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A look at the year that was and predictions for 2020

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on December 15, 2019.

 

Most underrated politician of 2019: Only one federal party leader managed to unambiguously improve their party’s lot in the last election: Yves-Francois Blanchet revived the Bloc Québécois with a sharply executed pivot from sovereignty to nationalism. The fifth Bloc leader since 2015, he turned in a tight, eloquent performance in the French-language debates, and then went on to pick up 22 seats.

Now, he intends to make the most of his opportunities in a minority parliament. Just in the last week, he signalled his intent to support the Throne Speech, helping the Liberals clear their first hurdle; and at the same time, threatened the signature achievement of their first term when he opposed the newly agreed-upon CUSMA agreement over a lack of protections for the largely Quebec-based aluminum industry.

Most overrated politician of 2019: The youngest president in French history won the first election he ever contested in 2017 with a party of his own making called En Marche! Lately, Emmanuel Macron has not been doing much moving. In the last year, France has been paralyzed by months of violent protests from the leaderless gilet jaunts, whose yellow vest-wearing participants seem to take issue with him personally. While Notre Dame burned, the protests dragged on, costing the French economy $6.5 billion and injuring hundreds. All the while, Macron has hemmed and hawed, falling back on his favourite phrase “en meme temps.

As Angela Merkel approaches retirement, Macron has struggled to rise to the occasion as Europe’s champion with comments like the “brain-death of NATO.”

Breakout politician in 2020: If you live in Ontario and have turned on the television or tuned in to the radio any time since the beginning of summer, you’ve probably seen or heard Minister of Education Stephen Lecce. Since the cabinet shuffle in June, he has become the face of the provincial government. Lecce is a rookie MPP, and the youngest education minister in Ontario history, but he has already proven himself to be a capable and disciplined political operator, first as a communications staffer under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and then as an MPP and parliamentary assistant to Premier Doug Ford.

Now, having inherited one of the most expansive provincial portfolios, he is unafraid to stake out the government’s position in media interviews. And he is just getting started.

Worst political play in 2019: The Leaders’ Debates Commission was conceived with good intentions. Debates have long been a central part of Canadian election campaigns, and so the commission was charged with organizing two official debates. The key distinction was that they would no longer be organized by a media consortium.

In the end, the debates were ultimately produced by a different, bigger consortium. The final product featured too many moderators, too many interjections, and worst of all, too many participants. Only weeks before the broadcast, the commission made the inexplicable decision to allow Maxime Bernier to participate, admitting him based on polls that turned out to be wildly inaccurate. As a result, the only English-language debate offered to viewers was an interminable slog.

Best political play in 2019: You may not think of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as a political player. But the one-time richest man in the world has been forced into the fray, both by dint of his ownership of the Washington Post and by mounting calls for antitrust action against his company. 2019 revealed that the National Enquirer tabloid had, for some time, been functioning as a political tool for President Trump. And so, the best political play of the year pitted one against the other.

When the Enquirer exposed his extramarital affair, Bezos’ own internal investigation concluded the story had been politically motivated. Outraged, the publication threatened that if Bezos did not withdraw the accusation, they would publish his NSFW selfies. In a brilliant chess move, Bezos published the entire exchange online, along with an open-letter condemning the Enquirer’s “practice of blackmail, political favours, political attacks, and corruption,” and asked, “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”

Now, we know the answer: six weeks after the altercation, the Enquirer was sold off for parts.

 

Scheer Madness

This week, on the “Scheer Madness” edition of Political Traction, our host Amanda Galbraith discusses Andrew Scheer’s sudden resignation with Marieke Walsh, a reporter with the Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. The two discuss what led to Scheer’s sudden change of heart, go behind the scenes in the lead-up to the sudden announcement, and the wide-open race for leader.

The College of Cannabis

On this week’s episode of Legalized, we’re joined by Dr. Ruth Ross, professor and chair of the department of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine and Senior Scientist, Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute, CAMH to discuss cannabis-focused research in Canada.

 

This is Legalized, The College of Cannabis.

Trudeau’s ‘hot mic’ video overshadows a crucial meeting for NATO

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on December 8, 2019.

On Wednesday, video emerged of Justin Trudeau, accompanied by a group of world leaders at a NATO summit in London, poking fun at President Donald Trump. In the video, the prime minister made a jibe about Trump’s penchant for impromptu press conferences and his staff’s apparent dismay at yet another off-the-cuff pronouncement.

Since then, there has been much carry on over Trudeau’s comments. Some are outraged, declaring that it’s foolish for the PM to be snickering behind the back of our largest trading partner. Others argue that the comments are merely the predictable outcome of Trump’s own bullying and standoffishness.

Canadians can debate whether it’s wise for their prime minister to be seen criticizing the president while, among many issues that face our two countries, NAFTA 2.0 has yet to pass through Congress.

The reality is that despite the irritant of impeachment and given the dearth of a strong Democratic challenger in the 2020 election, Donald Trump is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Even if Trump does leave office, Justin Trudeau and his successors will find themselves facing a Republican Party irrevocably shaped in his image.

That’s why many, especially those who have worked tirelessly to manage the bilateral relationship, found Trump’s retaliatory comments — in which he called Trudeau “two-faced,” unhelpful.

But despite the frenzied response to the hot mic moment, it’s unlikely that even one of the politicians caught in that moment will be personally set back by the video. Not Trudeau, whose constituents — even those outside his base — loathe Trump and all he represents. Not French President Emmanuel Macron, whose countrymen were no doubt incensed by Trump’s jab earlier in the day about “giving” ISIS fighters to France.

Most of all, the video will certainly not hurt Boris Johnson. The U.K. prime minister is contesting an election next week in a country where 64 per cent of Britons disapprove of Trump’s leadership. Over the past few weeks, Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents have tied Johnson to Trump, raising the spectre of a Johnson-Trump alliance that would sell off the National Health Service and veer the country to the hard-right.

So, to be seen poking fun at Trump in a collegial manner with his more liberal Canadian, Dutch and French counterparts, can only help Johnson’s prospects on Thursday.

But here is the rub. The reality of that moment and the tensions therein reveal the cracks in the alliance as a whole. More importantly, the situation is symptomatic of the divided world in which we now live.

Governments, the world over, have retreated from a global-seeking consensus toward a form of selfish nationalism, which has at its core one question: “What is in it for me?”

Even NATO — a foundational alliance whose existence has been central to the guarantee of the post-Cold War era of peace and prosperity — is not immune to this impulse. Say what you will about the current state of the organization, there’s no doubt that for 70 years it has served as an important forum for governments to publicly declare their mutual support and shared ideals.

As it stands now, the organization is treated less as an important example of multilateral co-operation and more like a communal piggy bank, financial support to which is only reluctantly offered and only to avoid the scorn of President Trump.

In the end, the real cost of that “hot mic” moment is that it has overshadowed what should have been a crucial summit. Consider the timing: Russian interference is resurgent, the leadership of the EU is in question as Chancellor Merkel faces retirement, and far-right governments have swept across eastern Europe.

As NATO leaders were meeting in Buckingham Palace, conflict persisted in eastern Ukraine and the country’s political establishment continued to reel from revelations that emerged from American impeachment proceedings.

What’s more, at the meeting on Wednesday, Hungary’s foreign minister announced that the authoritarian government of Viktor Orban will block Ukraine’s admission to NATO — yet another victory for Vladimir Putin.

You could, of course, be forgiven for having missed such an important development. After all, there were far more important videos to discuss.