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Royce Koop: It’s a bad sign when political parties prioritize money over votes

Commentary

The day after the Liberals and NDP inked their new confidence-and-supply agreement,“The arrangement lasts until Parliament rises in June 2025, allowing four budgets to be presented by the government during this time. To ensure coordination on this arrangement, both Parties commit to a guiding principle of ‘no surprises’. The agreement will mean that the NDP agrees to support the government on confidence and budgetary matters – notably on budgetary policy, budget implementation bills, estimates and supply – and that the Liberal Party commits to govern for the duration of the agreement.” https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/news-releases/2022/03/22/delivering-canadians-now interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen arrived in Question Period intent on making some mischief. Bergen thundered that the government was “the new NDP-Liberal government,” called prime minister Justin Trudeau “the leader of the new NDP-Liberal Party,” and awarded the title of deputy prime minister to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. None of this is, strictly speaking, true, and it drove indignant political scientists crazy. Nevertheless, Bergen is a superb parliamentary performer, and her rhetoric was both cutting and funny.

But to what end? Do most Canadians care about these parliamentary machinations between parties? I doubt it. But there is one group of Canadians who likely care a great deal: Conservative Party members and, in particular, members willing to contribute money to the party. Bergen’s questions seemed to come out of a fundraising email designed to rile up the base and provoke them to chip in a few dollars.

While most Canadians likely care little about the Liberal-NDP agreement, they might care a great deal about some of the measures that will come out of it. The two centerpieces of the agreement are pharmacare and a dental care plan. When the text of the agreement was released,Delivering for Canadians Now, A Supply and Confidence Agreement I was shocked to discover Singh had successfully nailed down hard targets and delivery dates on dental care, which would have to be met for the Liberal government to maintain the NDP’s confidence. Dental care will be rolled out in phases, appropriately beginning with coverage for low-income children in 2022.

As this program comes online, it will, like Medicare, become instantly and massively popular with Canadians. The same will be true of Pharmacare.

Despite this, the Conservatives came out against dental care for low-income Canadians, arguing it was unnecessary given workplace insurance plans and assistance programs in some provinces.“Speaking to reporters after Trudeau formally announced the confidence-and-supply agreement, Bergen said the deal effectively hands the reins of government to the ‘socialist’ NDP. She warned that could mean a massive expansion of government and tax hikes to pay for billions of dollars in new spending on promised social programs.” https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/conservatives-slam-liberal-power-grab-ndp-pact-1.6393205 Leadership contender Pierre Poilievre took to social media to argue the agreement was a “radical and extreme agenda and encouraged his supporters to “help me fight against the coalition.”

Does this mean the Conservatives will campaign on abolishing dental care and pharmacare programs in the next election? Does anyone think this will turn out well for the party? It feels like the Conservatives have set a trap for themselves in the next election.

This episode illustrates one of the central problems facing the Conservative Party currently: the seemingly omnipresent impulse to raise funds from existing party members. Any event or occurrence can and is framed in such a way as to rile up the party’s base and push them to donate. Obviously, raising money is great, and parties desperately need to keep the coffers full. But the impulse to fundraise can be destructive when it imperils the party’s future electoral prospects. Raising money today cannot come at the cost of votes tomorrow.

Why is the party engaging in seemingly self-destructive behavior? In a thought-provoking Twitter thread, consultant Kyle Olsen argued that there was a structural explanation for this. The party relies to some extent on outside fundraising consultants who are paid based on their success. To keep the money flowing, these consultants reinforce messages from the party leadership that resonate with members and downplay messages that are less popular. If the leadership is consistently saying things that don’t play well with potential donors, there are always verbose MPs willing to say the right things who can be amplified.

So what’s the problem? Outside consultants may care little about the long-term strategic implications of the messages they amplify to the membership. This brings them into conflict with the party leader, who is supposed to be focused precisely on long-term strategic implications, particularly the next election. Pressure from outside consultants and other actors, particularly MPs, makes it difficult for leaders to develop strategic themes that may not play well today but could pay dividends tomorrow. Leaders in this situation are likely to find it difficult to broaden the appeal beyond the existing party base. Instead, the focus is on money today.

So what would have happened if Bergen had responded to the Liberal-NDP agreement by arguing that while the backroom nature of the deal was dubious, assuring quality dental care for Canadians is a responsible and civilized public policy measure that will go some way toward alleviating suffering among low-income Canadians, particularly children? This argument would position the party to pull the rug out from underneath the Liberals in the next election, neutralizing dental care as a wedge issue. And this view is certainly consistent with several conceptions of conservatism as a political worldview, though I guess not with Poilievre’s hard-edged libertarianism. Further, some segment of Conservative members would agree with that sentiment, or would be open to or persuaded by the leader’s argument.

But they would not be fired up, and the money might not flow as freely. Bergen would come under pressure to change her messaging to more effectively poke at the base. And if she was unwilling to do so, another Conservative MP would step up to the plate. One can see from this counterfactual example how current structural arrangements can constrain the leader’s actions in undesirable ways.

Olsen’s structural argument is persuasive, but there is another factor at play here: the relationship between the leader and the party’s membership and activist base, which is something that is baked into the culture of the party. Much more than any other federal party, the Conservative Party is streaked with western Canadian ideals of internal party democracy. It is the inheritor of Preston Manning’s populism. Conservative politicians, in my experience, are much more concerned about being tuned into the thoughts and wishes of the party grassroots than politicians from other parties. And, in a country where politicians often become elitist and Canadians are disconnected from our politics, that’s an admirable thing.

But I wonder if it has gone a little too far. The party leader (and other party elites) should be sensitive and receptive to party members. But the leader is also a teacher, and at times should lead, not follow, opinion in the party. That no longer happens as often as it perhaps should, although in fairness the middle of a leadership contest is not the best time to gauge this.

Maybe we could blame Manning for the party’s current state of affairs in this respect? In fact, what we learned from the writings of Tom Flanagan was that Manning’s populism during his time as leader of the Reform Party included a great deal of stage-managing, twisting of arms, and persuading party members and officials behind the scenes.Waiting for the Wave: The Reform Party and the Conservative Movement Does this mean Manning was a phony populist? Not at all. Rather, he had a healthy conception of leadership as a two-way street, in which he received and acted on member concerns but also took the bull by the horns when the long-term interests of his party were at stake.

Stephen Harper was not as overtly populist but he learned from Manning. He had an unmistakable connection with members of the party, and successfully conveyed concern and sympathy for them and their views even when the imperatives of governing seemed to be dragging him in the opposite direction. And, after he became prime minister, no one ever seemed to question that he was in charge. That is not to repeat the tired and incorrect cliché that he was a dictator, but rather to say that Harper, having established a reputation for responsiveness among party members, was given wide lee-way to lead. And lead he did. The same can perhaps be said of Andrew Scheer, though perhaps not Erin O’Toole.

The party undoubtedly faces challenges, whether structural, cultural, or both. I’m not sure these will be successfully addressed in the wake of the party’s current leadership race. But they will continue to handicap the party until they are dealt with.

Malcolm Jolley: Pork, poultry, and Poland’s place in the EU

Commentary

The kabanos sausages at ZM Moscibrody are excellent. Slender as a finger, they taste of tangy smoked cured pork, garlic, salt, and spices. Moscibrody is about an hour or so east of Warsaw, in the flat and intermittently forested Polish countryside. The complex includes a banquet hall, scenic ponds for raising carp, a kind of old-time themed wood-framed medieval village, and a good-sized slaughterhouse and meat packaging plant. The kabanos were part of a spread put out for me and my colleagues at lunch, and I was greedily snacking on them while I waited for the main courses to arrive. We’d seen them being made earlier on our tour of the plant in the morning.

I travelled to Poland last November as a guest of that country’s Union of Producers and Employers of the Meat Industry (UPEMI). I was part of a delegation of Canadian and American journalists invited to learn more about the production and processing of beef and pork in that country, with a view to encouraging exports. The trip was paid for (at least in part, if not in full) by the European Union as part of an ongoing “Meat with European Quality” marketing campaign focused on Polish products. That campaign is part of the larger European Union’s “Enjoy It’s From Europe” worldwide marketing campaign for the promotion of EU agricultural exports. The hope being that more products like the kabanos sausage would make it across the Atlantic to North American markets.

Our delegation was small, with four journalists from each country. Six of us wrote for trade journals that covered everything from supermarkets to hog farming in Alberta, to food engineering. Without a technical audience, my line of inquiry on the trip was to see how the Poles were approaching the EU campaign. On October 7 of last year, the Polish Constitutional Court had ruled that parts of the Treaty on the European Union were incompatible with the country’s constitution,“In a decision that caused a stir in the EU, the Polish constitutional tribunal rejected the primacy of European law over Polish law, sparking a row with Brussels that blocked approval of Warsaw’s economic recovery plan.” https://www.euronews.com/2022/03/10/polish-court-finds-european-human-rights-convention-incompatible-with-constitution and the government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki seemed to be taking a combative pose towards Brussels, to the extent that some supporters in the Polish press had begun to talk about a “Polexit”.“In the 2003 Polish referendum on joining the EU, 77.6% of voters voted in favor. Poland joined the EU the following year, and since then–according to regular polls conducted by the governmental Centre for Public Opinion Research (CBOS)–no more than a quarter of respondents ever supported leaving, with support gradually waning down to a mere 5% in 2019 and 6% in 2021.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polexit#cite_note-20

The overt premise of the “Meat From Europe” campaign was to remind prospective customers that Polish producers and processors are held to the EU’s strict set of agricultural and food processing standards, including health and safety and animal welfare. Poland joined the EU in 2004. In the fifteen years between then and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Polish producers invested in new plants, precisely to bring standards up to EU compliance. So explained veteran farmer Waldemar Podniesiński, President of ZM Mokobody, a processing plant also due east of Warsaw. A small, family-owned operation, it was established in 1989 to take advantage of new economic freedoms and refurbished in 2004 to comply with EU standards.

When Poland joined the EU in 2004 it elected not to join the Eurozone, and the country has retained the zloty. Implicit, though never explicitly stated, in the promise of “Meat From Europe”, is Western European quality at Eastern European prices. This sounds good for the Polish producers, although Canada is among the world’s top exporters of pork and beef itself, and agricultural products are generally outside the realm of the Canada European Trade Agreement.

While the Polish farmers of the UPEMI hope to benefit from the “Meat with European Quality” campaign, they are not uniformly pleased with the European Union as an institutional body, which they see as increasingly interfering with the way they do business. “EU politicians want to turn Polish farmers into gardeners,” complained UPEMI President and member Wieslaw Rozanski when we met him for dinner.

Poland is, in fact, a relatively large exporter of meat, I learned at the UPEMI annual conference in Warsaw. It’s just that what they mostly export is poultry. Second is pork, but Poland has suffered from outbreaks of Asian swine flu over the last decade or so, aggravated by its relatively high population of wild boar. Still well forested, the wild pigs roam the Polish countryside and carry the disease. Asian swine flu is not dangerous to humans but needs to be aggressively contained by culling to protect herds.

Beef production is much smaller, and the cattle I saw at the Mokobody plant were old dairy cows. They were destined to be turned into Halal meat for the Middle Eastern export market, and the men who worked there were from former Soviet Islamic republics, like Khazakstan and Uzbekistan. Polish export to Islamic markets, I learned from union president Podniesiński, is another source of friction with the EU. Legislators in Strasbourg have threatened to effectively ban Halal slaughter, as it forbids the prior use of a stun gun, which is the standard in conventional processing.“Yet in recent years that lucrative trade has come under political threat, with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party – and in particular its powerful chairman Jarosław Kaczyński – pushing an animal-protection law that would, among other things, ban ritual slaughter. That legislation has twice been shelved following opposition within PiS itself, marking rare defeats for Kaczyński and highlighting the size, strength and lobbying power of the meat industry. Yet producers remain concerned that they could again come under threat.” https://notesfrompoland.com/2022/02/21/poland-among-europes-leaders-in-kosher-and-halal-meat-despite-uncertainty-around-ritual-slaughter/

Back in Warsaw, at a meeting with the Acting Head of Representation of the European Commission in Poland, Witold Naturski, he explained that whether I had heard some grumbling about the EU or not, since it represented over 70 percent of Polish agricultural exports it was unlikely that relationship was in too much trouble. Mr. Naturski serves as a kind of diplomat and was not going to comment on a Canadian journalist’s wild speculations on Polexit. It became clear to me, by inference, that if the Polish countryside support for the EU, including its Common Agricultural Policy, was strong, then, given the overwhelming support for the EU in urban areas, Poland’s membership was not likely in much peril.

On the two occasions when we left Warsaw for the countryside, we took the main highway out of town going east. The end of that road is Belarus, and we passed a few military vehicles heading that way. At the time, a group of refugees had assembled at the border having been flown there by the Lukashenko regime. The Poles refused them entry, and an international crisis was unfolding.

The implied message of the crisis to the Poles, and their Baltic neighbours, seemed to be “If you like the EU so much, then take in these refugees”, presumably playing on xenophobic fears in the hopes of fomenting more discord among member states. It didn’t seem to be working at the time, and any Pole I spoke to about had no doubt who was behind it: Vladimir Putin.

That crisis seems like a long time ago now that there is a serious one on Poland’s border with Ukraine. Polish membership in the EU today is unquestioned, if it ever really were at all. The courage and the generosity the Poles have shown in their absorption of millions of war refugees is inspiring but not surprising, given their long and bloody history of being under the Russian boot.“Among the two million people who have entered Poland from Ukraine, some have moved on to other countries in the EU, although the majority are believed to be still in Poland. The overall number of refugees who have left Ukraine to neighbouring countries from 24 February onwards is estimated at over 3.2  million.” https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2022/3/6234811a4/poland-welcomes-million-refugees-ukraine.html

I don’t know if they’re going to export much more meat to Canada or not, but I will look out for kabanos sausage and anything else tasty made in Poland from now on.

The official website for the “Meat From Europe” campaign is https://www.meatfromeurope.eu/.