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Ginny Roth: Canada needs an invigorated political middle—Too bad our centrists are so boring

Commentary

We know the United States is polarized, and we bemoan the hollowing out of the “reasonable” centre. But what about Canada? We like to tell ourselves we’re not as polarized as our neighbours to the south, but our politics indicate otherwise. It can be hard to remember, because the NDP are so bad at taking credit for it, but Canada is governed by a leftist coalition that includes a socialist party, and by all accounts Liberals across Canada will continue to run and govern from the progressive Left.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Conservatives briefly flirted with running as a centrist party under Erin O’Toole, only to turn around and reject the strategy when it didn’t win them government, returning to their right-wing party comfort zone. The political centre is as vacant in Canada as it is in the U.S., leaving moderates politically homeless. But unlike in Canada, where moderate voices sound dated and irrelevant, there are signs the American intellectual centre is experiencing a burgeoning renaissance, with young energetic voices articulating a kind of radical centrism completely foreign to Canada’s milquetoast moderates.

While the party at the centre of Canada’s political spectrum might seem like the obvious milieu for thoughtful centrism to emerge, the Liberals have been so adept at holding government federally while lurching leftward that Liberals interested in a more moderate articulation of liberalism are in the witness protection program. Polite, quiet suggestions that maybe the federal government’s debt and deficits ought not to be quite so huge go unheeded and gentle questions about traditional liberal values like freedom of speech and religion go unanswered. You might think that when the Trudeau era ends, new leadership candidates will attempt to take up this vacant space on the centre-left, particularly if economic conditions necessitate it.

But there is currently an active Liberal leadership race in Ontario and while leading candidate Bonnie Crombie’s opening message—that Liberals should “govern from right of centre” seemed to want to channel exactly this instinct, it didn’t last long. Presumably, her messaging didn’t go over well since she quickly followed up with her very best entry into the Woke Olympics, calling for yet another change to Canada’s national anthem. It seems unlikely that a thoughtful centrism will emerge from within the Liberal Party any time soon.

What about Conservatives? You might think the party’s big tent and Red Tory tradition would create the conditions for a compelling, moderate approach. That’s certainly what the Centre Ice Conservatives, sorry, the Centre Ice Canadians would have us believe. As frequent readers will know, I’m not what you’d call a centrist. Regardless, I was pleased to see moderate partisan Conservatives launch the initiative, thinking the movement and Canada would benefit from a forum for exploring new policy ideas and hashing out debates on big issues.

Not so. After a couple of poorly attended, navel-gazing gatherings, the group changed its name, presumably thinking it was the word “conservative” that was hurting them. The real problem is that the group and its leaders sound as old as they look. They seem to have nothing new to say about today’s challenges and talk about the world like 25-year-olds can still buy houses and China isn’t tampering with our democracy. If Jean Charest was the Conservative’s attempt at a moderate approach, it seems unlikely that dynamic centrism will emerge from Stephen Harper’s party any time soon.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Indeed, since Donald Trump’s election first turned the U.S. political spectrum on its head, some younger, more energetic American thought leaders are experimenting with interesting versions of radical centrism. On the policy side, young wonks like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias are experimenting with “supply-side progressivism”, an attempt to tackle big problems like housing and green energy with market-oriented supply-side solutions, through the progressive lenses of affordability and climate change. And in the world of podcasts and books, centrist figures like Scott Galloway (AKA Prof G) and Richard Reeves are taking up pressing cultural challenges even when they’re politically incorrect—like questions of modern masculinity—with clearly moderate prescriptions.

There are even indications this approach is trickling into mainstream politics. New York City Mayor Eric Adams is a Democrat who’s brought his law-and-order policing background and common-sense ethos to fixing some of the problems that plague the city. His campaign and subsequent governing style are labour-union friendly and comfortable with municipal spending but reject the progressive urban policies that have driven lawlessness and chaos in west coast cities. What these largely unconnected figures have in common is that while their ideas are relevant, they speak to current, pressing issues and thus resonate. They are not easily identifiable as Right or Left and you can easily imagine Democrats or Republicans championing them. What thinkers or ideas match that description in Canada?

There are some glimmers of hope it’s possible here. The Hub’s own Sean Speer and the Public Policy Forum’s Ed Greenspon have channelled some of Klein, Smith, and Yglesias’ energy into a Canada-centered supply-side economic vision. Municipally, following years of old, boring centrism at the City of Toronto’s helm, a younger mayoral candidate, Brad Bradford is trying to chart a more dynamic centrist vision combining cultural progressivism and YIMBYism with the fiscally prudent commitment to open tendering that would save the city millions of dollars in construction costs.

For the most part, though, Canadian moderates and centrists lazily recycle old ideas and old language all the while complaining about how polarized our politics are. There’s nothing inherently wrong with two competing worldviews dominating the political landscape. Indeed, it’s usually from strong and clearly defined ideological frameworks that successful political projects emerge. But with today’s Liberals seized with owning Canada’s Left and Conservatives remembering how to be conservative again, there’s no question our discourse would benefit from more bold thinking in the middle.

Many Canadians are not ideologues, many consider themselves moderate, and no one has a monopoly on good ideas to address our public policy challenges. It would be nice if our political centre had something meaningful to say to them. 

Peter Menzies: Blocking news on Facebook is a rational response to irrational legislation

Commentary

Policies founded on fantasies collapse quickly.

That’s the most obvious takeaway from the news that U.S.-based Meta is beginning to block linkage to new organizations’ content on Facebook and Instagram in Canada.

The reason is a poorly conceived and then amateurishly-crafted piece of legislation known as the Online News Act. Based on a law passed, but never used, in Australia, C-18 is designed to force Big Tech companies such as Google and Meta-owned Facebook to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars annually to “compensate” news organizations through deals made under the oversight of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

It is, to all intents and purposes, a government-run extortion scheme based on the sort of economic and policy rationale used by street thugs and tin-pot kleptocrats to justify their muggings.

On Thursday, Meta announced that it will begin testing its long forecast plan to disallow linkage to news if C-18 passes as is. It says between one and 5 percent of Facebook users will be affected and the news organizations targeted will be selected at random.

Prominent news organizations campaigned relentlessly for Bill C-18, accusing the social media and search engine giants of “stealing” their content and profiting from it. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez damned them for refusing to fairly pay journalists for their news and of late has been, in a series of critiques ripe with rhetorical flourish, denouncing Meta for what he calls irresponsible intimidation tactics that are out of touch with Canadians.

The prime minister did the same earlier this year when Google also experimented with de-indexing news websites so that they would not appear in search results.

Given that his government has been in court defending its right to share news organizations’ subscription passwords with its employees rather than buy a bulk subscription, it was a remarkable thing to say but that’s a story for another day.

The truth of the matter is this:

  • Big Tech companies haven’t “stolen” anything. Yes, they own 80 percent of the digital advertising market but they won it the old-fashioned way: they earned it. They built better mousetraps while newspapers floundered under a tsunami of new technology. The Internet may very well have killed print newspapers, but it did so in the same way the automobile killed the horse-drawn carriage industry, Amazon dominated The Bay, Netflix put Blockbuster to the sword and email made Canada Post irrelevant.
  • Facebook estimates the annual value it offers to news organizations by allowing them to post their material for free is $230 million. The Department of Heritage, the author of Bill C-18, estimates the amount the bill can generate for the entire news industry from the tech companies each year is $215 million. It is the news organizations that are already getting the better of the deal.
  • While the government and Bill C-18 backers insist Meta is bluffing because, after a similar stance blocking news posts in Australia, it “backed down,” this isn’t true. It was the Australian government that, faced with Facebook’s boycott, amended its legislation, after which the parties signed deals that didn’t necessitate government involvement. (Meta has already indicated it is unhappy with those deals and is unlikely to renew).
  • Bill C-18 is so invasive even the publishers that relentlessly lobbied for it through organizations such as News Media Canada were this week asking the Senate committee reviewing the bill to amend it by dialing back the extent to which it allows the CRTC to snoop into their business affairs and, in particular, their newsrooms.
  • Almost all major news organizations already have commercial deals involving licensing and repurposing of content and, one assumes, data with major tech companies. The one area in which their appeals to government have merit is an imbalance in the two parties’ negotiation positions due to the Tech Giants’ dominant market positions.

There are many, many matters for which Meta, Google and others can and should be fairly criticized and regulated. But when it comes to the Online News Act, their response is the only rational act left to them when faced with irrational legislation.

Meta warned Rodriguez more than a year ago that while they were willing to make deals that supported journalism, the construct of Bill C-18 left them exposed to unlimited financial liability and set a precedent that, if replicated globally, would have unsustainable consequences. The price was way too high to pay for a content category — news — that made up 3% of their traffic.

Instead of listening, this government did what it always does: it sought to gain political advantage by demonizing the web giants and anyone else who dared question the wisdom of their legislative buffoonery.

And the consequences will be dire unless adult supervision is restored to the management of this file.

Globe and Mail publisher Philip Crawley told the Senate this week it would cost his company, which has adapted better than most, millions. Other legacy media spokesmen said the same.

Jen Gerson of The Line told senators that newer, smaller and independent media (which includes The Hub) are “disproportionately dependent on social media to build a brand and develop an audience.”

Jeff Elgie of Village Media, which has built a successful network of web-based local news platforms and national partnerships said Google and Facebook provide over half of his company’s web traffic, and “if that traffic was lost, the business would be over.”

The Online News Act is based on, at best, an economic fantasy. At worst, its foundational argument is a big, fat lie. The consequences (none of them good) are about to be felt by every news organization in the country.