[Prime minister Stephen] Harper’s genius, as a power-seeking politician, is the opposite of Obama’s (the once popular USA president). He carries the “Conservative” label, of a party slightly to the right of the others in our Parliament. Therefore he has most of the liberal media machinery against him. Obama, as perhaps we all know, has enjoyed until recently a compliant and fawning media, that do not criticize their darling, nor hesitate to suppress news that would be unfavourable to him. Obama’s tactic has been to draw attention constantly to himself. He has something to say on every subject, empty of content, but dramatically insistent in its repetition of the first person singular. By contrast, Harper goes out of his way to distract attention from himself, and when he can’t, to avoid vehemence of any kind, or anything resembling drama.
This is not to say he isn’t ruthless, as a political operator, and backroom settler of scores. Anyone associated with Christian causes, such as the defence of human life, will know how he rules his pro-life backbenchers. His intention is to keep the party “on message,” with a message that will not excite media attention, so he can get on with normal administration. His strength is his reputation for management: he has not, like Obama, made a hash of everything he has touched. The Canadian budget is actually in surplus, and while our cumulative debt is substantial, and we face the same unfunded welfare liabilities to an aging population, we have not the bottomless debt and fiscal chaos into which Obama and other irresponsible politicians have delivered the United States. (Notwithstanding, when they crash, it will be right on top of us.)
But of course, this is a “democracy,” and the great majority of our population, as those in all other countries, are almost entirely ignorant of public affairs. Like children, they get bored with good government, but unlike children they have, collectively, the power to do something about it.
David Warren, “Ottawa in the news”, Essays in Idleness, 2014-10-23.
October 17, 2015
September 30, 2015
Colby Cosh on the sudden interest among the chattering classes about the role of the Governor General during election campaigns:
What’s with malcontent nitwit constitutional experts popping up in the newspaper to warn of “political instability” because we’re having a three-sided election? You know, this isn’t really that hard. The United Kingdom, a nuclear-armed power across the Atlantic that may be vaguely familiar, had an election in 2010 that failed to produce a majority. Its 650-seat House of Commons ended up with 306 Conservatives, 258 Labour MPs, 62 Liberal Democrats and a ragbag of deputies from nationalist and leftist parties.
If there is no majority party, that will involve tough decisions, most likely falling upon whomever finds himself in third place. But it should not end up with the governor general making some kind of awkward choice in a vacuum. The party leaders should feel enormous pressure to arrive at a decision between them, as if there were a taboo protecting the governor general’s door. The Privy Council Office is probably already creating that pressure. A governor general should never be presented with anything but a fait accompli. He plays the role of the Queen locally, and should be thought of like the Queen, as being above political decision-making.
The proper thing for constitutional pundits to be doing right now is to strengthen that taboo. Musings about imaginary scenarios in which the viceroy might have to involve himself in the selection of a government are fun — exactly the kind of thing I myself enjoy. But if you are cooking up such an op-ed, or giving quotes of that nature to a journalist, you are signing a license for party leaders to prolong the negotiation period that might follow our election, and encouraging them to make illicit use of sly appeals to the public about what the governor general ought to be doing.
In a minority situation, the temptation will be there: some leader will want to suggest that an arrangement for government that leaves him out has been arrived at unfairly. Or a third-place finisher who should be deciding the identity of a prime minister other than himself, and who has the real power to decide, might lose his nerve and start thinking he can evade the choice.
September 28, 2015
Jay Currie advises casual poll watchers to pretty much ignore the polls at the moment. Yes, those same polls the TV talking heads and the deep-thinkers at the major newspapers spend so much time “analyzing”: they are probably the least useful form of information in a Westminster-style election campaign like ours. A poll of a thousand “representative” Canadians doesn’t tell you anything about how the voters in any given riding are likely to vote, and that’s where the election is decided. I’ve been joking with my family that, based on the appearance of signs in our Whitby riding, the likely winner on October 19th will be the window cleaning firm “Men in Kilts”.
Here’s why Jay recommends just ignoring the “horse race” media coverage:
Canadian mainstream media knows only one way to cover an election: it is always a horse race with polls coming out weekly or even daily in which one party or another edges ahead or falls behind by less than the margin of error.
Polls are funny things: they give a particular picture of the race at a particular time without providing much by the way of explanation. And, in Canada, the most reported “national” polls measure a race which does not exist. We don’t vote nationally or even province by province: we vote riding by riding.
The bright boys in the Conservative and NDP war rooms know this and, apparently, someone has been kind enough to explain the rudiments to the geniuses surrounding Trudeau. The fact is that the election turns on, at most, 100 ridings scattered across Canada. Amusingly, these are not the same ridings for each party.
With less than a month to go to election day, but with a month of campaigning and polling behind them, each of the parties will be able to focus its efforts on a) marginal seats where that party’s sitting candidate may lose, b) competitive ridings where that party’s candidate might win a riding previously held by another party.
Talk of the Blue Wave or Orange Crush is like the English pre-WWI talking about rolling the Huns up by Christmas: now we are in trench warfare. And now, small differences are all that matter. Exciting as it may be for the Greens to run 5% nationally, they are running more or less even in Victoria which would up their seat count to 2 and knock an NDP held seat off Mulcair’s search for a plurality of House of Commons seats. And there are ridings like this across Canada.
At the same time, the trench war is influenced by the perception of who is actually winning the overall election. Political scientists talk about bandwagon effects. Here Harper has the huge advantage of incumbency. For every Harper Derangement Syndrome voter out there, there are at least one or two voters who, while they don’t love Harper, prefer the devil they know.
Canadian election analysis used to be pretty easy:
- How many seats are there in Quebec? Give 75% or more to the Liberals.
- How many seats are there in Alberta? Give 90% to the Progressive Conservatives.
- How many urban blue collar seats are there? Give 50% or more to the NDP.
- How many remaining seats are there in Ontario? Split the urban seats 65% Liberal and 30% NDP and the suburban and rural seats 55% PC and 35% Liberal.
- Finally, count out the few dozen remaining seats and guess which way they’ll go (and history matters … a seat that’s been in NDP hands since the CCF years will probably stay there, while a seat that flips regularly every election will probably flip again).
I’m joking, but not by a lot. However, that was then and this is a very different now. All those “rules” have been thrown out the window in the last decade and each party probably has a colour-coded map of the country which shows where it makes any political sense to expend time and resources to retain a friendly seat or steal an opposing seat. (Spoiler: those maps are nowhere near as accurate as the various parties are hoping.)
You (as a federal party official) don’t want to obviously give up on any seat, but you also don’t want to have all your heavy-hitters showing up for events in a riding you don’t have any realistic chance to win: not only is it a waste of time and resources, it can make you look desperate and that’s a very bad way to appear during an election campaign.
I’m not making any predictions about how the election will turn out … I don’t even know who I’ll be voting for on the day, but the folks in the expensive outfits on TV don’t know either. With the national polling being so close and no definite signs of a bandwagon forming, it could go almost any direction. Last time around we had the Crooks, the Fascists, the Commies, and the Traitors. This time the parties are not quite as mired in scandal, so we’ve got the Nice Hair Guy, the Bad Hair Guy, the Beardy Guy, and everyone else (let’s not pretend that the Greens or the Bloc are going to form a government this time around). You drop your ballot and you take your chances. See you on the other side.
September 18, 2015
In The Walrus, Robert Fulford identifies precisely when Canadian cabinets were neutered:
Over lunch one day in retirement, Lester B. Pearson looked back on the men who had served in his cabinet and quoted Napoleon’s remark that “every French soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack.”
Pearson wasn’t comparing himself to Napoleon. He was talking about ambition. Just as Napoleon’s troops dreamed of high command, many of Pearson’s ministers saw themselves as future prime ministers. And sure enough, when Pearson retired eight of his ministers announced they would run for Liberal leader—each with his own dedicated following and distinct point of view. One of them was Pierre Trudeau.
No one ever heard Trudeau express nostalgia for the Pearson years. In fact, he seems to have hated every minute of it. He saw no reason for ministers to establish their independence by leaking dissenting opinions to favoured journalists and constituents back home. Such freedom, which Pearson had put up with, didn’t strike Trudeau as democracy in action. It seemed more like chaos.
This truth is best explained by Trudeau’s inclinations, since hardened into custom. In the spring of 1968, as soon as he became prime minister, he tightened the reins of government power and let it be known that those reins all led to the PMO. In the early years, it was said (and widely believed) that his principal secretary, Marc Lalonde, held daily meetings with the executive assistants of all government ministers, so that Trudeau and his aides could know precisely what each was doing. As time went on, they increasingly did Trudeau’s bidding, which remained the case until he retired in 1984.
Since then, with one exception, no star ministers have blossomed under three long-running prime ministers, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and Stephen Harper. That one exception is Paul Martin, Chrétien’s finance minister, whose talents attracted constant publicity and many admirers. As everyone knows, the Chrétien-Martin relationship ended in acrimony — the sort of political finale Trudeau carefully avoided.
August 23, 2015
In sp!ked, Mick Hume describes the state of the British equivalent to the NDP in their current leadership race:
Jeremy Corbyn has been a Labour member of parliament for a remarkable 32 years without ever leading anything or leaving any visible mark on British political life. How could such a veteran non-entity emerge overnight as favourite to be the new, left-wing, game-changing leader of the Labour Party?
Only because the Labour Party as a mass movement has not just declined, but effectively collapsed. The apparent rise of Corbyn is made possible by the disintegration of his party. The key factor in all of this is not any resurgence of radicalism, but the demise of Labourism.
Over the decades that Corbyn has been an MP, Labour has ceased to be the party of a mass trade-union movement with a solid working-class constituency. It has been reduced to an empty shell run by a clique of careerists such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband – and the other three current candidates for the leadership – with no ambition beyond their own election.
This disintegration has left a space for Corbyn’s allegedly explosive rise in two ways. First, widespread dissatisfaction with the dire state of Labour and wider UK politics has created an appetite for something/anything that appears different. And second, the hollowing-out of the Labour Party – reflected in its desperation to give anybody a leadership vote for just £3 – has made it possible for relatively few Corbyn supporters to seize control of events.
For all that, however, the new profile of Corbyn the inveterate invisible man remains only a symptom of the wasting disease that has destroyed the Labour Party.
July 30, 2015
Richard Anderson explains why unlike most mature countries, Canada is unable to amend the constitution:
The Senate is our great constitutional appendix. It gets a bit inflamed from time to time but, a hundred and fifty years in, we’ve generally come to the conclusion that it’s too much of a hassle to get rid of. In other countries, normal nation states, amending a constitution is just one of those things. There’s a convention, people argue about it and eventually some words get swapped in and out of the country’s basic law. The Americans might go so far as to fight a civil war over such things, but for most countries it’s routine stuff.
Having successfully avoided civil wars, insurrections, coup d’etats and other assorted public disturbances, the Canadian project has retained one bizarre character flaw: Our inability to amend the constitution in anything like a sensible manner. For those old enough to have lived through the constitutional wars of the 1970s and 1980s the very mention of the C-word induces terrible flashbacks. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can see Joe Clark talking about amending formulas. In those moments I question the existence of a merciful God.
The latest idea to drift out of the PMO is that Stephen Harper will stop appointing Senators. This is actually quite similar to how the PM approaches maintenance on 24 Sussex Drive. The official residence is almost as old as Canada itself. Unfortunately so is much of the plumbing. The building is literally falling to bits and requires millions in renovations. Being a politician first and a government tenant second, Stephen Harper knows that doing more than the bare minimum to keep up his Ottawa home will provoke shrieks of outrage from the Opposition. Only when the building finally collapses will anything really be done. And at three times the original price.
This same logic will now be applied to the Senate. The PM will stop appointing senators until there is no more Senate. Sounds neat, eh? Except that the Senate is ensconced into the bedrock of our constitutional order. If the number of living breathing Senators drops below quorum the Supreme Court, the real rulers of our fair Dominion, will order the PM to appoint more. Then the PM of the day, perhaps Mr Harper or Mr Mulcair, will shrug their shoulders and do as their bosses tell them.
The only way to get rid of the Senate is to amend the constitution. Like going to the dentist this would be both painful and expensive. Unlike going to the dentist it would also be interminable. Dentists, you see, have golf games. Constitutional lawyers don’t play golf. It would interrupt from their fascinating work of discussing whether or not the power of disallowance is genuinely obsolete. If you don’t understand what that means don’t worry neither do they.
June 24, 2015
Published on 22 Jun 2015
The Ceremonial Guard is one of Canada’s most recognizable military units. For over 50 years, the Changing of the Guard has been a top Ottawa attraction, having thrilled thousands of visitors on Parliament Hill, at Rideau Hall and at the National War Memorial. The Changing the Guard Ceremony will take place daily at 10 a.m. on Parliament Hill from June 28 to August 22, 2015.
June 9, 2015
It is at first denied that any radical new plan exists; it is then conceded that it exists but ministers swear blind that it is not even on the political agenda; it is then noted that it might well be on the agenda but is not a serious proposition; it is later conceded that it is a serious proposition but that it will never be implemented; after that it is acknowledged that it will be implemented but in such a diluted form that it will make no difference to the lives of ordinary people; at some point it is finally recognised that it has made such a difference, but it was always known that it would and voters were told so from the outset.
Brian Micklethwait explains the sourcing of this quote at Samizdata: The above paragraph, originally written to describe the onward march of the European Union, is quoted by Delingpole, in his book Watermelons (p. 45), to help him explain how AGW went from crankery to globally imposed policy. Delingpole found it in The Great Deception (p. 605) by Booker and North. They got it from a Times editorial, published on August 28, 2002.
May 27, 2015
Mark Steyn on the result of the British general election:
It would be churlish to deny oneself the pleasure of hooting at the politico-media establishment, but, when that’s done, this is a deeply unhealthy electoral result. The Conservatives won because Labour got wiped out in Scotland and the Liberals got wiped out in England. But the reality is that, for a supposedly United Kingdom, the country no longer has any national political party. England and Scotland have taken on the characteristics of Northern Ireland — hermetically sealed polities full of weird, unlovely regional parties (“SNP”, “Conservative”, “Labour”) that have no meaning once you cross the border, and whose internal disputes are of no relevance to the other three-quarters of the kingdom: Nobody outside Ulster cares about “official” Unionists vs the more red-blooded Democratic Unionists. And so it goes with the Scots Nats and Labour in Scotland: nationalist socialists vs unionist socialists; Likewise, with the Tories and UKIP in England: transnationalist conservatives vs nationalist conservatives.
Wales is the exception that proves the rule, where UKIP outpolled Plaid Cymru, albeit with no seats to show for it. The Scottish National Party got 4.7 per cent of the UK vote, and 56 seats. UKIP had nearly thrice as many voters — 12.6 per cent — but only one seat. That discrepancy is because there is no longer any such thing as “the UK vote”. I far prefer the Westminster first-past-the-post system to European “proportional representation”, but it only works if you have genuinely national parties. If the system decays into four groups of regional parties, the House of Commons will look less and less like a genuine national parliament, and more and more like some surly conditional arrangement — Scottish Kurds, Tory Shia and seething Labour Sunni triangles.
The composition of the new house would strike any mid-20th century Briton as freakish and unsettling. It’s a bit like Canada in the Nineties — where Reform couldn’t break out of the west, the Bloc Québécois dominated Quebec, the rump Tories clung on in the Atlantic provinces, and Ontario and a few seats hither and yon gave the Liberals their majority. The difference is that the Bloquistes are pretend separatists; the Scottish National Party are not.
And that’s before you take into account the competing nationalist dynamics of the Anglo-Scottish victors: secession from the UK north of the border and detachment from the EU south. Cameron is a wily operator and one notices he uses the words “United Kingdom” far more than his predecessors. But saying will not make it so.
May 5, 2015
Charles Stross calls the current situation a “Scottish Political Singularity”:
The UK is heading for a general election next Thursday, and for once I’m on the edge of my seat because, per Hunter S. Thompson, the going got weird.
The overall electoral picture based on polling UK-wide is ambiguous. South of Scotland — meaning, in England and Wales — the classic two-party duopoly that collapsed during the 1970s, admitting the Liberal Democrats as a third minority force, has eroded further. We are seeing the Labour and Conservative parties polling in the low 30s. It is a racing certainty that neither party will be able to form a working majority, which requires 326 seats in the 650 seat House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats lost a lot of support from their soft-left base by going into coalition with the Conservatives, but their electoral heartlands — notably the south-west — are firm enough that while they will lose seats, they will still be a factor after the election; they’re unlikely to return fewer than 15 MPs, although at the last election they peaked around 50.
Getting away from the traditional big three parties, the picture gets more interesting. The homophobic, racist, bigoted scumbags of UKIP (hey, I’m not going to hide my opinions here!) have picked up support haemorrhaging from the right wing of the Conservative party; polling has put them on up to 20%, but they’re unlikely to return more than 2-6 MPs because their base is scattered across England. (Outside England they’re polling as low as 2-4%, suggesting that they’re very much an English nationalist party.) On the opposite pole, the Green party is polling in the 5-10% range, and might pick up an extra MP, taking them to 2 seats. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (who are just as barkingly xenophobic as UKIP) are also set to return a handful of MPs.
And then there’s Scotland.
Having lived through a couple of near-national-death experiences here in Canada, I’m less than enthused that the country of my birth is now having similar threats from the Celtic fringe. I’m a fan of Charlie’s writing, and I think he’s someone who thinks interesting thoughts, but I hope he’s wrong in this area.
January 27, 2015
Normally, [the voters] are suckered. The political class — the class of politicians, senior bureaucrats, self-interested lobbyists, and all their paid flunkeys in media and elsewhere — are much cleverer than “the people,” on political questions. “The people,” for their part, may be individually cleverer than they, but not, as a rule, on political questions, which don’t much interest the great majority of them. The political class have, in addition to whatever native smarts, plenty of experience manipulating “the people,” and the contempt required to be ruthless about it. In a fully-fledged “democracy,” it takes little sophistry for the bad guys to win. But the term is relative, and should the good guys win, it will be another victory for the politicians.
A few days ago, I found myself trying to explain this to a well-intended, rightwing person. He complained that the Conservative Party had turned its back on “conservative principles.” This struck me as an unfair allegation, for the party had never once in the history of Canada, whether at the provincial or Dominion level, embraced “conservative principles,” nor shown the slightest curiosity over what they might be. The purpose of a political party has nought to do with such “principles.” (This goes for all parties including, within five years of their founding, those founded on “principles.”) Rather it is to tax as much as they dare, and distribute the takings among their friends, while “nation building” — i.e. adding to the machinery of State. A party unclear on this essential “principle” of democracy (the one that defeats every other principle) might get itself elected by some fluke, but will not long retain power.
David Warren, “Hapless Voters”, Essays in Idleness, 2014-05-26.
November 24, 2014
Harper is now the 6th longest serving PM in Canadian history having just surpassed Borden and Mulroney. The former fought a major war and the later revolutionized international trade policy. Harper? He abolished the Wheat Board. A sensible thing really. Not a big thing. This is not a government of big things, it is a government of small things. Harper is, as Lord Black has pointed out, a modern Tory version of Mackenzie King.
Now King did fight the Second World War. Sort of. He thought the whole thing rather a bother, getting in the way of his equivocating and crystal ball polishing. The general impression in Ottawa during the early Forties was that CD Howe was running the country. The only time in Canadian history when an engineer was given real power. I neither condemn or condone that fact, I simply point it out.
Harper would, of course, never delegate any important authority. Even the late Big Jim Flaherty was kept on a shorter leash than Paul Martin. A modern day CD Howe, assuming he could get elected, would never last five minutes in the Harper cabinet. Big Prime Ministers breed small cabinet ministers.
This leads to one of the essential problems of quasi-Presidential Prime Ministers. When the King falters so does the Kingdom. The Pearson government bungled along for five remarkably influential years. Mike had little idea of what was going on but with one of the strongest cabinets in Canadian history the business of government carried on.
If the PM doesn’t have any new ideas there are plenty of competent ministers more than willing to fill the gap. This is how men like Macdonald and King survived for political eons. How great Dynasties like those of the Tories in Ontario and Alberta were forged. If the King falters there is no shortage of Princes to carry the load.
Richard Anderson, “Steam Punk”, Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-11-18.
November 14, 2014
The House of Lords is the upper chamber of Britain’s parliament. Canada’s (mostly useless) Senate is our equivalent legislative body, in that the members are not there through any kind of popular vote, and the general public view them — if they have any opinion about them at all — as an odd historical holdover that doesn’t really matter in today’s world. Recently, the Wall Street Journal talked about the House of Lords, and Tim Worstall wants to correct their misunderstandings about that august body:
The change to appointing Life Peers rather than hereditaries really came back in 1958, when it first became possible to appoint someone only for life, rather than appointing someone and finding out that their sons (only first son to first son of course, not all sons) to the nth generation also got membership of the House when the time came. Since then there have been very few hereditary peerages granted and those that have been have been special cases. Ex-Prime Ministers, if they desire, become Earls, ex-Speakers of the Commons Viscounts and after that, well, just some very few special people (such a William Whitelaw who became a Viscount, and everyone was assured that he only had daughters so it would not be inherited).
That is, Blair didn’t so much change the usual method of appointment, for that carried on in much the same way it had for the previous few decades. What he did do was remove the extant hereditaries (except for 92 of them, which is a whole other story). He also created a number of peerages in order to try and balance the party memberships in the Lords. But not excessively so perhaps. There’s a nice listing here of the numbers created under each PM and how many per year. Blair’s numbers are well above the historical average, yes, but rather below Cameron’s numbers per year (Cameron, of course, is trying to reverse the balance in favour of Labour that Blair engineered).
In other words it wasn’t so much “replacement” as the exclusion of the hereditaries leading to a much smaller House.
He also addresses the voiced concern that so many peers have (shock, horror!) business ties that might influence their voting:
Yes, many do indeed have contacts with firms in the economy. Quite possibly too many with not the right kind of firm. But then look back up to that first quote from the article. The Life Peers are drawn from, among other places, the captains of industry (and yes, senior trade union leaders get an equal look in, as do left leaning academics, Lord Glasman comes to mind there, as does my old professor, Lord Layard). If you appoint people from industry to the second house of the legislature then you’re going to have people with links to, and quite possibly paycheques from, industry in that second house of the legislature. George Simpson become Lord Simpson (one of them, there are several I think with that name, the distinction becoming “Simpson of Where”) while he was still ruining GEC. So, obviously, there was the Chairman of a defence related company sitting in the House of Lords. But he was appointed because he was head of GEC.
Similarly, one of the particular peers I did some work for had been instrumental in the creation and running of a very successful financial services firm. It was in part what he was made a Lord for. And while I’ve no idea what his financial relationship with his old firm is or was it wouldn’t surprise me if he was still drawing a paycheque or a pension from it.
November 2, 2014
We came in sight of Reading about eleven. The river is dirty and dismal here. One does not linger in the neighbourhood of Reading. The town itself is a famous old place, dating from the dim days of King Ethelred, when the Danes anchored their warships in the Kennet, and started from Reading to ravage all the land of Wessex; and here Ethelred and his brother Alfred fought and defeated them, Ethelred doing the praying and Alfred the fighting.
In later years, Reading seems to have been regarded as a handy place to run down to, when matters were becoming unpleasant in London. Parliament generally rushed off to Reading whenever there was a plague on at Westminster; and, in 1625, the Law followed suit, and all the courts were held at Reading. It must have been worth while having a mere ordinary plague now and then in London to get rid of both the lawyers and the Parliament.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
October 28, 2014
It is interesting to observe — in oneself — the power of media to implant false impressions on a lazy mind. I noticed this from listening to a television speech by Stephen Harper, after the terrorist event in Ottawa, yesterday. (Harper has now been Canada’s prime minister for almost nine years.) He was described as “shaken” by several of the websites I had consulted for news, and in quickly reviewing the tape of his short talk, I formed that impression myself. It was only when an American correspondent, who had perhaps missed this Canadian media prep, told me Harper did not look shaken to him, that I went back and watched the video again, this time paying close attention to his delivery in both English and French. I realized he was not shaken at all; that his pauses and swallows were characteristic, and would not have been noticed by anyone had he been speaking on any other subject.
What impressed me, was how easily I fell for the “media narrative” on Harper’s speech, simply by paying insufficient attention. At the back of my mind I was assuming there must be some truth in it, when I ought to be aware that the media specialize in analyses which contain no truth at all. When I am paying attention, with the benefit of my own long experience within the media, I am able to identify the game, and understand what the players are up to.
David Warren, “Ottawa in the news”, Essays in Idleness, 2014-10-23.