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Sean Speer: Far from ‘weaponizing’ gender identity issues, Premier Higgs’ reforms are good-faith policy proposals

Commentary

The New Brunswick government’s controversial changes to Policy 713 concerning sexual orientation and gender identity in the province’s schools have generated a ton of political and policy debate. At the point of writing it’s still unknown whether the government or its policy changes will ultimately survive. 

Today The Hub published an article by occasional contributor Rahim Mohamed that cautions Premier Blaine Higgs and his supporters from misinterpreting the polls on the issue. He points to instances in the U.S. where conservatives have overreached on so-called “cultural issues” and lost political support even when polls seemingly indicated public approval for their specific policy positions. As Mohamed puts it: “Even if they agree with him in principle, critical swing voters may still abandon Higgs if they sense that he is trying to ‘weaponize’ this issue at the expense of already vulnerable transgender communities.”

He’s right of course. It must be said that voters should indeed abandon the premier and his government if they were “weaponizing” an issue involving sexual minorities in general and children dealing with gender dysphoria in particular. 

But it’s far from obvious that’s what’s happening here. This seems to be a case of the government seeking to find its way on an evolving issue with moral, scientific, and public interest dimensions. Its proposed path forward—including new parental consent requirements for students aged 16 and younger on one hand and gender-neutral washrooms on the other hand—is one in search of a moderate middle ground rather than a deliberate act of political provocation. 

Just as we ought to be ready to condemn those who “weaponize” these sensitive issues, we should similarly be prepared to call out those who make such claims (I’m not referring to Mohamed here, who is merely warning about such a perception) in order to discredit opposing ideas and voices from standing in a highly-charged yet proper public debate. 

Assuming that the premier’s motives are solely political diminishes the substantive differences reflected in the competing positions at play. It implies that one side is virtuous and the other is crass. It’s a sort of political caricature that clarifies little about the contours of the debate itself.

The biggest differences actually transcend questions about gender and sexuality. No one has even challenged transgender rights in the main. The political argument is fundamentally about the relationship between children, parents, and the state. 

The two sides start with differing premises about parents themselves. In an exclusive interview with The Hub last week, Dominic Cardy, a former education minister in the Higgs government and the biggest critic of its changes to Policy 713, contended that while polls showed majority public support for the parental consent reforms, it would change if pollsters asked, “Do you think that parents should know what’s going on with their kids if they’re going to use that information to potentially harm their children?”

He’s probably right about the public’s response but he’s wrong that it’s a compelling argument. One suspects that the public would agree with virtually any statement if they believed that children were going to be put in harm. But it’s a bizarre basis for policymaking.

In what other instance does public policy begin with the presumption—essentially a reverse onus—that parents are dangerous and harmful to their children? Why should it be the default here rather than creating an alternative process (as the government sensibly proposes) for the rare cases in which teachers or school administrators have legitimate reasons to be concerned for students?

It’s entirely in keeping with normal policy practices and our own experiences and intuitions about parents to assume that most love their children and ultimately want what’s best for them. It doesn’t seem divisive or radical for the Higgs government to base its policy accordingly.

It’s also the case that there are plenty of instances when government laws or policies explicitly recognize children as less autonomous than adults. A high-profile example is the Youth Criminal Justice Act which treats children as old as aged 18 differently than adult offenders for the purposes of criminal sentencing on the basis that they have “have heightened vulnerability, less maturity and a reduced capacity for moral judgment.”

What makes it such a powerful comparison is that one suspects that there would be a lot of overlap among those who oppose the Higgs government’s changes to Policy 713 and support the basic principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. It’s not obvious however what part of the latter’s rationale shouldn’t apply to the former. If 16-year-olds are mature enough to make judgments about their gender identity without parental consent, what’s the internally consistent logic for treating them as kids before the courts?

The purpose of these rhetorical questions isn’t necessarily to persuade people that the government’s policy changes ought to be supported in and of themselves. One can recognize that these are complex issues and there are good-faith perspectives on both sides including individuals and families for whom they involve real-life questions. But they are meant to push back against the wrong-headed notion that the only way to come to the Higgs government’s policy outcomes is to assume crass politics or worse.

Far from “weaponizing” gender identity issues, the government has seemingly sought a sensible middle-ground position rooted in long-standing legal and social conventions about the rights and responsibilities of children, parents, and the state.

If the debate over New Brunswick’s Policy 713 is indeed a new front in the so-called “culture war”, the onus is on the government’s critics to explain why they’ve taken up ideological arms in the face of such pragmatic policy. Because it seems like only one side is really fighting. The coming days will determine if the premier and his government can withstand the political barrage.

Rudyard Griffiths: What did we learn from Russia’s Borat-like coup?

Commentary

What should we be taking away from this weekend’s bizarre events in Russia?

First, it’s obvious that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been massively weakened by the failed coup attempt (yes it was a coup in the making, more below) led by Wagner CEO Yevgeny Prigozhin. This Borat-like character has exposed just how precarious Putin’s grasp on power is and the extent his failed war in Ukraine has created deep divisions in the Russian military that are now surfacing as outright rebellion.

Key insight: there is no conceivable way for Prigozhin to get thousands of his heavily-armed fighters to within just a few hundred kilometres of Moscow in mere hours without high level collusion occurring between Wagner forces and elements in the Russian military. Simply put this wasn’t a “March for Justice” led by a lone, deranged and enraged mercenary CEO.

The conspicuous absence of any armed resistance by Russian Army formations or the Russian Air Force strongly indicate that Prigozhin had to have enjoyed some combination of tacit and active support from leading Russian generals who are deeply dissatisfied with the war and its mismanagement by Putin and his likely soon-to-be-departed defence minister, Sergei Shoigu. Don’t take my word on it. In one of the thousands of head scratching vignettes from the weekend none other than uber Putin ally and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev commented publicly that “The unfolding of current events…fits in with the plan of a very well-thought-out and organized coup d’etat and the participation in the mutiny of the individuals who earlier served in the elite units of the Russian Armed Forces.” Emphasis mine.

In short, Putin’s regime just had a near-death experience. Regardless of what steps Putin takes now to try and consolidate power, the spell of omnipotence he successfully wove and wielded over the course of two plus decades as Russia’s supreme leader is irreparably broken. And, more worrying for Putin and his clique, the so-called silovikior or enforcers, is that the same grievances within this military that allowed Prigozhin to within striking distance of Moscow are sure to outlive this weekend, festering and threatening his rule as paramount leader at any time.

The second major implication of the last 48 hours of turmoil in Russia is likely a rapid and lasting shift in how Western powers are thinking about the future of the war in Ukraine. Up to this weekend real credence could be given to pledges by the Biden administration and their NATO allies that the continued arming of the Ukraine military would continue regardless of the outcomes or the progress of the current counteroffensive. This has now changed.

The U.S. and Europe rightly have a deep and abiding fear about the geopolitical disaster that is the rapid collapse of the Russian Federation. The world dodged this bullet in the late 90s. Today, as then, it represents a true polycrisis involving the immediate risk of the loss of command and control over tactical nuclear weapons to self-appointed warlords like Ramzan Kadyrov; the rush of regional powers such as Turkey, China and Iran into a power vacuum all bent on expanding their spheres of influence by pitting former republics against each other; and a proliferation nightmare whereby some Russian republics inevitably commandeer strategic nuclear arsenals on their lands.

The implosion of the Russian Federation would not just be a “risk-on” event for the region. It could well morph into a multi-decade risk premia that the liberal international order can ill afford, sapping what scarce resources currently exist to underwrite the global coordination needed to address complex threats from climate to AI to pandemics. The last thing the West wants to do is add to the wall of worry we are currently climbing the intractable problem of picking up the pieces of a shattered Russia.

The third development out of the weekend is that the world has taken another step towards breaking the 75-year taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. Russian doctrine regarding the first use of a nuclear weapon, tactical or strategic, is clear. It must involve an attack “which threatens the existence of the state itself.” This weekend demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, a mortal connection for the Russian leadership between the war abroad and the destruction of the regime at home. And, rest be assured for Putin and his ilk the regime is the state.

This isn’t to say Putin will now use a nuclear weapon. It is rather to point out that we are closer, in terms of context, to the point where Moscow could be prepared to use nuclear weapons in order to “de-escalate” and terminate the war quickly thereby allowing the redeployment of loyal elements of the military to the homefront to protect against another insurrection.

In sum, Western governments now have a powerful proof-point of just how weak Putin’s hold on power is and it is far more fragile than they ever imagined up to this point in the conflict. Avoiding a collapse of the Russian regime and managing the growing risk of Moscow breaking the nuclear taboo will now be the West’s paramount policies. They will trump previous joint NATO-Ukraine war aims such as pushing Russian troops out of Donbas or severing their land bridge to Crimea and most certainly trying to expel Russia completely from Crimea and Sevastopol.

Ironically or not, Prigozhin’s failed coup has all but guaranteed that the current counter offensive will be Ukraine’s last. The behind-the-scenes pressure, especially from Europe’s NATO members who are most exposed to the risk of fragmented Russia and understandably fearful of nuclear escalation, to move quickly to the negotiating table will be relentless.

This weekend was a watershed moment in this conflict. Ukraine and NATO’s strategic interests are no longer aligned. The cold hard calculus that will now guide the future course of the war is one where the rewards associated with victory over Russia in Ukraine is not worth the risks associated with courting the implosion of Putin’s destabilized regime or creating the preconditions for a desperate leader to justify acting on stated nuclear doctrine.