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Alberta’s post-truth election? Why trust may not matter anymore



Accused by her opponent of breaking the law, Danielle Smith looked squarely into the camera in last week’s provincial leaders’ debate and told Albertans the ethics commissioner’s findings “confirmed that I did not direct or interfere in any COVID related cases.”

Smith’s exchange with NDP Leader Rachel Notley came just hours after a damaging report from Alberta’s ethics watchdog concluded that “Smith contravened [section three] of the Conflicts of Interests Act in her interaction with the minister of justice and attorney general in relation to the criminal charges” faced by Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski for urging truckers to continue to block the Canada-U.S. border crossing near Coutts, Alta., in February 2022.

Historically, before the current era of post-shame politics, lawmakers got in trouble for running afoul of the law and ethics rules. Recent public opinion polls, however, suggest Smith appears poised to win next week’s election. Political scandals don’t appear to exact the same political price anymore in our modern, post-truth politics where partisans increasingly overlook their leaders’ once fatal transgressions.

“Partisanship is a hell of a drug,” says Feodor Snagovsky, an assistant professor with the University of Alberta’s political science department who studies identity politics in Canada.


The effect of partisanship is evident in Alberta voters’ evaluations of both Smith and Notley’s trustworthiness, according to 45,616 respondents who participated in CBC News’ Vote Compass from April 30 to May 23.

Notley seen as more trustworthy: Vote Compass

On average, users of CBC News’ online civic engagement tool do not find Smith all that trustworthy.

On a score out of 10, Smith only averaged 2.3 amongst people who responded to CBC News’ online civic engagement application developed by political scientists.

Notley’s 5.4 out of 10 average score for trustworthiness doubles Smith’s rating, in fact.

While NDP supporters, not surprisingly, gave Notley a 7.6 out of 10, UCP supporters surveyed by Vote Compass scored Smith lower — 5.8 out of 10 on average.

Notably, United Conservative Party supporters gave Notley 1.9 out of 10, close to the score Smith received — on average — from all Vote Compass users.

Essentially, UCP supporters told Vote Compass they don’t trust Smith all that much, but they’re still going to vote for her.

Increasingly, party identification — not policy preferences or concerns about trustworthiness — matters more in politics.

It’s become “my party, no matter what” for many partisans.

So, no surprise, the party faithful overlook their leaders’ missteps, including even contravening well-established ethical guidelines that preclude politicians from interfering in the administration of justice.

Longtime conservative voter Don Rausch questions the significance of the “so-called interference” of Smith in Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski’s criminal case.

“I think it’s a little overblown,” he told CBC’s West of Centre podcast host Kathleen Petty.

“I think this happens every day. People with influence over all kinds of judges do all kinds of things. This is not an exception,” added Rausch, a retired oil industry executive specializing in international business development and a member of CBC News’ citizens’ panel during this election.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, left, and UCP Leader Danielle Smith prepare for a debate in Edmonton on May 18. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Political interference in the justice system is, in fact, rare. And the ethics commissioner’s conclusion that Smith contravened the Conflicts of Interests Act is unprecedented.

“Political partisans,” said Snagovsky, “see things through the lens of their own partisanship … and seeing things through the prism of your team and the way that your team conditioned you to view things is really powerful.”

And politically, there appears to be a big advantage, especially for politicians on the right, to rip up the old rule book and crash through the usual guardrails that once constrained politics and government.

Many of their supporters like it and reward it.

Group identity, grievance politics and status threat

In her much talked about 2018 book explaining polarization in U.S. politics, political scientist  Lilliana Mason illustrates how racial, religious and cultural identities have neatly aligned with political identities.

Partisans not only work hard to dismiss information that doesn’t fit with their preferred party, they also want to see their political team win at all costs. Mason’s book highlights how even moderate partisans feel more compelled to beat their opposing political party in an election than see public policy they actually like become law.

In her 2019 book explaining Donald Trump’s populist politics, noted political philosopher Wendy Brown argues that Trump’s transgressions — sexual abuse, adultery, paying hush money to porn stars, tax avoidance — prompts cheers and chants from his supporters because his abuses of power reclaims the power they lack. Trump, by this logic, is the avatar of their grievances — and voting for him exacts a revenge on a system that betrayed them.

These feelings of partisanship get dialed up when the status of the group gets threatened.

A bearded preacher speaks into a microphone to his supporters. A Canadian flag is behind his head.
Preacher Artur Pawlowski addresses media and supporters outside the Lethbridge Courthouse on May 2. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Like a prairie grass fire, a bonfire of resentment and anger burns at the centre of conservative politics in Alberta. Smith often stokes worries about Alberta’s status in Confederation to her own advantage.

The radio host turned politician frequently portrays herself as standing up for Alberta against Alberta’s foes, including the federal government.

Smith has Alberta’s back — and her partisan supporters have hers.

Post-shame politics

Conflicts of interest allegations toppled two premiers — Glen Clark and Bill Vander Zalm — in British Columbia in the 1990s.

But the old rules, whereby shame and disgrace precipitated both of those leaders’ exits from politics, don’t appear to apply any longer. As the former U.S. President Donald Trump proved time and time again, the old political rules don’t apply if you simply ignore them.

Trump showed no shame, even turning old television footage of him bragging about groping women that surfaced weeks before his election win in 2016 to his advantage with claims that the elite media and establishment were determined to destroy him.

“I think [political] leaders since Donald Trump have realized that if they just sort of stay in the game, they’ll be fine, that they can just keep either denying or if they just last long enough, the media will eventually pay attention to something else,” said Snagovsky.

Justin Trudeau, for instance, took responsibility but did not resign in 2019 when the federal ethics commissioner concluded that the prime minister violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to influence then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to step in and resolve a corruption and fraud case involving the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group.

Danielle Smith, wearing a royal blue blazer and matching shell and a gold link necklace looks up as she speaks into the microphone in this closeup photo.
United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith speaks following the Alberta election leaders debate in Edmonton on May 18. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau also apologized to voters for violating federal conflict laws with his visit to the Aga Khan’s island in the Bahamas.

The old rules relied a lot on politicians policing themselves, and adhering to norms.

And shame is not legally binding.

Look no further than the U.S. Congressman George Santos, who faces multiple criminal charges and ethics  investigations.

The freshman Republican from New York appears deaf to the loud and continuous calls for him to resign.

Post-shame politics corrosive effect

While politicians uncomplicated by feelings of guilt appear able to weather even the nastiest of political storms, the enduring — and worrying — effect comes in the lasting stain it makes on our wider politics and the trustworthiness of all politicians.

Voters, worry some political scientists, come to distrust the entire democratic process, seeing it as rigged.

This, in turn, makes people more open to dirty politics to counter their opponents.

“It definitely creates the impression that my opponents are doing this, so I might as well do it,” said Snagovsky.

But the University of Alberta political scientist stresses the worst thing that we can do is accept this cynical take on politics.

Getting past post-shame politics

Not all UCP supporters have given Smith a pass on her contravention of Alberta’ Conflicts of Interest Act.

Former Calgary city councilor Jeromy Farkas, a conservative stalwart who placed second in Calgary’s mayoral race in 2021, called Smith’s claim that Alberta’s ethics commissioner cleared her of wrongdoing “brazen” on CBC Radio’s Calgary Eyeopener last Friday.

“It really proves why we need to speak out, to hold our own side to account,” said Farkas.

In addition to Farkas, Jim Foster, who served as PC premier Peter Lougheed’s attorney general and later as a Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, endorsed Rachel Notley and the NDP this week, saying he was “deeply concerned” about the ethics commissioner’s findings.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pictured in Seoul, South Korea with Canadians flags in the background.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to voters for violating federal conflict laws with his visit to the Aga Khan’s island in the Bahamas in 2017. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

“If you applied the criminal code lens to [Smith’s] actions, it raises the serious prospect the Premier may have broken the law by attempting to pressure the Attorney General over the prosecution of Artur Pawlowski,” Foster said in a statement. “The Attorney General should have resigned after this call with the Premier occurred. An independent investigation to protect our democracy and independent justice system should be considered.”

As well, Doug Griffiths — a longtime Progressive Conservative who served in Premier Ed Stelmach’s government — also is voting NDP in his Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville riding, stressing that the UCP under Smith “are conspiratorial,” “feeding anger,” and “anti-science, anti-truth, anti-fact.”

Snagovsky encourages voters and politicians to call out norm-busting by politicians and to pay special attention to democratic ideals and the rule of law.

“The worst thing that we can do,” he says, “is to not talk about it, the worst thing we could do is just to say, well, that’s just the way politics goes.”

“If you sort of throw your hands up like that, then it becomes really normalized.”

How Vote Compass data is gathered and interpreted

Developed by a team of social and statistical scientists from Vox Pop Labs, Vote Compass is a civic engagement application offered in Alberta exclusively by CBC Radio-Canada. The findings in this story are based on 45,616 respondents who participated in Vote Compass from April 30 to May 23, 2023.

Unlike online opinion polls, respondents to Vote Compass are not pre-selected. Similar to opinion polls, however, the data is a non-random sample from the population and has been weighted in order to approximate a representative sample.

Vote Compass data has been weighted by gender, age, education, region and partisanship to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Alberta according to census data and other population estimates.



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Dozens arrested in Hong Kong on Tiananmen crackdown anniversary



Police in Hong Kong have detained dozens of people on charges of “breaching public peace”, including a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers and a man who held a candle, during a crackdown on commemorations of the anniversary of the bloodshed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Restrictions in Hong Kong have stifled what were once the largest vigils marking the anniversary of the bloody crackdown by Chinese troops on pro-democracy demonstrators, leaving cities like Taipei, London, New York and Berlin to keep the memory of June 4, 1989, alive.

Near Victoria Park on Sunday night, the previous site of yearly vigils, hundreds of police conducted stop and search operations, and deployed armoured vehicles and police vans.

Police took away more than a dozen people at the scene, according to the Reuters news agency, including activist Alexandra Wong, 67, who carried a bouquet of flowers, a man who held a copy of “35th of May”, a play on the Tiananmen crackdown, and an elderly man standing alone on a street corner with a candle.


“The regime wants you to forget, but you can’t forget… It [China] wants to whitewash all history,” said Chris To, 51, who visited the park in a black T-shirt and was searched by police.

“We need to use our bodies and word of mouth to tell others what happened.”

In a statement, police said 11 men and 12 women aged between 20 and 74 were detained on suspicion of “breaching the public peace at the scene”.

A further four people had been arrested on Saturday for “seditious” acts and “disorderly conduct”, and four more on suspicion of breaching the peace.

‘Shameful campaign’

Discussion of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square – when China’s Communist Party sent in troops and tanks to quash peaceful protests – is highly sensitive for Chinese authorities and commemoration is forbidden on the mainland.

Hundreds – by some estimates, more than 1,000 – were killed.

Commemorations of the event have also become increasingly off-limits in Hong Kong since China imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, effectively barring anyone from holding memorial events.

After the enactment of the security law, Tiananmen-related visual spectacles, including statues at universities, were also removed. Three leaders of the group that used to organise the vigil were charged with subversion under the law. The group itself was disbanded in 2021 after being informed by police that it was under investigation for working on behalf of foreign groups, an accusation the group denied.

Most recently, books featuring the event have been pulled from public library shelves.

Ahead of the anniversary, senior officials in Hong Kong warned people to abide by the national security law but refused to clarify if commemoration activities were illegal under the legislation. Authorities also tightened security across Hong Kong, deploying as many as 6,000 police, including riot and anti-terrorism officers, according to local media.

Following Sunday’s arrests, the office of United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said in a tweet that it was “alarmed by reports of detentions” in Hong Kong and called for the “release of anyone detained for exercising freedom of expression & peaceful assembly”.

Amnesty International also condemned the detentions, saying the use of colonial-era sedition charges against activists and the persistence of non-conforming voices “lays bare the futility of the authorities’ attempts to enforce silence and obedience”.

It added: “The Hong Kong government’s shameful campaign to stop people marking this anniversary mirrors the censorship of the Chinese central government and is an insult to those killed in the Tiananmen crackdown.”

Despite the anniversary crackdown, some Hong Kong individuals and businesses quietly marked June 4.

A shop gave away candles, while a bookstore displayed Tiananmen Square archival material. Jailed Hong Kong activist Chow Hang-tung, one of the leaders of a group called The Alliance, which used to organise the June 4 vigils, said on Facebook that she would hold a 34-hour hunger strike.

‘Clear conclusion’

In Beijing, meanwhile, Tiananmen Square was thronged with tourists taking pictures under the watchful eyes of police and other personnel but with no obvious sign of stepped-up security.

Ahead of the anniversary, a group of mothers who lost their children in the Tiananmen crackdown sought redress and issued a statement renewing their call for “truth, compensation and accountability”.

“Though 34 years have passed, for us, family members of those killed, the pain of losing our loved ones in that one night has tormented us to this day,” the group said in a statement released by the New York-based watchdog Human Rights in China.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning, when asked about the government’s response to events around the world to mark the anniversary, said in Beijing on Friday that the government had already come to a “clear conclusion about the political turmoil in the late 1980s”.

In democratically-governed Taiwan, the last remaining part of the Chinese-speaking world where the anniversary can be marked freely, hundreds attended a memorial at Taipei’s Liberty Square where a “Pillar of Shame” statue was displayed.

Kacey Wong, an artist who is among dozens of Hong Kong residents who have moved to Taiwan, said more than 30 years of commemorating the 1989 protests had made it a part of life.

[“Detained” below]

Wong said an artist friend, Sanmu Chen, had been detained along with others while attempting to stage a public street performance in Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.

“So, it’s all engrained in our subconscious that we should care and practise our sympathy towards other people who are yearning for democracy and freedom,” Wong said.

Taiwan Vice President William Lai, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate in next January’s election, wrote on his Facebook page that the memory of what happened in Beijing in 1989 must be preserved.

“The event commemorating June 4 has continued to be held in Taipei, which shows that democracy and authoritarianism are the biggest differences between Taiwan and China,” he said.

Vigils were also held around the world, from Japan to Australia, with people standing with candles next to images of the brutal crackdown.

In Sydney, dozens of demonstrators rallied at the Town Hall, chanting “Free Hong Kong”, while holding up yellow umbrellas, the symbol of pro-democracy protests since 2014, and placards.

And in London, before marching to the Chinese embassy, protesters staged a re-enactment featuring a blow-up tank and women dressed in white, emulating a statue to liberty set up on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

A 59-year-old poet from China’s Sichuan province told the AFP news agency at the Trafalgar Square rally that his family fled soon after the Tiananmen crackdown.

“Chinese people in my generation know what happened but the younger ones, not really,” said the man, who declined to be named for fear of Chinese reprisals.

“Their parents, their grandparents, need to keep up the knowledge and we all need to remember at events overseas like this.”



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Trudeau continues to stand by David Johnston despite calls for him to step down



Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is committed to keeping David Johnston in place as Canada’s special rapporteur on foreign interference, despite a majority of MPs voting to call on him to resign.

Trudeau said in Toronto Friday that he looks forward to public hearings the former governor general is expected to hold “across the country” over the coming months before he releases a final report by the end of October.

“He is taking very seriously this question and he is digging into the facts,” Trudeau said.

The House of Commons passed an NDP motion earlier this week, with the support of Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs, that urged Johnston to step aside and asked the government to call a public inquiry.


Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said in Winnipeg today that Johnston has to go but wouldn’t name a potential replacement.

“All the parties in the House of Commons should come together and agree on someone who is not partisan, not connected to any party leader and who has a track record of objectivity, preferably as a judge,” he said.

Poilievre has criticized the special rapporteur role as a “fake job” and questioned Johnston’s ability to objectively scrutinize the Liberal government’s handling of alleged foreign meddling because of his ties to the Trudeau family.

David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, arrives to present his first report in Ottawa on May 23, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Poilievre is refusing to review a classified portion of Johnston’s initial report into foreign interference, saying it would prevent him from publicly criticizing the federal government on the subject.

Johnston has defended his integrity and downplayed his connections to the prime minister, saying this week he intends to stay on in his role.

“When I accepted the mandate to act as independent special rapporteur, I did so with full knowledge of the fact that the work ahead would be neither straightforward nor uncontroversial,” Johnston said in a media statement earlier this week.

“I deeply respect the right of the House of Commons to express its opinion about my work going forward, but my mandate comes the government. I have a duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed.”

Trudeau accused Poilievre and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet of letting political arguments and political attacks get in the way of facts.

“They have refused to get security briefings on the actual facts surrounding the intelligence and the question of foreign interference, because they want to continue to smear a man of unimpeachable integrity and deep commitment and service to Canada,” Trudeau said.



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From power to powerless: The high costs of a political life



Life after public office is not always a stream of plum assignments. Dealing with defeat can be devastating

Current Liberal House Leader Mark Holland has spent nearly his entire career in politics except for one four-year gap after losing a close race in the 2011 federal election. That loss was so crushing he attempted to take his own life.

“I volunteered and lived in my community my entire life,” Holland told the National Post. “You put your heart and soul on the line, and when you lose, it’s hard not to take it personally. You feel personally rejected, and that’s really hard to get over. You feel like your neighbours and the people you’ve been working alongside forever have suddenly rejected you.”


Holland told the story of that loss last October while testifying before the procedure and House affairs committee. He made the shocking public admission of his suicide attempt in front of his peers.

“Because I had thrown my entire universe into this enterprise at the expense of unfortunately a lot of other things I should have taken better care of, I was in a really desperate spot,” Holland said during his testimony.

“I was told I was toxic, Conservatives hated me, no organization would want to hire me. My marriage failed, my space with my children was not in a good place, and most particularly, my passion, the thing I had believed so ardently in and was the purpose of my life was in ashes at my feet.”

Attempting to end his life served as the “genesis” of Holland seeing his life differently and “reframing the choices” he faced.

When Bill Morneau resigned as Finance Minister in 2020 he went on to a fellowship at Yale, joined CIBC’s board of directors and wrote a book released earlier this year. Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney landed at Calgary law firm Bennett Jones. While many Canadians assume life after politics is a stream of board appointments and plum assignments, it isn’t always an easy landing. Being an elected official is a unique profession as the job’s singlemost important qualification is appealing to people and garnering the most votes on election night. Being defeated can be a devastating blow to one’s self worth.

You put your heart and soul on the line, and when you lose, it’s hard not to take it personally

Mark Holland

Holland told the National Post that being a politician in an all-encompassing career, and having it suddenly taken away was traumatic. “It’s so much part of your identity, that it takes a while to get over,” he said.

Léo Duguay, who until 1988 represented the Winnipeg-area riding of Saint Boniface-Saint Vital for the Progressive Conservatives, said that Holland’s experience is not uncommon among former MPs transitioning to private life after politics.

“Some were very lucky, I was one of them. Some people right away find a job and something they like, and they’re good,” he said.

“Some people never expected to lose — so there’s that shock of people you thought were your friends and supported you and voted for you, to find that a whole bunch of people didn’t vote for you, and you’re out.”

Leo Duguay (left) with Don Mazankowski and Jim Prentice in 2010.
Leo Duguay (left) with Don Mazankowski and Jim Prentice in 2010. Photo by Postmedia

Dugay, who has served as president of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, said depression and suicidal thoughts aren’t unheard of among their ranks. “For the people who lose, and even those who planned their loss, the shock is much greater than they thought,” he said.

Tiziana Casciaro, a professor of organizational behaviour at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said “transitional trauma” is a very real phenomenon, rooted in the gain and sudden loss of power. “It’s a basic need that we all have, to feel that we are in control, to some extent, of our existence, that we can influence the world around us,” she said.

“When you’re in politics and voted into office, you’re given control over resources that many value, and therefore you become important in their eyes.”

Losing an election, she said, is a blow like nothing else in the corporate world. “A position in a corporate or business environment is accomplished through the work you do,” she explained, saying that your continued employment in most jobs is based on your perceived value.

“You don’t have to put your name out there in front of thousands or millions of people — depending on the scope of the election — and be judged by them. In a sense, you’re much more vulnerable.”

Some have no idea how to look for a job, because they’ve never done that

Léo Duguay

While MPs who’ve accumulated at least six years of service qualify for a government pension, Dugay said about 40 per cent of former parliamentarians aren’t eligible. In nearly all cases, MPs who resign or are voted out are eligible for a one-time severance allowance of 50 per cent of their annual salary, as well as access to transitional benefits including education funding.

“We’ve found people who didn’t say a word and went back to their communities, and five months later are unemployed — they don’t know what to do,” Dugay said. “Some have no idea how to look for a job, because they’ve never done that.”

For Sue Barnes, who represented London-West for the Liberals for 15 years, the realities of her narrow October 2008 election-night loss hit fast.

“One of the things that affected me immediately was going from masses of emails and your calendar being filled every weekend with events … because somebody’s replaced you,” she recalled.

Sue Barnes, left, shakes hands in London, Ont.
Former Liberal MP Sue Barnes (left) in London, Ont.

Barnes said she experienced feelings of grief over her loss for at least a year. “Not for the job, but what it meant to me,” she explained. “The connection to people working hard and solving problems —I really missed the intellectual stimulation of the job.”

People don’t know what to say to you — it’s very socially isolating

Holland, who lost by less than 3,300 votes to Conservative candidate Chris Alexander in the 2011 election, had similar recollections.

“You move from your calendar and phone constantly being filled to suddenly all of that being displaced and being completely silent,” he said. “You realize how voracious this life is, how much it takes over so many elements of your life, and you’re left to fill those back in.

He also found that after leaving office some people just avoided him. “It’s not that people don’t like you anymore, it’s just awkward,” he said. “People don’t know what to say to you — it’s very socially isolating.”

Casciaro, who co-authored a book on the topic titled Power for All, said serving at the will of the people — and suddenly having those same people take your power away — can impact one’s sense of self-worth.

“You lose that, and you lose at the same time two of the most basic things that any human being really has — protection from harm and the uncertainty of life, and you feel like you’re at the whims of the world and this notion that you don’t matter as much because you aren’t in control of things that are highly consequential for a lot of people.”

While Holland would eventually run again and win in 2015, he spent much of his four-year hiatus rebuilding his life.

“When you do this work, as a member of Parliament, there’s no plan B,” he said. “It is all-consuming, you give every inch of yourself, you don’t have time to plan what you would do if you were to lose — you can’t go into an election thinking you might lose.”

Barnes, who was a lawyer before politics, had to face the realities of being an unemployed 56-year-old looking for a new line of work. “I was 15 years out-of-date,” she said about the possibility of restarting her law practice.

She recognizes that her pension-eligible years of service left her in a better spot financially than others, which she credits with giving her some options.

“I loved the work, but I was exhausted by it,” she said. “It catches up to you after a while.”

If you’re thinking about suicide or are worried about a friend or loved one, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1.833.456.4566 toll free or connect via text at 45645, from 4 p.m. to midnight ET. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.


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