Politicizing the PM’s security detail

Every year or so, there’s an article in Canadian newspapers describing the complexities of the Prime Ministerial security detail. Many articles make a snide point about the costs and suggest that it is largely unnecessary.

There’s a refreshing change today in Steve Chase’s Globe and Mail article about the Prime Minister’s trip to India. Chase points out that India dropped the ball when it came to the security for a visiting head of government — India offered the PM’s team a simple car of antiquated design. The RCMP obviously thought this was inadequate and chose to fly the Prime Ministerial motorcade to India onboard a C-17. Instead of offering a passive aggressive swipe the Prime Ministerial security bubble, Chase accepts its necessity and finds news in India’s failure to provide one. The top comments on the article, however, show the very different mindset of the Globe’s readers.

Indeed, it’s usually a perennial sport in Ottawa among Harper critics to bemoan the PM security detail. Suddenly left-wing ideologues are concerned about costs. And the protection of a duly elected representative of all Canadians? Better for Harper’s critics to chalk it up to the PM’s ego or his hubris. Nevermind that security is assessed according to threat and that it is done so by the RCMP. Note too the recent Ottawa-media-driven process stories regarding trick-or-treating at 24 Sussex. The horror according to the subtext? That children and their parents passed through metal detectors before greeting the PM.

When the PM’s security detail was taking shape, the NDP’s Pat Martin remarked, “It looks like something Darth Vader would be driving. We’ve got this gas-guzzling behemoth touring around with the prime minister. It looks tough, it looks quasi-military. Is that the kind of image the prime minister wants to project?” *

The security of the Prime Minister of Canada should be important to all Canadians despite their political stripe. Even if you didn’t vote for Harper or his government, an attack on the Prime Minister is an attack on the outcome of our democratic selection and the sovereignty we exercise in that process. This came under threat with the Toronto 18 in a plot to behead the Prime Minister of Canada, and again provincially when a man took shots aiming to harm or kill the Premier-elect of Quebec. These were only the cases that were publicized. As a matter of policy that governs this sort of security, the level and detail of threats to senior public figures rarely reach the public forum for the consumption of the armchair punditry.

No serious person would seek to strip security from the Prime Minister as a result of an ideological difference because the very necessity of that security is not under dispute by the serious people in charge of affording the same. His security is not political and ought not be.

This isn’t the first time that reactionary critics like Martin have worried more about the symbolism of security than its utility. Many among his cohort were the ones that invested heavily in the symbolism of a multi-billion dollar long-gun registry without any evidence that it provided any effect in preventing crime or saving life.

If the NDP were to ever be successful in forming a government, their leader would be my Prime Minister as well and I would want them to be afforded every necessary protection.

This protection of our democratic will is paramount and even though we disagree on a lot, thankfully we’re able to do so in an environment sheltered from those that would violently circumvent the system in which we all have a voice.

Dalton McGuinty resigns

This week, Dalton McGuinty called it quits after nine tired years as Premier of Ontario. The announcement came as a surprise to all as the details came in two announcements just hours apart on Monday.

Before he stepped down as Premier, McGuinty used his constitutional powers to prorogue the legislature dodging a motion of contempt leveled against his government’s energy minister Chris Bentley who only on Monday produced an additional 20,000 pages of documents regarding the building of two new gas-fired electricity plants in Ontario. The situation is familiar for Canadians as motions of contempt — one for the failure to produce documents — were brought before the federal House of Commons against the government of Stephen Harper prior to the election which granted him a majority in 2011.

The outcome here, however, is unfamiliar. Dalton McGuinty’s government was running out of fuel. Having previously won two majority governments, the last election resulted in a minority. The gas-plant imbroglio is rooted in that previous election; cynics and neutral observers noting alike that the construction of two such plants were politically motivated attempts to secure two seats in order to guarantee that third majority. The previous by-election was McGuinty’s last hope to achieve peace and place a cone of silence over the legislature with a majority. The result was not so fortunate for the Premier.

So, McGuinty prorogued.

Nothing constitutionally amiss with that, yet the reaction among Liberals, journalists, and the left has been quite muted about the issue. In 2010, we saw a Facebook group of 20,000 Canadians reach a level of national prominence after the Toronto Star decided to promote it on their front page. The Canadians Against the Prorogation of Parliament are notably silent today. In one month during that prorogation by Stephen Harper, I counted 1,561 articles written by Canada’s establishment press about this so-called affront to democracy. Perhaps predictably, and calculated by team McGuinty, the media could be distracted by something else.

Will Dalton McGuinty run for leader of the federal Liberal Party?

There was never a greater attempted ruse in Canadian politics this year than Dalton McGuinty’s attempt to deflect from the mounting corruption of his government at Queen’s Park — eHealth, ORNGE, secret deals with private energy firms, misadventures in wind and solar doubling the provincial debt and taking the province to “have-not” status in Confederation — than to leak an exclusive to the Canadian Press about the leadership team forming around Dalton McGuinty as he refused to rule out a bid for federal leadership.

The Canadian consensus media raised a five-alarm fire alarm on Stephen Harper’s constitutionally politically-motivated prorogation in 2010, while mentioning McGuinty’s as an aside in 2012. Bigger issues on the national agenda than the “fate of democracy” to be sure: the issue-challenged glam son of Pierre Trudeau was potentially being challenged by the last successful politician of the Laurentian Consensus media elite. (Gossip-hungry, issue-abstaining members of the Ottawa chaterrati will be enticed by the news that young Justin was ushered out of the Nova Scotia Liberal leader’s dinner fundraiser to be briefed on McGuinty’s retirement and possible challenge. It is reported that the young Trudeau returned to his seat looking ashen and deeply concerned. Good golly!)

There are serious issues to discuss. While Ontario has faltered on its fiscal footing, betting poorly on the dominating energy infrastructure of the first half of the 21st century and while the Canadian west is booming and preparing, building pipelines west (and eventually south) to emerging energy markets globally, the central Canadian media pines for the old times. It’s no coincidence that Liberal parties federally and in six provinces provincially are looking to elect new leadership (seven soon with Clark losing in BC). Canada is changing and looking to address new challenges and and energy- and resource-hungry world with action instead of cynical immovable inertia. Our old Liberal kings and their palace guards in the mainstream media are looking more and more like relics of another age.

CNOOC bid presents imperfect conservative decision-making

Some political issues are black and white, many others aren’t so perfectly distinguishable. The Conservative Party in Canada has had a long history of its prominent members opposing the communist Chinese regime. From MP Rob Anders’ alarm-raising of Chinese tactics that try to lure Canadian government officials with junkets to — and honey traps in — the world’s most populous nation, to Jason Kenney’s visit China to the home of Zhao Ziyang, a former senior Chinese official who was under house arrest for his push for democratization. The flare-up of the conservative base against spending tax dollars to build a visitor’s centre for the Bethune Centre in Tony Clement’s riding was but the most recent example. The most notable prior commemoration of Bethune in Canada had been fully funded by the Chinese Communist Party — a statue in Montreal.

Senior Canadian politicians — after retirement — have been actively engaging with China. Jean Chretien is said to have active business interests in the country, while Stockwell Day is the latest to add heft to the building of business relations with the Middle Kingdom.

One senior official in the Harper government remarked to me that Canada’s position on China is changing and the latest outreach to China indicates an ability to “walk and chew gum” at the same time. Presumably, Canada remains committed to human rights in China while looking to build Canada’s long-term economic interests in that country.

One result of walking the economic relationship along has been the announcement of China’s state-owned CNOOC announcing a $15 billion bid for Canada’s Nexen, an energy company actively developing Canadian oilsands. Such a sale would increase Chinese control to a 20% level of all Canadian oilsands projects.

Many factors are at play here. Regarding foreign investment in Canadian natural resources, the sought to formalize the policy in legislation.

The Canadian government has yet to approve the Nexen sale under the Canadian Investment Act, however, it appears that it is bullish with respect to Sino-Canadian capital investment.

“Canada is a country that welcomes foreign investment,” International Trade Minister Ed Fast said in Toronto on Tuesday. “We have rigorous review mechanisms in place that ensure that any investments that are made in Canada are in Canada’s net benefit and in our national interest and I’m confident the process will work.”

That’s certainly clearer signally from the government than we saw in the weeks leading up to the Billiton decision.

Clearer still is the Harper’s aggressive tack since on natural resources since forming a majority just last year. A key theme has been a full-speed ahead order on oil, gas, and mining (codenamed “Responsible Resource Development” in EAP-speak). Besides shepherding a projected doubling of oilsands projects over the next ten years, finding new markets and building transmission capacity (read: pipelines) are the domestic economic issues that are keeping the Prime Minister up at night.

And what of Stephen Harper’s small-c conservative base on the Nexen sale? No doubt, the business community welcomes open borders on trade. Yet, the anti-communists cannot be too happy about the PM’s softening stance on China. We’ve seen some deft manoeuvring by a few conservative editorialists to stake out a principled position on the issue. Conservative-minded individuals abhor the nationalization of anything, let alone Canada’s natural resources. But conservatives must stress that Canada is open for business. The CNOOC bid is therefore seen in an anti-market, state-corporatist light: this is the nationalization of Canadian natural resources by a foreign nation.

It is largely expected that the sale will be approved.

Canadian history (pre-1982)

Today marks the bicentennial anniversary of the beginning of hostilities during the War of 1812. The war between the Americans and British for what is now modern-day Canada was a formative event in our history for who were are as a people, it marked a heroic win for British forces in holding the line against the American incursion, and helped defined the politics of our young country and raison-d’etre of its formation. The conflict lasted nearly three years and claimed about 15,000 lives.

Streetlamps in Ottawa are marked with banners commemorating the 200 years since the event. As a significant element of our national heritage, it is being recognized as such with a national public awareness campaign by the Minister of Heritage and Prime Minister Stephen Harper which includes new stamps and minted coins, celebrations during Canada Day, and commemorative deployment of the Royal Canadian Navy to Canadian and US ports.

The War of 1812 represents an important aspect of this Prime Minister’s rebranding of our national image at home. For years, “Canada” was based upon a Trudeaupian narrative hatched out of Ottawa from successive decades of the central Canadian establishment consensus. What made a Canadian a “Canadian” was the fact that he had universal healthcare, and had a well-funded national public broadcaster. Indeed, we were more defined by the nation-building done by our legislators, than by that done by the heroism of hundreds of thousands who put their lives on the line in defense of Crown and country.

Conservatives look to our history and see the individual heroism that defines us while liberals look to our “social history”.

In Ottawa, the chattering classes have been treating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with disdain, suggesting that recognizing it either costs too much or that it is crass political posturing. To be sure, part of the legacy of this government will be in its recognition of Canadian symbols and history long airbrushed out by Canada’s establishment elite. Consider the push-back received when the Minister of Foreign Affairs wanted to restore the place of the Queen’s portrait in DFAIT and in our missions around the world. And what of the establishment freak-out of the restoration of the royal moniker to branches of our military despite widespread excitement among active personnel? Hundreds of thousands served their country under the “royal” designation. The government’s act was broadly seen (outside of Ottawa) as a restoration of pride. Consider too, the bellyaching heard ’round the Ottawa bubble when Conservatives passed on throwing a ticker-tape parade for the hardly notable 30th anniversary of the Charter.

The 200th anniversary of a war which helped define the formation of Canada may have happened long before 1982 when some in Ottawa believe that Pierre Elliot Trudeau granted us collective and individual rights. The perceived snub of this social history caused great consternation among national columnists and their friends in the Liberal Party, while the recognition of our men and women that serve our country with greater bravery than most of us will ever muster is seen as a waste or a spectacle.

Today, we recognize our nation-builders past and present who guaranteed the rights and freedoms that a pirouetting charlatan in a cape with a rose in lapel would later “liberate” for us to the great admiration of cynics who believe that Canada’s definition stems from governance, not from its glory.

Christy Clark’s missed opportunity

Tom Mulcair has had a busy week. In his first real outing on the national stage on any policy issue of pan-Canadian importance he chose to entangle energy, regions, the manufacturing sector, and the environment. Melange became malaise as Mulcair designed his prognostication to polarize.

In short, according to Mulcair, manufacturing jobs in central Canada suffer from a high dollar caused by energy exports. Exploiting the oilsands in Alberta and building pipelines to ship processed bitumen south and west is boosting the strength of the dollar. Mulcair calls it ‘Dutch Disease’.

Though without a reasonable diagnosis or plan for treatment, his strategy is quite transparent. The NDP has a tenuous hold on the seats from what many have called an accidental victory for the party in Quebec. Showing up as Quebec’s defender is a role conceded within the last decade by the federal Liberal Party, and Mulcair is digging in, and pouring the concrete to reinforce the foundation.

The NDP leader’s wedging from Outremont was a welcome opportunity for western premiers, whom Mulcair dismissed as “messengers” for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall warmed up his twitter and Facebook accounts to throw haymakers in defence the prairie province’s resource extraction industry.

For Wall, whose party captured 64.2% of the popular vote in the last provincial election, standing up for his province was more of a pleasure than a necessity, as his main opponents in the Saskatchewan NDP are lagging far behind.

Moving west, Alberta’s newly elected majority Premier Alison Redford — comfortably settling without much concern for imminent electoral survivability — passively mustered that Mulcair’s comments were “divisive and ill-informed”.

Yet, westward still, where we see a Premier in the fight for her political life in BC, with a surging NDP topping 50% in provincial polls, with an economy fixed firmly in the resource sector pipelines ready, it’s mostly quiet. Christy Clark’s finance minister did dismiss the “ignorant” remarks of Tom Mulcair, and the premier did call Mulcair’s position “goofy”, however, she has been absent from the province on a trade mission overseas and comparatively absent on the issue.

Resource sector jobs are inextricably linked to the BC economy. There have been talks or rebranding Clark’s party to recapture the pro-business and pro-development segments of the successful coalition that has kept her party in power. A perfect opportunity was presented to allow Clark to emerge as the most vocal defender of Western interests. Clark wasn’t just weak on brand, she was largely off-grid.

The federal NDP leader is making shrewd if cynical strategy dividing regions against each other but in the end it will likely pay political dividends for him. The other winners in this dance have been the Premiers with the least to gain while Premier Clark — facing a desperately dire political situation at home — has missed her chance to enrich her electability from this latest entanglement.

Charest should dig in, and then call election

Quebec politics are always interesting, and sometimes detestable. The past few months have proven this again to be true. Quebec students are marching in the streets by the tens of thousands on a regular basis demanding that the government reverse its plans to hike tuition rates to a level that would keep them paying less than any other student in North America. There has been violence, tear gas, broken windows and the provincial education minister has just quit.

The man at whom the chaos is targeted is Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest. Polls prior to the the street demonstrations showed him to be the least popular premier in Canada. Current polls show that the longest student strike in the province’s history have swayed the sympathy of few Quebecers. Elsewhere, scandals have mounted for Charest, the latest and most serious being allegations of corruption within the multi-billion dollar construction industry that seems to innervate every level of Quebec’s political class.

Charest must call an election by 2013, and if he is to survive facing long odds — as he has done before — he must be mindful of timing.

Quebec faces a summer of discontent, and the premier must be seen to be putting the house in order, or at least refusing to hand over the keys to the street mob. Acquiescing to student demands would be foolish and would remove electoral ammunition from Charest’s already dwindled stock. Earlier, Charest offered the students a deal he knew they wouldn’t accept — if only to illustrate that reason was contemptible to them. Quebec summers generally see a panoply of strikes and demonstrations from the labour movement. and — it being an election year in the U.S. — copycat occupy protests will return to the parks and streets of Montreal. Pressure will mount, and so will the impatience of ordinary Quebecers against the faction of society Charest would profit to wedge against.

Charest’s main electoral competitors are the Parti Quebecois, who promise to expand state benevolence to those seeking handouts, and the upstart party of François Legault. Legault’s CAQ promises a handful of right-leaning solutions for a province whose people have complained about the corrupt entitlement class of politicians running the show in the capital in Quebec City. If Charest has any hope of victory, he must tack right and co-opt Legault, and represent a populist champion against those who take from society at the expense of those who make society.

Say what you will about the issues of state largesse, what makes education accessible, or Charest’s fitness to be re-elected. The Premier will be making these calculations as he considers his political future in the coming weeks.

There is no better time for Charest than this summer to call an election and frame himself as a leader who will emphatically say ‘no’ to the students, and ‘no’ to the growing entitlement-seeking labour movement. It will only get worse for Charest as pressure from inquiries into corruption mount. Quebecers may not like Charest very much, but given the draining aspects of Quebec’s economy that he’s up against, he should be eager to show that a bold ‘no’ mandate may be the least detestable option.

[cross-posted to Full Comment]

Mr. Obama, it’s the economy, stupid

Why is this significant? Jobs, the economy and the political base. Both Canada and the United States would benefit tremendously if the Keystone pipeline project were approved. Thousands of jobs would be created in the United States if the administration were to give it the go-ahead. In Canada, it goes without saying that we would share the windfall of the economic benefits.

The hitch, however, is the political base of the governments in our respective countries. For Mr. Obama, he has calculated that despite a backdrop of a fragile underemployed American economy, the environmentalist base is vocal enough that it could make things tricky for his re-election. In Canada, the opposition is more of a passive nuisance on this. TO be sure, we are facing down not only the American left on this issue for Keystone, but delays and filibustering of the process at home threatens development of the Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast.

Interestingly, the Canadian political tone has switched from one of defence (playing the shield on an issue) to one of offense (playing the sword). For Mr. Harper, a deliberate re-positioning on energy and the environment is becoming clear as Canada steers away from the Kyoto protocol and from paying lip service to action on the ‘green’ file. The government is indeed finding its confidence to push back on the environmental lobby and this is a marked change from just two years ago. Of course, this confidence comes from Parliamentary stability via a majority mandate. Mr. Obama, on the other hand is glueing together the pieces of his fractured base as he faces a tough fight this year.

Two politicians, one confident, the other fragile. Two positions on energy policy and economic development.

It is in Canada’s economic interest to drive up the political cost of delay and deferral on Keystone to help President Obama appreciate that lost jobs in the US comes at a greater price than upsetting another shard of his fractured base.

Liberal Party On Ice

It’s January in Ottawa and it’s freezing cold. Parliament is on break and the next major political event scheduled is the federal budget. The Ottawa Convention Centre is a warm place and there’s not much else to do.

For a party in third place in the House of Commons, Liberal organizers will tell you they are pleased by 3200 registered delegates who are attending their biennial convention in this temperate refuge from their harsh environs outside of these walls.

There is also a large contingent of media that have gathered to huddle with the Liberals. Perhaps there really is nothing else to do, or that the Liberal Party is on the verge of a national comeback, or they’re doing something really important like electing a new policy chair and party president. Or something.

So why is there so much interest in the national media for the down-and-out Grits? Why is the meager battle-royale of party presidential candidates Sheila Copps vs. Mike Crawley garnering more press than say the ongoing leadership race of the Official Opposition NDP? What’s the big fuss?

“The death of a party is always news and seeing a zombie rise would also be a big story,” Sally Housser, deputy director of the NDP, rationalized tongue-in-cheek.

Yet, I’d like to offer an alternative analogy.

The Liberal Party is the Toronto Maple Leafs of Canadian politics. You’ve always heard your parents talk about their glory days, even your grandparents will tell you about the mighty unstoppable Leafs. Yet the team hasn’t won in a while and fans suggest in response that it’s the “rebuilding” phase. They’re the Central Canadian Establishment’s hometown favourites, and yes, the CBC swears that this year there will be a parade down Yonge street.

Will Liberals get boarded when they leave the convention for having a weak game with little to show for their efforts? Or will the media allow this storied team skate because everyone likes a good comeback?

Liberal convention 2012

Ottawa has been covered by a fresh blanket of snow this second week of January giving the nation’s capital an idyllic calm as delegates, press, and observers gather for the Liberal binennial convention.

The party was crushed in the last general election that saw the ascendance of the first majority Conservative government in 23 years. And for a party that has held government 4 out of 5 years of the past 100, the Liberals saw many of their own littered on the landscape — the most disasterous defeat of that party in its history.

Serious and sober discussions are expected as Grits assess party administration, party leadership, membership, fundraising, and policy.

There are also some old scores to settle that are already starting to surface as a contentious race for party president is underway that is already promising to reopen old wounds.

Policy is also going to be particularly challenging as a party looks not only to oppose the current administration, but to offer its own plan to the electorate. Will Liberals end up discussing policies that widely appeal to Canadians? Will we see the next grand Liberal vision for Canada emerge? Or will we see the old standbys discussed to reaffirm what has defined the party in the past? Will the Liberal policy primarily focus outward or internally on how the party conducts its own affairs?

The party is also assessing the monumental challenge of its own finances. To appeal to the electorate is a far-off challenge. First, the party must grow its own numbers and rescue its balance from the red. The process of politicking is one discussion the Liberals must have this weekend in order to ensure their survival. Liberals are looking to tap into US Democratic methods for fundraising and building winning membership networks.

The party is describing this weekend’s effort as one of rebuilding, renewal, and reboot, however, Liberal troubles run deep and are pervasive through every thread of its institution. The Liberals do face a challenge to avoid reducing its partisans to rehash old scores, to stay away from reusing ineffective tactics to raise money and increase membership and to resist recycling old policies that don’t appeal to an electorate that has changed since the days of Trudeau, Turner, Chretien and Martin.

When the snow of this weekend melts, will the Liberal Party see the first sprouts of its renewal, or will old and wasted remnants of days past remain as Canada’s former Natural Governing Party hunkers down for a long and cold winter?

State of Twitter

Treasury Board President Tony Clement recently remarked that Twitter is important in the public policy process. The Parry Sound-Muskoka MP has discovered its utility in his own branding; he is often cited by Hill reporters and other observers alike as the politician making the most sincere effort at using the medium to engage with the political twittersphere.

But are they his constituents? In politics, anyone who has skillfully run a successful election campaign will tell you that there are two main objectives: finding out who would vote for your candidate (voter ID) and getting these identified voters to actually vote (get out the vote). Does Twitter do either of these things?

To be sure, Twitter’s strength is in amplification. Like blogging in the middle of the last decade, the average elector is not getting their news from Twitter but those that pen the articles that this elector reads, are consuming as many tweets as they can. Twitter’s political strength in terms of votes is changing the direction of discussion among opinion leaders and those that set the narrative.

During the last Ontario provincial campaign, PC, Liberal and NDP war rooms took to Twitter often with inconsequential results. Mid-level war room staffers in their early 20s tweeting about smart-metering and tax cuts on home heating came off as insincere. Reporters had already flagged and dismissed many of these partisans as just that and if the staffers were unknown quantities, they were largely unsearched, non-retweeted and thus unamplified. Better to spend one’s time knocking on doors or making phone calls to identify hard constituent data rather than the pseudonymous. Politically, Twitter is better used to challenge preconceptions. This is done most effectively when the source is trusted and high value. And as with anything else social, authenticity matters.

Watching the Canadian twittersphere for any length of time it is easy to see that its participants mostly lean left. In the United States, one can see that a good number lean right. Why is this so? When the champion of one’s ideology occupies the government pulpit, the megaphone of office is sufficient for many. However, getting the message out in opposition is always a challenge. When mainstream options aren’t available, creative use of alternative methods becomes a necessity. When in opposition, partisans will occupy alternative media. It was true for the Canadian Conservative blogosphere when the Conservatives were in opposition; it is true of this country’s Progressive twittersphere today.

Another theory may also prove supplementarily useful. It is no secret to us conservatives that engagement with non-political but ideologically-aligned people remains one of our greatest challenges; most of our people just want to be left alone. For the left, solutions to grievances are rooted in state solutions. For the right, most look to themselves or families for answers. Advocacy and appeal for government solutions (or criticism for a lack of them) is typical of the left. There are right-wingers on Twitter, however, as citizens who look outside government for solutions, they are more likely tweeting about the hockey game or Dancing With The Stars than about the merit of cuts coming from Clement’s office. Further, Twitter is more likely to be used by younger people and by those with more free time (students and the unemployed). These demographics are also more likely dependent on — and seek fulfillment from — government assistance.

The result? Twitter viewed politically has a leftward bias in Canada. For better or worse, that’s just the way it is. For truly social-media savvy reporters, this bias is understood rather than taken as a true cross-section of Canadian life. Twitter does provide an exciting new medium for direct participation and feedback in our democracy. However, taken as a poll, it is an incomplete picture. If Twitter were reflective of reality, it would have been nationalized as a strategic resource long ago.