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The Wednesday Night Parliamentary Late Show

Our Parliament has many rules, conventions, quirks and traditions. When you work there, you start to learn about all these different bits and some turn out to be quite interesting. As I looked at todays House of Commons agenda, I noticed that one of my favourite ones happens tonight, one that seems to have taken an interesting twist.

Every May, we get to see a very interesting spectacle that really is its own world. It happens after the House of Commons adjourns on two Wednesday nights, and goes for about four hours or so, during prime time. On each night, the Parliament goes into “Committee of the Whole” and the Official Opposition gets to chose two ministers to come and testify before the committee, and basically answer any question that relates to the Main Estimates of that department.

Long story short, if you ask a question that’s related to a budgetary matter, the Minister has to reply. Making the spectacle even more interesting is the fact that by the rules of these nights, the Minister is only allowed to give an answer that is approximately as long as the question that is asked. So, if a member takes 15 seconds to ask a question, the Minister has approximately 15 seconds to answer. Under this format, it really reduces the chance to bloviate and run out the clock, but also tends to lead to many interesting answers and pieces of information coming out.

As with anything that happens in Parliament, there is usually some strategy around these nights. As you get to call two Ministers, normally the Official Opposition tries to pick two Ministers who either hold portfolios that are hot or contentious, you pick a Minister who is, frankly, a poor performer, or some combination of those. I remember the one “Committee of the Whole” I got to be a part of in the last Parliament, we called former Indigenous Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt to testify, and he was predictably awful.

So, in May 2019, with all of the matters that have been taking up the oxygen in the House of Commons, there is a list of names I would have assumed the Conservatives would call before the House tonight. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Finance Minister Bill Morneau or new Justice Minister David Lametti would have all made complete sense, given the attention that the Conservatives have put on their files.

Yet who is the first Minister that they are calling to testify? None other than National Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, a choice that seems to be a bit out of left field. Why Sajjan? He isn’t directly involved in any of the major stories that have been happening and even in the Mark Norman affair, he hasn’t been a central figure.

It’s a choice of witness that leaves a lot of open questions, but also could lead one to believe that the Conservatives think they have something up their sleeve, I would assume on the whole Mark Norman case and the military procurement. Tonight is one of those rare nights where the Official Opposition basically sets the agenda and chooses who they face. It’s a night that the Opposition usually looks forward to and the government dreads. So with this choice, it seems that something is a foot for tonight, assumedly something of note. Otherwise, the only explanation is that it’s a bad choice and some other minister who was probably much more likely to face this scrutiny will be off the hook, a crucial mistake if that is the case. We’ll see how it all plays out tonight after the House rises for the day, starting probably around 7 pm EST/4 pm PST. Will this decision be a stroke of genius or will it be a strike out? We’ll see what happens tonight.


Panic! At the NDP Disco

As we get closer to the summer and then the Fall election, the pressure is starting to ramp up on the various parties in Ottawa. For each party, that pressure is very different, from the pressure of potentially forming government to the pressure of mere survival beyond this campaign. And for each party, that pressure brings about different responses, some good, some bad and some out of panicking fear. Yesterday we saw the New Democrats response to some of that pressure, a response that was very telling of the Orange Teams state:

As a life-long New Democrat, what happened yesterday is what I have been dreading for a few years. Yesterdays announcement came off to me as an abandon of any pretense of what the NDP has been traditionally; a balance between urban lefties/environmental movement and rural, unionized, resource sector and industrial workers. For as long as I can remember, the NDP has walked that line, trying to balance two important constituencies in a way that benefits both. That is never easy, and if you’re all about ideological purity, it’s not emotionally satisfying. But it gets better results, results that the vast majority of people can sign onto and bring people along.

But yesterday, with the words that were used, a signal was sent that left me cold. And while I’ve feared that this might come over the past year or so, it was a comment a few weeks ago from Jagmeet Singh that had me on high alert, one that if it was an honest slip of the tongue would have been walked back:

Offensive? Offensive? Any sector that pollutes is “offensive? Therefore, the jobs that they create, those good, unionized jobs, are “offensive” too? I was gobsmacked when I read that and given Singh’s tendency to sometimes go with a bit more rhetorical flourish and go too far, I hoped that would be walked back. Yet there was radio silence on that topic until yesterday, when he stated that “I don’t believe any energy source that’s carbon-based is the future for Canada.” What a panic move.

And what is the panic about? The lost by-election in Nanaimo-Ladysmith where the Greens, who ran a very strong campaign there last time, elected the son of a former NDP MP. As I have said previously here, the result of that by-election was not a harbinger of anything more serious and was very based around local concerns and issues. The important thing was not to panic or overreact. Yet we saw former MP and now candidate Svend Robinson out there doing his best Chicken Little impression, yelling to every media outlet that would hear him out that the sky was falling. And how did Jagmeet Singh react to that yesterday? He joined Svend’s chorus, a fatal mistake as any to be made.

At this point it should be noted that the NDP did run a leadership campaign just 18 months ago and the candidate who ran on this approach dropped out and was running last place, mostly because of that policy. Singh, on the other hand, didn’t take that approach or support that policy during that race, which rejected that approach out of hand. That’s not what many people who voted for Singh voted for, and that will leave many with questions too.

The fact is that the vast majority of New Democrats, including folks like Rachel Notley, Ryan Meili and John Horgan, support a transition to clean energy. The key word there is “transition”, because a transition takes many steps and takes time. It’s not a simply “A to B” proposition. That means having to work with everyone to help make that transition happen and yes, that even includes energy companies that have oil and gas holdings. The fact is that LNG might not be the long-term solution to GHG emissions, but it is an intermediate step that can help us get there, taking coal out of electricity production and diesel out of transportation. We’ve seen a great example of this in British Columbia where BC Ferries has started replacing diesel power with LNG to run their ferries. Using LNG on just one of their ferries will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 12,500 tonnes every year, the equivalent of taking 2,500 cars off the road. Folks, that’s progress, that’s making progress. Yet with Singh’s announcement yesterday, projects like that wouldn’t happen because for the NDP now, LNG is verboten.

Another example of this is orphaned wells in Alberta. There are many old oil wells just sitting there, orphaned, as the companies that owned them have gone into bankruptcy. This is leaving an awful environmental legacy, causing great problems for those who live near them. A simple solution to this problem would be to have the federal government help fund the clean up, especially given that those wells that are now orphaned are legally the concern of the province and not a company that no longer exists. Doing that clean up of the over 100,000 wells that need it would help put oil and gas workers to work, be a part of the solution, and some of those old wells could even be retrofitted for geothermal heat or energy production. That’s a real win-win, right? Well that would also be a no-no thanks to Singh’s announcement yesterday because that’s somehow a subsidy to companies that no longer exist.

I could go on and on with examples of this but it really all boils down to one big point: We need all hands on deck and all options on the table to reach our climate goals, period. We need to engage everyone, every sector and not leave any options out of consideration to make this work. There is no silver bullet to solving climate change, no single solution out there. It will take various approaches, various tactics and very technologies. It will also require the co-operation and some collaboration with the oil and gas sector. Therefore, if your position is that that sector must be the whipping boy for the ideological set, to salvage your party, you’re officially not part of any solution. You’re irrelevant.

And in my estimation, that’s what the NDP just did to itself yesterday, as much as it pains me deeply to say it. If you don’t have a practical, achievable plan of any sort, you don’t have a plan. Right now the NDP, with what it announced yesterday, has no plan. It’s decided to try to “out Green the Greens” instead of doing the hard work of coming up with a policy that helped everyone be a part of the solution. They’ve decided to try to set up certain industries that pollute, like oil and gas, as the enemy while leaving other industries that pollute, like the auto sector, alone. They’ve decided to take one industry that needs to be and can be a part of the solution and attack them, while supporting another industry that needs to be and can be a part of the solution. Ahhh, what consistency.

I still hold out some hope that the NDP and this leadership will correct course but I’ll admit it is a faint one. It seems that the NDP has chosen its path, one of irrelevance and of a party that’s not seeking to govern at all. It’s chosen the path of purity and personally pleasing rhetoric, which is one that runs far away from ever actually getting elected to government to make any progress. Yesterday was a sad day for many of us, one that marks the end of an era.

Some Friendly Advice

The Fall election is getting closer and closer and as that date with whatever destiny it turns out to be gets closer, there is a lot to ponder. So, it’s been in that mind set I’ve found myself recently, reading what others are having to say out there. That led me to the newest piece by Jamie Carroll, about the plight of the Liberals currently and his advice on how to correct their course:

This all might be turning into a point/counterpoint thing in the grand scheme of things, but it led me to sit down and offer my own thoughts. Heck, one of his suggestions was to take advice from the Conservatives, so surely some friendly advice from a New Democrat could be welcomed too.

Let’s start at the end of his comments and work my way back. Carroll asks the existential question of “What is a Liberal?”, a question that I really think should be the starting focus, not so much the end point. As he rightly points out, the Liberal Party of Canada has traditionally been a brokerage party, in the mushy middle, sometimes a bit further left, sometimes a bit further right, sometimes inside the same electoral term depending on which way the winds are blowing. As he points out, there was no ideology there outside of doing what it took to win.

This is a legit model for a party, and given their success since Confederation, it’s one that’s worked for them. But folks it’s a model that has limitations to go with its strengths; those limitations come back to motivations and keeping people active and involved with your party. Jamie is right that most people get involved in politics at the grassroots level to be a part of something, to be involved, but that thing simply being the end result of wins and losses isn’t what keeps people there long term. It’s things they care about deeply, issues, policy and in some cases, that means ideology on some level. While the Liberals may see ideology as an impediment, an anchor that keeps a party in place, I would say it’s more of a North Star that helps guide. Ideology, like anything else, can be interpreted in many ways and that allows for flexibility. And yes, you will always have those in a party like that who will never be satisfied and will always hold themselves up to be the paradigm of ideological virtue, but they are the minority by far.

I raise that because of another piece of advice that he gives the Liberals, to basically learn from the Conservatives and how they operate towards those who will never support them. As he points out, Conservative don’t give a flying fart what those who oppose their views think, and in fact inflaming those people can actually help to motivate those who do agree with them. And that’s how they run their party, it’s pretty clear to see. But here is where Jamie’s advice hits a roadblock of sorts; those Conservatives don’t rally around pissing off everyone else, they rally around a core set of ideals. That 40% or so of people who identify with them want to win, but they aren’t willing to win at any cost. They are willing to sacrifice to get to the mountain top, but they aren’t willing to sacrifice everything in the name of winning. That’s how you ended up with the Reform Party in the 90’s.

For the Conservatives they are not so much unencumbered by not caring what others think as they are just hyper focused on what their smaller group does think and tries to motivate the Hell out of them. And they’re good at its folks, you have to admit that. But is that a function of good politics or is that more of a function of the electoral system we have? I would argue that the current system does benefit parties that have central ideological views and big enough numbers to back them. It makes big blocks of voters that much stronger. You can argue that with Conservatives, you also could argue it with Sovereigntists back in the heyday of the Bloc Quebecois. If you have a central idea to rally around, you’ll get motivated people involved.

Winning alone simply doesn’t do that, and we saw that in 2011 and the run up to 2015. In 2011, when the Orange Wave hit, yes there were people who flocked to the NDP because they became the better option to challenge the Harper Conservatives. That hurt the Liberals because as a party built around winning being the major motivation, the second that someone else looked stronger, they jumped ship. They had nothing else to hold them there or at least to think about. At the start of the 2015 campaign, the NDP attracted many strong candidates across the country in ridings I never expected who, you could argue, fell into that camp too. They were great candidates and this is no knock on them, but in the past,  they would have naturally flowed to the Liberals because they were seen as the best option. They were the best chance at winning. The same thing happened with certain people flowing to the Conservatives, with the likes of David Emerson the first popping to my mind. The bigger point being that both the Conservatives and the NDP held their bases, their ideologues, while bringing others on board, which made them stronger. It’s not a matter of either/or, and to win, you need a bit of both. The Liberal Party doesn’t naturally have that.

While brings me to Jamie’s first point about outreach, a point that I generally agree with. MPs, Party Leaders, local riding associations and all need to be out there, talking to people. That’s where elections are won and lost, and while sometimes people do get elected based on the strength of their leader’s performance and they ride their coattails, that’s not the way it happens for most. We saw it in 2011 with some NDP MPs who got elected that way, and were swept out in 2015 because they didn’t put in the work (along with many who did put in the hard work too I will say), and we’ll see the same in 2019 with many Liberal MPs who got elected in 2015 in the same way. So yes, outreach is hugely important and a must.

But where I part company with Jamie is the focus of that outreach. It’s true that a party always needs to keep in contact with their members, their former staffers, former riding folks, former elected people and pick their brains. I especially agree with the point of letter those people vent and taking it all to heart going forward. But that can’t be the whole part of it; if you’re going to win, you need to bring in more people and more views into the party. For a party with no ideology, you’d think that would be easier as there shouldn’t be anyone off the table. But you can’t do that while taking the Conservative approach at the same time; those are two very different lanes. And it’s hard to take the Conservatives approach to this if you’ve got no founding ideas beyond winning that holds it all together.

In the end, I would argue that listening too much to the that group of eminent Liberals is not the solution to todays problems; you should listen a bit but take it all with a grain of salt. In my view, the Liberal Party needs to decide what it is; it can’t be a brokerage party where winning is the sole organizing principle while also shunning whole blocks of electors because they “don’t agree with you”, whatever it is you are “agreeing” on today. The advantage of the brokerage model is that you can, in theory, be accessible to all, because you have no ideology to push people away. The drawback to it is that you don’t get the people there motivated by ideas who will always be there, through the thickest and the thinnest.  That’s a circle you can’t square. And when your party is increasingly built around a leader and their image, this problem becomes that much greater. So, I wish my Liberal friends well in their thoughts of this, but I would argue that at least in 2019, the mood isn’t there for the brokerage approach of the past. Does that mean blowing it all up? That’s not for me to say but if I were to give any advice, it would be to not panic. Politics, like life, goes in cycles and what the mood of the public doesn’t support today could very well be the mood of the day in the future.

The Importance of Never Giving Up

When I first moved to Southern Ontario, I taught in Durham Region. During my time working in that area, I got to know the region well but also what makes the area go. Coming from a city that was built around forestry, I knew the feeling of being in a place that had such importance built in one major employer. So, when I worked in Durham Region, seeing General Motors and its importance there made sense and felt very familiar. That made it all the more understandable how people felt and reacted when some awful news came in late November:

The closure of that facility is something that would be devastating and could be a harbinger for further bad news for the Canadian auto sector down the road. Any move that ends with the loss of 2,500 jobs is bad, and that it could be a sign of worse to come would be that much worse. So that’s why, at the time of the announcement, the reactions from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford were so striking in their hopelessness. Both leaders at the time basically threw up their hands, saying that while they didn’t agree with this decision from GM, that there was nothing that could be done. This was the world that we are now living in and there was no way to reverse that decision.

Of course, that response didn’t sit well with the workers at GM or the union representing them, UNIFOR. Instead of giving up completely, UNIFOR and the workers decided to go on the offensive. They protested in Toronto and across the river from GM’s headquarters in Detroit. They actively pushed for the boycott of GM vehicles purchased outside of Canada. They even went so far as to put out an attack ad against GM and paid to run it during the Super Bowl. Remember this?

All along people were saying that this was all fruitless and that there was nothing could be done. But that pressure built on GM, and built, and built. It built to the point that we saw a big joint announcement today by both General Motors and UNIFOR:

Everyone, when people deride the value of unions and organized labour, point to this right here as an example of why they are so important. It’s not perfect, and even Jerry Dias himself pointed that he’s not happy about the end result, but this is a start. The fact is that GM was going to walk away, leaving 2,500 people and families hurt. But through hard work, determination and negotiation, UNIFOR was able to ensure that GM has some kind of future in Oshawa. 300 jobs are just a start, and when you look at investments into autonomous vehicle testing and such, this deal offers a brighter future than the one that workers in Oshawa saw in November. That’s making the best of a very bad situation, and leaving the opportunity to make it even better in the future.

But the biggest lesson here is to see who was at this announcement today, or more precisely, who wasn’t. Neither the Trudeau Liberals, nor the Ford Conservatives were anywhere to be seen. They left the field and left the fight for UNIFOR to fight alone. They gave up and tried to get those people in Oshawa to be prepared to accept less. They weren’t willing to take on this powerful company and decided that they weren’t going to put their political capital on the line. This was a time to fight for Oshawa and Canada’s auto sector, and they did the opposite.

So, the good people at UNIFOR deserve all the kudos for their hard work and for taking risks to save as many jobs as they could now, while ensuring that there will be more and a future for GM in Oshawa in the future. This is their win and their deal that they earned, all without any thanks or help from either level of government. This is why unions are so important everyone and if a strong union like UNIFOR wasn’t there, all those jobs would be gone, for today and forever. Hopefully the next time we see a large employer trying to do the same, we’ll see the federal and provincial governments actually join organized labour in that fight to make the best out of a bad situation, rather than sit on the sideline, throwing up their hands and throwing in the towel.

Beware the Library-Loving Seniors

Having worked on Parliament Hill for close to a decade, one thing that I gained a huge appreciation for is people who work in the constituency offices of elected officials. Being in Ottawa, you’re not on the front line, dealing with constituents everyday and usually when something from a constituent lands on your desk in Ottawa, it’s being escalated because the situation requires more help.

But my true appreciation for those staff came from having lived through the experiences of dealing with highly controversial issues. I knew how rough some of those experiences were for me, and that was usually with my bosses riding being hours and hours away. But for my constituency colleagues, many of those people walked into their offices. So for those staff, they had special needs to help with that and had to be very good dealing with the public. And if things ever got out of hand, there were security measures that were in place just in case. But I would point out, in my decade working in politics, it almost never got to that point of needing those measures.

So why come back later at night to write this piece? Well while checking in on my Twitter feed tonight I came across a story that left me gobsmacked and shaking my head, with a headline that completely speaks for itself and says it all:

Yes folks, you read that right: MPP Sam Oosterhoff’s office calls cops on library-loving seniors. Surely this must have been a violent group of seniors uttering threats and being all menacing, right? I mean, there must be a rationale, reasonable reason for calling the cops on them, right? You be the judge:

Police were called to MPP Sam Oosterhoff’s riding office Tuesday after a group of older adults clutching books showed up to stage a “read in” over provincial library cuts.
The group of about 15 retirees and seniors, some of whom are members of a classic book club in Wainfleet, had planned to read their books in the Niagara West Tory MPP’s Beamsville office in silent protest.
“I don’t think we looked threatening,” said Janet Hodgkins, a book club member and a retired librarian who worked at Welland Public Library for 28 years.
Each member of the group carried a book, some with homemade brown paper covers displaying quotes about the importance of libraries. They walked into Oosterhoff’s King Street office in a plaza just after 2 p.m. and were told by a staff member that they couldn’t hold a sit-in because the building is owned by someone else.
The staff member said she would call police if the group didn’t leave and when a man said they just wanted to read, she did. Two members of the group then left, but others asked if they could make an appointment to meet with Oosterhoff.
They were told Oosterhoff is only in the riding on Fridays and is booking two months in advance. He will only meet with constituents who live in his riding because he is so busy with appointments.
Some members of the group then asked if they could leave letters they had brought with them for Oosterhoff about why they are opposing library cuts. Nine people left letters along with the homemade book covers.
They then exited the office.
The whole interaction took about eight minutes.
While outside the office talking to The St. Catharines Standard, two Niagara Regional Police officers arrived who had been called to the office and a third followed. No arrests were made.

A group of about a dozen seniors threatened to read in silence in this MPP’s constituency office, most of them left and that was enough to call the cops on them? Seriously? I’m sorry but this is just so wrong on so many levels, especially because I know of constituency staff who have had to deal with real threats, death threats, threats of violence and alike. THAT is when you call the police. I have complete empathy for calling the police in the case of real emergencies like that. But you don’t call the police when you’re faced with citizens who are looking to raise legitimate questions with a member of the government. That’s just not right.

So in the end, what did this MPP and his staff accomplish? They brought more attention to these cuts that have people upset, and they look foolish for sending the police after these seniors. It looks like this MPP and this government can’t deal with criticism from the public that they are elected to serve. And to me calling the police for that is a waste of police resources, a waste of their time and runs the risk of sounding like “crying wolf”. Elected officials are elected to face the people and answer tough questions, and their staff are paid to do the same. If either this MPP or his staff can’t or won’t be bothered to face the public that elected them, then maybe they need to reconsider their career choices. Maybe if when faced with a group of seniors your thought is to call the police, maybe you aren’t cut out for this line of work. Maybe they should think about that next time before they reach for that phone.