harbingers of a renewed offensive by “activist government”, movement conservatives are shadow boxing with a chimera of their own creation.

As for the problems with the ideological outlook I observed this weekend, where do we even begin?

Despite retaining the classical conservative emphases on tradition and institutions of social cohesion (the family, nationalism, etc.), the conservative movement born of the 70s new right is overwhelmingly guided by a romantic obsession with the capitalist marketplace. In many important respects, it views this as the single most crucial foundation for both individual and social life – an essentially neutral sphere in which individuals can pursue their personally-crafted life goals without external interference.

If there are imperfections, it is assumed these are the products of meddling or rigging by the state rather than defects inherent by design. There is virtually no problem – poverty, homelessness, unemployment, social anomie – for which the movement conservative does not have a market solution (accompanied by a diagnosis which places blame on an overly activist state). That the market is a structure of power like any other – with intrinsic hierarchies and imbalances that only harden over time and render the ethical goal of meritocracy an impossible one – is simply not accounted for or acknowledged. It is conceived of as a natural equilibrium: as politically and axiologically neutral as evolutionary biology or the force of gravity – not a human construction that is the product of specific historical and economic circumstances, and certainly not an amalgam of institutions that should be subject to democratic change, adjustment, or wholesale replacement when signs of failure appear.

The very notion that there might be valuable moral principles outside of individual economic calculus that should govern our political, economic, and social lives is pure anathema.

Party and movement: Looking ahead

Among the most interesting features of the conference were two related panels showcasing prospective candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party. Here are a few thoughts on each of them:

Michael Chong: Chong’s speech was heavy on personal narrative and short on ideology. As many conservatives like to do, he emphasized his family’s own struggle against adversity (as immigrants from Hong Kong in the mid 20th century). Also invoking family experience, Chong spoke of Canadian heroism in the Pacific during the Second World War (his dad was in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion) as a jumping off point to a familiar and Harperesque story about the need for decisiveness in a dangerous world. Not without a certain rhetorical appeal, but overly polished and personal for a politician regarded to have intellectual substance.

Kevin O’Leary: Whether O’Leary’s musings about running for the CPC leadership represent empty posturing, performance art, or genuine testing of the waters I do not know. His abrasive, bloviating speech was big on pro-business and energy (that is, oil) rhetoric of the kind favoured by the crowed and was well-received enough, but mostly hard to take seriously.

Maxime Bernier: By far the best of the five speeches, Bernier’s was heavy on ideology as well as rhetorical flourish. His attack on government subsidies to corporations got raucous applause and, in the subsequent Q and A, he answered Preston Manning’s policy questions with notable specificity. When Bernier runs, his apparently insurgent candidacy will be interesting to watch.

Tony Clement: Clement’s Instagram follower count probably dwarfs the crowd that heard his speech. Though he chose not to fixate on his personal story as some other candidates did, it was hard to extract a thesis from his remarks. A call for the privatization of the CBC and some mild criticism of the way the party conducted the 2015 election were the only real highlights of the speech.

Lisa Raitt: The only woman to speak (Kellie Leitch had been scheduled but cancelled last minute) Raitt focused on her youth on Cape Breton Island and, like Chong, her family’s various struggles. Beyond a few notes of traditional Toryism, it is unclear what exactly her campaign will be.

In the Q and A that followed each speech, Preston Manning asked each candidate the same question about how to make conservatism appeal to youth. Revealingly, each gave a variation of the same answer: The key to attracting the next generation is for conservatism to be more obviously and outwardly conservative: In his answer, for example, Tony Clement suggested that young people, like conservatives, are “lovers of freedom”.

This apparently banal comment may reveal more than initially meets the eye.

It occurs to me that each and every one of the prospective candidates for the leadership of the CPC came politically of age at around the same time in the 1980s or early 1990s, i.e. during the ascendency of movement conservatism. Then, its calls for “self-sufficiency”, “personal responsibility”, and “individual liberty” over and against the state had an emotional and spiritual resonance that often transcended lines of gender, race, and class. But the lived experience of today’s young people is quite different from those who consider themselves children of the Reagan revolution.

In an economic context characterized by precarious work, low wages, poor financial security, and the widespread exploitation of young labour by employers (who are often from a different generation) across the workforce, solutions that emphasize personal grist and the imperative of an improved work ethic are unlikely to be well-received.

Looking south, it is quite the opposite: Young people appear drawn in much greater measure to Bernie Sanders’ message, and its various attacks on oppressive economic structures, than to movement conservatism’s pickled ethos of “individual liberty” or its various ideological stepchildren (including the Clintonite variant).

Movement conservatism may have dominated the past three decades. But everything I’ve observed this weekend suggests the possibility that something very different may come to dominate the near future.

 

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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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A review of Trudeau’s “Common Ground” (with a little help from 1970)

With Justin Trudeau™ currently touring the country to promote his memoirs (“Common Ground: My Past, Our Present, and Canada’s Future”) our nation has, at long last, a version of the young prince’s brand of focus-grouped, aristocratic image politics committed to paper. The Liberal leader has so few actual policies – save a few calculated to provoke the Conservatives [marijuana] or reassure the business community [support for Keystone XL] – that commentary must almost invariably focus on his personality. This undoubtedly suits Trudeau and his advisors just fine, since personality is exclusively what they’re peddling. When we do we hear the Dauphin speaking about his vision of politics it’s exclusively in vague terms such as these:

“Too much government is an enemy of freedom and opportunity, but so to is too little. Governments can’t do everything, nor should they try…But the things [government] does, it must do well.” 

A statement like this tells us virtually nothing, in this case placing Liberal economic policy somewhere between Von Hayek and Stalin. But that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do: reassure the audience by giving as little offence as possible to widely shared orthodoxies while marginalizing anything substantive or critical as inherently immoderate and opposed to Consensus™.

Trudeau’s compulsive lack of precision has occasionally raised the eyebrows of a columnist or two. The National Post’s John Ivison wrote a scathing review of the speech excerpted above:

“My colleagues in the press gallery looked at each other in disbelief. The consensus was that it failed on any number of levels — it was a bland repast, containing neither policy meat nor political mustard…The platitudinous, at times cloying, nature of much of the oratory is becoming an easy target for mockery — one pundit even called for a “National Platitudes Strategy”…In large measure, Mr. Trudeau would do many of the same things as Stephen Harper, but do them with a smile on his face, reassuring voters about the efficacy of his sunny ways.”

Such overt criticism of Trudeau has, however, featured quite rarely in the press which seems willing, at the very least, to take him seriously as a national political figure.

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Anyone who’s spoken to me about Canadian politics (or who’s read the preceding) knows I’m no fan of Justin Trudeau or the mode of politics he represents. I almost certainly won’t be reading his book (which is not so much a memoir as it is a literary press release) and intend this post to be a review of the Liberal leader’s notion of “Common Ground” rather than of the thing itself.

Elsewhere on this blog I’ve written the first of a three part series regarding the L/liberal or centrist conception of politics and political leadership using the elder Trudeau as a heuristic device. More on this is coming but, for now, I’ll leave you with something else written about Trudeau Sr. from the always invaluable Charles Taylor in his 1970 book The Pattern of Politics. As an exercise, try reading it and pretending you don’t know the year it was written:  

The NYL – the New Young Leader – is said to be attuned and responsive to the issues which preoccupy young urban dwellers. He is said to have the courage to dispense withh the double-talk and circumlocution of the Old Guard…All this may have little relation to reality, but is it the myth rather than the reality of the NYL we are examining here: and this myth firmly rests upon the consensus view of politics. Those who promote the NYL make up the highly successful new elite…Lawyers, professors, businessmen are not at all at odds with the structure of our society. What they look for in the NYL is the crystallization and expression of a consensus.

This is why his goals must remain without real content. He expresses ‘changes’, ‘innovation at our highest political level’, everything except a clear program of reform, which he contemptuously dismisses as ‘old fashioned promises’. But this is more than mere equivocation, because the role of the leader is to remain flexible and pragmatic, to respond to problems as they arise. To do this, the embodiment of the supposed new technological elite must be an exponent of the main thesis of consensus politics: that politics is the domain of problems and solutions, and not the confrontation of fundamental questions. He must embody the end of ideology. 

At the same time, if the NYL is courageous in eschewing the language of equivocation, he speaks out not to break the consensus but to present more effectively the goals that are hidden in the gobbledygook of the traditional politician or bureaucrat. In short, the NYL is supposed to be discovering and articulating the demands of our society. He ‘personifies all of the exciting changes in our society’. But does he?

What is totally missing in the argument is any inkling that there are important and fundamental conflicts in our society which make any claim to consensus specious. It is impossible for one person to represent the demands of the whole. 

In the saga of the new leader, the battle is exclusively between the young and ‘with it’ and the old with their outworn ideas and sensibilities. But this in no way involves a critique of the structures of our society or an attack on the privileges they entrench. Instead, the attack is launched in the name of these structures or on behalf of their ideal image of themselves as the breeding ground of enlightened, technocratic innovators.

The myth of the NYL is a kind of parody if the modern idea of progress, in which the latest thing is always right and always wins effortlessly over the old. The idea that progress requires struggle, so prominent in earlier theories, both liberal and socialist, finds no place here – because the myth takes no account of structures. This wraith-like change embodied by the NYL is a matter of style, feeling, ideas; it glides through any structure of society without any resistance. 

The dramatic struggle between the old and new is thus largely theatrical.

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