Politics Chatter

ELECTION CHATTER: Will the torch-and-pitchfork crowd start a fire?


This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of
OTTAWA Magazine


This may be one of those election campaigns that starts in a cloud of stultifying boredom and ends with the electorate surging down the street, carrying torches, pitchforks, and a length of hangin’ rope.

We’ve already seen that happen once this year.

The best minds of the most successful political dynasty in Canada — and possibly in the Western world — decided it was a good time for an early election in Alberta. After all, the opposition Wildrose Party was in a shambles after its leadership had been bought off with cabinet jobs. All that was left was the puny Alberta NDP, and who in their right mind could ever believe Alberta voters would choose them?

There was a stretch of similar election upsets a generation ago. After the 1990 recession, jobs were scarce, the standard of living was falling, and people — though sullen — seemed resigned to endure whatever wretched government was in power.

David Peterson, a popular premier of Ontario, called an early election in 1990 and had to hand over the keys of his office to the new NDP premier, Bob Rae. George H.W. Bush seemed likely to win a second term as president of the United States in 1992, having just beaten the Iraqis, but he lost to Bill Clinton. Kim Campbell went into the 1993 federal campaign with a 15 percent lead in the polls — all the pundits were sure she would win a majority — and came out with two seats.

Every election is a clean slate, and every serious candidate has a chance of winning, though that chance might be slight. It seemed as though NDP nominations in Quebec were worthless in 2011, which explains why the entire executive of the McGill Univer-sity NDP club have been members of Parliament for the past four years. A Conservative nomination in Quebec was seen to be worthless in 1984, which is why we had a very interesting collection of truck drivers in the House of Commons.

We have just come through four years of strange government. Stephen Harper’s one-man rule has been little more than political game playing. There have been no important policy decisions, no great projects such as the Constitution or free trade with the United States. We have en-dured four years of drift while the greatest control freak ever to lead this country worked long hours to gag scientists and bureaucrats, undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions and the courts, and find ways to extend the powers of the surveillance state.

There is almost nothing to show for four years of Harper majority government except laws like Bill C-51, which gives the government frightening powers to invade everyone’s privacy while doing very little to stop terrorism.

Harper seems to be offering the same thin gruel this time around. A little tax cut here, a little public spending there, a lot of fear everywhere, and we’re supposed to keep him at 24 Sussex. The man, like Jean Chrétien (whom he seems to be imitating), is fortunate that his opponents are somewhat ludicrous people who fight each other. That’s the one ace in his hand.

Meanwhile, the real problems add up. The appalling state of Aboriginal Canadians, on and off reserve, has become an international embarrassment. Only the courts have addressed Native land rights. Harper has shown an utter lack of curiosity about the fate of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. The government’s reaction to the report on residential schools released last spring is to leave the problem to the Pope and hope he apologizes.

Young people have been utterly ignored. High school grads have two choices: get a job and be underemployed, with an income so low that it’s impossible to get started in adult life, or go to college, pile on tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and then be underemployed with an income so low that it’s impossible to get started in adult life.

And Harper won’t fix the Senate because that would mean opening negotiations with the provinces — and this government doesn’t negotiate.

The government won’t work with the provinces to build a sustainable health-care system for those of us who will be seniors soon. Research and development?

Nothing there either.

Even defence has drifted. We still have Sea King helicopters built in the 1960s, and the government is shopping for freighters. Veterans are rightly angry as the government has eroded their benefits and hornswoggled soldiers wounded in Afghanistan into taking lump-sum, one-off payments.

The government did nothing as manufacturing jobs in Ontario and Quebec were exported. Harper hasn’t shown the slightest interest in the real-estate bubble, which threatens to take middle-class equity with it when it pops. Resource industries have been ignored unless they’re in Alberta.

There’s one problem with papering over the country’s problems. It’s pretty easy for that torch-and-pitchfork crowd to start a serious fire. This could well be the year it happens. As in Alberta, this may be the year everything changes.

ELECTION CHATTER: What the upcoming election is really about


This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 edition of
Ottawa Magazine


Illustration: Alan King

We’ve had some pivotal elections in Canadian history — ones that really stood out for their drama and their importance.

Take the 1911 election. Wilfrid Laurier had been in power too long. He’d had a pretty good run over the previous 15 years, but it was time for him to go. Rather than try to hand off power to a new generation, Laurier and his government made a free trade deal with the Americans. The Tories, under Robert Borden, said the deal would destroy Canada’s “Britishness” and turn us into a colony run from Washington.

The Tories won. Laurier hung in as Opposition leader for another election. When it came, in 1917, it was the only national election ever proven to have been rigged. The Tories and some turncoat Liberals, who wanted the power to draft men to fight in World War I, gave the vote to women — but only those who had close relatives at the front. They also divided up soldiers’ votes among ridings where Tories needed a few extra to win.

We had another barnburner in 1945. Again, a Liberal government had been in power too long. William Lyon Mackenzie King had dominated politics through the 1920s and 1930s, had led the country through the war, and wanted a mandate that would take him into the next decade. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a forerunner of the New Democrats, was ahead in the polls in the early months of peace. The party promised to pay for the wartime hardships with new social programs. King simply stole the CCF platform and won another term.

Then there was the 1988 Free Trade election. After years of supporting free trade with the Americans, the Liberals were now against it. After years of opposing free trade with the Americans, the Tories were for it. Both sides fought hard, joined by business, union, environmental, and social organizations that had very diverse views about the deal. Canadians listened.

So elections aren’t boring. Or at least they don’t have to be. This one should rank among the best.

At least two very different, competing visions of Canada are on offer. One is a Canada that is authoritarian, suspicious, and angry. The other is a Canada that may already be part of history — one that values diversity, believes in civil rights, and at least pays lip service to democracy.

But will the discussion actually take place?

In 2011, many Con-servative candidates refused to show up at all-candidates meetings. Instead, leaders of all the major parties travel the country speaking to selected crowds of campaign volunteers. Campaign ads, even when they’re not vicious attacks, tell us very little about the policies of candidates.

Susan Delacourt, in her 2013 book Shopping for Votes, described the new retail politics as a system of electing candidates that is far from democratic. At least in the minds of the strategists (the tribe of pollsters and marketers who run campaigns and dominate news-network panels) computerized fundraising, vote tracking, and social media are far more important than making face time between candidates and citizens.

And that’s what this election may well be about. The ballot question might seem to be whether the economist-in-chief, teenage Jesus, or angry Tom is the lesser of the evils on offer. But in reality, it’s about whether Canadians want to take back their democracy. Do they care enough to shake up the political class and take back power? Or are they just there to be dupes and suckers in a crooked race to elect a king?

POLITICS CHATTER: Duffy & Me, and the “gotcha” online world we live in


I suppose my fondest memory of Mike Duffy was of sitting on the backyard deck of his Prince Edward Island home in the summer of 2009, drinking lemonade, watching a bald eagle and exchanging gossip.

My son was with us, and Duffy was kind to the 10-year-old. The senator took some time out of a busy schedule of visiting summer festivals on the island to have me over to his place. I was in a rented farmhouse near Brackley Beach, a half hour drive away, and was bored out of my skull. PEI is a great place for golfers. I do not golf. Duffy’s number was in the phone book.

I’ve known Duffy since the early 1990s. Among the TV “stars” on the Hill in those days, he was a rarity, a man who seemed to be genuinely interested in people. Duffy’s desk was next to mine in the press gallery newsroom, and he was, to say the least, an interesting neighbour.

He would roll in at about four in the afternoon, usually carrying at least one Klondike Bar. The man was full of stories. Some were political. Many were gossip. He was funny and fascinating. The man has the ability to almost instantly make you feel like a friend. That’s a gift and a skill few people, even politicians, can claim. Jim Watson, our mayor, has it. None of the federal party leaders do, except, on her best days, Elizabeth May.

One afternoon, Duffy, Halifax Herald reporter Steve Maher, and I were talking near a window at the back of the Parliament building and watched in amazement as a man jumped off the Alexandra Bridge. We were surprised to see him surface a moment later and splash around. In a few minutes, a guy in an aluminum fishing boat pulled the jumper from the river. Things just seemed to happen when Duffy was around.

I was not surprised when Duffy was appointed to the Senate. People on the Hill had expected it for decades. By then, I was teaching full time at Concordia University in Montreal. We stayed in touch.

Duffy was grateful that I had written to the CRTC years before to ask the broadcast regulator to drop an arcane rule that limited Duffy’s TV show to just 15 minutes. I had also gone to bat online for Duffy shortly before he was appointed to the Senate.

I’m very interested in the way people are “framed” on the Internet. Even then, it was very clear that many reputations are now made in cyberspace, not in real life. People criticized Duffy’s journalism, which was fair game. But the constant bullying of the man for being fat had become a normal, if depressing, part of his life.

They intensified after he was appointed to the Senate. Duffy, according to the anonymous online warriors, was a drunk, a slob, a whore who sold his integrity for a Senate seat, a pig who had greedily taken down Frank Magazine by suing it for libel. (The fact that Frank had been engaged in years of fat-shaming seemed to be irrelevant to the Duffy-haters).

As an author, professor (and a law student), I’m intrigued by propaganda, how reality is shaped by words, and how, with enough manipulation and publication, lies can seem like facts. I’m writing my third book on the subject now. If you have a public profile and any enemies, there’s a good chance that a Google search will puke up every embarrassing thing about you that’s ever been discovered or invented. If you’re a politician, you cannot escape the mudslinging. Same for freelance writers, sessional professors, lawyers, business people, and everyone else who relies on their reputations to land them work.

So I helped Duffy get the worst stuff off the Internet. I was following the issues that were being raised and reading the rules of Wikipedia, YouTube, free blogging websites and other Internet sites where Duffy was being trashed. I stopped doing that for Duffy two years before the first investigations for expense frauds.

In the end, I’ve had some media criticism for doing that work, especially because Duffy sent me a cheque in gratitude after a couple of years and I made the mistake of cashing it. I thought it was Duffy’s money, not public funds laundered through what prosecutors claim was a slush fund. (The money has since gone to charity). Now Duffy is the poster boy for entitlement in Ottawa, even though he really was a fringe player on his best day.

Lost in the Duffy roasting is the fact that the Internet has made public space toxic for many people who otherwise might be attracted to public service. No one wants their lives published on the World Wide Web. Few of us can be sure that there’s nothing embarrassing that could end up in the “controversies” section of a Wikipedia page. And even fewer of us can afford the one serious recourse available: a libel suit.

I’m not sure whether the Internet has brought out mean people who were already spewing bile and hatred without an audience, or if it has made us meaner people. Recent medical studies do show that the brains of frequent Internet users, especially gamers, are physically changing, and not in ways we’d like.

So, in the end, I have no regrets about my friendship with Duffy, and I’ll trust in the courts to decide whether he was an honest man. What I do regret is the lack of conversation about the “gotcha” online world we live in, and the cruelty that underlies so much material on the Internet.

POLITICS CHATTER: Arguing that the Quebec Charter of Values is more than purely cynical — it’s evil

Valeurs_depliant_version_longue-7.jpgQuebec is engaged in a nice, civil, democratic debate over whether a woman wearing a head scarf should be able to sit in the waiting room of a welfare office, or if a Sikh in a turban is such an outrageous affront to the secular state that he’s unfit to sell you a fishing license.

I find this debate as unbelievable as it is nauseous. If it proves anything, it shows that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a joke, as is the mealy-mouthed knock-off, the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Because if a “charter of rights” is so empty that it can allow blatant and cruel discrimination against visible minorities, it is simply a lie to say that it protects anyone from anything.

The Quebec Charter of Values shows politics at its most cynical. It is an evil document drafted by people with an evil intent.

What people don’t seem to remember is that Quebec invited tens of thousands of French-speaking Muslims to settle in the province. Quebec’s birth rate has been in free-fall for two generations, despite big cash bonuses and, more recently, cheap daycare . More pur lainers are dying than are being born. So Quebec took over immigration from the federal government and invited Francophones to settle in the St. Lawrence Valley.

Very few came from France. Instead, they arrived from former French colonies like Algeria and Lebanon. Unlike the locals, the Muslims, at least in the first generation or two, have lots of kids.

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POLITICS CHATTER: Whipped: Documentary asks “Who comes first?” — a politician’s party or his constituents?

You’d think a film called Whipped would be the kind of thing that you’d watch after the kids are asleep. But Sean Holman’s new documentary didn’t come in the 21st century equivalent of a plain brown package. Still, it provokes certain emotions that might leave you a bit shaky.

Holman, founding editor of the pioneering British Columbia-based online investigative political news service Public Eye, made Whipped as his Master’s thesis at Carleton University. The film is about the bind that so many members of legislatures and parliament find themselves in: are they employed by their political party or their constituents?

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POLITICS CHATTER: Sex talk, pornography, and the Tom Flanagan uproar

President Lyndon Johnson once said that the best thing that could happen to one of his political enemies was being found in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.

And the old horn-dog was right. That would finish anyone’s political career.

Because bad sex – and sex talk – can be lethal, Tom Flanagan, a former advisor to Stephen Harper, found out Thursday.

Flanagan is supposed to be some sort of political genius. He was a mentor to Preston Manning, Harper, and the Alberta Wild Rose Party. He was a tenured prof at the University of Calgary, with a regular spot on the CBC’s Power and Politics. The opinion pages of The Globe & Mail and several prestigious magazines were open to him.

That all ended Thursday, the day after he told a crowd of students in Lethbridge that he had an ideological problem with people – invariably men – being sent to jail for looking at pictures of sexualized children.

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POLITICS CHATTER: On Lincoln, democracy, and what Spielberg failed to understand

The king of England stood on a balcony in Westminster, just outside the city of London, and braced himself against the cold. It was a raw January day in 1649, the crowd was noisy, and only a few people could hear him.

But there was a guy near the king who was writing everything down. With a few hours, the king’s speech was on the streets in primitive newspapers.

It was not the sort of rant that Justin Trudeau or even Stephen Harper would come up with, and it certainly was not the work of a Barrack Obama. King Charles I wasn’t running for anything. In fact, his career was quickly winding down. The words he spoke were his own, not those of a speechwriter. They’re sort of dense and Shakespearean, but after you read them once or twice, you’ll get the drift.

“And truly I desire their (the people’s) liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever, but I must tell you, that their liberty and freedom consists in having of government those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government that is pertaining to them,” the diminutive, cat-like little sovereign said.

“A subject and a sovereign are clean different things, and therefore until you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.”

He finished up, turned, knelt down, prayed for a moment, and a chap named Brandon took one swing of an axe and chopped off his head.

Few politicians are as up-front in their contempt of democracy, and fewer still have the opportunity to speak with the honesty that’s available to a sentient person who knows he won’t have to worry about that evening’s dinner because he’ll be shorter by a head.

But Charles I was a man of his times, and of our times, too: trashing the press, proroguing parliament, getting very heavy with protesters.

Few modern politicians will come out and say the people really have no business being involved in government. A few more will echo the king’s assertion that governments exist to protect people’s property and keep taxes down. But not that many are willing to stick their necks out to make a point.

Which brings us to the Oscars.

Charles I never blubbered through the end of Silver Linings Playbook or wondered why anyone would like Beasts of the Southern Wild. And he most certainly would not have enjoyed Lincoln.

There’s some controversy about Lincoln. A recent, rather catty piece in Harper’s magazine says Steven Spielberg is telling a story that has been told many times, and often better. I don’t agree. I have never seen a movie or TV show that explained how the freeing of the slaves was such a close-run thing, or raised the idea that the Civil War might well have ended with the Union being saved, and slavery surviving.

Most people get the Civil War wrong. It was not a war to liberate African-American slaves any more than World War II was fought to save Jews.

Abraham Lincoln said, over and over, that if keeping slavery was the price of pulling the breakaway southern states back into the Union, he would pay it.

The war was about protecting the Union. Those words have become an empty phrase. But back then they meant something.

And the Civil War was about something else, the thing that lies in the heart of the Gettysburg Address. Everyone’s heard of that short speech – it wasn’t much longer than poor Charles’s last words – but few people have read it carefully.

The address starts with a little history lesson and a very slight side-swipe of the slavery issue. Then it gets down to business: the blood of the Union troops at Gettysburg was spilled so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from this earth.

People reading the speech always put the emphasis on the “of, by, for” words. But the real meat of the phrase is in the last six words.

Because in 1863, the United States was the most revolutionary country on Earth. It was the only major power that was a democracy. And it seemed likely to be the last one, an experiment that failed.

France had twice tried to create a democracy between 1789 and 1863 and failed miserably. Britain was partly there, but few men had the right to vote, and power lay in the hands of aristocrats and industrialists. Canada was a little farther along, but most politicians gagged at the idea of true democracy, and they’d crushed democratic rebellions 25 years earlier. The great empires and small countries of Europe were all monarchies.

Revolutionaries in central and South America had overthrown their Spanish colonial masters and had tried to create democracies. All had failed.

There were no democracies in Africa. Or Asia. Or, for that matter, in the Confederacy.

So, in many ways, Lincoln, when he stood on the platform at Gettysburg, was very much alone as the leader of the world’s last democracy. And that’s one thing that Spielberg missed.

It would have been a useful lesson for these times. Democracy is not the natural order of things. Democracy – real involvement by the people in their own government — is not the default position

of governments, even in the West. It’s something that you have to nurture, preserve and, in the most dire times, kill and die for.

That was the ideology that drove Lincoln and made him, when it came to restoring the U.S. Constitution, so uncompromising. I wish Spielberg had understood.


POLITICS CHATTER: Pondering the wisdom of casting Jack Layton as a saint in CBC TV’s upcoming biopic “Jack”

Rick Roberts plays Jack Layton, while Sook-Yin Lee takes the part of Olivia Chow in the made-for-TV movie "Jack"

Politics Chatter by contributing editor Mark Bourrie is published weekly at OttawaMagazine.com. Follow him on Twitter @IsotelusRex.

Well, all we need is the blessing of the next Pope, and Jack Layton will officially become a saint.

The CBC has worked hard to fast-track the canonization. On March 10, TV viewers will forgo the delights of NetFlix and TLC’s Gypsy Sisters, to sit, enthralled, in front of the magic box, watching a biopic called JACK, the story of Jack Layton’s rise to greatness.

The makers of Jack are having an invitation-only launch at the Mayfair on March 5. If you’re really lucky, you can score an invitation to the opening at the downtown Winnipeg IMAX two days later. The IMAX should be a delight. You’ll feel like you were there.

Which, for me, is sort of true. I was there through Layton’s career on the Hill. Jack Layton scolded me every time we talked. I was not impressed by him as a speaker or parliamentarian, but I was shocked when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I had expected him to beat it — several friends and acquaintances did manage to do that — so it was a double, saddening shock when the disease killed him.

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POLITICS CHATTER: With the Senate (and senators) in the news, a defence of sorts for Senator Mike Duffy

Mike Duffy is just one of the journalists to have been appointed to the Senate over the years.

Stevie Cameron, a fine person, brilliant journalist, and best-selling author who’s about to be inducted into the Order of Canada, is no prophet.

“If (Mike) Duffy is appointed to the Senate – the rumour that makes its way around the circuit at least twice a year,” Cameron wrote in her 1989 best-seller Ottawa Inside Out, “not even his fellow journalists, usually an envious lot, will mind.”

Well, it seems they do mind.

Many journalists have been appointed to the Senate through the years: Charles Bishop of the Ottawa Citizen, Richard Doyle of the Globe and Mail, Joan Fraser of the Montreal Gazette, Betty Kennedy of Toronto radio station CFRB, Linda Frum, part-time columnist at the National Post, for starters.

But Duffy has been a lightning rod. From the moment of his appointment, he’s been whacked by his former colleagues and opposition parties for supposedly trading partisan reporting for a soft landing in the Senate.

Maybe there’s some truth to that, but most journalists appointed to the Senate had showed their political stripes. Doyle ran a fine Tory newspaper. Fraser landed in the Senate when Conrad Black fired her for being too liberal, and Jean Chrétien wanted to rub mud in Black’s face. Frum was partisan in her infrequent Post writings. And Charlie Bishop was lead political columnist on a paper that was pro-Tory (after a brief flirtation with Social Credit).

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POLITICS CHATTER: The crooked politician provides all (if you’re a reporter with bills to pay)

Years ago, when I was a skinny, skittish young cub reporter, I found myself kicking a chair and cursing at some outrageous stupidity committed by a politician. A long time has gone by. I no longer remember who I was angry at or the nature of his transgression.

But I do remember, as clearly as the day it happened, a wizened old city editor beckoning me over to his desk. Moving a couple of ashtrays aside so he could set down his coffee, he leaned over, his yellow teeth shining in the green light of the primitive video display monitor, placed his right hand on my shoulder, and uttered these words, which I recount here exactly as he told them to me:

“Embrace the crooked MP, bonehead mayor, the greedy Indian chief, the smug and profligate premier, my son. Let them roam in packs across the land.

“The crooked politician will provide all.

“The crooked MP gives our children straight teeth. He digs our swimming pool. He fills our mutual funds and RRSPs.

“He puts clothes on our backs. Food on our tables. Gas in our cars. The crooked MP makes the car itself and fixes it when it breaks.

“The bonehead mayor gives us trips to Jamaica and puts new roofs on our cottages. She makes us bookcases and fills them with books. She pays the hydro and phone bill.

“Someday, she will buy you an iPhone 5, whatever that is, and pay your monthly cell phone bill.

“The greedy Indian chief provides for us even in the most lean of times. He fills our pages when there is nothing but weather stories and tracts about the meaning of Santa.

“The smug premier makes our suits. He crafts nice watches. He feeds our pets, fixes our appliances, cleans our carpets. He makes donations to charities in our name, gives toonies to panhandlers, and buys  General Tao’s Chicken and delivers it to our homes when we are too tired to cook.

“So be careful what you wish for, my son. Do not hunt these great and generous creatures to extinction. Embrace them, nurture them. Let them run free to do their work.

“Just do not love them.”

Politics Chatter