On MPs And Their Hospitality

Let me draw your attention to this story in the Ottawa Citizen, which discusses the hospitality expenses of our Members of Parliament.

More helpfully, the actual report itself is available here at the Parliamentary web site. If you want to compare hospitality expense numbers among individual MPs, there’s a search tool here.

I thought it might be interesting to use this tool, so I pulled up the expense figures for Élaine Michaud, the NDP member whom the news story names as the highest spender on hospitality; Paul Dewar, the MP for my riding of Ottawa Centre, and the three major party leaders.

The results, in alphabetical order:

Mr. Dewar had $2,007.83 allotted for hospitality during the reporting period. He spent a total of $305.94 for two meetings in June, both at the Parliamentary restaurant.

The Prime Minister had no money in his MP budget for hospitality, and the report says he spent no money. (To be fair, whatever hospitality he would have spent would be covered in the PMO budget. Different account, you might say. Or, as leader of the Conservatives, hospitality could be picked up by the party.)

Ms. Michaud had $6,190.27 budgeted for hospitality, $4,999.83 of which was spent. The majority of her expenses (which are documented here) were on town hall meetings. Considering how big her riding is (7,617 square kilometers and 81,093 registered electors) and since the attendance was substantial, the amounts do seem reasonable.

Mr. Mulcair budgeted $70 for hospitality (yes, $70), which wasn’t used. As with the Prime Minister, hospitality expenses are more likely to come out of the budget for the opposition leader’s office, which is a separate account, or the budget of the party.

Mr. Trudeau had $562.30 budgeted for hospitality, which wasn’t used. Although the leader of the third party doesn’t have an official parliamentary office, hospitality would most likely be picked up by the Liberal Party due to his role as leader.

Here’s the thing: hospitality is a recognized function of all MPs. A constituent comes to visit to discuss business, and if they go for lunch or dinner, who pays for it? Answer: the MP, because if the constituent pays it could be twisted in the media to look like undue influence. Should the MP pay for it from his / her own salary? No, because if he or she does, there won’t be a public record that the meeting took place (i.e. the restaurant bill), and sometimes it’s desirable that an MP prove that there was a meeting at which business was discussed.

Thankfully, the expenses aren’t quite as outrageous as the $18 orange juice that Bev Oda tried to put on the public tab. But they’re still necessary to the business of MPs, and nothing here seems overly extravagant. Wouldn’t you agree?

Posted in Harping, On The House, Politics, The Muleclear Reactor | 1 Comment

Resolutions for 2015

You’ll have probably noticed that I’ve been blogging a lot less than I have been, since I first started on blogspot. Part of it is because I’ve been busy with other things; a good part of it, though, is because I’m not as enthusiastic about expressing myself on politics as I used to be.

This is inevitable. After eight years of governance under Stephen Harper’s Tories, I am fully aware of its foibles and shortcomings, and I’m not completely convinced that it deserves another majority mandate. At the same time, I can’t be enthusiastic about the alternatives: Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats are still too wedded to an orthodoxy that continues to ignore reality in favor of ideological purity (witness his attempt to resurrect a form of the long-gun registry), and Justin Trudeau’s inexperience still renders him vulnerable to the old thinking of the Laurentian Consensus that got Stephen Harper elected into power in the first place.

This is one of the reasons why I switched to wordpress.com: it makes little sense financially to spend $20 a month for webhosting when I’m not actively using it. Of course the loss of the archived posts (apart from those still on blogspot) is annoying, but I don’t believe it’s any great loss.

Now in preparation for 2015, I’ve done the following:

  • I’ve got a new laptop. It’s an Asus T-100 Transformer, with 2 GB RAM and 32 GB storage expanded to 64 with a memory card — what they called, a few years ago, a netbook. I admit the name sounds like Asus’s marketing people were watching too many action movies with Schwarzenegger in them, and I’m annoyed by the lack of disk space, but it’s about the size of an iPad, it does full Windows 8, it’s got full-featured Microsoft Office (Home and Student), it’s pretty quick and the size is a lot easier on my shoulders for travel purposes. (Of course, with the small screen, video editing is out of the question, so I’m not recycling my old laptop just yet.)
  • I have an earlier pledge on this blog, which is not to do knee-jerk reactions to stuff in the news. That will still hold; if I write on current events, I will do my utmost to link you to primary sources instead of just the news stories reporting them.
  • I’d like to focus more on other politics-related matters, such as history and books on the subject. A lot of political bloggers who write about the latest books usually just keep to the news stories and the press releases. From now on, if I review a political book, it’ll be because I’ve actually bought it and read it. (This also means I’ll be expanded my book reviews to include non-political stuff as well.)

So — here’s hoping for a busier blogging New Year. Happy holidays.

Posted in Blogging | 2 Comments

Yes, Iggy’s Back. And No, You Shouldn’t Yawn

Sometimes I get the feeling our political pundits like to blast our current and former politicians as a way to pass the time. Take, for example, Michael Den Tandt’s takedown of Michael Ignatieff, just because the former Liberal leader chose to do a mini-reflection of his career in The New Republic.

Reading Mr. Den Tandt’s rant, you sorta get the feeling that he’s upset that Ignatieff would even think of trying to examine why he will be fated to become the worst leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. (No, you victims of Justin Derangement Syndrome, not second worst.) Allow me to quote:

There was no call, none, for him to again adopt the conceit of the wise, battle-scorched political warrior, casting pearls of advice to the prime ministers of tomorrow. Who, in heaven’s name, does this man imagine he is? …

… Goaded by the hellfires of ambition, or something, he casts aside the academy and, though a neophyte, hacks his way through Bob Rae’s slavering legions in the 2006 Liberal leadership race, only to be stymied at the finish by nebbish Stephane Dion. Undaunted, the great man again vaults past Rae in late 2008, early 2009. He seizes the leadership.

But then? Seems nobody in Canada, this unimaginative agglomerate of apple-fritter-chewing, beer-swilling philistines, cares about the contents of his gigantic brain.

Fortunately Mr. Ignatieff’s piece is available online here. As far as reads go, particularly from former politicians, it’s … okay. At least the man’s a bit more honest and forthcoming about his weaknesses, as well as delivering a better analysis of his poor decision-making than he’d done in his earlier memoir, Fire and Ashes. Again, let me quote:

The attacks that are hardest to deal with are not the ones that are false, but the ones that have a sliver of truth. Being out of the country was nothing to be ashamed of, but it didn’t exactly help me to establish the trust that any politician must establish with voters.

Conjuring that trust requires authenticity. You can’t pretend to be somebody you’re not. People who say politics is acting get it wrong. You’re not playing a role. You’re on stage, true enough, but you’re playing yourself….

A man like Nixon had authenticity aplenty. Voters knew exactly who he was: suspicious, manipulative, duplicitous, and just like them. They saw through him to themselves.

John Kerry fell victim to the swift-boat attack because he couldn’t own the young lieutenant back from Vietnam who gave that damning testimony in Congress about the terrible things he witnessed up the Mekong Delta. Once the swift-boat attacks hit their target, once he failed to reply, Kerry could talk, but no one was listening. He had lost his standing.

This is one of the reasons why I’m never quick to dismiss Mr. Ignatieff’s writings the way I would, say, Warren Kinsella’s. That bit about “standing” can conveniently explain why successful politicians succeed despite obvious flaws. (Oh, hello, Mayor Ford.) It also offers a very good hint on why Conservative strategists are having such a hard time knocking on Justin Trudeau: they don’t seem to get that everyone already knows and accepts that Justin has little experience, even Justin himself. That lack of experience translates into a certain amount of freedom to break from how Liberals have done business before (e.g. expelling errants from caucus).

One other quote:

People who think they’re entitled to standing—because they are brainy, rich, or famous—almost always lose. They forget you earn your standing, you are not entitled to it.

Mr. Den Tandt might need to be reminded that Mr. Ignatieff isn’t uttering a platitude, or issuing a warning to Justin. He is, in fact, talking about himself, which again is something that was lacking from that earlier memoir. It’s an acknowledgement of his own arrogance, his preconceptions about politics that had to be shattered.

And finally, there’s something that didn’t appear in Fire and Ashes: an acknowledgement, of sorts, that the Liberal Party won’t be able to return to power if it doesn’t come to terms with the way politics is practiced in the here and now. Of course, this sort of thinking is unfashionable, which may be one of the reasons why Mr. Den Tandt is upset about his reappearance; it’s always more fun to write and speculate about current perfidy and options for reform. But even losers can make a point.

Posted in Iggy Bops, Media Watch, Politics, The Third Party | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Why Sell Justin?

Much, it seems, has been written by dissatisfied Tories about Justin Trudeau’s family portrayal in Chatelaine. Frankly, all I have to say is people who think they’re going to find hard hitting political commentary in a lifestyle magazine (which is what Chatelaine happens to be) need to consider whether or not they’re suffering from a “derangement syndrome.”

What’s more important is to understand why the article — along with this ghostwritten autobiography that’s just come out — needed to appear in the first place. So here are a few points to ponder:

  • Canada needs a good alternative to the Harper government. This is not a partisan statement, it’s simple common sense. Voters need a leader and party to whom they can point and tell the incumbents, “if we don’t like you, we’ll put this one in your place, and we believe he’ll run things just as well if not better than you.”
  • Canada still doesn’t believe the NDP is the logical alternative. The thing is, as able an Opposition leader as Thomas Mulcair is, he still hasn’t really been able to fill Jack Layton’s boots as far as popular appeal goes. And there’s still the impression that the NDP is too wedded to an ideology that wants to expand the role of government in society to an unwieldy extent. Which means:
  • The popular default for an alternative government is still the Liberals. And it’s going to stay that way, at least for the foreseeable future. The party’s ability to fundraise has improved tremendously, and they’ve launched some initiatives to at least show that they’re no longer the party of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Now think, very carefully, about the above points. And consider this:

  • Mass media cannot be expected to write pieces that cheer for every initiative of the incumbent government. For them to do so leads to accusations that they’re propaganda shills. And so of course we expect reporters to write stories that point out problems with government and how it does things, at all levels.
  • Good journalism has to have a bias, and has to be activist in nature. To have a bias is to have a point of view, otherwise the reporter doesn’t have a strong Voice that gets the news consumer’s attention. And a good story, a news story with consequences, has to be able to achieve some form of change in the community where it’s read, seen or heard. For example, the reporting on Rob Ford’s administration has led to some serious questioning about the role of the mayor in Toronto’s politics, not to mention the roles of the councillors who opposed him. That unfortunately means:
  • Political journalists will form an alliance of convenience with an administration’s opposition. Both are, after all, in the business of finding out things that are wrong with the way an administration does things, and if one side of the equation can help out the other, then so much the better. Most political journalists working during the Paul Martin era will recall that Stephen Harper was easier to get along with (i.e. more accessible) when he was Opposition leader.

Now, here’s the thing: train of thought number one does not mean that voters would necessarily want Justin Trudeau, right now, as Prime Minister; it does mean that they’re prepared to accept him as PM no matter what the Tories try to argue about his deficiencies.

And that’s really the point of the Chatelaine article and the autobiography: to address some of those deficiencies. Specifically, accusations that he’s a “child of privilege.” That conjures up images of someone “out of touch” with the electorate.

Those Tories who want to harp on Justin being a dilettante like his father might do well to remember the example of George Walker Bush, a.k.a. Dubya. There were lots of reasons why he was able to defeat Al Gore for the Presidency, but one major component was a profile that Time magazine did of him, which focused on a day spent footling around his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

When readers of Time saw the paragraphs about his clearing brush around the property, did they see a millionaire child of privilege? No. They saw a homeowner. That point of commonality was one of the things that resonated with the American electorate.

So, when readers of Chatelaine look at that profile of Justin, what they’ll see is not a politician, but a man who genuinely loves his family. They won’t see an able political party leader because that’s not what they’re looking for. They’re looking to see someone with points of identification (such as fatherhood) that make them more comfortable about seeing him in high office. The same points, in fact, that they were looking for when the magazine did a profile of the Harper family back in 2006.

So what does that mean for the Tories trying to get Stephen Harper re-elected? Simple: unless Mr. Trudeau actually gives them ammunition in the form of public gaffes, any attempt to define Justin as “in over his head” will most likely fall on deaf ears. They’d be better off coming up with reasons *for* voting for the Tories instead of *not* voting for their opponents.

Posted in Justin Time, Media Watch, The Third Party | 3 Comments

Justin Trudeau’s Good Luck

“A lousy week,” opines The Globe and Mail. “Canada’s first war casualty,” notes The Star’s Chantal Hébert. And no question about it: the downside of the Liberal Party leader’s current image strategy has finally caught up with him.

And yet … there will be Liberal strategists who will regard this as a stroke of good luck for Justin.

It’s a stroke of good luck because at least Justin’s revelation of his ignorance on international affairs happened now, instead of in 2015 during an election campaign. Which means he has time to rectify this oversight, get himself briefed up fully on ISIL and the Middle East situation (not to mention memorizing the NATO charter), and (for once) listen to the senior members of the Liberal tribe who’ve had experience in the weeds of foreign affairs.

Which of course means that, in an election debate, if the other leaders care to try him on topics of international controversy, Mr. Trudeau won’t be showing as much of the caught-in-the-headlights attitude that he displayed here. Because his team will have taken steps to get him at least headline familiar with what’s happening out there.

It’s also a further stroke of luck for him because, as painful as this may sound, it reveals significant weaknesses that he has time to address. Such as: well, one, that he doesn’t do well with surprises. And two, that he hasn’t considered serious issues beyond what’s seen in the headlines.

Now if the Liberal higher-ups are really as smart and clever as they think they are, they could judo-flip this into an approach that appeals to the public. Because the sort of ignorance that we’re talking about here isn’t really unique to Justin Trudeau, but a fair chunk of the electorate.

Take, for example, not knowing about Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (which, by the way, you can find here). Sure, Mr. Trudeau didn’t know what it was — but neither, I suspect, does the average coffee-drinker at Tim Horton’s; they’d have to look it up on Wikipedia. It’s the type of knowledge that, frankly, we don’t need, in order to get through everyday life; if he were not a Party leader, most people wouldn’t expect Justin to know that either.

Exposing a target’s ignorance, especially when the target is a public figure, is known as the “gotcha” strategy, and deployed carefully it can derail a politician’s goals. Use it too often, however, and the voting public begins to gain sympathy for the target — enough, in fact, to keep him or her viable as a political threat, which is one of the reasons why Sarah Palin and Rob Ford have managed to stay a viable force in politics. The temptation for Tory strategists and other anti-Trudeau forces will be to employ the “gotcha” strategy on every portfolio that they think a Prime Minister should be familiar with, and then crow about Trudeau’s attempts to avoid tripping up. Such people forget that there is nobody as unpopular in politics as a smug, clever pol who tries to make opponents look stupid. (To those who cry out “criminal record!” we merely point to the career of Washington DC mayor Marion Barry, who won a term in office despite having one.)

Posted in Justin Time, The Third Party | 3 Comments

Reflections on the 1984 Conservative Renaissance

For those Tories with a sense of history, today is special. Today is the 30th anniversary of the election that brought Brian Mulroney and the then-Progressive Conservatives to a majority government, and that handed the federal Liberals under John Turner their first major defeat of the 20th century.

Mark Kennedy has a piece on Brian Mulroney’s reflections on his achievement, and Warren Kinsella is commemorating it as well. Naturally Mr. Kinsella would like to draw a parallel between this achievement and the upcoming 2015 election, casting the Tories in the then-Liberal role, but upon reflection it’s not quite as easy as you might think. Consider this:

  • When Mr. Turner called the 1984 election, he was not in fact a member of Parliament. In fact, he’d only been sworn in as Prime Minister ten days before, and had only become Liberal party leader barely two weeks before that. When you consider that Mr. Turner had been out of active politics since 1975, you have to concede this: Mr. Turner was the most unprepared leader the federal Liberals had ever had.
  • He demonstrated his unpreparedness through the 1984 campaign, first failing to defend the admittedly indefensible number of patronage appointments that his predecessor had asked him to make, and then publicly demonstrating inappropriate behaviour towards a couple of the party’s female senior executives. (There may have been a time, during perhaps the Mad Men era, when patting the derriêre of a businesswoman was considered a friendly gesture, but that time was most certainly not 1984.)
  • Apart from the interruption of Joe Clark’s 1979 government, the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau had been in power for approximately 15 years. During that time, the government had alienated a good portion of the voters over policies like the National Energy Program, negotiations over the Constitution, reorganizations of the Canadian Forces, and so on. Perhaps it’s unfair to say that Mr. Turner suffered for the “sins” of Mr. Trudeau, but there’s still some truth in that sentiment.

It should be pointed out that Mr. Turner did, in fact, make up for his lack of preparedness. Four years later he was able to bring the party back to a credible standing in the House, helping to turn the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement into a viable campaign issue.

It should also be remembered that, particularly during the period after the 1988 election, Mr. Mulroney’s government was actually polling at lower numbers than what Stephen Harper’s Tories are doing today. And today Mr. Mulroney is being remembered by both his allies and his then-critics as a great statesman, mainly for his stand on apartheid and his work on free trade. Not a bad legacy, eh?

Posted in Can Cons, History, The Third Party | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Stephen Harper Is The Face of Democracy

There’s a peculiarly funny bit in this Ottawa Citizen story covering the first event of the People’s Social Forum, which happened to be a march on Parliament Hill yesterday. It’s about the child of labour leader Chris Wilson:

Wilson’s eight-year-old daughter, Sasha, held a sign that read: “No more Harper. Not cool.” Asked why she doesn’t think the prime minister is cool, Sasha said, “I don’t know. My daddy says so.”

It’s funny because that’s pretty much indicative of progressive politics in Canada these days. Ask why they hate the Harper government, and they’re more likely to sputter out insults and invective rather than hand out anything resembling a reasoned argument.

They don’t really know why they think the Harper government is bad for Canada; but they know what “Daddy” says. And “Daddy,” in this case, is the popular “groupthink” of the Left, the hyperpartisan set of so-called counter-Establishment thinking that constitutes an Establishment of its own, the one that hates conservatism simply because it’s too intellectually lazy to consider its merits — not to mention their own deficiencies.

But here’s the thing. These people often forget that Stephen Harper did not become Prime Minister of Canada all on his own. He got there with the help of about 5.8 million people, the ones who voted Conservative back in 2011.

Now of course the Left will haul out that hoary old chestnut about how that’s a minority of the total votes cast. What that line of reasoning conveniently omits is that the remaining votes were split between the other four national parties (and yes, the Bloc and the Greens are national parties), which means that the Canadian Left simply failed to coalesce behind a single party.

Which means that the Harper majority is not just a result of Harper’s efforts, but of the Left’s failures — most particularly, their failure to sell a progressive vision of how Canada ought to work. Not merely to mainstream voters, but to each other.

A lot of punditry will complain that Harper’s politics are about division — dividing the electorate instead of unifying the country, et cetera. But they somehow forget that division is democracy. Arguing for one idea may be persuasive, but it’s hardly democratic. For that, you need two or more ideas in competition with each other, and theoretically once they’re all argued out, the one that makes the most sense wins. One of the reasons why the Canadian Left tends to be mocked or ignored in favour of the so-called “politics of personality” is that they’re rendered too incoherent by their own hatred of the Establishment to mount an effective counter-argument.

The marchers of the Peopls Forum hate Harper. Okay, it’s good to get that off your chests. They just need to remember that emotion does not necessarily translate into action — and that the people who voted Conservative in 2006, 2008 and 2011 won’t change their vote just because the Forum participants say so. That, too, is democracy.

Posted in Federal Government | 3 Comments