Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Sean Speer: The unavoidable implication of the Johnston report: Canada is broken

Commentary

In broad terms, there were two possible outcomes from David Johnston’s investigation into the Chinese interference scandal. 

The first was evidence of political corruption. He could have found that the government’s failure to respond to the growing body of intelligence on Chinese interference in Canadian democracy was due to purposeful neglect on the part of the prime minister, his Cabinet, and their staff because those efforts aided the Liberal Party’s partisan interests. 

The second was evidence of basic state failure—that is to say, the billions of dollars that we spend on intelligence gathering, analysis, and policy adoption were effectively wasted because of a lack of clarity around information sharing, the persistence of institutional siloes, and disinterest on the part of the political arm of the government. 

Johnston’s report points in the second direction. He says that he found no specific evidence of gross political negligence. Instead, the main issue was that the intelligence that was collected and analyzed never seemed to make it to political actors. In the case of the intelligence on the targeting of MP Michael Chong, for instance, we’re told that while it was sent to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and his chief of staff, it was sent through a top-secret email system for which they seemingly lacked log-in details. 

The Trudeau government may feel buoyed by the fact that Johnston failed to find evidence of political malfeasance, but that ought to be little relief for Canadians. His report reinforces the mounting evidence that Pierre Poilievre’s diagnosis is essentially correct: Canada is broken. 

We like to talk about how our public services are a major comparative advantage for the country and turn up our noses to the political dysfunction in the United States. But it seems pretty clear that American state capacity is stronger than Canada’s. 

Just consider these recent examples: 

  • When it came to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. initiated Operation Warp Speed that produced multiple vaccines on a historic timeframe. The National Research Council, by contrast, signed a self-evidently dumb deal with China and produced no vaccines. 
  • The B.C. government is now sending its cancer patients to the U.S. for treatment like they’re citizens from a third-world country. 
  • And while U.S. intelligence services have helped Ukraine hold off the much-stronger Russian forces, key Canadian intelligence players (including the cabinet minister) cannot seem to figure out how to get into their email accounts. 

As I’ve written before, there’s a strong case that we’ll probably have to have more government rather than less in the coming years due to aging demographics, growing geopolitical threats, and climate change. Yet these high-profile cases of government failure raise serious questions about our government’s ability to carry out its core functions—let alone plan for and respond to new and emerging ones. 

In that sense, while Johnston’s report may not contain a smoking gun, it would be wrong to characterize it as somehow favourable to the government. It’s a more persuasive case for limited government than any think-tank paper or political speech could ever aim to deliver.  

This is in large part due to the stark dichotomy between the seriousness of the issue and the government’s own unseriousness. Last year’s protracted passport delays may have been an annoyance but in relative terms, they were mostly trivial. We now know from Johnston’s report that the federal government’s brokenness has exposed our democracy to foreign interference. 

His specific findings will undoubtedly lead to various reforms to improve information sharing, reporting to the prime minister, and so on. But these changes will not address the report’s more fundamental insights about the causes and consequences of government failure. 

On this point, the conventional libertarian critique of big government resonates more and more these days in the face of a government that spends more, employs more, and yet seems less capable of carrying out its basic functions. As a former colleague at the University of Toronto used to regularly tell students, a government that tries to do too much invariably does nothing well at all. 

At a time when the Trudeau government is asking Canadians to trust its ability to engineer an industrial transformation—starting with putting an end to the internal combustion engine in the next decade—its essential argument on the Chinese interference story is that the state wasn’t negligent. It was simply incompetent. It’s a tough marketing message for its progressive ambitions. 

A government that can permit years of foreign interference in its democracy because it cannot figure out its email log-in is hardly one to trust to re-engineer the economy or much else for that matter. 

Ginny Roth: Poilievre’s winning strategy: Appealing to tried and true common sense

Commentary

“Are you serious?” a wide-eyed, Pierre Poilievre asked the reporter quizzing him about crime and bail reform last week.

Poilievre and the Conservative Party MPs behind him seemed genuinely shocked at the premise of the question. It’s a familiar feeling for many of us. Increasingly, regular people are left shaking their heads, baffled by the latest term they’re expected to use, premise they’re supposed to understand, or public policy trend they’re supposed to accept. It’s not that they don’t get it. It’s that it defies common sense.

In that moment, Poilievre was channeling our collective befuddlement, as the journalist clumsily tried to suggest that keeping repeat, violent criminals behind bars would somehow not prevent more crimes from occurring. The most generous interpretation of the journalist’s line of question is that he was trying to suggest there are root causes that initiate a first-time criminal’s descent into violence. But even if that were his intent (and given his follow-up questions, it seems unlikely), the fact remains that when criminals are in jail, they can’t commit more crimes…because they’re in jail.

Indeed, the data is so compelling that even the Trudeau government is now carrying out some much-needed reform. And yet, the reporter felt the need to carry water for an ideological approach that defies all logic, either because he genuinely believes loose bail policy works, despite the evidence to the contrary, or, more likely, because he’s captured by a new, progressive worldview increasingly dominant in Canadian institutions, including the Parliamentary press gallery, that is completely out of touch with reality. 

It’s hard to define the new bias of elite liberal institutions. Calling it wokeness feels overdone, and maybe a bit cheap. But a week before Poilievre shook his head at the reporter’s ridiculous question, Canada’s prime minister opted to drape himself and his party in the moniker, so it seems as useful a descriptor as any. Whatever it is, you know it when you see it. A contradictory blend of liberal individualism and critical theory, new progressivism puts language before action, identity before community, and future before history. It cancels people, it virtue signals, and it experiments with radical public policy. More importantly, it can be alienating. Woke culture tends to champion what Rob Henderson calls luxury beliefs, views that are alienating in their substance (you’re unlikely to be able to justify defunding the police if you live in a crime-filled neighbourhood), and their language (comprised of a dictionary of new terms that seem to change on a weekly basis).

But railing against wokeness will only get Canadians who oppose it so far. The culture war dynamic has become so predictable as to be boring, and the fact that it often happens online means that regular Canadians, the mainstream normies who will make up most voters in the next election, will need more than just anti-woke railing to capture their attention. Poilievre has landed on exactly the right frame for communicating a positive, alternative worldview, one that doesn’t just oppose wokeness, but that champions good old-fashioned common sense.

Poilievre mastered the anti-woke attack during last year’s Conservative Party leadership race. He called out cancel culture on campus, exposed the hypocrisy of Trudeau’s virtue signalling on climate change, and targeted the government’s out-of-control spending on pet issues while inflation raged. Each attack was accompanied by a detailed alternative policy proposal—free speech protections on campus, approving Canadian oil and gas projects, a pay-as-you-go spending commitment, and many, many more. But the effect was to draw a contrast, to enhance the negative, and to show voters what Poilievre opposed—and for good reason, he was auditioning to be leader of the opposition. Now, as the next general election nears, Poilievre’s challenge is to bring a stronger, positive narrative framework to his policies, and he’s starting to do just that.

In response to Trudeau’s Liberal convention appeal, Poilievre posted a video in his signature, on-the-go selfie style, juxtaposing Trudeau’s woke policies with his own common-sense approach. Where Trudeau would ban hunting rifles, attacking innocent farmers and sport shooters, Poilievre would bring in bail reform, targeting repeat violent criminals. Where Trudeau would support the so-called “safe supply” of harmful addictive drugs, Poilievre would prioritize treatment. Where Trudeau would raise the carbon tax, Poilievre would cancel it, and so on.

Poilievre’s focus on framing his commitments through the lens of common sense isn’t entirely new. He’s railed against the gatekeepers and spoken passionately about the common people for years, peppering his speeches with appeals to the many over the few and revealing a personal vision of a Parliament that serves the people, instead of the other way around. But it wasn’t until recently that Poilievre combined the battle against wokeism with the case for common sense policies for common people, and by doing so, Poilievre takes his online culture war credibility and gives it mainstream, in-real-life appeal.

Poilievre’s common-sense frame does what the left has done so effectively over the last decade—it wrenches open the Overton window on his side of the ideological spectrum. By asserting that his views, while substantive and principled, are common sense, he allies himself with mainstream public opinion. And as the Liberals overplay their progressive hand, hoping no one will notice their experimental policies are failing, his mainstream language resonates. The reason regular people feel so befuddled by wokeism, the reason we all nod our heads when Poilievre asks “Are you serious?” is because, to use a common expression, people don’t like to be urinated on and then told it’s raining. Until recently, dominant voices in the media and the halls of power have successfully made common views out to be radical and their own views out to be reasonable.

Within this frame, conservatives seem like reactionaries. But as liberal elites have become more captured by woke ideology, their values have increasingly become inaccessible to everyday Canadians. By championing bourgeois virtues, speaking to the common people, and appealing to common sense, Poilievre is rejecting that frame and putting himself and his party smack dab in the regular, boring, mainstream centre of Canadian public opinion. And that’s a winning strategy.