Lurking behind a shameful debate, a strategy built on chaos

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 4, 2020.

It’s widely agreed that Tuesday’s faceoff between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joseph R. Biden Jr. was the worst U.S. presidential debate in history. It also marked a low point in American political culture. So shambolic, so grating, so disappointing, so ridiculous it was not only almost impossible to watch, it left me feeling sick to my stomach.

The debate changed nothing. Biden still appears to be winning. Trump appeared to do nothing to win over those suburban women his campaign so covets.

But here is what did change. The debate made it obvious Trump has, once and for all, stopped running against Biden.

Instead, he is running against the idea of American democracy itself.

I have previously written in this space about my confidence in the resiliency and maturity of democracy in the United States; about the ability of its institutions to withstand the inevitable speed bumps that would come with a Trump presidency.

What I failed to account for, because it was beyond imaginable to contemplate, was Trump’s singular capacity to hollow out the institution of the presidency itself, by turning against the very democratic system that elevated him to the position in 2016.

By the time Trump’s term is done, the presidency will be so diminished that even someone as feeble as Biden will be able to occupy it. (And let us be clear: While this was a disgraceful night for Trump, it was no great showing for Biden either.)

Yes, admittedly, others who have come before Trump have helped to muddy things. From Clinton’s sexual misconduct through Bush’s dishonesty to Nixon’s prolific tape recordings, history, at times, has not been kind to the human dimension of the institution of the presidency.

But never has a president made it so explicitly his strategy to disrupt and discredit the presidential vote itself.

“This is not going to end well,” Trump said repeatedly in discussing the election. Is this a prediction? Or is it a threat?

Horrifyingly, the president’s behaviour in recent weeks suggests the latter.

In August, Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that he planned to send law enforcement to polling locations. His plans have since escalated to include organizing an “Army for Trump’s Election-Security Operation.” In mid-September, on the second day of early voting in Fairfax, Virginia, a group of Trump supporters blocked the entrance to a polling location. It is not hard to see how all this might end badly.

These activities go wildly beyond the traditional election-day tradition of poll-watching, a tradition with its own problematic history. In 2018, the courts lifted a 30-year restriction on the Republican National Committee that had prevented them from any kind of poll-watching activity, after they were found guilty of intimidating voters in the 1980s.

If the courts think that Trump-era Republicans will play by the rules, they better think again.

The same goes for the Debate Commission and Vice President Biden. There is no chance the vague assurances of improvements or reforms from the federal, bipartisan commission will change a thing. What possible fix can there be when one actor is purely a nihilist, bent on chaos and destruction?

Given the rumblings of those who feel Biden should recuse himself from the next debates altogether and the fact Trump has himself been diagnosed with COVID-19, Tuesday’s showing may end up being the only debate between the two. We can only hope.

Looking ahead, there is good reason to fear what such an irresponsible actor as Trump might do come voting day on Nov. 3. Experts predict there will be an “overtime count” as swing states count a higher-than-average number of mail-in ballots, and there may be no clear victor on election night. With a president who refuses to concede, and an audience primed to expect the tidy resolution of an “Apprentice” episode, anything might happen.

And it will be in that moment that America, her people and her institutions, will be put to their real test. When the challenge to their democracy is no longer a speed bump but rather a sinkhole of proportions never before seen, just how resilient and mature will their democracy be?

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Virtual Voting Virtually Works

In a historic first on Monday night, the House of Commons held their first virtual vote on a sub amendment to the Speech from the Throne. The good news? It only took two hours. The vote comes after months of on and off wrangling amongst parties to determine how Parliament might return safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Although Parliament is supposedly a workplace like any other, not many workplaces feature a convention of 338+ Canadians in one room before allowing them to spread out to every corner of the country. And so, hybrid voting was born, and with it, significant procedural challenges.

To have their votes counted, MPs need to speak slowly and clearly, and ensure the all-powerful Zoom algorithms have chosen to fixate on the correct MP’s face to broadcast their screen throughout the chamber as they vote. Any small sound can flip the screen to another MP, which has led to parliamentary hilarity like images of Pierre Poilievre kissing his son while members voted, and the broadcast of a lovely bedtime story as told by Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.

As fun as these stories sound, the reality of distance voting is serious business. Ensuring all MPs have an equal opportunity to participate in debates and votes in the House is a cornerstone of Canada’s representative democracy. Even small mistakes, like misidentifying a speaker, can cause major confusion, and given the significant digital divide in Canada between urban and rural broadband internet access, MPs with a weak internet connection run the risk of being unheard, effectively disenfranchising their constituents. The opposition was rightly wary of such a voting system pushed by the government, particularly in a minority situation where every vote is crucial. Conservative MPs have been steadfast in their belief that MPs must stand and be held accountable for their votes in the House, something that is far harder to do in a virtual setting. This accountability might not be as elusive in a hybrid model as Conservatives think, however, given that each MP had 20 seconds of screen time on average to vote, more than a voice vote in-person would afford them. Preference for a sitting model really does seem to come down to party politics.

For all the technicalities, hilarity, annoyances, and honest-to-goodness constitutional issues that can come from virtual voting, we must bear in mind that the method is here to stay until a vaccine is developed, or until the Prime Minister’s next ethics scandal forces another prorogation. So, not very long at all.

From the throne, a campaign speech in search of a campaign

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, September 27, 2020.

In Rideau Cottage, the 11-month itch. Or so it seemed for a brief period when politicos and journalists wondered out loud whether the prime minister’s request for time on major television networks was intended to host an election call.

Instead, Justin Trudeau gave a, well, one is still not sure what speech he gave. As far as one could discern it was a pastiche of a couple of speeches, at least. One, a concerned prime minister speaking deliberately to his nation about challenging times to come, and the other an infomercial for the Liberal party best suited to middle-of-the-night television.

The speech from the throne itself did not lay out the Armageddon scenario forecast by some who especially dreaded the budget attached to it. Yet at the same time, the government’s plan largely ignored calls for immediate fiscal prudence. All justified afterward, in Trudeau’s words, because “low interest rates mean we can afford it.” Never mind the fact that it remains to be seen whether Canada truly can afford it.

Following the prime minister’s address, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was pressed by Rosemary Barton to reveal the limit of the government’s apparent capacity to spend its way through the pandemic, the point at which “enough is enough.” Freeland took an uncomfortable beat before responding sharply, “do you know when COVID is going to end, Rosie?” To say that the finance minister’s jumpy reply did not exactly inspire confidence is akin to saying that Tokyo is “crowded” or calling Michael Jordan ”a basketball player.” That is to say, a colossal understatement.

The prime minister’s campaign mindset shone through in his semi-Faustian bargain that the Liberals don’t want Canadians “to take on debt that your government can better shoulder.” A short sentence which summed up the government’s apparent mindset for governing through what Trudeau warned was likely to be another difficult year of COVID-19’s health and economic impact. As with Freeland’s comments, Trudeau’s remarks all but confirmed that when it comes to the suggestion of any roadmap for fiscal stewardship, there is no “there” there.

That is not to suggest that there was nothing to celebrate in this throne speech. The commitment to Canada-wide early learning and childcare is hugely important, and the support for businesses of all sizes is essential to keep the economy on track through the fall. At the same time, very few of the policies outlined on Wednesday are entirely new, and many seem like echoes of familiar Liberal campaign pledges.

Now that Jagmeet Singh’s NDP have agreed to support the government’s direction, we have managed to avoid the headache of an election — for now. It is nonetheless difficult to shake the sneaking suspicion that a call to the polls is looming in the not-so-distant future. Trudeau’s supposed election itch proved to be a false alarm, but his party’s campaign machine was eager to get involved in two Toronto-area by-elections, by ordaining its chosen candidates.

While both Marci Ien and Ya’ara Saks are no doubt strong contenders, the muscling-in by the central party is very telling. We should not ignore the prime minister’s flip-flop on his 2015 stance that the Liberals would maintain an open nomination process across every single riding. It seems obvious that an open nomination process, with more input from the constituency and party members, makes for more sound representation and electioneering. It does.

For Trudeau to renege on his own stance and sidestep the nomination of other potential candidates seems especially unwise, given his reputation for perceived interference and favouritism.

More than anything, the push to nominate their chosen star candidates suggests the Liberals are envisioning at least the contours of another federal race on the horizon. If the prime minister and his deputy press on with the same elbows-out approach and with so little regard for the perception of their approach to spending, Conservatives may soon start to develop an election itch of their own.

For now, the Liberals have just enough leeway to pursue their agenda, though it remains to be seen how quickly and how aggressively they will. Remember, Trudeau needs to keep a few chips in his pocket — for the inevitable election call, and crucially, the parliamentary poker that will precede it.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

In a gradual shift to the centre, an opening for O’Toole

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, September 20, 2020.

Since Erin O’Toole won the leadership of the Conservative Party and became the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Air Force veteran and former cabinet minister has been busy waiting in line.

On Wednesday, after an hours-long delay, he and his family were turned away from an Ottawa-area testing centre. O’Toole continues to self-isolate after a potential exposure from a staffer, and he later obtained a test at a special site offering priority tests to MPs and family.

But O’Toole also wasted no time in pointing out that his experience was an indictment of the Trudeau government’s failed approach to COVID-19 testing. Indeed, many testing centres are finding themselves overburdened by lengthy lineups as case numbers are on the rise and students return to school.

Many Canadians may soon find themselves in the same position as O’Toole, shivering in line at a COVID testing centre. O’Toole’s latest attack may resonate with this audience, especially when combined with the imposition of new restrictions in Ontario and the second wave beginning to bear down upon us. Gone is the halo effect of competent leadership in the early days of the pandemic. Instead, we are seeing O’Toole test-driving criticisms of the government as it enters a distinctly more challenging and vulnerable phase of pandemic politics.

As his predecessor discovered, and as I wrote previously in this column, the role of opposition leader in a time of acute crisis can be difficult. You must hold the prime minister and his or her government to account, but at the same time, the rally-around-the-flag effect can insulate the government from even the mildest critique. Andrew Scheer never quite managed to find the right angle to attack Trudeau over his handling of COVID-19, because for months the prime minister cut a sympathetic figure: isolated from his wife and family, working remotely from his cottage. O’Toole’s empathic approach on display with the line-waiting — “I’m suffering because of this government’s mistakes, too”— may yet do the trick.

Even as he sharpens his weapons against Trudeau on the pandemic front, O’Toole’s other task is to sell himself to the 905 region, and an effort to grow Conservative support beyond the base. This will require a softer approach, and a tack toward the centre that is already self-evident to those paying attention.

Take, for example, O’Toole’s Labour Day greeting. “I was raised in a General Motors family. My dad worked there for over 30 years,” it begins unremarkably. But by the time O’Toole is explaining to the viewer that “GDP growth alone is not the end-all, be-all of politics” and “the goal of economic policy should be more than just wealth creation — it should be solidarity, and the wellness of families,” one gets the distinct sense that O’Toole’s own brand of conservatism will be different from that of his predecessor.

To be specific, O’Toole seems to have his eye on union voters — GM families, as he says, just like the O’Tooles of yore. This is the same strategy used to great effect by Boris Johnson in the U.K., who won his majority government in large part by breaking through the traditional, working-class “red wall” of Labour supporters. As one leftist publication concluded, “Erin O’Toole’s Labour Day message should worry the left.”

Since Erin O’Toole won the leadership of the Conservative Party and became the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Air Force veteran and former cabinet minister has been busy waiting in line.

On Wednesday, after an hours-long delay, he and his family were turned away from an Ottawa-area testing centre. O’Toole continues to self-isolate after a potential exposure from a staffer, and he later obtained a test at a special site offering priority tests to MPs and family.

But O’Toole also wasted no time in pointing out that his experience was an indictment of the Trudeau government’s failed approach to COVID-19 testing. Indeed, many testing centres are finding themselves overburdened by lengthy lineups as case numbers are on the rise and students return to school.

Many Canadians may soon find themselves in the same position as O’Toole, shivering in line at a COVID testing centre. O’Toole’s latest attack may resonate with this audience, especially when combined with the imposition of new restrictions in Ontario and the second wave beginning to bear down upon us. Gone is the halo effect of competent leadership in the early days of the pandemic. Instead, we are seeing O’Toole test-driving criticisms of the government as it enters a distinctly more challenging and vulnerable phase of pandemic politics.

As his predecessor discovered, and as I wrote previously in this column, the role of opposition leader in a time of acute crisis can be difficult. You must hold the prime minister and his or her government to account, but at the same time, the rally-around-the-flag effect can insulate the government from even the mildest critique. Andrew Scheer never quite managed to find the right angle to attack Trudeau over his handling of COVID-19, because for months the prime minister cut a sympathetic figure: isolated from his wife and family, working remotely from his cottage. O’Toole’s empathic approach on display with the line-waiting — “I’m suffering because of this government’s mistakes, too”— may yet do the trick.

Even as he sharpens his weapons against Trudeau on the pandemic front, O’Toole’s other task is to sell himself to the 905 region, and an effort to grow Conservative support beyond the base. This will require a softer approach, and a tack toward the centre that is already self-evident to those paying attention.

Take, for example, O’Toole’s Labour Day greeting. “I was raised in a General Motors family. My dad worked there for over 30 years,” it begins unremarkably. But by the time O’Toole is explaining to the viewer that “GDP growth alone is not the end-all, be-all of politics” and “the goal of economic policy should be more than just wealth creation — it should be solidarity, and the wellness of families,” one gets the distinct sense that O’Toole’s own brand of conservatism will be different from that of his predecessor.

To be specific, O’Toole seems to have his eye on union voters — GM families, as he says, just like the O’Tooles of yore. This is the same strategy used to great effect by Boris Johnson in the U.K., who won his majority government in large part by breaking through the traditional, working-class “red wall” of Labour supporters. As one leftist publication concluded, “Erin O’Toole’s Labour Day message should worry the left.”

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Evidence-based policy needed on gun control

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 28, 2020.

As the Conservative Party of Canada lurches its way to choosing a new leader in August, many are asking what it means to be a conservative, especially an urban conservative.

As party members consider that question, along with what it means to be all different kinds of conservatives, the candidates for leader are being asked how they will create a “big blue tent” large enough for us all.

And no discussion tests the edges of that tent more the issue of guns.

Full disclosure: As Gloria Gaynor famously sang, “I am what I am,” and what I am is an urban, high-rise-living, office-tower-working, gay grandfather whose only connection to guns is through the fake ones we made when we played cops and robbers.

I openly admit that I exist in a place where the idea of gun ownership is remote for me and most of my friends.

And yet, I understand that many others see this issue very differently; that guns mean different things to different people in different parts of this vast country of ours.

I get all that. But here is what I don’t get.

I don’t get our collective reticence, Liberals and Conservatives and others alike, to try something radically different to deal with what is, on the evidence, a growing —growing-out-of-control — problem.

How many times will we have to witness another tragedy liked the one in mid-April when a mass shooter embarked on a 13-hour shooting spree across Nova Scotia?

By the time his attack was over, 23 innocent Canadians who had only the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time had lost their lives. Police recovered five firearms from the suspect’s vehicle: two semiautomatic handguns, two semiautomatic rifles (including a military-style assault rifle), and a Smith & Wesson service pistol lifted off the late RCMP officer Heidi Stevenson.

This horrific event was not, it seems, horrific enough to force a call for a public inquiry into the worst mass shooting in Canadian history. The result? Canadians were left with a great many questions about the shooter and the RCMP’s haphazard response.

The event did, at long last, push Ottawa’s Liberal government to usher through a ban on certain models of semiautomatic rifles.

While applauded by many as a sensible start, it was yet another example of a sad lack of evidence-based policy-making at work when it comes to gun control.

By amending the Criminal Code to ban some of the most popular and well-known models of semi-automatic rifles, including two of the specific types of guns used by the shooter in Nova Scotia, the government took what could, at best, be described as baby steps.

But, in doing so, the government did not bother to ban all semi-automatic rifles — just the ones like the AR-15 that Liberal voters would likely recognize from reading about other mass shootings.

This action seems, to me, to be at odds with what you would expect from a government serious about addressing gun violence, or introducing evidence-based gun control.

Under similar circumstances, Australia took a different approach and introduced a blanket ban. After all, most Canadians who die from gun violence are shot by handguns.

So here is the contradiction. The Trudeau government has won praise from most corners for their evidence-based handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Why not bring that approach to gun control? After all, many thoughtful doctors consider guns to be a significant public health risk.

Instead, by privileging optics over substance, the government’s latest foray into gun control has further politicized the issue.

And in so doing, it may have missed the proverbial boat as a story of another shooting out of California this week described how an ex-con used a “ghost gun” — a home-made assemblage, compiled by ordering the various parts online and assembling a fully functional weapon with no serial number and no oversight.

Whether or not we agree with each other at the starting point of this debate, it is clear that familiar tragedies are now combining with tragedies unimagined to test the mettle of governments. It is also clear that the time has come to put our own biases aside in favour of an evidence-based approach to this crisis.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

As America cries for leadership, Donald Trump accelerates its division

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 21, 2020.

Ever since that poignant morning in 2016 when Hillary Clinton took the stage in bipartisan, conciliatory purple to concede defeat to Donald Trump, I have used this space to urge people to remain calm. To remind them that America is a mature and stable democracy that will cope just fine with the tumult of a Trump presidency.

I have written that the markets will continue to function, congress will do its job, the courts will defend the Constitution and the military will refute any unlawful order.

Far from a Trump apologist, I was anchored in a belief that the breadth of modern America’s institutions — legal, civil and economic — can be depended upon to not only withstand but to keep in check the most dangerous impulses of any character who ascends to the Oval Office.

It is now clear I was mistaken.

Like a lot people I think, I allowed the good times or at least “normal” times of the day colour my lenses in imagining the impact a disastrous president could have. I never considered what would happen in bad times and how devastatingly wrong that analysis would turn out to be.

Now five months into a pandemic that has brought with it uncontemplated social and economic disruption, I no longer have to hypothesize about the theoretical impact of an unhinged presidency.

When I see Americans pitted against each other in an overdue demand for justice for African Americans, I no longer have to hypothesize about what happens when a leader governs for some of the people and not all of the people.

I can simply watch the catastrophic results play out in front of my eyes every night on Fox or CNN.

To be sure, three years of President Trump has been a revolving door of disaster. The juvenile insults, assaults on civil rights, violent outbursts and episodes of corruption have flowed from one to the next.

But now that the “good times” or the “normal times” are well and truly over and our world has been jolted from normalcy, we can clearly see the price America is paying for his nonsense.

At a time when America is being rocked to its very core; when Americans are yearning, no crying out, for a steady hand, for a North Star, for hope, there is none to be found on Pennsylvania Ave.

Clearly, Americans have endured bad presidents before. Just as we in Canada have had bad prime ministers. But it is hard to remember a time when a leader has so emphatically disengaged with their role as a leader in a time of crisis. It is even harder to imagine another White House responding to nationwide hurt and anguish with such a leering sense of menace.

When it comes it its government, America has much of which to be proud. In modern times it survived, for example, the disgrace of Watergate. By its example, it has contributed to democracy around the world. It has made its own way in that world and created a presidency that fulfils the role of not only the head of government but also the head of state. A leader comparable to the political role of a prime minister who is also endowed with the monarch-like responsibility to model a nation’s leadership and help absorb its pain.

Within that construct, there are some things that others can do, some that only the president can do.

For example, the president is often referred to as the comforter-in-chief. It is a role that Presidents Regan, Clinton and Obama fulfilled with great effect. But the truth is, it is a responsibility that can be delegated to another leader. The vice president or a religious leader for example.

But what can’t be delegated is the role the president plays when the nation needs to come together. When differences need to be set aside and common ground found. In those times, there is no substitute for the president.

The problem American faces today is Trump, by his own actions and his own hand, has forfeited that role.

By the Constitution, he retains his legal authority to govern. But by pitting one American against another, he has lost his moral authority to lead.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

What’s Old is New Again: An Analysis of the Conservative French Debate

After much upheaval and rescheduling, the Conservative leadership candidates finally came together for the first debate of the campaign. A debate in French is a tall order for the all-anglophone panel of candidates while ability to speak in French is becoming more important to a majority of Canadians. All candidates did their best to come across as coherent and Prime Ministerial in their remarks, but who succeeded?

In terms of French ability, Peter MacKay took the title of most fluent. He was articulate, able to speak on the fly, and looked like a Prime Minister. Erin O’Toole gets second-place for his decent pronunciation, conversational tone, and his ability to speak in real-time with Peter MacKay. However, he could not keep up when it came to a live debate, with MacKay taking up most of the airtime. Derek Sloan surprised all with his stronger-than-expected French ability, however he resorted to asking questions of the frontrunners during debate portions, rather than, well, debating. Finally, Leslyn Lewis did well for someone who only began her French lessons this year, but she was nowhere near Prime Ministerial. Her eyes stayed on her notes, and she was not able to read a prepared statement, let alone debate in real time.

On issues, there was no lack of traditional Conservative fare, but many of the themes discussed might not have been out of place at a Liberal debate. O’Toole and MacKay gave traditional Conservative answers to questions on national defence, the importance of the oil and gas sector to Canada’s economy, plans for the economic reopening post-COVID-19, and the concept of building an energy corridor across Canada. MacKay dominated on the socially progressive themes of the night, such as abortion, immigration levels, and support for LGBTQ issues, delivering a powerful speech in support of including Conservatives of all genders and sexualities in the party. O’Toole, meanwhile, was unclear on his views on social conservatism, and was hit hard by MacKay on his inability to pick a side. Sloan and Lewis were both clearly on the side of social conservatives, with Sloan decrying cancel culture and political correctness.

Ultimately, the debate was a contest between O’Toole and MacKay. MacKay attempted to speak for as long as possible in the free debate rounds, to crowd out the weaker French-speakers on the stage. O’Toole tried to fend off this strategy but came off as whiny and unduly upset by routine political attacks. Often, he tried to get a one-liner in over MacKay’s monologues but was unsuccessful. Both men wound up speaking over each other continuously, even accusing each other of dividing the party. MacKay managed to get in the best one-liners, at one point calling his rival Erin Trudeau. MacKay focused on linking himself to the great Tories of old, like Brian Mulroney and John Diefenbaker, while O’Toole worked to paint himself as the leader of the future. This dynamic will likely play out further in the upcoming English debate.

So how did everyone do? Peter MacKay demonstrated the pedigree, experience, and composure necessary to convince Canadians that he could one day be Prime Minister. O’Toole fell short of producing a complete picture of his views, and his attempts to look like a man of the future will not sell against a younger, more progressive Prime Minister. Derek Sloan was able to communicate his ideas, albeit not articulately, and made it clear that he supports social conservative viewpoints. Oh, and Leslyn Lewis was there too.

Alors que ce passage obligé de la course à la chefferie a dû être repoussé en raison de la pandémie, les candidats à la tête du Parti Conservateur ont enfin pu se prêter à l’exercice, en commençant hier soir par le débat en français. Cela représentait toutefois un défi de taille pour les candidats, qui sont tous anglophones. Qui a réussi à se démarquer comme potentiel premier ministre aux yeux des électeurs francophones?

Selon les experts linguistiques, Erin O’Toole et Peter MacKay sont les candidats qui maîtrisent le mieux le français, même si on reste encore loin d’un niveau acceptable pour les électeurs francophones. Erin O’Toole, malgré un fort accent, adoptait un discours généralement fluide et compréhensible sans être entièrement dépendant de ses notes pour répondre aux questions. Il peinait toutefois par moment à garder la cadence contre McKay, qui s’est démarqué pour son charisme et ses habiletés de débatteur. Derek Sloan, de son côté, s’est montré tout simplement incapable de débattre avec ses homologues. Sa vision peu commune de la question linguistique, qui propose que le Québec ne fournisse que des services en français et que l’Alberta ne fournisse que des services en anglais, risque également de faire sourciller les minorités linguistiques partout au pays. Leslyn Lewis, malheureusement, a été tout simplement incapable de lever les yeux de son texte, et a dû se résoudre à s’effacer peu à peu du débat.

L’éventail habituel des enjeux conservateurs traditionnels ont évidemment été abordés lors du débat. O’Toole et MacKay ont donné des réponses attendues aux questions portant sur la défense, sur l’importance du secteur pétrolier, sur leurs plans de relance économique post-pandémie ainsi que sur la construction d’un couloir énergétique traversant le pays. McKay a toutefois marqué d’importants points en abordant des enjeux plus progressistes, comme son appui à la communauté LGBTQ+ et son intention de faire preuve de plus d’inclusion au sein même du parti, ainsi que sa position « pro-choix » sur l’avortement. O’Toole, au contraire, est resté très vague sur les questions de valeur, s’exposant à de vives critiques de la part de MacKay quant à son incapacité à prendre position. Sloan et Lewis, sans grande surprise, se sont déclarés clairement en faveur du conservatisme social. Sloan s’est notamment opposé à l’Accord et Paris et à la Déclaration des Nations unies sur les droits des peuples autochtones.

Le débat s’est donc avéré être une compétition entre les deux meneurs, O’Toole et MacKay. Ce dernier a notamment tenté de monopoliser le temps de discussion au profit des candidats ne maîtrisant pas la langue de débat. O’Toole, qui s’est plaint de cette tactique à de multiples reprises, a souvent peiné à interrompre les longs monologues de MacKay, se fâchant même à quelques reprises. Les deux hommes ont passé la majeure partie du débat à se couper la parole et à s’accuser l’un et l’autre de diviser le parti. Comparant son rival au premier ministre actuel en l’appelant « Erin Trudeau », MacKay a tenté de se positionner dans la même lignée que les grands leaders Tories du passé, dont Brian Mulroney et John Diefenbaker. O’Toole, de son côté, a tenté se présenter plutôt comme « l’homme du futur », une dynamique qui risque fort bien de se reproduire lors du débat en anglais.

Quel est donc le verdict? Peter MacKay semble avoir réussi à démontrer l’expérience, les compétences et le charisme nécessaires pour convaincre les électeurs francophones qu’il pourrait être premier ministre du Canada. O’Toole, de son côté, n’a pas réussi à offrir une perspective d’ensemble de ses politiques et de ses positions personnelles sur les enjeux sociaux. Son positionnement comme « conservateur du futur » risque également de se montrer insuffisant face à un jeune premier ministre progressiste comme Justin Trudeau. Du point de vue du Québec et des communautés francophones ailleurs au pays, la performance des deux autres candidats est carrément insuffisante pour un parti politique d’envergure nationale. Sloan, bien qu’il se soit montré plus clair sur ses couleurs politiques, a pâli en comparaison aux deux premiers. Lewis, elle, s’est malheureusement contentée de faire acte de présence.

We are done with COVID-19 but it is not done with us

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 13, 2020.

Though it now seems easy to forget, we remain locked in a battle with the novel coronavirus. It has been 93 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic; a declaration that brought with it unprecedented restrictions on our liberties and to our livelihoods.

That we all willingly obeyed those orders is a notion fundamental to a democratic society: the consent of the citizen to submit to the authority of the government.

But the mass protests of past weeks have shown a fraying of this social contract, Prompted by an angry outcry to a long simmering wrong, the Black Lives Matter movement has caught on where the anti-lockdown movement has fizzled out.

The BLM protests are, as I wrote here last week, justified and long overdue and the anti-quarantine movement was never more than a radical fringe. But the outcome and the dangers, vis-à-vis the coronavirus, are much the same.

While it is dangerous to confuse the real medical risk of these protests with their ideological or political value, we have seen public health authorities trip over themselves to somehow sanction them. They seem suddenly desperate to inoculate themselves against the criticism that it remains irresponsible to gather in large groups, even outdoors, even in a mask.

It was just a month ago that irresponsibility was the charge levelled against those who protested the COVID-19 lockdowns. It was only two weeks ago that health and political authorities alike were condemning youth in Trinity Bellwoods park, going so far as to label them reckless and selfish.

But governments have now run into a brick wall when it comes to public compliance. Terrified of losing their moral authority to govern, their power of moral suasion, the tail is, once again, wagging the dog with public health authorities repeatedly contorting themselves or playing catch-up to shifts of opinion and behaviour among the public.

As the social contract frays, the more pronounced this phenomenon becomes, and the more the authority of government will erode.

Public health authorities can issue endless reminders about best practices but now that every leader from the prime minister on down has participated in a mass gathering, the government’s dissuasive power against gathering in large groups has melted like a popsicle in the summer sun.

This fraying will only get worse, I predict. Whether it is because of the warm weather, general quarantine fatigue after three long months, deteriorating mental or financial health, people are simply ceasing to do what the government asks.

And why should they? It is not as if our leaders have modelled good behaviour. If others are not willing to follow the basic rules of the social contract, it is rather easy to understand those who choose to abandon quarantine to join a growing popular protest movement. After all, condemning untold instances of appalling police brutality seems to many a reasonable and necessary thing to do.

Public health authorities like Dr. Anthony Fauci are, of course, of a different view. Fauci sternly warned this week that the protests are the “perfect setup” for spreading the virus. The challenge for governments is that it will take a couple of weeks to see if he is right. And while we wait, it will be difficult for authorities to convince the public that the risk is real when Toronto public health authorities recently quietly confirmed that we saw no such spike after the gathering in Bellwoods.

And so, it is becoming clear that we have collectively decided that, regardless of what we are told, we are done with COVID-19.

But the virus is not done with us — far from it.

And therein lies the challenge facing those who lead our democracy.

What happens when the people decide they have had enough? What happens when the people decide that they will no longer blindly, unquestioningly accept your instructions? What happens when science and instinct and experience leads you in one direction and the people lead you in another?

Those are questions that will preoccupy our leaders through the doldrums of summer. And their answers will live on much longer in the health of our nation and the political fortunes of their parties.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Protest is a powerful force for progress

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 6, 2020.

In January 1909, a group of notable Americans signed their names to a statement that called for a national conference focused on the civil and political rights of Black Americans. The “Call” was signed by the likes of W.E.B. Dubois and Ida B. Wells, and it contended that the upcoming centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth should be a day of “taking stock of the nation’s progress since 1865.”

“How far has [the nation] lived up to the obligations imposed upon it by the Emancipation Proclamation? How far has it gone in assuring to each and every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and are guaranteed by the Constitution?” asked the letter.

The unfortunate answer, affirmed over a century later by the voices of thousands of Americans this past week, is clear: nowhere near far enough.

Many signatories of the “Call” would go on to form the NAACP, officially established just a few weeks later. In its 111-year history, the NAACP evolved from a relatively small association focused on litigation against Jim Crow laws, into a national organization with half a million members and tangible political power.

Like many civil rights organizations, it was born from emotion, specifically anger, frustration and disappointment in the deferred promise of 1865 (the passage of the 13th amendment). But over the years, civil rights leaders like Dubois and Wells channelled that emotion into positive action, without which the United States would be less free, less equal and less just a society than it is today.

As protests spread this week across the United States and here at home — protests that have jolted so many of us out of our privileged complacency — it’s important to remember the legacy of civil rights organizations and their roots in protest.

The simple fact is that direct action works: from the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century to the Stonewall riots and the origins of Pride, protest and civil unrest has long served as a catalyst for important change. The protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police are no different.

Consider just how much the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved since its inception in 2013. What began as a hashtag has grown into an international phenomenon, the animating spirit of the largest protests seen in nearly 50 years. While its actions were once the subject of controversy, corporations and brands now eagerly endorse their message.

Along the way, Black Lives Matter has remained steadfastly committed to its roots as a protest movement. Local chapters of the movement have now, for seven years, led protests in response to far too many deaths, all too similar to George Floyd’s. With each action, the loose network envisioned by the movement’s founders has grown stronger.

The natural question to ask next is what happens to the Black Lives Matter movement from here? Perhaps the movement will go the way of Pride: corporatized and mainstream, far now from its roots in protest. Like Pride, victory here may not ultimately mean a set of policy changes, so much as a shifting of the Overton window — a victory of the public sense of what’s possible and expected.

But regardless of where the movement ultimately goes, this is coming to a head. We are experiencing a once-in-a-generation paroxysm about the health and safety of Black communities, prompted by both the coronavirus and the latest instances of police brutality.

It is not my place to say what the demands of the protestors should be or what shape the movement should take next, but I feel it would be a tragedy to move away from the basis of the movement in protest.

After all, we have seen, again and again, how the courage and leadership of organizers and protestors alike have sustained the movement through years of growth.

That said, any meaningful, sustainable change that comes next will depend on all of us — how our expectations, our behaviour and our attitudes evolve. And that means, first and foremost, looking inward and addressing, in the words of James Baldwin, the “many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.”

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt