The political party in Canada is dead – and we killed it

Let’s accept that all those former members of Parliament Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan spoke to are telling the truth – or, at least, being mostly truthful – and the real work in Parliament gets done in committees, rather than the House of Commons. It sounds about right, anyway. But then, how do we explain Thursday?

Ostensibly, New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair was scheduled to appear at the procedure and House affairs to testify and discuss the fact that members of the party’s parliamentary staff had been working at political offices in Montreal and Quebec City – ones paid for by the party. That, technically, would be a no-no under the current rules. Before Mulcair even showed up, the NDP contested that the office’s employees were under two different unions and, therefore, the political employees did only party work, and the parliamentary employees did only non-partisan work. It was a splicing of fine hairs, probably, for most Canadians, but such things do matter, and this particular case ought to matter even more now that we’ve seen what happened.

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What kind of party is the Conservative party?

A lot of disconcerting things have been said in Ottawa lately, but something from the prime minister on Thursday afternoon was more worrisome than others. And for Conservatives more than anyone.

Question period that day went poorly for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Only a day earlier, most observers agreed that he was in rare form as he ferociously defended his integrity in light of new accusations lobbed his way from Mike Duffy’s Tuesday speech in the Senate. The Conservative line on Wednesday was that Harper had only just been repeating what he’d said for months. Whichever was the truth – either Harper finally sounded serious about the Senate scandal, or the entire press gallery suffered an episode of amnesia and were suddenly incapable of remembering this past spring – barely mattered six minutes into question period Thursday.

After taking his first round of beatings from New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair, Harper had to answer a query from the far side of the House of Commons – the Liberal corner. That party’s leader, Justin Trudeau, was (strangely, when such events are unfolding in Ottawa) in Washington, D.C. for a conference about progressive governance. So, it fell to his deputy Dominic LeBlanc to make the accusation that instead of punishing Ray Novak for his alleged in “covering up the Conservatives’ scandal” and helping “hide the prime minister’s involvement,” Harper chose to make Novak his chief of staff. LeBlanc question was this: “Why does the prime minister think it is acceptable to reward potentially criminal behaviour?”

Harper stood to respond.

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Duffygate 2013: What matters now are the details. Good luck, prime minister.

Tuesdays revelations – or allegations, anyway – from Senator Mike Duffy were quite something. If his comments are to be proven, the consequences for the prime minister and, by extension, the Conservative Party might be dire. Probably you know what those allegations are already, but by way of a quick recap, I’ll simply quote Duffy himself, as he described what happened following a caucus meeting, after a story in the Ottawa Citizen raised the question about whether his residence was in Prince Edward Island or Ontario.

“I said that despite the smear in the papers, I had not broken the rules. But the prime minister wasn’t interested in explanations or the truth. It’s not about what you did. It’s about the perception of what you did that has been created by the media. The rules are inexplicable to our base,” Duffy said Harper told him. “I argued I was just following the rules, like all the others. It didn’t work. I was ordered – by the prime minister – to ‘pay the money back!’ End of discussion. Nigel Wright was present throughout. Just the three of us.”

That was the Holy Moly moment, delivered by a man who once told stories for a living, with the all the pauses and pronunciations in the right spots and the inflections placed more or less exactly on target. Duffy, accustomed for so long to TV, proved in the television-less Senate Tuesday he probably could have been just as successful a journalist had he stuck with radio.

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On the referendum society

"The key to the referendum society is that it turns on a mystic evocation of past grievances, gathered together into a churning, aggravated spleen, where they are magnified and isolated from reality. Everything that is not a grievance disappears. This anger is then dovetailed into a heroic solution. Simple, absolute, salvatory. An answer.The modern referendum, as Napoleon understood when he invented it, is the ideal consummation of the rational as irrational, of the anti-democratic posing as democracy. The complex issues of reality, which democracy can deal with in its own slow, indirect way, are swept aside by single, clear issues, often modeled on single human qualities – either we must have common sense, or we must have reason, or we must have memory. It is as if any combining of human qualities is impossible. Not surprisingly, both the referendum and direct democracy are a happy marriage with corporatism. The complex, real question sare dealt with behind the scenes through efficient 'interest mediation' between the different interest groups. As for the citizenry, they are occupied and distracted by the fireworks of their direct involvement on the big questions and their direct relationship with the big people. A simple 'yes' or 'no' and history, they are told, will be changed, as if by the wave of a magic wand."

– John Raulson Saul, The Unconscious Civilization

Political attack ads and our postmodern barbarism

There are probably a lot of reasons why political attack ads work: either because they get attention on their own, or because of the endless discussions that turn the content over and over, rehashing it for the sake of an argument about the debasing of political discussion in Canada. And fair enough, those are valid points. We would be better off without sloganeering that immediately attacks policies at the knees, hacking them down to stump material. But the reason attack ads - and the slogans they trumpet - still work has probably less to do with our general inability to have a substantive discussion on policy, and more to do with the fact that we’ve taught ourselves not to everywhere outside of the realm of political discussion.

The argument that Marshall McLuhan made in Understanding Media - his famous piece on the postmodern condition of electric communication - was about how our mass media affect our societal actions -- that “we shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” In that light, we could worry that attack ads could be ultimately change the overall political discourse in Canada. That is, if we were to limit it that much.

However, McLuhan also wrote about our willingness to regress to a form of communication based on abstracted signs, and given that, attack ads exemplify more a symptom of a current, ongoing problem than the potential cause of it.

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Nenshi wins (some thoughts on a post-whatever Calgary)

It’s no secret to a lot of people who know me personally that since I first left Calgary eight years ago, I have had a very definite love-hate, on-off relationship with the city. On the one hand, I grew up there, have friends and family there, and still consider it to have been a great place to grow up. But on the other hand, Calgary and I have had a more recent stormy relationship. We are often diametrically opposed organisms, having split somewhere around 2006 - seemingly forever.

To me, the city became a claustrophobic environment of big business and bigger back lawns; a city sprawling outward year after year without taking enough time to look inward, leaving a dead core and deader, emptier suburbs, constructed quickly around snaking tubes of highway where everyone could be sheltered, bubbled, all the way to their attached double garage - a hypocritical city that boasted of its innovation and yet showed little, socially or structurally. And no matter how big it got, it never felt inclusive enough. It seemed a cold city, a  dying city, attached to a dying resource base - Alberta’s feverish Tropic of Capricorn, delusional in its conviction that a new boom is always just around the corner. A city that, despite my personal ties, no longer felt like home, but instead a sunny stucco dungeon of unwanted expectations. I left this place for good, I always thought. And thank God for that.

But. But maybe I was wrong.

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What if Canadian youth actually voted?

The ever-informative Éric Grenier of threehundredeight.com has a very interesting article up today for the Globe and Mail. Grenier analyzed youth voting tendencies in Canada, and came up with this breakdown of how the House of Commons might look if it were up to Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24.

It’s not overly surprising that the Tories would be, as Grenier writes, “decimated,” as in the past youth often tend to be more left-leaning. What is telling, in some ways, is just how important the youth demographic is to the Liberals, and how unimportant it probably is to the Conservatives - it’s clearly not their target audience.

This is good news and bad for Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. First, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a popular leader, just that his party’s ideology is tempting - which isn’t exactly something to be wholly dismissed, either.

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