Inkless dialogue: the transcript

Paul Wells talks GG, detainee docs, Justin Trudeau, the monarchy, Pirate Parties and more

Macleans.ca: Chat will start at 3:00pm EST, you can submit you questions or comments before then. As usual, keep your questions clean and well written if you would like them to be answered.
InklessPW: All right. Let’s see if this works. If it does, let’s live the dream, everyone!
SeanStok: Why do the Liberals increasingly seem to lack focus? I don’t know if it’s Ignatieff or the broader ‘brain trust’, but they seem fundamentally unable to hone in on a substantive matter and stick with it cohesively. Why?
InklessPW: Sean, I’m not sure it’s fair to say the Liberals “increasingly” lack focus, as they haven’t been busting out with focus ever since they lost the 2008 election on a focussed program of taxing carbon and using some of the savings to cut income taxes. I think it’s fair to ask what Michael Ignatieff wants to do in politics — or at least what he wants to do that would be different from what the government is doing. It’s also fair to note that he’s begun to address that question, especially in the speech he gave at the end of the Canada 150 conference in Montreal. (…)
InklessPW: But escapades like yesterday’s scrum on renewing the Governor General’s mandate don’t help him. At worst, it’s a dreadful attempt to politicize the Crown (Colleague Coyne’s interpretation). At best, it’s random and distracting. It’s not a great day when spectators who are giving the Liberal leader the benefit of the doubt conclude he’s not sure what he’s saying or doing.
Craig: Read your Afghan piece in the print addition. Give the change you think is/maybe taking place, what do your think Harper (or Parliament) will do as we draw closer to 2011?
InklessPW: Craig, I’m honestly not the most reliable guide on what the government should do in (and about) Afghanistan after 2011. I’ve been all over the map on that, sometimes calling for the mission to be extended, sometimes calling for it to be cut short. All I can say is, I would really like any decision to be evidence-based, not inspired by a desire to keep a promise the prime minister made in 2008, an eternity ago by the fast-moving standards of the Afghan theatre.
dejrabel: lol Why don’t you guys purchase the Mcleans.ca web address? That’s where I end up more than half the time that I’m looking for a Coynegasm.
InklessPW: We are stuck hoping you folks will learn how to spell our magazine’s title. So far, 106 years in, it’s going so-so.
Adam: Does the Conservative Party lack new ideas or is it just Harper’s obesession with tactical positioning that is dragging them down?
InklessPW: Adam, I’m not sure they’re being dragged down. I know, I know, Harper has never held a majority of the House. Which makes him sort of like Lester Pearson. What he has done is governed, without interruption (OK, without interruption imposed by anyone but himself and the GG), for close to four and a half years. During that time, I believe he has sought to change the attitudes and comportment of the Canadian electorate more than the objective policy landscape: he does tactics, not governance. That’s really frustrating for a lot of people. But one thing that’s worth noting is, while the Harper Conservatives have been stuck below an absolute ceiling of about 38% in polls, and usually closer to 32%, they have also never sunk below about 29%. Contrast with, say, Trudeau and Mulroney, whose popularity was roller-coaster unpredictable. Harper has a hard floor, something his opponents should contemplate more often.
Mark: Paul, I recall reading you have recently become a convert to proportional representation. What do you think are the chances that a majority of federal MPs might ever share your opinion?
InklessPW: Really low. What would help would be if any province could pass an electoral reform that stuck and seemed, from the outside, to work. For that to happen, advocates of reform MUST ABSOLUTELY admit to themselves that all reforms proposed to date were too complex to be embraced by enough voters. Instead, reform advocates prefer to whine about the dumb voter. That rarely works well.
peter: What do you think is the explanation for the recent Chritie Blatchford piece falling in such black hole? Do you think her angle repudiates Colvin’s story?
InklessPW: I hope everyone reads Blatch’s column from the weekend, and Tim Powers’ blog post, also in the Globe, saying everyone should read Blatch’s column. Colvin’s testimony should have kicked off a debate, and several months after she spent a weekend dismissing Colvin with cheap contempt, it’s good to see Christie rejoining the debate. I’d add that any point of view supported by a marquee Globe columnist and a noted Globe blogger is not exactly in a “black hole.”
AJP: Is it just me, or do you see the connection between the Wildrose Alliance and the Federal Tories? Danielle Smith is unwaveringly supportive of Harper, has his former inside man as one of her top guys, and they share strategists like Ezra Levant. Coincidence?
InklessPW: AJP, Wildrose is more an illustration of the divisions in the federal Conservative party than of a straight-line connection between Harper’s party and Smith’s. Very roughly, former Reformers like Wildrose a lot, whereas former Progressive Conservatives — and there still are a lot in Alberta, especially in Calgary — think shifting support from the Stelmach Conservatives is pointlessly divisive. Both groups are well-populated, so far they manage to remain civil to one another, and I think the rift is more interesting than potentially dangerous to the federal Conservatives, as this is not really their fight.
Out West: Paul, with the new trade deal signed by AB, BC and Sask last week do you think that the EU-Canada free trade deal is more likely? Also, is the gradual expansion of this agreement what will end interprovincial trade barriers?
InklessPW: I do know for a fact the provinces have surprised European negotiators with their seriousness in attempting to deliver a coherent internal Canadian market for the purposes of free-trade negotiations. The “buy Canada” deal, which contained important provincial concessions on procurement, was one piece of evidence. So are the assorted interprovincial trade deals. I used to joke that Canada-EU trade couldn’t work because “Canada isn’t a real country, but Europe is.” That seems to be changing. Of course many hard decisions still lie ahead.
dejrabel: Is there any hope for a truly fiscally conservative party in this country?Iggy wants to find as many grand projects to spend money on as possible (ie local food)& Harper is on the treadmill of infrastructure & announcements lead to more votes.
InklessPW: We had a truly fiscally conservative part in the country once. It was called Reform and it topped out at 61 seats. (If I were mischievous I would say the Chrétien Liberals of autumn 2000 were pretty fiscally conservative too.) Stephen Harper decided a broader definition of conservatism, one based on social cues more than fiscal policy, was needed to achieve power. So far he is having a better few years than his monomaniacally fiscal-conservative critics.
AJP: Does Maclean’s have an internship program for bloggers, or if not, are you open to that idea? there are many who would love to learn from you and the folks at Macleans.
InklessPW: We have a one-year internship program, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of the people we hire for it. I’d frankly be leery of hiring young people to blog, a verb that so far in Canada means “bloviate about what reporters said in this morning’s newspapers.” We’ve had more success so far encouraging our young recruits to pick up reporting skills. Even our dear departed Colleague Kady was a print reporter for nearly a decade before she started blogging, and her qualities are the qualities of somebody who likes to dig up facts rather than pushing out opinions.
Craig: GG replacement…does it REALLY matter? (And feel free to weigh in on AC’s commentary on the Grits using it as a political point).
InklessPW: Craig, my interpretation wasn’t Andrew’s — as I’ve said elsewhere, I think Ignatieff was wandering through his day in a cheerful daze, not launching a Machiavellian plot against the (to me highly hypothetical) independence of the office of the GG. But I do like Andrew’s blog post, because it at least posits a motive for Ignatieff’s behaviour yesterday, whereas I can’t really come up with one.
Scott: Any thoughts on the new Pirate Party of Canada? There are some who think they may help engage younger and/or disaffected voters.
InklessPW: First I’ve heard of it. Godspeed, Pirates! From what little I know about European Pirate Parties, this sort of clean-government group could be a small but welcome voice.
margery: what is the mood in Ottawa re Igs Gov general comments
InklessPW: I think it’s fair to say the mood is “extremely calm.” As in, the government didn’t even bother to try to shove his comments down the Liberals’ throats at QP today, from what I saw. I think the whole thing will be forgotten within days, and Mr. Ignatieff won’t much mind.
Yijun: As an anglophone who has seemed to make quite a headway on your French language ability, I’m curious about your thoughts on the bilingual requirement for Supreme Court justices.
InklessPW: I ran into the Language Commissioner, my old friend and colleague Graham Fraser, in an airport the other day, and if anyone could persuade me it’s a good idea it’s Graham, and he almost managed it. His argument, of course, is that the SCC is an appeals court, and a disproportionate number of the appeals it hears are from Quebec courts, and a single unilingual anglo forces every other Justice to deliberate in English. And finally (…)
InklessPW: …that of course a bilingualism requirement would severely restrict the number of potential candidates. As would any competency requirement. It’s really sad that unilingual Canadians can’t aspire to the top court, but then, neither can the great majority of hard-working Canadians who don’t know much about the law. Life’s a two-by-four sometimes.
InklessPW: Anyway, Graham didn’t entirely sway me, but he sure launches into an argument with a lot of gusto.
Sol: How vulnerable is the government on the Afghan-detainee file, in the wake of the Speaker’s ruling last week?
InklessPW: Well, I continue to think the detainee file is one Canadians should care about, regardless of its (probably very limited) impact on voter intentions. We’ve had a fun four years around here, more like six years really with the Paul Martin minority, viewing every issue through the lens of its likely electoral impact, but that’s not the only reason to care about something. As for the Speaker’s ruling, it depends how the opposition parties press what the Speaker ruled is their essentially uncontested right to call for the production of any documents the majority in Parliament deems relevant. I know the Conservatives are betting that at least one opposition party won’t push hard.
SeanStok: Am I too cynical in thinking that the current ‘detainee document’ negotiations will be more influenced by the respective parties’ desire (or lack thereof) for an election than anything else?
InklessPW: You are probably not too cynical.
David: Would Canadian federal politics be improved in party leaders didn’t have the power to approve or reject candidates?
InklessPW: Yes! In fact I believe, with the Toronto historian Christopher Moore, that it should be roughly the other way around: sitting MPs should have the power to change leaders, at any time, on any day. Suddenly the choice of a local MP would become very important. Of course this sort of change is usually dismissed as “undemocratic,” which means it is too democratic.
Crit_Reasoning: Kevin Rudd’s government recently shelved its proposed emissions trading scheme until 2013. Do you think this is indicative of a broader trend?
InklessPW: Yeah. Now, Rudd absolutely still wants an emissions-trading scheme and has been stopped only by an opposition majority in Australia’s upper house. So he hasn’t really changed his mind, he’s just been stymied. But here we see something interesting: politicians generally prefer a tradings scheme over a simple carbon tax, because it’s easier to be in denial about what you’re doing. But tradings regimes are so cumbersome and complicated to implement that the number of opportunities to derail the process is multiples higher than with a simple carbon tax.
Dennis: Paul, this isn’t a question, but I read Right Side Up a few months ago, and it’s the best political book I’ve read in a while. You should write more books about this silliness we call Canadian politics. I’ll buy each one.
InklessPW: Thanks very much. Right now, though, I’d need somebody else to write each one. I may regain my self-discipline and journalistic ambition at some point. I came damned close to writing a Harper book this year. I have a hunch this isn’t the last year I’ll have a chance to do so.
Crit_Reasoning: If you were to grade all MPs based on their performance in the past six months, who would get an “A” or “A minus”?
InklessPW: Um. This question has been lurking down there in the moderation queue for a while, and I still can’t think of a lot of MPs who’d get really good grades. Generally speaking, I’m impressed with Siobhan Coady, Tom Mulcair, Bob Rae, and others. I like to tweak my colleagues by saying I’m often impressed by Pierre Poilievre, but I also say it because it’s true. I do think the general decline of our parliamentary debate, led by the morass of Question Period, makes it hard to tell who’s a good MP and who’s not. And I should admit that I suffer from a form of Pundits’ Disease, which makes me too rare a presence on Parliament Hill to observe MPs directly. My younger colleagues Aaron Wherry, Kady O’Malley, Althia Raj, Jeff Davis, and many others are way better positioned to hand out letter grades than I am.
Carolyn: Have you ever done an interview with Harper? If so, what was your impression of him in that setting?
InklessPW: I’ve interviewed him I think three times since he became Conservative leader, including most recently during the 2008 campaign, and many times before then when he was easier to get at. He’s a very strong interview, always consummately well-briefed, confident, low-key and amiable. As a bonus, he never hesitates to misstate the positions and arguments of his opponents, so an interview with Harper is always a highly entertaining festival of straw men. (…)
InklessPW: So, I’m often asked, why don’t reporters call him when he sets up a straw-man argument? One reason is because he is careful to make himself available rarely, and to provide only a very short window for any given interview. Sometimes 15 minutes, often 10. If a reporter gets caught up trying to cross-examine him on any given point, that 10 minutes drains away. So a lot of us, including me, prefer to leave an apparent contradiction hanging and get on to the next question topic. Imperfect, but there it is.
danielblouin: Jean Charest is down to 16% approval in Quebec. Is this really it for him, or is he going to enter yet another down-but-not-out phase of his political life (comedy option: leader of the federal Liberals)?
InklessPW: I’d be really surprised if Charest leads the Quebec Liberals at the next election. He’s had a long run of it, and made useful changes to the Quebec political culture, but I think he’s worn out and these assorted scandalettes will grind him down further. Will he jump back to Ottawa? No. Money, family, and an endless vacation from the likes of me will beckon him to the private sector.
Harbles: Have You found Twiiter a useful addition to your reporters toolbox or more of an ammusement?
InklessPW: I see Twitter more as a social tool and a way of staying connected with friends, although I’m happy to hear from all the strangers who follow me too. Well, most of them: anyone who pushes argument anywhere close to confrontation gets blocked. I’m not paid to tweet and I don’t need to put up with nasty people there. I’ve found I rarely need to block anyone.
Crit_Reasoning: You probably get asked this question a lot by guys on the street: Do you think we’re likely to have an election this year?
InklessPW: I get asked that a lot. I don’t know; honest people from every party admit that no party controls the agenda on this question; but my hunch is that we’ll likely stumble through to the end of the year and into the new year before there’s an election. Only a hunch.
InklessPW: This is apropos of nothing, but as I write this, Justin Trudeau is debating youth criminal justice legislation on CPAC in the background, and he’s doing a pretty good job of it.
David: Stephen Harper keeps his party under tight control. What do you think will happen to the CPC when Harper steps down?
InklessPW: I think the divisions among the “sisters” of Canadian conservatism — Loyalist Tory, prairie populist, Quebec nationalist — will re-emerge and do a lot to define the race to succeed Harper. He’s managed to forge a durable amalgamated Conservatism, but a lot of people in his party have never learned the tune or aren’t interested. So there’ll be a Jason Kenney candidate (who may well not be Jason Kenney), a Max Bernier candidate, a Jim Prentice candidate, and so on — each very offensive to a large part of the party base because each is closely identified with a faction in the party. (…)
InklessPW: That makes it possible to imagine a sleeper candidate who is not, today, closely identified with one of the factions. Somebody bilingual. Somebody who presents as a low-key central Canadian moderate, but is able to speak in red-meat social-conservative terms Reformers will love. Somebody hard to attack, who comes with a ready-to-run campaign organization close at hand. (…)
InklessPW: I speak, of course, of Diane Finley. You heard it here first. Stop giggling. I’m kind of serious.
Chris: In your opinion, given Harper’s distaste for reporters and his governments failing grade on access to information, why don’t more reporters speak out? Does the press have anything to lose by reporting there lack of access to the PM?
InklessPW: Chris, I just don’t think anyone cares if the government is mean to us. Just as I don’t think anyone cares if the government is mean to, say Carolyn Bennett or any other opposition MP. Well, some people care: typically highly politically engaged people who were already likely to vote against the Conservatives every chance they get. But elections are won and lost when people who voted for the governing party last time decide they will vote for another party next time. And those people tend to swing when they get the impression that a government used to care about them but cares no longer. That has very little to do with access to information. The prime minister understands this better than his opponents have, which helps explain why he generally manages to hang on to a modest poll avantage.
Crit_Reasoning: I’ve often wondered: Are you a monarchist? Do you think Canada should keep its ties to the British crown, post-QE2?
InklessPW: I’m this much of a monarchist: I like a clear distinction between the state and the government. I don’t care for three seconds that our head of state is, to use my illustrious predecessor Fotheringham’s phrase, “a foreigner who lives in a castle in another country.” I find that perfectly charming. It reminds us of our history, and by “our,” I mean every Canadian’s. (I’m an Adrienne Clarkson nationalist that way: she likes to tell people at citizenship ceremonies that they are inheriting all of the rights and obligations of citizenship along with the shared heritage of every Canadian, with all its fascinating contradictions.) (…)
InklessPW: So I think a monarchy is handy, on balance, to keep around, and painless to maintain. But I have struck a kind of personal deal with the Royal Family: I will support the system for as long as I don’t have to pay any attention to that horrible family.
Jason: Speaking of Justin, when do you think he makes a run at the leadership? Does he jump at the first opportunity regardless of timing, or does he wait 5-10 years to gain more experience as an MP?
InklessPW: Justin Trudeau has impressed a lot of people because he has been willing to bide his time, learn his craft, and resist overestimating himself. He does, it must be said, often show up at social functions on the Hill wearing ridiculous footwear, but nobody’s perfect. I’m not 100% sure he’ll ever run for the Liberal leadership, but I suspect he would be a candidate if Ignatieff and Rae ever became part of the party’s past. And I think his name and charm would make him a formidable, but not unbeatable, candidate.
linda: if harper is still found in contempt at the end of two weeks, can harper go to the g.g and ask for an election while in comptempt also would he call an election just before g8 and g20 would he hold these meetings while in comtempt
InklessPW: I believe the prime minister will essentially ignore any finding of contempt, if the Commons majority or the Speaker reaches such a conclusion, and continue to proceed according to a reading of parties’ strengths and weaknesses among the electorate. His estimate of those strengths isn’t always flawless: he thought he could prorogue over January and February at no cost and he was wrong. But I’m quite sure he would depict, and perceive, a contempt finding as “the opposition doesn’t like me. So what?”
InklessPW: Okay folks, that took a little over an hour. I’m going to bring this session to a close. Thanks once again for your excellent questions and all your support.
AJP: thanks for engaging with us!
c_9: Thanks Paul, always a pleasure.

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