What Journalists Know

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Very few journalists understand how politics work. Even fewer have a clue how governments work. Almost none grasp the complexities of public policy. Not surprising – they were never trained to know and were actively discouraged from taking part. Even when they have acquired some understanding, they assume none of their readers and listeners are interested or capable of following them, so they dumb it down. Better to report on a well-developed cliché than do any deep analysis. It improves your chance of hosting your own show or appearing on page one.

Take the recent response of reporters to the Federal budget. Their initial reaction was to focus on the deficit and on the ‘path to a balanced budget.’ They also noticed that the budget was a lot shorter than in previous years. Deep.

Of course, it wasn’t a lot shorter. The government had provided two volumes – the first the budget proper and the second the fiscal background, which they knew that no-one but policy wonks would care about. They also thinned down the political rhetoric – though they certainly didn’t eliminate it. Maybe the question should have been: why were Conservative budgets so needlessly long?

It is the fiscal analysis that gets at the issue of the deficit and the debt. It is pointless to talk about raw numbers, since, because of inflation and economic growth, they aren’t based on the same calculation from year to year. Think of it this way. In 1980 you made $20,000 but spent $30,000. You had a deficit of $10,000 or 50% of your income. In 2010, you made $60,000 but spent $75,000 (by now your banker should be worried). You had a deficit of $15,000 but that was only 25% of your income. Not good, but better.

But here is the number that really counts. In 1980, you ran your first debt so your total debt was 50% of your income. This puts you in a position similar to France. But in 2010, your debt (let’s say you overspent by $10,000 a year) has reached $300,000 which is now 500% of your income. This places you in roughly the position of Argentina just before the country went bankrupt. By the way, if you are worried about government debt in Canada, you should be terrified by personal debt which now stands at 164% of disposable income. Fortunately most of that debt is in mortgages.

Canada’s current debt to income (GDP) ratio is 31% (this is only federal debt; count in provincial debt and it’s not so rosy) one of the best in the world – much better than our European and North American friends. You might think this is because of the fiscal prudence of the previous Conservative governments but you would be wrong. While the Conservatives did shrink the ratio initially – though not as quickly as the previous Martin government had – it began to rise again in 2008. While the Conservatives claim to have left the country in surplus, it was accomplished, if at all, through financial tricks that actually left the country in worse shape than it had been even a year or two before. It was, as they say, good politics but lousy policy.

The current fiscal plan is a steady state one. The debt ratio won’t rise – though it won’t fall either. Given the huge contingency fund, the low estimate of the price of oil and the pessimistic forecasts for economic growth, the deficits might actually be smaller than projected – or the government may have the fiscal room to fulfill those of their election promises, like homecare, left out of this budget, without running up big bills.

But that – the real story – is apparently too hard to explain or to figure out how to dig into. So, when they interview the PM or the Minister of Finance, they constantly interrupt and return to the tired old shibboleths of the evils of the deficit, as they were trained to do by Reform and Conservative rhetoric — Stockholm (or Stockwell Day) syndrome, maybe. Meanwhile they let the opposition blather on with nary a question even when the union-bashing, poverty-shaming neo-con Ms Ambrose spouts Tea Party language – calling the request for the rich to pay their share “class warfare.” They are only slightly tougher on Mr. Mulcair. Maybe they just feel sorry for them both, since neither of them are likely to be leaders for long.

Journalists need to up their game and trust their audiences to follow along. Or just give up and admit they take their orders from on high. And, though I’m writing this on Easter, I don’t mean from Jesus.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

Presidents

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I sometimes feel a little sorry for anyone who gets on the bandwagon of an American presidential candidate. For the most part they seem to believe that their chosen hero can accomplish anything, that their most outrageous promises can be accomplished in a week; their impossible ones will take as much as half a term.

Perhaps they don’t understand how their own government works. The President of the United States is powerful. But that’s only because he is the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. The USA has as many atomic bombs, a larger military, more economic clout and more cultural influence than any other country in the world. In some of those categories, they have more than the next five in line. China may have briefly had a marginally larger economy (with 4 times the population) – but since a significant portion of it was driven by American corporations it doesn’t really count. And China may soon fall behind again.

Despite this, America still manages to rank well down the list when it comes to taking care of its people. It’s rankings in education, health care and, of by the way, the happiness of its people, are kind of sad really. But that’s another story.

As heads of state go, the president has less power than the Prime Minister of England with a majority in Parliament. The PM isn’t even head of state (the Queen is) but their office holds all the power. While Parliament has to approve what the PM orders, party discipline makes certain that they do.

None of that exists in the USA. If you think there’s party discipline, you clearly haven’t been watching Congress lately. Ask John Boehner how successful he was getting the Tea Party Republicans to get along with their more moderate colleagues. Ask Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi about their respective experiences.

If Donald Trump becomes President, Cruz and Rubio will still be Senators. Do you honestly think they are going to forget the names Trump called them and cooperate with most of what the new President wants? Good luck with that. Of course, Trump could sue them (ha ha) or order them shot. Finding someone to carry out those orders might be a little tricky (unless of course they visit a war zone and they wind up as ‘collateral damage’).

Harry Truman (and he was the only President to actually use nuclear weapons) said his biggest surprise was when he sat at his desk in the Oval Office and gave an order – and nothing happened. He expressed pity for incoming President Eisenhower having to adapt from army life and finding the same thing. And Ike left the White House warning about the power of the military-industrial complex. Fun times.

Bernie Sanders will face the same trouble but he has as few allies in Congress as Trump. It is true that Sanders did get a bill or two passed in the Senate – but that was in part because he was an independent and not a Democrat. He only became one of those when he decided to run for office.

Separation of powers – checks and balances – that is the basis of American government. It often means that nothing gets done – unless you know how to negotiate, compromise, and strike while the iron is hot. And become damn good at exercising what few executive powers you do have. You know, like Obama.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Wisdom of Age

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With age comes wisdom, right? I’m sure we all like to think so – especially as we see the calendar pages go flying by. It was certainly the idea in the Canadian Senate where members used to be appointed for life – but now must retire at 75. It still remains a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court of the United States where Justices routinely stay on the bench into their late seventies or early eighties.

Having observed a lot of Senators, I can tell you that most perform admirably right up to their retirement, while a few display all the foolishness you  might expect of old men (and women). Age, as far as I can see, is no guarantee of great insight, though you do have the advantage of accumulated successes and failures to guide you.

If age were a true measure of fitness to govern, Robert Mugabe, at 91, the oldest current head of state, must be one hell of a guy. True, he sometimes stumbles – both physically and intellectually – but what the hell? He’s got all that wisdom, right?

Most societies tend to be gerontocracies – that is ruled by people much older than the average or median population. In the 1950s, leaders were typically in their late 60s while populations were, on average, around 35 in age. That gap has narrowed in recent years – to a mere 12 years – as world populations have aged and a new generation of leaders come on board. I expect it will begin to rise again as that generation holds on to power as firmly as the last one managed to do.

Which brings me to more current concerns. Here in Canada, we have our youngest PM since Joe Clark had the job in 1979. The new leader of the Conservative party is almost certainly going to be from the new generation, that is, someone in their 40s. The NDP, on the other hand, have a leader – who seems determined to hold on – who will be 65 when the next election is held. At the risk of sounding ageist, is that really wise?

I’ve been thinking I need to get with it, be hip, cool, or whatever the young people are saying these days. I’ve been thinking that from now on I won’t vote for a leader or a candidate who is older than me. So Tom Mulcair is out by about 6 months.

I’d be hard pressed to know who to support in the USA. If we had a Trump-Sanders final ballot we’d be looking at two candidates who would be sworn into the White House well past the age of 70. That makes them both older than Reagan who was 69 (and 11.5 months) at the start of his first term and was of questionable intellectual capacity at the end of his second.

Even Hilary Clinton would be over 69 on Inauguration day (her husband was 46). Many of the other GOP candidates are also older than me. That leaves Cruz and Rubio – who would be among the youngest men (Teddy Roosevelt and JFK both beat them out) to ever sit in the Oval Office. Trouble is: While I may not be convinced that age leads to wisdom, I’m pretty sure electing either of them would be nothing more than foolish.

So: Go Martin O’Malley!

And that’s ten minutes.

Reading the Entrails

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The Throne Speech has been given and now it is time to read the entrails – if that’s not too violent an abuse of a metaphor. Opposition politicians have been quick to point out the Speech’s flaws while journalists have tried to parse what was and was not made a priority by the government.

The Conservatives seem particularly outraged that the Speech doesn’t contain planks from the platform they ran and were defeated on – notably tax cuts for everyone and a militaristic response to ISIS. Don’t they know that it’s not even called that anymore? It’s Daesh. Those Tories – they are so 2014.

The NDP at least are being more judicious – focusing on elements of the Liberal platform that were not mentioned in the Speech, such as rolling back the retirement age from 67 to 65.

Journalists have been reduced to parsing language, like old time theologians counting the angels on the head of a pin. What does this phrase mean and why was this word left out? Focusing on things that are not there is a strange approach to policy analysis – since really anything might not be there.

To put it in perspective, this speech was under 1800 words long and still covered a lot of ground. The first Harper Throne Speech in 2006 only mentioned the five priorities they had run their campaign on and still managed to drag on for over 2400 words. It had a lot more flowery language, however, so maybe it was in essence even shorter than yesterday’s effort.

A Throne Speech is hardly definitive. Its purpose is not to list every single thing the government plans to do but rather give a general view of the new direction the government intends to take and the largest priorities they plan to address in the next two years. For those who are worried about the lack of specific timelines, it should be understood that this is not the only Throne Speech we will hear during the life of this government. In about two years, the government will take a break.

Parliament will be prorogued, not to avoid scrutiny, but so the government can fine tune its course and message. This is a natural event in the life of every Parliament. At that time, matters left undone may be given new focus and emphasis and new issues that will inevitably arise in the next few years will be considered. The Cabinet will likely be shuffled at the same time as the government begins the inevitable progress towards the next election.

Speeches from the Throne have never included everything the government intends to do or ultimately does. What it tells you is what is likely to be top of mind for the next 6 to 12 months and what the government already knows how to accomplish. Details may be vague – because frankly they haven’t been worked out yet.

Writing actual legislation and preparing a budget is a far more onerous and complex task. Those will emerge – after suitable consultation it is promised – in February, March and the months that follow. Writing a throne speech is a simple task and, really, shouldn’t occupy too much of our analytical thoughts. What comes next is the important stuff.

And that’s ten minutes.

Sunny Days

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Today is the real first day for the new Liberal government. Everything until now has been a prologue – an important one but none the less simply a precursor to the important work ahead. A number of milestones have been reached, it is true. The appointment of a gender equal Cabinet – because it is 2015 – was of great symbolic and practical importance. The symbolism is obvious; the practicality will be displayed in the types of decisions such a group is likely to make.

The promise to bring in 25000 Syrian refugees has been modified in terms of timing but not intent. Of course, the Conservative opposition (and some on the left) have been quick to call this an abandonment of an election promise – after insisting vociferously that the timing should be extended for security purposes. But this, my friends, is what a rational government does; modify their commitments – without abandoning them – when evidence shows a change is required. Governments who stick to promises for purely ideological purposes are soon turned into failures and are eventually defeated. Just ask Steve.

Speeches have been made – at COP 21, APEC and the Commonwealth meetings – and processes have been put in place for consultations with the provinces and for starting a national inquiry on murdered and missing indigenous women. Yesterday, some questions were answered as to the future of the Senate. While Claude Carignan – the Conservative leader in the Senate – called it weird, my own boss (also a Senator) thought it was brilliant. It makes a clear break with the former partisan obsession of some Senators on both sides of the aisle and makes sure that Canadians understand that real reform – as much as possible within the limits of the Constitution and the Supreme Court allows.

It doesn’t surprise me that Christy Clark has said she won’t play along. I expect Brad Wall will follow suit. Both – despite party labels – are Harper-like Conservatives who would rather use the Senate as a political football rather than try any real reform. If either of them had the courage of their convictions – they don’t – they would introduce a constitutional amendment into their legislature and get the reform process started. Provinces have that power, you know.

In any case, all that – along with the appointment/election of new Speakers has simply brought the government to the starting line. The real work of governing will come with a Throne Speech today (it will be short and to the point) and a ways and means motion next week to implement tax changes effective January 1st. In January, the first of the new independent Senators – including a government representative – will be appointed, a budget will be brought down and a raft of new legislation to enact Liberal campaign promises (and undo the worst of the Harper era) will be tabled and debated in the House and Senate.

As for Trudeau, the honeymoon seems to be continuing – despite the phony scandal of nannygate – and I expect that the government will be given a year before real criticism, as opposed to partisan whining, will begin to reveal any weaknesses in the Liberal plan.

And that’s ten minutes.

Euphoria

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In the last few days, I’ve seen a number of my friends, especially those Canadians who live outside Ottawa, express a certain amount of confusion, dismay or even anger over the current honeymoon that Justin Trudeau is experiencing. They seem almost eager for his government to fail or certainly are highly attuned to any perceived weakness or error they may have made.

It may be simple partisanship or it may be an integral part of the Canadian psyche. I recall a fake “Heritage Minute” which examined the lives of various successful Canadians but always ended with a couple of old people saying: “He’s not as good as he thinks he is.” Canadians are sometimes ridiculously uncomfortable, not just with success, but with the celebration of success.

Of course, the government will make mistakes. Trudeau said as much in his first (one of many I am sure) open letter to Canadians. He, indeed, asked for people to speak up when they thought the government was headed in the wrong direction. Governing a country, in case you haven’t noticed, is a complex business; it requires not only brilliance (and luck) at the top and a capable and engaged team of Ministers and bureaucrats but a vigilant populace and press.

Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time to complain.

I found it interesting that the first thing that was attacked was the decision to make gender equality in the Cabinet a priority. The initial criticism was based on the fake criteria of ‘merit’ as if part of merit wasn’t the experiences and worldview one brought to the job. Trudeau rightly ignored such foolishness and appointed equal numbers, but it only took a moment for the press – and then social media – to point out that some of the women Ministers were only Ministers of State and therefore paid less and had fewer perks.

The number mentioned was five (although in fact, it was only four) but in any case it wasn’t actually true. Trudeau pointed out that the rules of appointment are set by Order in Council and, until the Cabinet was formed, it had to abide by the rules already in place. Rest assured, he said, everyone is a full minister and will be treated as such; the rules will be changed and made retroactive to last Wednesday. I think we can give him that. For those that think he should have changed the rules before he made the appointments – you need to think a little about the direction of time’s arrow and the rules of causality.

Others have complained about the easy ride that the media – especially the CBC – is giving the new government. I feel your pain. You cannot believe how often I swore at the radio in the first years of the Harper administration when reporters – especially the CBC – refused to ask the tough questions. Of course, that was when they were actually allowed to ask any questions.

Maybe the media is out of practice. Or maybe, they are so overjoyed to be able to do their job that they get a little light-headed. Don’t worry, it will pass.

I think the current euphoria can only really be understood if you live in Ottawa. I can’t tell you how often I heard civil servants in the last five years complain about the Harper administration. Their biggest grievance: why won’t they let me do my job?

Quite literally people felt oppressed – not just scientists but all public servants who, despite the ugly rumours spread by the previous administration, just want to do the work for Canadians that they were hired to do.

Maybe it’s not surprising that, feeling freed from the weight of a suspicious and angry administration, they might do a little dancing in the streets. But don’t worry, that will pass, too.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

The Power of Words

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As a writer, I believe in the power of words. They can anger, inspire, hurt, and move. Words are, quite literally, symbols, carrying a heavy load of meaning depending on how they are said or the context they are used in. Thus, I am a little bemused when journalists ask if the words used to describe the Ministries in Justin Trudeau’s new Cabinet will make a difference. Do they have no pride in their own profession?

Of course, the title of things is not simply so you can have an easy to say acronym. What you call a thing is what it becomes. So, to mention the word Science in not one but two Ministers’ titles says something about this government’s attitude towards science and the importance of evidence in decision making. Hence, the immediate restoration of the long form census – which Tony Clement suggests he now wishes he hadn’t abolished.

The words we use to indicate the job of a minister are exactly the words we will use to hold them accountable. Having added the words Climate Change to the Minister of Environment’s title says, quite bluntly, that this issue is now at the forefront of the government’s agenda. This creates great expectations that they will actually do something and, if they fail, it will be a major club which other parties can use to beat them up with.

Similarly, the Minister of Industry is now the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development – which suggests a substantially different focus for the things he will do and support. One of the great criticisms of Canada’s lack of economic performance is that our industries are not very good at innovation. They stick with the tried and the true – or keep their money in the bank. It is not entirely their fault – previous governments (and especially the Harper one) were inconsistent in their support for innovation. That has to change if the economy is going to grow.

And a growing economy is at the centre of the Liberal economic plan – economic growth leads to higher government revenues without the need to raise taxes and to quote Mr. Trudeau, “the deficit will take care of itself.” While this statement was mocked in election ads, it is actually basic economics as our previous PM must surely have known, right?

There are other words of importance, simply because they were stated without addition. Having a Minister for the Status of Women, without it simply being an add on to some other job as it has frequently been, indicates a real commitment to make women’s issues front and centre (as if having half the Cabinet women hadn’t already made that clear). Making it clear that there is a Minister of Science, a Minister of Democratic Institutions also make it clear that these are important priorities of the government.

I could go on but you get the picture. The next question is, of course, can they turn words into actions? I expect we’ll have the answer to that in the next hundred days.

But that’s ten minutes.