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Sean Speer: The Left has a self-policing problem

Commentary

A key feature of a political movement’s health is its ability to self-police against ideological excesses or reactionary forms of politics. It’s not easy to do. There are powerful incentives that tilt against it, including the risk of alienating prospective supporters, harming personal relationships, and granting political ammunition to one’s opponents. There are also practical limits in a distributive democracy where there are rarely points of authority that can plausibly claim to speak for a political movement as a whole. 

Yet just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that there isn’t some onus—particularly among elite actors—to call out and, where necessary, isolate radicalism within their ranks. 

At its apogee in the second half of the twentieth century, National Review magazine played this role on the American Right. Its founder, William F. Buckley Jr., famously wrote the John Birch Society out of the mainstream conservative movement that he was assiduously building. He similarly published a scathing review of Ayn Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, by one of the magazine’s editors, Whittaker Chambers, that signaled to the world that Rand’s objectivism didn’t have a home in it either.

In the ensuing decades, the American Right has ceased to self-police. At this point, not only are its political leaders merely trying to stay ahead of their most radical voices, but within the adjacent world of conservative ideas and thought, it can at times be hard to distinguish between the elites and the fringe. 

Canadian conservatism has generally had less of a reactionary problem. There are doubtless various factors including the Westminster model’s emphasis on top-down leadership and party discipline, the country’s more moderate political culture, and its lower racial salience. 

The Hub has nevertheless, in the two-and-a-half-years since its launch, taken seriously a sense of responsibility for calling out conservative excesses including the reactionary parts of the movement that disposed Jason Kenney as Alberta’s United Conservative Party leader, the conspiratorial impulses behind some of the conservative criticism of the World Economic Forum, and the growing trend of online ideas and voices radicalizing young men. 

We know that these instances have antagonized some conservatives who believe that it’s a tactical mistake to cede any ground to the Left. They’ve probably cost us some number of donors and subscribers. We also recognize that there are inherent limits to our ability to neutralize some of these excesses. No one is asking our permission before tweeting or driving their transport truck onto Parliament Hill for that matter. But we still think it’s ultimately healthy for The Hub as an institution and conservatism as a whole to speak out when we feel it’s called for. 

This notion of self-policing is something that I’ve thought a lot about in recent years. I wonder what I would have done if I had been a Republican in 2015 and 2016. I don’t know. It’s easy to look the other way or rationalize bad ideas on one’s own side. 

But the lesson of the past several years in the United States is that even if there are downsides for those who are prepared to be self-critical, there’s not a lot of upside for those who aren’t. Ask Republican congressional leaders like Kevin McCarthy or Jim Jordan. Do their choices in hindsight look better or shrewder than Liz Cheney’s? The answer is self-evidently no. 

I share this context because the reaction of the Canadian Left to Hamas’s terrorist attacks against Israel has revealed a self-policing problem. It’s become clear that the movement’s intellectual and political leaders have permitted radical ideas and voices to occupy an outsized place in today’s progressivism. The consequences have alarmingly played themselves out in recent weeks on university campuses, the streets of the country’s major cities, and even inside our mainstream politics. Put bluntly: the Left has an antisemitism problem. 

Even that however doesn’t seem to fully capture the magnitude and nature of the problem. It’s not merely the fringe expressions of outright Jew-hatred that we’ve witnessed. It’s actually something far deeper and more mainstream that may be the bigger cause for concern.

The Left’s strong attachment to radical ideas such as “decolonisation”, “oppressor versus oppressed” frameworks, and the so-called “right to resist” has created an intellectual context in which acts of terrorism and violence can find affirmation and support. 

There are different factors that have contributed to the problem. One is that progressives have so convinced themselves that the rise of the so-called “far right” represents an existential threat that they’ve been prepared to make alliances with radical political figures and organizations (“no enemies to the Left”) or opted to overlook the rise of radicalism within their movement. To the extent that they may acknowledge it, there’s been a tendency to minimize these intellectual trends as merely a form of campus politics or faculty lounge theorizing. 

Another is that the problem on the Left is essentially the opposite of the one on the Right. For conservatives, self-policing is mainly about conservative elites trying to constrain the excesses of the right-wing masses. For progressives, the excesses are among left-wing elites themselves. Radicalism finds its strongest expression among university faculty, law school students, and the panoply of non-profit organizations that comprise the modern Left. It’s not obvious therefore who’s supposed to be doing the policing. 

But it needs to happen. North American scenes of anti-Jewish rallies and full-throated defences of Hamas’s horrific terrorist attacks rooted in left-wing theories of anti-colonialism and anti-settler resistance are signs that radicalism has spilled out from university seminar rooms into the streets. 

These protests and rallies—including ones that have targeted Jewish restaurants and cultural centres—have exposed these problems for everyone to see. They’ve forced us to confront the interrelationship between these Manichean ideas about identity and power promulgated by left-wing voices and antisemitism. This should lead to a reassessment of the public good case for subsidizing various forms of critical theory education and scholarship which often seem like a thin veneer of academic rigour for what is otherwise a set of retrograde intellectual propositions about race, gender, sexuality, and society. 

But that’s probably a necessary yet insufficient response to what has played out in recent weeks. This is in large part a progressivism problem that progressives themselves must address. Progressive elites who lament the rise of the far right need to reckon with the rise of the far left and their own role in galvanizing it. Self-policing is hard—especially when it requires serious introspection—but it’s necessary. It’s time for the Left to police its own side. 

Joanna Baron: Censuring an NDP MPP for pro-Palestine comments is not a free speech issue

Commentary

Is there anything more Canadian than the fact that a Member of Provincial Parliament who issued a statement after a barbaric massacre of innocents in Israel, in which she (checks notes) neglected to mention the atrocity at all, criticized Israel, and edified the violence as justified retaliation, was kicked out of caucus by her party not for completely lacking a moral compass but for contributing to an “unsafe work environment” and undermining “collective work”?

To recap: on October 10, as the world was still reeling from images of bleeding and brutally murdered Jewish babies, grandmothers, and young women, the now former NDP MPP for Hamilton Centre Sarah Jama took to X to respond. Jama stated that she was “reflecting on her role as a politician participating in this settler colonial system.” She accused Israel of apartheid, using chemical warfare against Gazans, and referred to “retaliation rooted in settler colonialism.”

Jama is 29, but she still has the fervour and guilelessness of an even younger university activist. Earlier this year after winning a byelection in Hamilton Centre, she apologized after retweeting a post calling an Islamic Jihad terrorist a “martyr.” I know her type well: watching the likes of Jama contort language to justify the suicide bombings of pizza parlours and buses during the Second Intifada was a canon event for me as a McGill undergraduate which profoundly shaped my worldview.

On October 18, Ontario legislative house speaker Paul Calandra moved to censure Jama’s “disreputable conduct” and authorize the speaker not to recognize her until she retracted and deleted her comments and apologized in the house. In response, Jama apologized—and then pinned her original statement to the top of her X profile, an act perceived by many in Queen’s Park as defiant. She also sent a cease-and-desist letter to Doug Ford accusing him of libel. 

That brings us to this week, when NDP leader Marit Stiles finally announced that she would eject Jama from caucus for the aforementioned “unsafe work environment” and the undermining of “collective work.” In the same session, the PC party supported the censure motion, which would prevent the Speaker from recognizing Jama until she apologizes publicly and on screen. The NDP dissented; the Liberal Party abstained. The vote count was 63 to 23.

While it seems commonsensical that a parliamentary motion preventing an elected member from speaking, and even compelling her public apology as a condition precedent for doing so, carries free speech implications, the reality is more complicated. The idiosyncrasies of parliamentary privilege—a doctrine developed as a hedge against authoritarianism—mean that while Jama may have a moral claim that her right to free speech has been violated, she has no such legal claim.

Parliamentary privilege is the idea that legislators bear inherent privileges, which courts cannot review or interfere with. Parliamentary privilege covers an expansive swath of activity, including the power of legislatures to regulate their own internal affairs and the power to discipline their members as they see fit.

As Justice Fregeau noted in Alford v Canada, a 2022 case brought by law professor Ryan Alford challenging provisions of a federal act for encroaching on parliamentary privilege:

[t]he effect of a matter falling within the scope of parliamentary privilege is that its exercise cannot be reviewed by any external body, including a court…parliamentary privilege recognizes Parliament’s exclusive jurisdiction to deal with complaints within its privileged sphere of activity, thus providing immunity from judicial review.

This means neither Jama’s statements nor her colleagues’ chosen actions in addressing them could be challenged in a court. 

Another recent example of the bright line of parliamentary privilege shielding a legislator’s actions from judicial review was Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s 2022 refusal to testify after being summoned to give evidence at the Public Order Emergency Commission, despite almost certainly possessing relevant evidence about the response to the Ottawa convoy protests. Whatever the political consequences, the court decided that as a sitting member of the legislature, his decision was immunized from judicial review while the legislature was in session.

Parliamentary privilege historically evolved as a shield against the improper meddling of the executive—in particular, zealous kings and queens. For example, in 1629, King Charles I ordered two parliamentarians imprisoned for alleged seditious statements made in Parliament. Parliamentary privilege evolved in response to executive overreaches like this because for Parliament to effectively act as a prophylactic against totalitarian rulers, parliamentarians had to be free to speak their minds without fear of reprisal from the Crown.

These rules appear to jostle uncomfortably with the (correct) proposition that the Constitution is the supreme law of Canada. However, Parliamentary privilege and Charter rights including the right to freedom of expression are both parts of the constitution. In Nova Scotia v. New Brunswick Broadcasting, where journalists challenged a ban on video cameras in the legislature as a violation of their free expression rights, Justice McLachlin explained that it is a “basic rule” that one part of the Constitution cannot be abrogated or diminished by another part of the Constitution (and thus the legislature’s decision to forbid recording could not be reviewed by a court).

Though all Canadians enjoy the right to not have our speech censored directly or indirectly by government action, this doesn’t mean parliamentarians can’t be subject to discipline from the legislature or their party. Bluntly, the right to free speech does not equal a right to speak in a session of the legislature.

Legality aside, even if the legislature has full purview to censure Jama by way of motion, that doesn’t mean they ought to. Silencing Jama is likely to render her a heroine for progressives and provoke sympathy that she doesn’t deserve. The optics of a young Black woman made the whipping girl of Queen’s Park by its old, white, ham-fisted leader Doug Ford are not good. Instead, Queen’s Park should let Jama continue to spout her apparent apologias for terror and let voters express their disapproval of them at the next election.