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Hard News

This week, on the “Hard News” edition of Political Traction, our host Amanda Galbraith sits down with Navigator principal Caroline Harvey. As the former executive producer of CBC’s The National, Caroline knows the ins and outs of covering some of the most difficult stories imaginable, from war zones to pandemics. She takes Amanda behind the scenes of the newsroom. Plus: A new guilty pleasure on Netflix, and the virtues of talking without seeing.

Mike Bloomberg has woken up a sleepy primary contest

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on February 23, 2020.

In his 1913 book, “Essays in Rebellion,” British journalist Henry Nevinson illustrated an issue facing the Atlantic fishing trade.

The problem: when shipped in tanks overseas, cod tended to be “lethargic, torpid … prone to inactivity, content to lie in comfort … rapidly deteriorating in their flesh.” The solution, devised by an enterprising fisherman, was to insert one catfish into each tank, ensuring that each cod came to market “firm, brisk, and wholesome … for the catfish is the demon of the deep, and keeps things lively.”

Nevinson thus introduced the concept of the catfish as a stimulating, corrective presence that forces its neighbouring creatures out of their inertia. Over a hundred years later, the term “catfish” has become a popular expression for social media users who, while pretending on the internet to be someone they are not, play the same kind of role.

Watching the Democratic primary debate this week in Nevada, it became clear that former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is, himself, a catfish. Setting aside the unflattering comparison to Nevinson’s “demon of the deep,” it now looks like Bloomberg’s greatest impact as a candidate will be in his capacity to jolt his competitors out of their lethargy. He may not come out on top — characterizing his debate performance as disappointing would be kind — but his candidacy will cull the field and refocus the race.

For months, the democratic primary has felt underwhelming. Initially framed as a coronation of former vice-president Joe Biden, surprises along the way have culminated in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ firm dominance in most national polls. Virtually all pundits agree that position will erode as the field narrows to just one or two centrist alternatives to the Vermont senator’s staunch socialism.

But the reality is, aside from Sanders’ proposed political revolution, none of the candidates has really caught anyone’s imagination. Biden seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel, Pete Buttigieg has yet to garner any serious support from crucial minority groups and Elizabeth Warren’s emphasis on substance over style has left voters wondering whether she is up for a general election fight.

But all of that changed on Wednesday night.

For the first time, each candidate seemed energized, on their toes and unafraid to throw punches. Like a catfish among the cod, Bloomberg forced his stage mates to eschew their friendly demeanour and act like the competitors they are.

Warren came for Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar swung at Mayor Pete and perhaps most significantly, Sanders learned to defend himself from exactly the kinds of attacks that he would face from Donald Trump.

Responding to Sanders’ ardent defence of democratic socialism, Bloomberg noted how “wonderful” the U.S. must be, considering “the best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses.”

Sanders was taken aback. The senator is used to attacks for his socialist views but has yet to experience any serious challenge to the working class bona fides, which have defined his entire political identity. His flustered response shows just how unfamiliar Bloomberg’s tactic was. No doubt the Sanders camp was taking notes.

The similarities between Bloomberg and Trump — both are defined by their wealth, brashness and New York City demeanour — make the former mayor a perfect debate proxy for the president. And no one took better advantage of this than Warren, who spent most of the debate attacking Bloomberg.

After months of Warren’s restrained focus on policy solutions, many have wondered whether she could put up the fight necessary to take down Trump. Last week, she answered that question, explicitly comparing Bloomberg to Trump and tearing down Bloomberg’s “history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women and of supporting racist policies.”

For the first time, voters could see just how Warren scraps. She stuck to her principles, was articulate and proved that she can fight back without getting covered in mud.

In reality, the rumble in Nevada may not make a difference: Bloomberg’s $400 million (U.S.) ad buy will reach millions more Americans than the debate did. Regardless, the catfish has been set loose in the tank.

Blockade

This week, on the “Blockade” edition of Political Traction, our host Amanda Galbraith sits down with Karen Restoule, the co-founder of Bold Realities and a member of the Dokis First Nation. The two discuss the ongoing protests over a proposed pipeline in the Wet’suwet’en territory, the history of Indigenous entrepreneurship, and the challenges of talking frankly about these issues. Plus: Jojo Rabbit, and the drama of the Democratic debate.

Populism is alive and well in Canada

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on February 16, 2020.
As a surge of populism sweeps the world, many Canadian commentators climb onto their high horses, pat themselves on the back and declare Canada immune to this short-sighted selfishness.

Problem is, if you look below the surface, that notion simply doesn’t hold water.

Canada is not unaffected by the factors that are driving this shift: the forces of globalization, increasing inequality, a shrinking middle class, automation and disruptive technology.

For many, these forces are not theoretical ones. They impact their everyday lives. One needs to think no further than the almost 400,000 Canadian households who depend on a cashier for part of their family income. Self check out will soon see them checked out of work.

The business pages of the past month alone tell a bleak story: Papyrus will shut all its Canadian stores; athleticwear retailer Bench will do the same. After 50 years, Mega Bloks is closing its 580-person factory in Montreal. Bombardier is being dismantled in front of our eyes. And analysts anticipate worse losses to come.

As the economic landscape has changed, so too has the political. In every provincial election since 2018, the winner has been a conservative or centre-right government. This trend has led many to conclude that the electorate has shifted to the right.

That thinking is mistaken. Instead, what we have seen is a shift toward populism.

Conventional wisdom has taken hold that says these impressive provincial majority victories represent an endorsement of a right-wing agenda.

But the proof is in the polling and it suggests otherwise. A December 2019 poll found 69 per cent of Ontarians disapproved of Premier Doug Ford, while 50 per cent had a negative view of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Trouble came for both when they began to pursue right-wing, fiscally conservative policies.

In contrast, Quebec Premier François Legault did not suffer the same fate. He has tied his political fortunes to Bill 21, a brazenly populist piece of legislation that also happens to be supported by nine out of ten Quebecers.

Circumstances have driven Canadians to become increasingly focused on themselves and their pocketbooks. Who can blame them? It is difficult to be generous to those who come after you, if you are faring worse than those who came before you.

It’s not that Canadians have given up on grand projects of social cohesion or nation-building. It’s simply that they feel they cannot afford them. So rather than elect Kenney to get spending under control at Alberta Health Services, he was elected to build a pipeline and deliver the jobs that would come with it.

In Ontario, voters turned to Doug Ford because of an affordability crisis, expecting him to deal with unsustainable increases to the cost of living, from hydro prices to gas prices to taxes.

This populist turn is constraining the ability of politicians to dream big and undertake nation-building projects. No sane prime minister today would undertake the GST; none would pursue a pioneering free-trade agreement. Just as short-termism has taken hold on Bay Street, it has taken hold in corridors of power.

As politicians come to embrace populist sentiment, corporate Canada should expect provincial or federal governments to act against them. So, as it has gone elsewhere in the world, where populist governments are in power in some of the world’s largest democracies, it will go here.

In India, Narendra Modi was first embraced by business, but he has since brought policies effectively skimming 60 per cent off corporate profits. In Indonesia, President Widodo has nationalized large swaths of the economy. President Trump has both waged a trade war and subsidized the farmers who are its primary victim.

The trend is not constrained to right-wing politicians: New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is young, liberal, and populist. Mexico’s new president is raffling off the presidential plane in an act of working-class solidarity.

Already, our federal government has come for the pharmaceutical industry with mandated reductions in the price of patented medicines; they have come for the telecommunications industry with a pledge to cut the price of phone bills by 25 per cent despite lacking any policy mechanism to effect such a change.

Canada is not immune to populism. In fact, we may already find ourselves firmly in its grip.

Life of Brian

This week on the “Life of Brian” edition of Political Traction, host Amanda Galbraith sits down with former New Brunswick Premier and Navigator’s newest colleague Brian Gallant. The two will unpack his impressive career in politics, which include balancing the budget and improving education, and discuss what he’s been up to since leaving office in 2018. Then, the two will go head-to-head in our rapid fire round, with off-the-cuff thoughts on Pete Buttigieg, tennis and seafood.