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Loose Lips Sink Ships

On this week’s “Loose Lips Sink Ships” edition of Political Traction, host Amanda Galbraith sits down with Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star Robert Benzie to talk about the anatomy of a news leak, the role journalists play as “watchdogs” on the government and what defines journalism in today’s changing media landscape. Then, the two will go head to head in this week’s rapid fire round, with off the cuff thoughts on topics gaining traction.

The gift of social media helped Trudeau, but it can also take away

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 19, 2019.

 

When Justin Trudeau took the stage in October 2015 to celebrate the Liberals’ majority victory, he spoke of his party’s “positive vision,” for Canada.

Their campaign, he said, had “defeated the idea that Canadians should be satisfied with less, that good enough is good enough and that better just isn’t possible … this is Canada, and in Canada better is always possible.”

As we head into what may well be one of the closest and most unpredictable election campaigns in recent years, his words that night could not be more prescient. This is Canada — and, especially in an election year, Canadians will be looking for something better from their politics.

Four years ago, polling showed that two-thirds of Canadians wanted a change in government. And it was that longing for something new, not just in policy but in style and approach, which Trudeau’s team so effectively harnessed and rode to their majority.

Their “Real Change” platform explicitly laid out the stark contrast between Tory present and Liberal future. Stephen Harper on the other hand concluded his foreword to the Conservative platform by claiming his Economic Action Plan was a success. “It’s working,” he said. “Let’s continue on with what we know works.”

In attack ads and campaign messaging, the Tories characterized Trudeau’s “celebrity” appearance — and especially his hair — as proof of style over substance. On social media, the Liberals responded by claiming that he had both and did so in a way that was charming, pithy and most importantly, viral.

From the new-found power of Instagram to the traditionally influential pages of Vogue, the prime minister managed to capture the attention of the digital age in a way few politicians, Canadian or otherwise, had.

And it worked. Trudeau came to be deemed Obama’s successor as the leader of the world’s progressives.

But what was clearly Trudeau’s greatest asset in 2015 may well be his undoing in 2019.

The problem with a campaign built on self-image and the optics of virtue is that people, inconveniently, expect it to be true. And what is fairly easy to execute in a campaign setting becomes near impossible to implement when governing.

What’s more, the gift social media gives, it also takes away. Unlike campaign advertising or stump speeches — which Canadians know is contrived — the power of social media lies in the sense that what you are seeing is, at least to some extent, genuine.

And so, when Canadians see their PM beaming with pride over his gender-balanced Cabinet or taking a selfie with a young couple while out for a jog, style becomes conflated with substance.

And now, after four years of governing, that conflation has become a collision. The chickens have come home to roost. In short, Trudeau is paying the price of the expectations he set when he promised to be a new and different kind of leader and began to practice the politics of political celebrity.

By dubbing himself the “feminist Prime Minister,” Trudeau opened himself up to the attacks that inevitably followed his expulsion of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from his caucus.

In trumpeting his commitment to Indigenous communities — not least of which being a visit to a teepee set up by activists on Parliament Hill — Trudeau set himself up to be pilloried not only for his slow progress on Indigenous files but for tone-deaf responses to Indigenous protestors.

And by claiming the mantle of Canada’s traditionally welcoming stance on immigration as his own, he has made himself vulnerable to the attacks of challengers who want to paint him as responsible for what they characterize as an unsustainable influx of irregular border crossers.

Many believe governments are not defeated, but rather that they defeat themselves. On the whole, I disagree. I think, in most cases, governments are elected to do a particular job, and when that job is done, another party is called up to bat.

For Trudeau, the job he was hired to do was to bring, in his own words, sunny ways to government.

Now that is done, Trudeau’s challenge is to rewrite his job description in a way that convinces Canadians he still has work to do and is still the best leader for the job.

Offside

On this week’s “Offside” edition of Political Traction, host Amanda Galbraith sits down with Bob Richardson, public affairs advisor and king of sports to talk about the intersection of politics and sports, and the role Bob played in the 2015 Pan Am Games and Toronto’s third Olympic bid. Then, the two will go head to head in this week’s sports-themed rapid fire round, with off the cuff thoughts on topics gaining traction.

Norman case another blow to Canada’s justice system

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 12, 2019.

Another year, yet another unsuccessful highly public prosecution.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced a stay of charges against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, ending a four-year circus that took an untold toll on the reputation, finances and family of a career public servant with an otherwise unblemished reputation.

The decision by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) also had a benefit for the Liberal government. It ended the awkward prospect of a trial, which would have featured a parade of high-level cabinet ministers (current and former) along with their colleagues from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office.

Many commentators smell a rat — a desperate measure by a government to save face ahead of an increasingly tight election. I don’t share their view.

Credit where credit is due: Norman’s remarkable lawyer, Marie Henein and her spectacular team, robbed the PPSC of the “reasonable prospect of conviction” test, which the service needed to proceed.

And while Henein went out of her way to praise the integrity of the PPSC, she was not so kind to the Department of Justice and the government itself.

As Henein put it, “No person in this country should ever walk into a courtroom and feel like they are fighting their elected government or any sort of political factors at all.”

This whole sorry business raises serious questions as to what is going wrong with the administration of justice in this country.

Time and again, we have seen high-profile prosecutions collapse or defendants decisively acquitted. It is now clear that there are systemic problems that drive these failings, not least of which is the way investigations are prioritized by police agencies like the RCMP.

Most cases pursued by the PPSC are led by RCMP investigators, who seem to take forever. What’s more, when it comes to significant political and corporate securities cases, prosecutors, it seems, are often not equipped with the evidence they need to see the case through.

Consider the RCMP’s three-year investigation of Sen. Mike Duffy. Years after his suspension from the Senate, Justice Charles Vaillancourt acquitted Duffy of all counts and criticized the Crown for the deficiencies of their case. Shortly thereafter, the Crown decided not to charge Sen. Pam Wallin after another three-year probe by the RCMP.

We have seen this issue at the provincial level as well. In 2017, Gerry Lougheed and Patricia Sorbara were investigated by the OPP for more than two years for alleged bribery violations of the Election Act. The trial was highly politicized and then-Premier Wynne even travelled to Sudbury to appear as a witness. The presiding judge acquitted both Lougheed and Sorbara by way of a directed verdict, arguing that no reasonably instructed jury could convict based on the Crown’s evidence.

It appears there is a common thread that runs from the Senate investigation to that of Mark Norman. Due to the highly publicized and political nature of each, the PPSC and the police forge ahead with cases that will ultimately be abandoned or blown out of the water at trial.

All too often it seems, prosecutors carry on because they are fearful of dropping these high-profile cases. They take the position that it is too risky for them to exercise their prosecutorial discretion, and they’re fond of saying, “That’s what we have judges for.”

In the process, precious resources are wasted, and untold harm and reputational grief inflicted on those who are accused. Not the least of which is having their lives on hold for years, and the uncertainty that accompanies that.

To be clear, broad prosecutorial discretion is a prerequisite for a healthy criminal justice system. Without wide latitude in exercising that discretion, the Director of Public Prosecutions and her colleagues would be denied the true independence on which we all depend.

But after so many false starts on the part of the PPSC, the question must be asked: at what point does the excuse of a series of unrelated occurrences stop and a troublesome pattern begin?

It is a concern that needs to be raised if the very foundation of our justice system — the public’s confidence in its competency, fairness, impartiality and independence — is to be upheld.