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Sean Speer: Canada’s ‘prosperity predicament’ goes mainstream, and everything else we learned in The Hub’s third year

Commentary

Today ends The Hub’s third full year in publication. To mark its first and second anniversaries, Hub readers permitted me to indulgently look back over the year at some of the things that we had learned. At the risk of testing their tolerance, here are ten new things that we learned in year three.

1. We learned that The Hub hasn’t yet hit its growth ceiling. After doubling our web traffic in year two, we doubled it again in year three—exceeding 4 million page views for the year, including more than 500,000 in March alone. Maybe we’ll hit a natural limit at some point but we’re not there yet.

2. The same goes for The Hub’s podcasts, including its regular Dialogues with leading thinkers like George Will, Tyler Cowen, and Coleman Hughes, its bi-weekly conversations with David Frum, the weekly Friday Roundtable, and new daily episodes of Hub Headlines. We reached nearly 100,000 downloads per month in year three and were consistently among the top five or ten Canadian-based podcasts in Apple’s Culture & Society category. We’d make a big point about how most of the podcasts ahead of us on the charts are produced by the CBC and supported by its $1-billion public subsidy, but we’ll resist the temptation.

3. We learned that in the aftermath of Hamas’s horrific attacks against Israel on October 7, there were more people within our country whose instinct was to condemn our democratic ally rather than the terrorist organization that brutalized and murdered more than 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers than we would have anticipated. It’s been a painful six months for Canadian Jews who have had to confront the same realization. The Hub has consistently spoken out against the attacks and in favour of Israel’s ability to defend itself in the face of such a murderous threat and will continue to do so without equivocation. As we set out in an October essay, the editorial decision to support Israel isn’t a hard one: it’s a reflection of the ideas and values that animate The Hub itself.

4. We learned that growing numbers of Canadians share our concerns about the country’s economic stagnation and declining living standards. After beating the drum on these alarming trends for The Hub’s first two years, they finally went mainstream in year three, including a major speech by the deputy governor of the Bank of Canada in which she called Canada’s poor productivity growth a “national emergency.” If the first step of addressing a problem is to finally recognize it, we feel good that The Hub has played a key role in diagnosing Canada’s prosperity predicament.

5. We learned once again that the Trudeau government would much rather micromanage provincial child- and health-care systems, set municipal zoning rules, and deliver lunches at local schools than actually run the federal government itself. As evidence mounts that state capacity in core federal areas of responsibility like defence and national security has eroded, the prime minister nevertheless finds himself deeper and deeper into provincial and local issues. His unprecedented use of the federal spending power has effectively rewritten the division of powers that his own father codified in the Canadian constitution. We at The Hub care a great deal about these trends. Regrettably, it’s not obvious that many Canadians—including the provincial premiers themselves—do. Maybe, like on the productivity file, we can ultimately change their minds.

6. We learned that Canadians are “conditional multiculturalists.” They generally support Canada’s immigration policy—including its high annual levels—if they believe that it’s serving the country’s economic interests. The unprecedented spike in total immigration over the past couple of years—particularly the massive increase in the number of temporary foreign workers and international students—is testing their conditional support. The Trudeau government is now scrambling to get things back under control, but serious damage may have already been done. Restoring public support will ultimately depend on one thing: re-establishing the principle that immigration policy ought to be set in the national interest, not the interests of businesses, post-secondary institutions, or politicians in search of wedge issues.

A new Canadian holds a Canadian flag, their citizenship certificate and a letter signed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they sing O Canada after becoming a Canadian citizen, during a special Canada Day citizenship ceremony in West Vancouver on Monday, July 1, 2019. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

7. We learned that there’s a lot of interest in the future of journalism in Canada. The Hub’s highly ambitious Future of News series has enabled us to engage a wide range of voices and perspectives including former Washington Post editor Marty Baron, National Review editor Rich Lowry, Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne, Newsweek opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, independent journalist Tara Henley, and of course TVO host Steve Paikin, whose podcast episode inadvertently generated a bit of a buzz. We also profiled a number of news media outlets trying to build sustainable business models in today’s fast-evolving marketplace, including Unherd, the Washington Post, Calgary’s The Sprawl, and the Northwest Territories’ Cabin Radio. A key takeaway from the series is that there’s far too much pessimism about the future of journalism. There’s a lot of exciting and innovation occurring within the sector. We’ve been thrilled to elevate it over the past several months.

8. We learned that it’s possible to provoke academic historians, as we inadvertently did with our dedicated series to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of occasional Hub contributor Jack Granatstein’s influential book, Who Killed Canadian History? Our collection of essays and culminating podcast episode with Granatstein himself received a decidedly negative reaction from university-based historians who ostensibly felt that the series’s sustained criticism of the field’s inward, identity-obsessed turn hit a bit too close to home. We don’t intentionally seek out conflict at The Hub, but in this case, we interpret the backlash as a sign that we’re on the right track.

9. We learned that The Hub’s collection of contributing writers is, pound-for-pound, the best in the country. Ginny Roth is the only columnist in Canada consistently writing about family structure, fertility, and contemporary feminism. Trevor Tombe’s economic analysis has quite literally come to shape how others are thinking and talking about Canada’s economy. Joanna Baron regularly brings a smart and principled perspective to Canadian constitutionalism. Michael Kempa’s thoughtful writing on issues of policing, law enforcement, and national security cannot be found elsewhere. Richard Shimooka’s deep knowledge of defence and national security have helped us to navigate an increasingly complex geopolitical context. Antony Anderson’s writings on the fading episodes of our history provide an invaluable service in promoting Canadian heritage, Patrick Luciani’s examinations of current events in his book reviews are incisive and indispensable, and where else in Canada can you find a regular wine column, let alone one as insightful as Malcolm Jolley’s? And of course, Howard Anglin’s extraordinary range is a delight for Hub readers, even in those instances when we need to turn to our dictionaries. If The Hub’s content is its key to success, then our diverse and highly-talented group of contributors is our comparative advantage.

10. Finally, we learned once again how fortunate we are to have thousands of people whose financial support, subscriptions, and growing readership have enabled The Hub to flourish and grow. Thank you. We quite literally couldn’t do it without you. If you’d like to join The Hub community and support our mission, you can sign up for our free weekly newsletter or donate here.

‘Nothing lifts the burden of accountability from the PM’: Ian Brodie on Justin Trudeau’s foreign interference testimony

Commentary

Justin Trudeau provided testimony on Wednesday to the Foreign Interference Commission as part of the national public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada’s elections. Parts of his testimony concerned if and to what extent he had been briefed on matters related to the meddling. The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer exchanged with Ian Brodie, the former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to get an insider’s perspective on the ins and outs of briefing a prime minister. You can find more of Brodie’s commentary and other writings at his Substack here.

SEAN SPEER: As a general rule, the prime minister seems to have suggested that he doesn’t rely on written briefs. He and his office instead typically use oral briefings including for (but not limited to) intelligence and national security matters. My experience with Prime Minister Harper is that he received approximately ten written briefing notes from PMO staff and the Privy Council Office each day. Is that consistent with your own experience, and if so, what do you think is lost by minimizing the use of written briefs?

IAN BRODIE: It’s true, different prime ministers get their briefings in different ways. Mr. Trump responded to “killer graphics” as his CIA director said. In 2006, civil servants had to get used to Mr. Harper reading a lot of long, detailed written notes. Mr. Chretien liked short notes, to the point. Mr. Harper liked more background material. He got so many notes about the 2007 equalization reform, they filled an entire drawer of a filing cabinet! I really looked forward to days when we only got ten briefing notes from PCO.

Written notes had a big advantage. Mr. Harper initialized every note that he read. We knew the date he received every note and the date he returned it for filing. There was never any doubt about what he’d been briefed and when it had been briefed.

Oral briefings are fine, but you need a notetaker to record what was said. With really critical information, I prefer to have a paper trail. Plus, if the PM reads the preliminary material ahead of time, the briefing is more productive.

SEAN SPEER: With respect to specific intelligence briefing notes, the prime minister said that while he reads them when he can, he instead expects advisers to tell him if there’s something important. How does that approach converge or diverge with your experience as the prime minister’s chief of staff?

IAN BRODIE: Every PM relies on others to decide what he needs to see or hear. The fact Mr. Harper read a lot of written briefings every day meant you could send a lot of material his way. In my day, the clerk of the Privy Council had direct access with written notes and verbal briefings. So did I and several PMO staffers. Cabinet ministers, too. That meant there were fewer points of failure. It was rare for a single person to overlook something and leave the PM out of the loop.

But, nothing lifts the burden of accountability from the PM. He appoints people to make sure he knows what he needs to know. I am sure that several people said “Hey, the PM needs to know that China is working hard to get this guy elected as a Liberal,” or “Hey, the Chinese might be threatening an MP’s family because of a vote he took in the House of Commons.” In the case of Michael Chong, I expect he was briefed about threats to the Chong family. I still don’t understand why he didn’t instruct someone to check on Chong’s family, report back to him, and then let Chong know what was going on.

SEAN SPEER: What was Prime Minister Harper’s normal process for consuming national security and intelligence information? Did he have dedicated time each week? Did it typically come in the form of written briefs or oral briefings?

IAN BRODIE: That changed over time. The process became more formal after I left the government. He got a weekly written briefing from the intelligence assessments section at PCO. His various national security advisors would also brief. I visited the main intelligence agencies to make sure we were getting all the right information from them.

SEAN SPEER: In addition to being a chief of staff, you’ve been involved in leadership races and party nominations. The Liberal Party doesn’t prohibit non-residents from participating in its internal voting. The prime minister said that that’s intentional to “encourage wide participation in nomination races.” What are the risks in your mind to such a party policy?

IAN BRODIE: Governments should let political parties govern themselves as they see fit.

Back in 2006-07, we had informal discussions with the opposition parties about requiring proof of citizenship to vote in a federal election. They were opposed. We couldn’t even get an agreement to require photo ID at the ballot box.

Without a photo ID requirement, it’s hard to enforce a citizenship requirement, even when you set one as my party does.

Remember, in the Conservative Party, we let youth members vote even if they aren’t yet old enough to vote in a general election. Every party has wider rules for internal votes than the Elections Act does for general elections.

However, I personally think allowing non-citizens to vote in a party nomination or leadership election is very risky. They are vulnerable to all sorts of threats, as we have seen at the inquiry. Political parties pick the candidates we get to vote for at election time and pick the leaders of the parties that could become prime minister. To my mind, the qualifications to vote in nomination and leadership races should be the same as the qualifications to vote in a general election. Maybe we should have slightly wider rules for a riding board of directors. But when a party is picking candidates and leaders, that should be a tight process.