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Karamveer Lalh: Poilievre’s addiction policies show the two sides are speaking a different language

Commentary

There is a notion that Pierre Poilievre’s detox and rehab policy and the liberal “safe supply” approach to addiction are two sides of the same coin, both aiming to solve the same problem. However, this assumption is incorrect.

These policies stem from fundamentally different understandings of the problem and its solution, thus reflecting the stark differences between conservative and liberal philosophies. Put simply, they are not two different answers to the same question but rather two distinct answers to two separate questions.

At the heart of this ideological divide lies the question of whether one can commit a crime against oneself. The liberal perspective, focusing on empowering and encouraging individuals to make good choices, refrains from casting blame on past decisions that led to their current predicament. In this view, while selling drugs may be a crime, being addicted to them is not.

On the other hand, the conservative viewpoint takes a more paternalistic approach: an addict has made a series of poor decisions and must face the consequences. To a conservative, an addict has committed a crime against themselves.

To unpack this further, we must consider how conservatives and liberals perceive crime. In a broader sense, crime is not merely an act against an individual but against society, or as we conceptualize it in Canada, against the Crown. For example, our criminal cases are presented as R v [Accused], where R stands for Rex (King) or Regina (Queen), symbolizing the societal nature of crime.

Crime demands both discipline and punishment. Society demands satisfaction through the punishment of crimes, and those who emerge from punishment should be “corrected” and not re-offend. This is broadly agreed in our politics. Where the disagreement lies is in what sorts of crimes warrant more discipline and which require more punishment. The mandatory treatment approach conservatives propose is a paternalistic solution fitting neatly into this framework. For example, a conservative, when prompted to imagine a drug addict harassing someone on the street or the subway, may feel disgusted rather than sympathetic to that addict. A conservative may see them as a person who should be disciplined into seeking treatment and becoming a productive member of society rather than coaxed, incentivized, or have their “relative harm” reduced.

This fundamental difference in how we view societal problems is evident in the current debate over drug policy. It’s also a question that divides the Right, with small-c conservatives affirming and right liberals (and libertarians) denying that committing a crime against oneself is possible.

The non-aggression principle (NAP), the cornerstone of the conception of liberal (and libertarian) morality, attempts to answer this question. Very generally, it can be considered as follows: no aggression against an individual, their property, or contracts is permitted without that individual’s consent. This principle does not contemplate any instances where an individual can harm oneself because if one were to harm oneself, one consents to do so. A more traditional conservative would criticize this idea because it operates on the assumption that all humans are always rational actors, which is patently untrue. 

A thorny issue for right liberals arises when considering entirely fictional child pornography, like drawings or AI-generated photos. The libertarian argument of “no harm, no foul” is a difficult position to defend, particularly because such material elicits a powerful disgust response. Beyond any grand ideas of morality, we collectively oppose even artificially generated child pornography because it is disgusting. While often overlooked, this emotion plays a significant role in our moral calculus.

Disgust, powerful and visceral, is both a smoke alarm and a nuisance. While it should not be the sole guiding force of our morality—in fact, one should absolutely consider the fact that disgust is often tied to dehumanization, and dehumanization leads to human catastrophe—it does warrant the understanding that many of our moral judgements are strongly tied to disgust. This leads us to question whether our societal response to imperfect human behaviour should be. The conservative conception of morality stated ecumenically as possible would suggest that it is possible to commit a crime against one’s soul, and a crime against one’s soul may sometimes warrant state intervention to discipline and punish that individual for weakening the overall moral fibre of society.

Everyone agrees that parents may prevent children from eating candy for breakfast every day, even though this is a perfectly permissible (albeit certainly not one that is recommended) choice for an adult. The question of what “harms” parents are allowed or not allowed to prevent for their children is complex, and liberal arguments often break down when applied to non-adults.I do not claim to offer any bright line rule here, but we know of several examples of such debates: should a parent be notified if a child expresses to a teacher that they have body dysphoria? Is there a meaningful difference between that and children who display signs of depression or suicidal ideation? What about an eating disorder (a type of body dysphoria) versus gender dysphoria? The usual response is that these are heavily context-dependent, which makes writing legal rules for a diverse society extremely challenging.

Similarly, addicts, who can often be seen as dependents due to their inability to make rational decisions about their addiction, pose a significant policy challenge. The question of when intervention is necessary is not easily answered by the NAP alone, suggesting the need for a more paternalistic approach. The very fact that drug addicts continue to exist despite a safe supply is evidence enough for a conservative to question the effectiveness of a purely incentive-based approach. Similarly, the persistent existence of violent criminals even after posting bail is a testament to the limitations of the liberal approach.

In this context, the stance of Poilievre becomes especially relevant. The more fundamental disagreement underpinning his policy is whether quality of life is considered in these decisions. Are all lives equally worthwhile? Should they all be protected equally? With finite resources, how do we decide how they get allocated? On its face, the argument is that pouring money into a safe supply seems especially unwise when we lack options for treatment and recovery.

This dichotomy between conservatives and liberals can be understood better if one realizes they are not even speaking the same language. The conservative is focused on the specific, where the existence of crime is itself repugnant and warrants a stricter approach. In contrast, the liberal is focused on the general, where more gentle nudging and incentives will eventually produce their ideal society.

Conservatives hold the more intuitive position that our emotions are the primary driver of our morality. However, they often fail to articulate this in a language that could counter a general principle such as the NAP. Conservatives need to remember that moral judgments are not merely subjective expressions of feelings but reflect objective claims about what is good for humans in relation to their social roles and traditions.

In this sense, there is rationality in our emotions. They are not simply expressions of hooray or boo but rather reflect what conservatives hold to be objective truths. Accordingly, there is a rational basis for their morality that goes beyond the limitations of the NAP: conservatives oppose consuming illicit drugs, the consumption of AI-generated child pornography, and eating candy for breakfast because these actions do not contribute to a fulfilling life.

The respective perceptions of crime, punishment, discipline, and harm of each side underpin their approach to policy-making around crime. It’s crucial to understand these differences, as they define the very problems our society is perceived to be facing. Furthermore, the role of emotions, often under-discussed, must be given due consideration in shaping our moral and political discourse. Without a thorough understanding of one’s opponent’s worldview, our political discourse, and ultimately our democracy, risks further deterioration.

By acknowledging the rationality in our emotions and the limitations of a purely incentive-based approach, we can foster a more nuanced understanding of these complex societal issues. The conservative and liberal approaches to drug policy are not simply two sides of the same coin—they are distinct philosophical perspectives that shape our understanding of crime, punishment, and societal well-being.

The millennials are taking over: The Hub’s writers weigh in on the federal byelections

Commentary

A slate of four federal byelections turned out roughly according to expectations on Monday, although the Conservatives got a mild scare in a riding that has traditionally been a stronghold for the party.

Arpan Khanna won in Oxford, which the party has held for 20 years, and Branden Leslie won in Portage-Lisgar for the Conservatives. Ben Carr won in Winnipeg South Centre and Anna Gainey won in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount for the Liberals.

That means there will be no change in the party seat count in the House of Commons when four new MPs take their seats.

Here at The Hub, we’ve assembled a few of our contributors for their instant reactions to the byelections and to explain what lessons, if any, we can learn from them.

Millennials are starting to change the conversation

By Sean Speer

One topic that I’ve written a bit about in the past couple of years is the growing signs of generational change in Canadian politics in general and Conservative politics in particular. This week’s byelections in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec point firmly in this direction.

The four winning candidates are aged 43 years old and younger. Conservatives Arpan Khanna and Branden Leslie and Liberal Ben Carr, the winners in Oxford, Portage-Lisgar and Winnipeg South Centre, respectively, are actually younger than me.

It may be evidence that generational change is durable and increasingly multi-partisan. The implications for our policy and politics shouldn’t be underestimated.

They reflect a broader demographic change in which millennials are now the fastest-growing generation and are projected to be the largest by the end of the decade. That should in theory grant them greater influence over our politics. Their growing place in elected life is proof that they’re indeed starting to translate their demographic clout into political power.

One consequence is we should see greater attention paid to the issues besetting younger Canadians including housing affordability and delayed family formation. That would be a positive development.

We may also however get greater political polarization rooted in debates about identity, gender and sexuality, and race. Younger generations are far more steeped in today’s identity politics on campus and within companies and its attendant backlash. The result could therefore be a subordination of the issues that have previously dominated our politics (such as national unity or public finances) in favour of these more fundamental yet divisive questions.

The key point for now though is if one is concerned about the threat of generational fault lines in Canadian society, then the byelection results and the broader trend of generational change in our politics should be viewed positively.

Whether the long-term consequences for Canadian policy and politics are ultimately positive will be partly determined by the four new members of Parliament elected this week.

A crushing loss for the People’s Party of Canada

By Royce Koop

In Portage-Lisgar, PPC leader Maxime Bernier framed the by-election as a struggle for the heart and soul of the right in Canada. Unfortunately for him, the Conservatives agreed and mobilized to meet the challenge, as Tory campaigners from Winnipeg and beyond journeyed to southern Manitoba to help bury the PPC leader.

Ultimately, Bernier received only 17 percent of the vote to Conservative Branden Leslie’s 65 percent. This is a crushing result that Bernier nevertheless valiantly tried to spin as a moral victory.

Bernier undoubtedly earned some media attention and likely some fundraising dollars from his run. But at what cost? Small parties and independent candidates, in general, perform better in byelections than in general elections. But Bernier ended up scoring substantially fewer votes than his local candidate in the last election, Solomon Wiebe. If the PPC loses votes in a byelection when its own leader is running, what hope does it have in a general election?

We know the PPC benefitted enormously in the 2021 election from resistance to COVID restrictions and lockdowns. But, with lockdowns now in the rearview mirror, the disappointing byelection result in southern Manitoba suggests the party’s support likely crested in 2021.

With every disappointing election, a ballot cast for the PPC looks more and more like a wasted vote.

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier speaks Saskatoon on Sept. 20, 2021. Liam Richards/The Canadian Press.

The rise of the staffers

By Stuart Thomson

In the wake of the four federal byelections, Carleton professor Jennifer Robson pointed out that all four winners, two Liberals and two Conservatives, are former political staffers.

Ben Carr is the son of the late former MP Jim Carr and was the director of parliamentary affairs for Melanie Joly. Anna Gainey, who won her race in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Westmount, is not only the daughter of former NHL great Bob Gainey but also a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s inner circle and a former president of the Liberal Party.

Branden Leslie, who will be the new MP for Portage-Lisgar ran Candice Bergen’s 2019 in the riding and worked previously as a legislative assistant. Arpan Khanna, Oxford’s new MP, previously worked for Jason Kenney, doing outreach to ethnic communities.

What this tells us about Canadian politics is an open question. Is politics a priesthood, only open to a select few that are already part of the exclusive club?

Or are staffers, who are generally obsessed with politics to an unhealthy degree, the only type of people who aspire to be members of Parliament anymore?

Local effects prevail, even as Liberal scandals dominate headlines

By Rahim Mohamed

Liberal insiders could have been forgiven for feeling a sense of foreboding heading into Monday’s federal byelections with the party’s numbers sliding amidst a seemingly unending series of scandals. Instead, the four (very different) races were a clear reflection of the old adage: “All politics is local”.

The evening’s tightest race, in Oxford, was overshadowed by a messy Conservative nomination battle. (Retiring incumbent MP Dave MacKenzie, a Conservative, said publicly that he’d be voting for Liberal David Hilderley). Conservative candidate Arpan Khanna (a close ally of party leader Pierre Poilievre) nevertheless cruised to a relatively comfortable seven-point victory over Hilderley. (MacKenzie blew out his Liberal challenger by more than 25 points in 2021). Meanwhile, PPC leader Maxime Bernier fell to defeat in Portage-Lisgar, one of Canada’s most conservative ridings (three-quarters of voters went for right-leaning Candidates in 2021). Bernier and victorious Conservative candidate Brandon Leslie traded barbs over the World Economic Forum and LGBT+ Pride in a heated campaign that, at times, resembled a Republican primary—Leslie promised to never attend the WEF heading into Monday’s vote.

It was a family affair in Winnipeg South Centre, where Liberal Ben Carr inherited the seat of his departed father Jim Carr (Chair of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security before his death in late 2022). Liberal Anna Gainey took party stronghold Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount in the evening’s snooziest race.

Monday’s byelections tell us little about the general mood of Canadian voters as each of the races turned on local dynamics independent from national politics. It was a rather uneventful evening, but one that nevertheless reinforced the importance of local campaigns.