Parliamentary committees are straying beyond politics. That could be a good thing
The NDP promoted Galen Weston’s appearance at a House of Commons committee this week as if it was a heavyweight title fight — as if NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and the executive chairman of Loblaws were about to settle their differences like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Any objective ringside judge would have to score Wednesday’s match a draw. Which is not to say that hauling Weston before a parliamentary committee was a waste of time.
Parliament’s primary responsibilities are (in no particular order) debating and passing legislation, scrutinizing government spending and holding the prime minister and cabinet to account.
Calling in the head of a large grocery chain to chew him out doesn’t obviously fit into any of those assignments. But Parliament also has the ability and the power to convene and focus public attention on important issues and concerns. And it’s hard to argue that a famous or prominent non-politician appearing before a committee doesn’t generate a higher level of public and media interest than the average parliamentary hearing.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh grills grocery CEO
This sort of spectacle is perhaps more commonly associated with the United States Congress — think, for instance, of Major League Baseball players publicly testifying about steroid use in 2005. But it also seems to be an increasingly popular tactic for Canadian parliamentarians, who have also called on Facebook executives and airline executives in recent years.
When MPs manage to (mostly) stop trying to undermine each other and focus instead on a common target, they can be quite effective interrogators. Consider the incredible pressure that members of the heritage committee were able to bring to bear on Hockey Canada last fall when MPs chose to study that organization’s handling of sexual assault allegations. This week, the same committee gave Canada’s national women’s soccer team an official forum to explain their concerns about the management of Canada Soccer.
There are certainly worse ways for Parliament to spend its time. And such hearings also have the benefit of making Parliament more prominent and relevant to Canadians.
Parliament still needs to get results
But there’s also a risk involved in putting too much emphasis on confrontations like Wednesday’s showdown between Singh and Weston — at least if the public back-and-forth doesn’t lead to something substantive.
While Singh showed up to Wednesday’s meeting of the agriculture committee with a stack of what he said was 2,000 questions for Weston that had been submitted to the NDP, he wasn’t quite able to corner the grocery executive or thoroughly unravel Weston’s claims that Loblaws is doing nothing untoward in its pricing of food.
“How much profit is too much profit?” Singh asked Weston. “You’re making more money than you’ve ever made. How much profit is too much profit?”
“We’re a big company and the numbers are very large but it still translates right down to the bottom line at one dollar [of profit] per 25 dollars of groceries,” Weston responded.
Maybe there was something cathartic about Singh confronting Weston publicly and directly — at least for viewers frustrated by inflation and convinced that Weston is somehow to blame. Singh may have gained some new fans this week.
It’s also possible that the public attention will put additional pressure on major grocers to keep prices as low as possible.
But whether those companies are unnecessarily increasing prices is a point of debate. And Wednesday’s hearing didn’t settle it.
A study by the Competition Bureau might get closer to a definitive answer. Parliament might at some point decide that further action is necessary to control food prices.
But unless these closely watched hearings lead to substantive change at least occasionally, Canadians might wonder whether MPs are only interested in putting on a show.
Israel diplomats in Canada strike against Netanyahu overhaul
Israeli diplomats in Canada have joined a strike against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary.
Israeli Embassy spokesman Eli Lipshitz confirmed that mission in Ottawa is closed in accordance with a decision by Israel’s largest trade union, Histadrut.
The consulates in Toronto and Montreal are also closed and on strike.
“In accordance with the decision of the labour union (in) Israel, that civil servants are unionized under, all missions abroad are currently on strike and are closed,” Lipshitz said in a statement.
Histadrut spokesman Yaniv Levy says missions are providing only emergency services.
Workers from across a range of fields went on strike Monday in a bid to ramp up pressure on Netanyahu to scrap the overhaul plan.
The planned overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises.
Departing flights from the country’s main international airport have been grounded, universities have shut their doors and the main doctors’ union says its members will also walk off the job.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press.
How Trump’s indictment interlude has changed America’s political landscape
One of the axioms that commentators in the United States live by is that a year is an eternity in American politics. In one of his trademark overhauls of the principles of politics, Donald Trump has shrunk eternity to a week.
As a result, the tumultuous week since the former president disclosed that a New York grand jury was preparing charges against him has been transformed from an operatic overture into an indictment interlude.
And in that interlude – one in which the themes have changed markedly – several of the principal elements of the political and legal dramas surrounding Mr. Trump have been altered.
New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg meets with his grand jury again Monday to examine Mr. Trump’s role in presenting a porn star with US$130,000 in hush money after an alleged sexual encounter.
By announcing earlier this month that he expected legal action against him to proceed to the next, consequential level, Mr. Trump set in motion two contradictory developments. He fortified his profile as a victim even as he baked in the assumption that a former occupant of the White House was about to be indicted. In a week’s time, the astonishing became the assumed.
And in that brief time much of the American political landscape was transformed. Here are some of the effects of the indictment interlude:
The emergence of a new Republican litmus test
For months, Mr. Trump’s putative rivals for the party’s presidential nomination have performed an awkward rumba with the 45th president, their subtle side-to-side movements providing them with distance from him. Now the apparent imminent indictment has forced them into a gavotte, the 18th-century kissing dance that in its 21st-century version required Mr. Trump’s opponents to deplore Mr. Bragg’s legal tactics and to dismiss the notion of indicting him for actions after an alleged sexual incident as nakedly political and patently revengeful. All of these announced and probable candidates have conformed to this pressure.
The development of an uncomfortable consensus among Mr. Trump’s supporters and his opponents
The criticism from the Trump corner of conservatism over indicting Mr. Trump for the alleged payment to Stormy Daniels was unremarkable; his base marches in lockstep with him.
But the qualms among progressives were notable; the gathering concurrence in that corner of liberalism is that, in the spectrum of Trump crimes – debasing democracy, trying to overturn the 2020 election, inciting insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 – the Daniels episode is peripheral.
Moreover, the progressives argue, indicting Mr. Trump for a relatively insignificant action has the potential of removing the power of the legal action that may follow, growing out of investigations in Washington (Justice Department examinations of his harbouring of classified government documents) and Georgia (inquiries into his efforts to “find” sufficient votes to swing the state from Joe Biden’s column to his).
The changes in the architecture of the 2024 presidential election
For months the GOP nomination fight has taken the character of a Sunshine State struggle between Palm Beach (site of Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat) and Tallahassee (site of the governor’s mansion where Ron DeSantis resides, in part because of the boost of the 2018 gubernatorial endorsement from Mr. Trump himself).
For weeks, Mr. Trump had taunted Mr. DeSantis, calling him an ingrate, assailing his character, labelling him “Ron DeSanctimonious.” The Florida Governor’s political potential – he led several public opinion polls – became a Trump preoccupation. Mr. DeSantis’s failure to engage Mr. Trump was seen for a time as prudent if not brilliant.
In recent days Mr. DeSantis bowed to party pressure and joined the criticism of the New York District Attorney. At the same time doubts about Mr. DeSantis’s restraint grew as Mr. Trump made discernible gains in the polls, consolidating his position as the Republican Party leader and nomination front-runner. The gap in the RealClearPolitics running average now is 15 percentage points.
Caveat: The Iowa caucuses, the first test in the GOP nomination fight, are more than nine months away. Many swings in political support are inevitable. At this point in the 2008 presidential race, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani had a commanding 24-percentage-point lead in the Republican race and senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had a 14-point lead in the Democratic race, according to the USAToday/Gallup poll. Neither became the nominee, and the distant second-place candidates (senators John McCain and Barack Obama) advanced to the autumn general election.
The even further solidification of Mr. Trump’s profile as a defiant warrior against conventional political comportment
Mr. Trump’s recent steps into once-forbidden rhetorical territory promoted the New York Post, the onetime Trump ally owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., to label him, in a tabloid front-page headline, as “deranged.”
Saturday night Mr. Trump told a raucous crowd in Waco, Tex., that “when they go after me, they’re going after you.” Earlier in the week he threatened “death and destruction” if he is indicted, an unsettling reprise of his remarks before the Capitol insurrection. He labelled Mr. Bragg, who is Black, as an “animal,” calling him a “degenerate psychopath.”
Responding to Republican congressional efforts to investigate his investigation Saturday, Mr. Bragg said, “We evaluate cases in our jurisdiction based on the facts, the law and the evidence.”
The German Greens and the ills of green party politics
Earlier this month, the European Union was expected to vote on a law banning the sale of combustion-engine cars by 2035. But the legislation, which had been months in the making, was blocked by the German government which had initially supported it.
The about-face was yet another major disappointment for environmentalists coming from a government, which paradoxically includes a green party as a coalition partner.
While it was the liberal Free Democratic Party pushing for this position within the coalition in order to get a concession favouring the car industry (which it succeeded in doing), this development demonstrated yet again how the Greens are struggling to push through an adequate climate agenda in Germany.
Just several weeks earlier, the leadership of that same Green Party watched on as the German police brutally cleared climate protesters trying to prevent the razing of the village of Lützerath to make way for the expansion of a lignite coal mine.
Worse still, that leadership participated in striking a deal with the coal mine’s owner, energy company RWE, which happens to be Europe’s single largest carbon emitter. They claimed the deal was good for the climate, as supposedly it was going to accelerate phasing out coal and thus help meet Germany’s climate goals.
Studies, however, have shown that this is not the case; if Germany is to meet the 1.5C temperature increase limit set in the Paris Agreement, which the German government has signed and said it will abide by, then it must stop burning coal within the next two or three years, not 2030.
Last summer, the Greens also worked to open liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals with contract terms of at least 15 years. The party leadership justified their actions with the “gas shortage” following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but many of us environmentalists wondered why we need such long-term gas contracts that run way past the period necessary to expand renewable energy production to meet demand.
Looking at the policies the Green Party is supporting these days, one may think that it lost its ways and succumbed to realpolitik when it came to power at the federal level in 2021. But these “Einzelfälle” (isolated cases) – as the party leadership likes to frame them – of striking deals and making compromises on the climate agenda are not isolated at all.
Even before the Green Party joined Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government, we were used to their leadership taking decisions that directly clashed with the party’s own political platform.
In the summer of 2020, for example, I was among the hundreds of protesters who protested the clearing of part of a 250-year-old forest in the German state of Hesse to make way for a highway.
Although the Green Party was not involved in the decision to build the road, as part of the Hesse state government, it could have blocked the project on account of violations of the German and EU water law. But it chose not to.
The Green Party’s minister of transport in Hesse, Tarek Al-Wazir, justified the decision to go forward with the construction by saying that it was taken democratically and was not the party’s responsibility.
Indeed, there is quite a track record of “isolated cases” in the Green Party’s recent history.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that even with a green party in power, Germany is nowhere near fulfilling its plan to reduce emissions in order to meet the 1.5-degree target. According to Wolfgang Lucht, a sustainability science professor at Humboldt University, Germany is currently planning to emit about twice more CO2 than it could afford to within its Paris Agreement commitments.
The disappointment and frustration that many climate activists are feeling are hard to describe. Perhaps it suffices to say that after Lützerath, offices of the Green Party were attacked, occupied and decorated with “traitors” graffiti.
Many climate activists like myself believe that the top leadership of the party have grown too pragmatic and lost sight of their original goals of promoting climate justice. Indeed, it is difficult to see how green party politics in their current form can lead the way in ending Germany’s and the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and take the radical climate action needed to avert a climate apocalypse.
The question many of us are asking is whether we should give up on green politics, stop voting for the party and focus our energy on the climate movement, which is unrestrained by narrow partisan interests and corporate pressure. Some members of the Greens already have made that choice by leaving the party.
But, as emotions run high, it is important to think strategically. If we give up on the Green Party, wouldn’t we lose an important tool – one of just a few at our disposal – to affect change at the political level? And wouldn’t that play into the hands of the “enemy” – the big corporate polluters?
It is clear that green parties are unlikely to follow the same radical agenda as the climate movement. They face harsh dilemmas when in power, as they navigate the complexities of policymaking and balance the demands of their voters with the realities of governing in a coalition.
But that does not mean that we should give up and stop pressuring them to live up to their electoral promises. And it does not mean that we should close our eyes to the fact that many within the party itself disprove of striking deals with big corporations and succumbing to pressure from various lobbies.
Young members of the party, called the “Green Youth”, have been speaking up and criticising the leadership for their controversial decisions. They seem quite eager to change the course the party has taken and have been conspicuously present at climate protests, including at Lützerath.
“We wouldn’t be Green Youth if we didn’t put pressure within the party and in parliaments – that’s why we’re taking to the streets”, Luna Afra Evans, the Berlin spokeswoman for the youth branch of the Greens, said in an interview in January, as the organisation mobilised its members to go protest in Lützerath. She called the deal with RWE “a rotten compromise” and said that a “significant part of the Green Party does not support it”.
There has been open dissent even within the higher ranks of the party. MP Kathrin Henneberger, who ran for office on a platform of saving Lützerath, was the only member of the party to abstain during the vote on the resolution to demolish the village.
“Since Lützerath, debates have been conducted differently. Many have recognised that when the climate movement draws a red line, this must also be taken seriously. Nor must we allow the interests of fossil fuel companies like RWE to prevail,” she told me in a private exchange.
As much as we are disappointed and frustrated with the Green Party, we should not give up on it. We need to recognise that there is potential for radical change from within the party’s own ranks and encourage it. We also need to continue scrutinising the party’s policies and hold them to account whenever they veer away from their own declared environmental goals.
Indeed, if the climate movement, strong as it has been in Germany, continues to build pressure from the outside and from within the party, there is a good chance that we can prevent other “isolated incidents” from happening.
As we battle the formidable enemy that corporate polluters are, we must learn from them. As the noose around their fossil fuel profits tightens, they have employed every tactic, every opportunity to fight back; and they have definitely not given up on trying to influence global and national politics.
We, too, should be strategic in our fight. While I absolutely understand the frustration and have felt it myself many times over the past years, I believe that we still have a long way to go before we achieve real climate action. And until then, we will need to work strategically with all the allies we can get, even if they are sometimes swayed by realpolitik.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
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