Thursday, October 29, 2015

Stephen+Steven Show - Election Post Mortem.

The Stephen+Steven show is back with a wrap up of what happened election night and where do we go from here. Plus the Zen of the Liberal campaign, the NDP's collapse and putting spackle on Harper's legacy.

https://soundcloud.com/stephen-steven/election-post-mortem


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Niqabs, The NDP & Quebec

Even as history is being written, it is being re-written.

We are only a few short days after the federal election and we already have people trying to both make sense of it and rewrite what happened so they make sense in retrospect.

In dodging the blame for the Conservative collapse, Harper's MPs (the surviving ones, anyway) are already distancing themselves from the train wreck that was #elxn42. It is usual to blame the organizers of a losing campaign. Calgary Conservative MP Ron Liepert has talked about troubles at the top. Others are starting to say, after years of cheerfully regurgitating PMO talking points and clapping in the House of Commons like exceptionally well trained seals, that they have had their doubts about Harper's leadership style and direction for the Conservatives for a while.

The NDP is in a hunt for a plausible reason for their electoral collapse. They are not willing to admit that the first thing to realize is that the 2011 results were an anomaly. A bad Liberal campaign where Harper hammered away at them giving the NDP a free ride combined with the emotional reaction to an energetic and dying Jack Layton gave them a once in a lifetime nexus of popularity. They mistakenly believed they had turned the corner to permanent ideological acceptance and love by the Canadian voters. They hadn't, and it's hard for them to accept. The NDP in ascendance is not the new normal, typified by the election literature claiming the NDP only needed a few dozen "extra" seats to form the government, as if the ones they had going into the election were in the bag.

Instead the NDP tumbled from 103 seats and 30.6% of the popular vote in 2011 to 44 seats and 19.7% of the popular vote in 2015, losing some 963,000 votes in the process. In 2011 the NDP had a breakthrough 59 seats in Quebec, reduced to only 16 in 2015. Thirty of these losses were to the Liberals, with a surprising 7 lost to the Conservatives and the rest to the Bloc.

Looking for a reason for this reversal of the orange wave of 2011 after the NDP had a chance to dig in and fortify their hold on these Quebec ridings, a common talking point has emerged since Monday. As Gerry Caplan voiced:

Of course it's also arguable that the NDP made the ultimate sacrifice: In the face of Harper cynically playing the anti-Muslim card, the NDP threw away votes on a matter of principle -- supporting the right to wear a niqab -- and indeed fully paid the penalty for doing so. It cost the party their Quebec base, and with it any reason why the large "Anyone But Harper" crowd across the country should think of supporting the NDP. The noise you heard in the last week of the campaign was of progressive ABH voters flocking in their tens of thousands to the Liberals.
(Italics added)

It sounds noble and high-principled, except for the fact that the Liberals had the exact same policy towards the niqab ban as the NDP. Liberal leader Trudeau voiced his opposition to the ban on many occasions before and after the election campaign. You're not going to leave someone over a position on an issue if the person they go to supports the same position. Still, it's an appealing if unsupportable theory if you are the NDP - you lost votes over supporting a just and noble principle. It has been repeated many times now and some will accept it as gospel as it fits the NDP narrative as being too good for politics. It's just that it isn't true - at least not on the niqab issue and the Liberals. Perhaps in their loss of the 7 Quebec seats to the Conservatives and 9 to the Bloc.

There are lots of other reasons for the crash back to earth of the NDP. Just as they had an orange crush the pendulum has swung the other way with a red tide. The 2011 election for the NDP was not "the new normal" as they would like to believe which makes its return to third party status such a disappointment after travelling from Official Opposition to possible majority, to kingmaker in a minority to largely ignorable. As the NDP moves forward into a dissection of the 2015 election they could find many reasons for their fall - peaking too early, adopting an austerity no-deficit financial platform, a leader who came across as petulant and stodgy, and negative campaigning.

The one thing it was not, at least in Quebec as far as losing ground to the Liberals, was the niqab.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Election Editorial - The Great War for Civilization

I’ve been called a “partisan” on Twitter and elsewhere, and indeed I am. I have a long-held set of beliefs and preferences and I suppose that makes me a partisan. In the fullest disclosure, about 20 years ago I was a very active Liberal. I even ran (once) in the 1995 Ontario provincial election under the Liberal banner and lost in the first sweep of Mike Harris’ neo-con Common Sense Revolution that Ontario is still recovering from.

In my own defence, I mostly disengaged from active politics after that. I let my Liberal Party membership lapse and did my best to avoid the fundraising dinners and election campaigns. I was still an avid observer of politics, just not part of the front-line troops.

Then two things happened. The first was Harper, particularly when he won his majority in 2011 and had free reign to pursue his narrow and mean vision of Canada. I realized Harper’s Conservatives were something completely new and dangerous on the Canadian political landscape. They hated – and that is not too strong a word – most of what the Canada I grew up in stood for. They hated multiculturalism. They hated the Charter of Rights. They hated Canada’s role as a balanced and nuanced international peacekeeper. They hated a state that collected taxes and used them to care for its citizens – especially those the Victorians called “the undeserving poor.” In effect, they hated the last 50 years of Canadian history.


The other thing that happened was Twitter. I had already been writing for years for various newspapers (mostly in the Sun chain) and was an intermittent blogger. Someone suggested I try Twitter and I was hooked. Not only did I get to meet a lot of interesting people, it became my news aggregator, letting me read stories from all over.  It also seemed to suit my own style – short, irreverent and smart-assy. It became a place for people to re-engage in politics as newspapers and media outlets became concentrated in ever-diminishing hands. It is a relentless fact-checker in a world of spin. It also proved to be a fertile place for complete nutjobs, the ill-informed and odious trolls.

Twitter has also grown in relevance since the last election. It is now a source for both investigative and lazy journalists to find breaking stories and pull together threads of emerging ones. A meme can take off and crush a politician in hours, escaping into mainstream media because of its immediacy. I have to say I love Twitter and #cdnpoli.

But back to being a partisan. For years my goal has been simple – point out the many hypocrisies of the Harper Conservatives and their relentless efforts to dismantle the Canada I (and many others) love. As a lawyer and someone very concerned about legal rights, a lot of my writing has been about Harper’s hatred for the courts and the Charter, since they stand consistently between him and his efforts to remake Canada in his own harsh and draconian image. We have never had a government before that has deliberately and joyfully passed laws any second year law student could tell you breaches Canadians’ fundamental rights. Department of Justice lawyers constantly advise the Harper government that their proposed legislation is almost certainly unconstitutional, and their advice is brushed aside as it does not fit the Conservative narrative. Harper also refuses to recognize that Parliament is also subject to the law and specifically subject to the Charter. Like so many demagogues, he believes in the “higher authority” of the “will of the people” (embodied in him with his 39% of the popular vote) that trumps things like fundamental rights. His contempt of the courts and the rule of law is unprecedented, and extremely dangerous in a democracy.

I also love our Parliamentary system, imperfect as it is. I had the honour to work in Ottawa in the early 1980s for a senator and cabinet minister. As a result, I have a soft spot for the Senate, which until it was stuffed with hacks, crooks and the unqualified, actually did important legislative work, particularly in committees. Yes – since 1867 it has been a dumping ground for cronies, but it still serves an important parliamentary function. What it really needs – among other things – is a better appointment process, but it defies reform or abolishment. Like Harper, Mr. Mulcair is not being honest when he says he’ll abolish or starve it out of existence. The first is almost impossible according to the courts under the constitution, and the second is illegal, like starving the Supreme Court of judges and money because you don’t like their decisions.

I got to meet Pierre Trudeau on several occasions. He was a complex man and I was a fan, although I recognize he had significant blind spots. His best work was in his final term, notably the Charter. I remember seeing him often walking across the lawn to the House of Commons chatting with an aide or minister, no bodyguards in sight. He occasionally said “hi.”

I have to say that I initially had several misgivings about Justin Trudeau’s leadership bid. Dispassionately I did wonder if he had what it takes. While in the real world lightening does in fact often strike twice, in the political world it rarely does. Pierre as a father was a mixed political blessing to some, but through friends who were close to Trudeau senior I heard what a loving but not indulgent father he was. In spite of his money, Pierre Trudeau lived fairly modestly (he has been described by those who knew him as a little bit cheap) and never got away from the Jesuit discipline of his youth. He raised his kids that way as well.


This is a good time for a disclaimer: I have never met Justin Trudeau. As a pure outsider it seems to me that Justin grew up with something his father didn’t have. Pierre Trudeau could be charming (when he felt like it), but was not that comfortable with the political glad-handing of people. He got better at it as his career progressed, but he was at heart a loner, and I’ll leave it to biographers to decide if he was shy or arrogant. Justin seems to be genuinely comfortable around people and crowds. Is it an act? I have no idea, but people close to him say it is genuine.  That easy charm has distinguished and buoyed him up in the current nasty campaign compared to Harper’s cold-fish mortician demeanour and Thomas Mulcair’s unblinking avuncular persona.

Harper seriously miscalculated spending the early part of his campaign trying to dismiss Trudeau as “not ready” because of his perceived naivety and youth. What he didn’t realize is that many Canadians were tired of Harper’s bloodlessness, lack of empathy and palpable mean-spiritedness that he brought to everything he did. Showcasing Trudeau’s freshness cast Harper’s own style into deeper contrast. As the campaign wore on, clearly Canadians were ready for a return to a kinder, gentler leadership.

That kinder, gentler leadership for a while belonged to the NDP, but a lot of it was frittered away by what people both inside and outside the NDP saw as sacrificing traditional ground in the quest for votes. The LEAP Manifesto had echoes of the Waffle, trying to remind the NDP of its leftist roots. The tension between ideology and power has always existed within the NDP, and it became more pronounced when it seemed Mulcair had a shot at being the first NDP prime minister. The NDP attacks on the Liberals were relentless, but, while intended to siphon votes off the Liberals next door, ultimately proved off-putting. Mulcair’s own style also showed cracks, especially with some of his petulant asides aimed mostly at Trudeau during the debates.

I have a lot of NDP friends and followers on Twitter (and in real life), and I certainly have a lot more in common with them than my handful of Conservative friends. I’m a resolutely left liberal – often more left than the Liberal Party itself. Nonetheless, I would not find myself comfortable in the NDP for at least three reasons:

1) While I support the great work unions have done, I am not a knee-jerk unionist. Like every human institution, they are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
2) The NDP’s policy of Quebec separation being possible on a vote of 50% +1 is wrong and dangerous. Hopefully it doesn’t rear it’s ugly head again for a while.
3) While every party has its kooks (I've known a few), they are more plentiful as you approach the extremes of both left and right.

I should also add that I hate folk singing.

The idea that left Liberals can make the switch to the NDP simply doesn’t work for me, even though there are a lot of other individual policy items I could live with. Ideology matters. I don’t know why my NDP friends and Twitter followers don’t understand that ideology matters to others the same way to matters to them. For weeks I have been flooded with tweets promoting Mulcair and NDP policies, which I read with interest. I also get a steady stream of criticism from them of Trudeau and Liberal policies and news. I don’t generally engage in arguments on social media or block anyone because they support the NDP or don’t like the Liberals. At least I don’t generally start arguments, unless it’s a particularly idiotic troll (almost always Conservative) who is just too tempting a target for a metaphorical bop on the nose for pure entertainment value. Conservatives seem to be particularly ill-suited for the witty cut and thrust that makes social media so enjoyable.

I do find if I offer the slightest criticism of the NDP or Mulcair, I do get a torrent of outrage from my normally easygoing NDP friends and followers. There’s a passion and righteousness there that brooks no criticism, and the volume has been turned up as the election draws to a close and the NDP numbers fade.

I have also been critical of the Liberals. Being partisan doesn’t mean you’re brain dead. The 800-pound bear for left liberals is the Liberal Party’s support of bill C-51. I have to admit, like many, it troubles me greatly. I think it is terrible legislation and should be repealed. It was going to pass regardless due to Harper’s majority but I was disappointed with the Liberal support of it. I understand the politics that were originally behind supporting it and disagree. I publicly encouraged the Liberals to back out before the final vote, which would have opened up a new line of attack from the right but would have taken it away from the left (and from within). I thought there was an opportunity for a dignified exit from it, but Trudeau stuck with his support of it, although saying significant limits and safeguards will be added along with other amendments. I hope so, because it is terrible and unnecessary legislation and public support for it has faded since it was introduced in the wake of the Ottawa shooting tragedy.

The problem for many Liberals is, where do you go if you disagree on C-51? The NDP would have you go to them and it has been a main point of attack throughout the campaign, sensing that many on the left of the Liberal Party are unhappy with it. I don’t know how many Liberals (as opposed to voters in general) would switch over this one policy. That doesn’t mean they don’t feel strongly about it, but a party is a big bundle of sticks. Some sticks are more significant than others, but it’s hard to trade the whole bundle over any one stick, especially if the other party has more sticks you don’t agree with. I doubt the NDP would expect its members to switch over a policy disagreement, even a serious one. I don’t know why they think another party’s members would.

This issue notwithstanding, Trudeau’s bundle of sticks have proven to be more popular to the Canadian voters. The real test is always the election itself, as polls have been shown recently to be notoriously unreliable predictors of victory. The excruciatingly long election campaign was a terrible strategic error by Harper. No doubt thinking that he could outspend the other parties two to one and have three times as long to imprint his negative messaging to diminish Trudeau (and Mulcair when they finally got around to him), a long campaign clearly was seen to their advantage.

From the outset I thought a long campaign would hurt Harper. Yes, we were bombarded with smarmy radio ads and outright lies, but Harper also forgot he would have to crawl out of the bunker too and emerge from his carefully choreographed cocoon to face the public and press – something he has not done in years. Even on the campaign trial he wouldn’t go out in public, cordoned off behind a wall of security even in carefully vetted audiences. Publicly, to know Harper is to not love Harper. More exposure reinforces his lack of warmth and people skills and the story became about how carefully managed and scripted he was and how uncomfortable he looked. The Conservatives tried to craft that into a narrative about his “seriousness for a serious job” and having the gravitas of a statesman, but it never really worked outside of the party faithful. Certainly not against the unscripted youthful enthusiasm of Trudeau. Both Harper and later Mulcair tried to belittle him by calling him “Justin”, but it backfired on both.

Canada was tired of being managed, talked down to, lied to, dismissed as inconsequential and having the excitement of a financial institution’s shareholder meeting. Trudeau went off script or expressed himself in ways that outlets like the late and largely unlamented Sun News could easily misrepresent in a sound bite. As an occasional “Liberal Pundit” on Sun News (officially representing no one but myself) I knew to expect a call to come in and take a beating the morning after Trudeau had said something that could be spun a different way. Some of his utterances were indeed too off the cuff and dogged him. They were blown way out of proportion by a Conservative propaganda machine that had already successfully destroyed two Liberal leaders with a campaign of repetitious mockery. “He’s not ready” was supposed to be the killing phrase, and it might have stuck in a shorter campaign when people didn’t have the chance to judge with their own eyes. In spite of the gaffes (or maybe even because of them) Trudeau instead came across as an honest and human contrast to Harper.

I have said from the beginning that Harper relies on only two things: fear and greed. He has played fear for a long time – the fear of criminals, the fear of terrorists, the fear of fifth columnists infiltrating refugees, fear of Russia, fear of the mentally ill, fear of drug users and prostitutes, the fear of “global economic uncertainty” and the fear of what exactly is going on under that niqab. He has tried to turn us into a nation of rabbits, jumping at our shadows, distrustful of the unfamiliar, locking our doors, picking wedges and exploiting divisions in society and setting group against group. It’s cynical, dangerous and destructive, but it is what a politician does when they lack the ability to inspire.

On the greed side, Harper has appealed to the basest desire to jealously keep what we have and not share with others. Low taxes and boutique tax cuts designed only to appeal to voters’ own self-interests at the expense of society and our neighbours. Harper sees Canadian society as a simple dichotomy straight out of Ayn Rand’s crappy and puerile fiction – those who nobly create wealth and those leeches who drag them down while looking for a bigger handout. The Conservatives only value those things that show a profit yet added over $150 billion to our debt with precious little to show for it while bragging ceaselessly about their economic stewardship. The reality is, our economy is in tatters, good jobs are disappearing fast and we are all deeper in personal debt.

I’m disappointed the democratic deficit hardly came up during the election, as for me that has been the biggest and most disturbing feature of the Harper years. He subverted parliament by the unprecedented use of closure, omnibus legislation, a tame Speaker, farcical committees, widespread patronage, the politicization of the bureaucracy, gagging public servants and scientists and shutting off the flow of data that could clearly show his policies and programs were at best useless and at worst harmful. Watchdogs and oversight were ended to make sure he was never embarrassed with accountability. Even so, there was a parade of the worst offenders, like his own Parliamentary Secretary Dean Del Mastro, PMO staffers Nigel Wright and Bruce Carson, Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, and hand-picked CSIS oversight chief Arthur Porter, who died in a Panamanian jail awaiting extradition for fraud while still a Privy Councilor. These are just the highlights, or rather the low-lights. Harper and his Conservatives have been the Visigoths of Canadian democracy, raping, pillaging and looting it down to its very foundations. The task of rebuilding is monumental.

Canadians are tired of it. They are tired of seeing all the kind, decent things Canada has stood for at home and abroad being made a mockery of by the Conservatives. Most Canadians are tired of Harper relentlessly exploiting fear, suspicion, hate and the bogus low-tax mantra that has never worked anywhere, except for benefit of the 1%.

Canadians are also tired of the negativity, and I think that is somewhere the NDP lost ground during the campaign. Negativity and personal attacks are the stock in trade of the Conservatives, but the NDP decided to go increasingly negative as support for the Liberals grew. I personally thought Trudeau’s strategy of staying smiling and Zen-like was risky. I was wrong. It proved appealing to the electorate in the long run, and the more other campaigns attacked, the more calm and reasonable he appeared. My hat’s off to him and his handlers – I would have said something incredibly intemperate long before now. In fact I have – daily. I have even used the “F” word – fascist. And as a serious student of history I don’t use it lightly. It is historically accurate.

The most important thing for Canada tomorrow is to finally end the dark decade of Harper and his narrow-minded, bigoted, manipulative, corrupt and contemptuous regime. To open the windows and get rid of the stink of one of the worst bunch of grasping and dishonest yokels Canada has seen in power in a long time.

I am voting Liberal. I have since I could first vote in 1978, but this isn’t knee-jerk or being smitten with Justin Trudeau-mania. I support the party of Laurier, Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. Perfect? Hardly. Any political party with a history of power has had its problems and scandals when they have been in power. But I believe in Laurier’s “sunny ways”, Pearson’s vision of peacekeeping and social welfare, Trudeau’s Just Society and its expression in the Charter.

Could I have lived with an NDP government? Sure, but statistically that’s not going to happen. They have heart and they have some great individual candidates and I’d rather see one of them take a seat than a Conservative. I wish them well. If it’s a Liberal minority government I hope the NDP and Liberals seek out common ground after tomorrow to work together and heal this country rather than pick away at differences jockeying for an advantage in the election that will follow this one.  But this is politics and I expect grandstanding, especially as I’m sure the NDP will feel particularly aggrieved as they entered this campaign thinking they had a shot at being the first federal NDP government. Expect bitterness, especially as Mulcair fights to keep his job. It will be interesting and I am still na├»ve enough to think we may be able to get back to multi-party cooperation when it matters, unless Harper has poisoned that well beyond repair too.

All of the above is predicated on the assumption that the polls are somewhat close to being right, and Harper’s money, fear-mongering and the operation of the so-called “Fair Elections Act” don’t deprive Canadians of real change. It starts with you. Take every piece of ID you own a and get out and vote tomorrow. Bring two friends. Turn the dark page of Canadian history and show Harper the door. Consign him to the dustbin of history and wake Canada up from this long national nightmare.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Podcast - Fear & Loathing: Campaign 2015

Here is the replay of last night's radio podcast where I was the guest on "Fear & Loathing: Campaign 2015". We talk about niqabs, refugees, dog-whistle racism, regular old racism, the prosaic past that never was and the politics of distraction.

https://player.fm/series/the-view-up-here/fear-loathing-campaign-2015-with-stephen-lautens


Harper History: The Mockumentary


A while back I got a call from the good people at Truth Mashup. The very funny and creative Dan Speerin and Vince Kesavamoorthy asked me if I would do a cameo in a new project - a mockumentary that looks back on the 2015 election from 2025. I've been a fan of theirs for a while. I said yes, of course.

I have an extended part in Episode One, that just came out. Here it is...