Maclean's Live Chat with Paul Wells - Chat log -

Maclean’s Live Chat with Paul Wells – Chat log

Paul Wells on all things politics

by Welcome to Maclean’s live chat. We’ll start taking your questions at 1:00 pm est. And Paul will start answering around 1:30 pm As usual, keep your questions clean and well thought out. Thanks!
Paul Wells: OK, let’s make the magic happen. Hi everyone, Paul Wells here in Toronto (playing hooky from Ottawa for a change). Let’s go to the first question, if I can figure this software out:
@RamaraMan: UEFA Champions League Who’ll win today Stuttgart or Barcelona?
Paul Wells: RamaraMan, that’s easy. Stuttgart has powerful strikers and a really excellent defense. Barcelona is doomed.
Paul Wells: I made all of that up. Onward:
Elliott: What is the most interesting topic on which you’ve ever reported?
Paul Wells: Elliott, your question’s been up for a while and I thought about it. I really think it was the sovereignty debate in Quebec, which I covered pretty obsessively from 1994 to 2000, first for the Montreal Gazette and then for the National Post.
Paul Wells: It had everything: identity politics (the same thing at play in the Middle East or in immigration politics around the world, only (barely) calmer); a real sense that Canada was failing, without it being clear why that was; a national obsession with what Tom Courchene has called “federalism as structure” over “federalism as process” that nearly broke the country up; a constant laboratory of test cases for a reporter trying to learn how to tell when I should report what was being said straight, whether I agreed with it or not, and when to weigh in with my personal opinion. That last, of course, is a hard question for any journalist to handle, and you can draw a pretty straight line between my coverage of the sovereignty debate and my transmutation/degeneration into life as a full-time opinion columnist.
ChrisWPG: Afternoon Paul, my question is do you think there is a scandal brewing within the government and its abuse of the Access to Information Act?
Paul Wells: I’m gonna go with “no.” I think the government’s handling of the public’s right to information is, in the purest sense of the word, scandalous. This country has laws. The law in question was passed by a Progressive Conservative government — Mulroney’s — whose heritage Harper likes to claim when it suits him. And the law is based on a simple bedrock principle of democracy: people should be able to know how they are governed. This government flouts that principle every day in 100 ways. It’s one reason I get very, very angry at Robert Marleau, the former Commissioner of Information, for spending two years fiddling with his office’s internal organization and then quitting just as he was running out of excuses to hold this government more sternly to account.
Paul Wells: But is it a scandal in the sense that it would galvanize public attention and move votes in large numbers?
Paul Wells: I think to ask the question is to answer it: Nope. The handling of requests for information is what we call a “process story,” and those don’t normally occupy the centre of public debate because it’s hard to show how they touch people’s real lives. Which is one reason the Harper government is comfortable that it can get away with this kind of behaviour.
Holly Stick: How do we switch the emphasis from political gamesmanship to enacting good government. Is the media responsible for the gamesmanship obsession or are they reflecting the concerns of politicians, or other?
Paul Wells: The media (a word I dislike because it suggests we’re a monolith when many of us barely know one another) do take a lot of blame for the emphasis on political gamesmanship, but I want to try to help explain why that’s the case. I’ll do that in the next “take.” (I’m filing long answers in bits so you’re not all stuck staring at a blank screen while I compose my thoughts.) So….
Paul Wells: Think about the gradual erosion of the Ottawa news bureaus over the past several years. When I arrived in Ottawa in 1994, I was junior man in a three-person Montreal Gazette bureau. The Hamilton Spec, London Free Press, Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Sun, all had Ottawa reporters. The Globe had dedicated Ottawa beat reporters on every major policy beat.
Paul Wells: That’s all gone. The Gazette bureau went from three, to two, to one reporter, then closed. The other bureaus I named are shut. The Globe has far fewer dedicated beat assignments. The big English broadcast networks, CTV and CBC, have the same-sized bureaus today as in 1994 — but they have both launched 24-hour news networks, opening up an infinite new news hole with no new reporters to fill it. (cont’d….)
Paul Wells: So every reporter on the Hill is run ragged. They have to cover an Afghanistan briefing at 10, a Supreme Court result at 11, Question Period at 2, blog in the middle of it all, maybe shoot and cut video, and do a standup on their convergence partner’s news network at 6. (cont’d)….
Paul Wells: Now. When you’re running from pillar to post, and you’re alone in your bureau, and you have never had a beat assignment that would allow you to get to know sources and follow the broad and sometimes subtle evolution of a complex story across months and months — and when the Government of Canada has adopted, as an official policy, systematic obfuscation that makes it impossible for you to receive prompt replies to simple questions of fact, what can you actually cover? (cont’d)….
Paul Wells: You can cover the same things anyone would notice when one walks into a crowded room full of strangers: conflict and hot emotion. You can’t know which side is actually right. You can’t know whose position has evolved subtly over time. All you’re likely to be able to grasp is: Who’s furious? Who’s shouting? That’s the best explanation I have for why today’s “media” are so conflict-obsessed, superficial, and schematic. Because it’s all most of my colleagues can write about, given the workload and workplace structure they’ve inherited. OK, on to the next question….
jolyon: Bernier: Is he organizing for leadership or has PMO sanctioned Bernier to be Harper’s wingman?
Paul Wells: Jolyon, I would pay good money to know that answer to that one for sure. My best guess is that Bernier has gone rogue. He’s figured out (and I’m told, by people who are close to Harper but not in a position to actually make any decision, that he’s right) that he won’t ever be getting back into a Harper cabinet. So he finally sat himself down, realized he’s several years younger and a damn sight fitter than Harper, and started planning for the après-Harper. He’s already given more policy speeches for a hypothetical 2014(?) Conservative leadership race than Belinda Stronach did when she was an actual candidate in 2002. And yet…(cont’d…)
Paul Wells: ..go back to all the hoops Environment Canada scientists have to jump through before they make any public declaration. This government knows how to shut people up. And yet nobody’s shutting Bernier up as he makes speech after speech after libertarian speech. Tout se passe comme si Harper kind of liked having him out there, spewing fiscal-conservative stuff to quell the otherwise very dissatisfied fiscal-conservative base. So for the moment Bernier is a bit of a Schrodinger box: There’s either a leadership candidate or a Manchurian fake rebel in there, and we can’t know for now which it is.
Southie: Canada’s Aboriginal community is starting to undergo a demographic shift on the scale of what the baby boomers meant to the general population. Any plans for more coverage of the shifting mindset of Aboriginal leaders and how Shawn Atleo is differing himself from his predecessors?
Paul Wells: Southie: No plans, but would it be a good idea to cover the young Aboriginal leaders more closely? You bet. I do have some colleagues here at Maclean’s who are interested in such matters (we got bench strength here like you wouldn’t believe, as anyone who reads past the columnists in any issue of the magazine well knows) and I hope some of them will get room to run on this sort of story soon.
Sarah: What did you think of Harper’s youtube interview?
Paul Wells: Not much.
Crit_Reasoning: From Jack M.: Why must practically every politically conscious, conscientious citizen, regardless of partisan stripe, endure month after month of despair? Was it ever thus? More to the point, will it ever be thus? Are we just doomed to wander around Sinai for the next few generations, minus the manna? Would you ever advise people you liked to get involved in politics? Do you still believe? If so, why?
Paul Wells: Hello Jack via Crit_Reasoning. I’ll take the last question first. I have good friends who run for office in every election, for at least the three big non-Bloc parties, and I’m always surprised and worried for them. Their personal lives will never be the same. They will have hundreds like me, and worse, on their ass if they win, mis-hearing something they once said and then throwing it back at them inaccurately and challenging them to account for the non-existent contradiction, and ignoring the answer, and on and on and on; while the party opposite yells at them across the floor of the House. All of that goes on. All the time. (cont’d…)
Paul Wells: And yet. I do have friends who run for office. They always seem pretty happy to be giving it a shot. And the ones who win are almost always reluctant to give it up. Not because of the power (they have little); not because of the perks (basically they have staff who make it easy to get from one dingy conference room to another overcrowded reception to another meeting with a furious constituent). But because they do have the feeling of being closer to real change, or the hope of real change, than most people get to be. Many of us, in the press gallery and the public, don’t get to see the best parts. Caucus meetings where ordinary MPs can, sometimes, get a fair hearing from their party leadership and maybe put an issue on the public agenda. Committees where, when they’re not yelling, members get to put partisanship aside and try to reach a deeper understanding. There is less of that sort of stuff than there should be, but it still happens.
kcm: Do you have a feeling at all that this gov’t is any more prone to gaming the system than others you have witnessed? Or is it part of an ongoing trend – is it in any way connected to changes in the media and it’s ability to cover in depth? IOW does one lead to the other?
Paul Wells: I do think the Harper government is, in some ways, more prone to “gaming the system” than its predecessors. First, a caveat: I’ve seen no evidence that this prime minister or anyone around him is at all interested in seeking personal financial benefit from anything he does. The gamesmanship is all about gaining electoral advantage, or advancing a policy goal against an opposition that constantly has this government outnumbered. (cont’d…)
Paul Wells: I believe Stephen Harper would argue that he has to be crafty and sometimes a bit shifty because (a) he’s outnumbered (b) the steady state in Canadian politics is Liberal victory. If things work out the way they’re “supposed to,” Stephen Harper loses. Since he doesn’t want to lose, he has to keep surprising, short-sheeting, pushing observers and opponents onto the back foot (c) he can’t win a fair argument because Communists like me won’t give him a fair hearing. So he has to play fast and loose. (cont’d…)
Paul Wells: I honestly believe that analysis sells the Canadian people, Canada’s Parliament, and even the wretches in the Press Gallery short. But I believe I’ve described the prime minister’s honest perception of things, and that’s the best explanation I’ve got for some of his more outlandish behaviour.
kcm: Given you’ve painted a gloomy picture of the press being overworked and often lacking time for real context, are there any hopeful signs on the horizon for the profession?
Paul Wells: You’re going to hate this answer because it will sound so monumentally self-serving, but most weeks when I pick up Maclean’s I feel a lot better. More broadly, there are plenty of fantastic reporters who buck the general trend. Steve Chase and Campbell Clark at the Globe, a very impressive young crew at the Sun Media (sorry, Quebecor Media) Ottawa bureau, Hélène Buzzetti at Le Devoir, Dave Pugliese covering National Defence for the Ottawa Citizen and reminding us all why it’s important to have reporters with steady beat assignments…I could go on.
Cecile: What do you make of the Manning Institute poll last week that Canadians are getting more conservative? Is this wishful thinking, or is the Harper government actually shifting the electorate?
Paul Wells: Cecile, I’ve heard some colleagues share concerns with procedural aspects of that poll, but I have none of my own. And I think the broad trend it shows matches my own anecdotal observation: the country’s politics is shifting to the right. Here’s one yardstick out of many: have you looked at the NAC website lately? That’s National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Under Judy Rebick in the early 90s it had absolutely formidable political clout. Now, as far as I can ascertain (I’d be pleased to be corrected), NAC no longer even exists. That’s an omen.
Nathalie: I follow you on Twitter and enjoy your insightful commentary. Plus, you’re funny – a bonus. Now: what’s your take on Sarah Palin? What do you think she’s really up to?
Paul Wells: I think Sarah Palin is running for President. I don’t believe for three seconds that she will be her party’s nominee in 2012, unless of course she leaves the Republicans to lead some new Mavericky Maverick Party. It’s a funny thing when you’re running for high office: you can convince yourself that profoundly self-destructive behaviour is in your own interest. So Brian Tobin failed consistently to improve his French, even though it would have been pretty easy to knuckle down. And John Manley waited until it was way too late to get into the 2002-3 Liberal leadership “race.” Palin lacks the qualities of even those two, and she ran away from the only job that would allow her to work on those qualities — a governorship — because she thought it would be smarter to run a Fox talk show. This tells us all we need to know about what Sarah Palin thinks is smart.
Andrew (not P or C): Do you think electoral reform would actually change the dynamic of Canadian politics? Is it purely a cultural thing or can it be significantly changed by process?
Paul Wells: I’m a late, tentative convert to electoral reform, but I do think it could change the way our politics works. Colleague Coyne has talked about how first-past-the-post forces every party to kowtow to the gettable, gullible, median voter, reducing the breadth and range of our political debate. Why am I a tentative convert then? Because I’ve watched how electoral-reform movements tend to attract incurable process geeks who cannot stand to come up with a simple, comprehensible new system when they could come up with a seventeen-finger, revolving-around-Saturn, look-at-me-I-get-complex-voting-systems solution. And voters tend to reject those solutions when asked. So I’m not entirely sure we can get there from here.
Tom: Why does this government seem to enjoy so much stability? Is Andrew Coyne right when he says everyone’s scared?
Paul Wells: That’s one of the really interesting questions in Canadian politics today. I’ll tell you this much: there’s a lot to be said for the “Conservatives lucky, opposition in disarray” theory, which holds that if the Liberals had two ideas and three organizers they could rub together, the Conservatives would be toast. But I spent a decade listening while geniuses explained to me that Jean Chrétien was a fluke, a lucky moron, and the next guy would show him how the game really oughtta be played. We all know how that worked out. So I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the guy who just won. Harper is not unbeatable. But until somebody beats him, I will cling to my stubborn belief that he is skilled at what he does.
AlM: Next question: Andrew Coyne – single or what?
Paul Wells: Hey, back off. He’s all mine.
DRS in Toronto: Hello there. I’ve waiting over a decade to tell you that your column (for Southam, I believe) about the unfair pressure on Jean Charest to quit federal politics to run for the Quebec Liberal leadership was one of the best pieces of political commentary I ever read. It was so full of good sense I’ve never forgotten it and wish I’d clipped it out. (By the way, why is there so little space on this page to write a comment?)
Paul Wells: Because if I give you more space, they’ll never shrink my head back down to a size where I can get it through the doors here. But thank you.
@danielblouin: If you had to pick an MP (out of Cabinet if possible) whose point of view on any topic that springs to your mind nobody is listening to – but that everybody should be listening to – who would it be and why?
Paul Wells: Mike Chong, the former Conservative Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, will talk your ear off any time you let him about the amazing benefits that could be reaped from running subway systems under the downtowns of most large Canadian cities. He’s got a costed, elaborate program for doing it. He just looks so happy talking about his subways, I am always happy to get him going on it.
Andrew (not P or C): What do you think Stephen Harper might do if he actually won a majority? I wonder because there are the competing interests of re-electability and implementing a truly conservative policy platform? Do they spend 4 years pretending to be Liberals and eventually get replaced by the real deal, or get a few of their big pet projects through and spend the next cycle in the wilderness.
Paul Wells: I think if Harper won a majority — this will strike many people as a wrong-headed or naive answer, but here it goes anyway — he would not govern in a drastically different manner from the way he’s been governing already. He is obsessed with the idea that conservatism must remain competitive over the very long term — generations, not just the boom-and-bust cycle we’ve seen after Diefenbaker and Mulroney. By his lights, both men were, in part, failures, because they didn’t leave a viable conservative movement behind when they were done. So I think he would still be wary about doing anything to shock the opinion of the broad public (he is always happy to shock the opinion of the Bytown elite, but that’s not always the same thing). I believe he would still, by and large, be an incrementalist. You’re all free to disagree and I suspect many would.
DRS in Toronto: If you were an opposition strategist, what strategy would you use against Harper? Personally I’d stop the “hard-hearted meanie” line (which I think Harper actually enjoys, since it fits into his self-image as tough and stern) and go for flat out mockery. In a previous career in Ottawa, I had the (dubious) distinction of watching Harper in small gatherings and even mild teasing could really set him off like a mini-volcano. What would you do?
Paul Wells: Pretty much exactly what you’re suggesting.
LynnTO: I’ve just noticed that the chord progressions in Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) and Dani California (RHCP) are remarkably alike. Is anything in music original anymore?
Paul Wells: Nope. When we’re done here, look at this Youtube for proof:
Paul Wells:
Paul Wells: One more. Always leave ’em wanting more, and amazingly, we’ve been here for an hour, so this next one will be the last one:
Southie: When you were spending time in Europe, what was the perception of how well Canada is governed? Do you think the Foreign perception of Canada has changed much under Harper?
Paul Wells: Of course opinions on that question were diverse, but taken at the average, I’d say Canada was always seen as a welcome voice at any discussion. We were welcome, not because we had a big friend (the U.S.), but because we could, at least intermittently, be counted on to defend some big ideas without regard to who those ideas’ friends or enemies might be. Canadians were sometimes seen as flighty — we’d champion a project this week and abandon it the next, and our blessed position in the safest corner of the world made many see us as naive on questions of international security — but Canada was well regarded. I think we’ll get a chance in the runup to the Muskoka G8 and the Toronto G20 to see whether those perceptions have changed.
Paul Wells: OK folks, thanks. Those were great questions. Let’s do this again sometime.
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