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Politics misses the plotting and gossip of shady corridors – Financial Times

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Visiting the Palace of Westminster is entering an eerie portal into what will soon be Britain’s “new normal”. The corridors of power are hushed — most politicians and staffers are working from home. The floors are littered with warning stickers to keep 2m apart. The coffee shops have plastic barriers to protect baristas. And in the House of Commons itself, red crosses mark where MPs can and cannot go.

Parliament is ahead of many workplaces with its hybrid Covid-19 arrangements. In a system pioneered by Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, up to 50 MPs can attend proceedings in person and 120 others can beam in from home. When the infrastructure improves, more will be able to join and, soon, remote voting will be introduced. For an institution often decried as stuck in a bygone era, the technological transformation in just three weeks is astounding.

Yet while Sir Lindsay’s grand scheme has ensured scrutiny of the government goes on, it is no substitute for the bustling, shambolic mess of political life. Without MPs, parliament is basically a stately museum with a Tube station. The Commons chamber is crushed by silence: in the virtual sessions of prime minister’s questions, the loudest noises came from MPs unmuting their Zoom connections. The scattering of those physically present gave little cheers for their party leaders. Their efforts were a sad reminder of a better time.

MPs feel isolated from the political process. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has essentially shrunk to a “war cabinet” of a handful of ministers and officials. They take key decisions in a daily 9:15am hybrid meeting in Downing Street.No one knows who attends or what is discussed. One MP sighs: “No one has much of a clue about what is going on. Sure, the government has to get on with the crisis at hand, but many of us are feeling a bit useless.”

The cockpit of the nation will miss those critical moments when the mood of the House can forge reputations and change policy. When Heidi Allen, then a Conservative MP, delivered her maiden speech in 2015, she risked her career by decrying another round of benefit cuts. She spoke out “because today I can sit on my hands no longer”. It was brave, impassioned and worthwhile: dozens of fellow Tory MPs privately agreed. Ms Allen gave them a voice and the government relented.

A glimpse of that power reappeared this week. Mark Fletcher, the MP for Bolsover in Derbyshire, spoke about domestic abuse, which has soared during the lockdown. The 34-year-old told the few in the chamber of his “stepdad, who reigned with physical terror”. Mr Fletcher recalled the physical and mental violence he endured as a child. “Those are things that shape you, those are things that unfortunately you can never forget.” His speech was one of the best to come from the new Tories elected in December. It would not have had the same impact from his living room.

The deserted palace is lacking in plotting, too. The ill-lit corridors usually lend themselves to backroom deals. Real politics takes place in the members’ tea room, away from scrutiny. Some scheming had already gone digital — caucuses and tribes moved on to WhatsApp years ago. But virtual politicking suffers from the lack of human contact and encourages troll-like behaviour. This was partly to blame for the Brexit tribulations that turned UK politics into a global joke.

Mr Johnson’s cabinet ministers also lament the loss of intimacy with colleagues. “I’m really missing the coffee before and quick word after,” one minister says of virtual gatherings. “It’s one of the few moments where cross-departmental business can be done quickly, without civil servants. The gossip is often far more useful and interesting than the cabinet meeting itself.”

As the US Republican Steve Chabot once noted, politics is a contact sport. Lyndon Johnson won votes by grasping men by their lapels and talking them into submission. Tony Blair did the same with snug chats on his office sofa. But in the era of social distancing, contact is the one thing that cannot be adapted. Westminster will evolve through the “new normal”. But if lockdowns and restrictions continue for years, political life will suffer. Thanks to the pandemic, this parliament may prove just as restless and peculiar as the last.

sebastian.payne@ft.com

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Northern Ireland after coronavirus: three scenarios for politics and peace – The Conversation UK

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When it comes to disruptions from outside, the Northern Ireland conflict has a reputation for being immune to them. Winston Churchill observed this after the first world war, in one of the most quoted remarks on Irish politics:

… as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.

A century later, the “integrity of their quarrel”, for the most part, remains. That said, external developments like the US civil rights campaign, the end of the cold war and the EU have influenced events in the region.

So far, the coronavirus pandemic has interacted with Northern Ireland politics in some intriguing ways. At the beginning of the crisis in mid-March, the cross-community executive became split on whether to follow Dublin’s lead in immediately closing schools or stick with the UK’s more relaxed approach.

Yet since then, the first and deputy first ministers, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, have maintained a mostly united front. This has been in contrast with the three years before January 2020, when their parties wouldn’t work together, leaving Northern Ireland without devolution. The mere sight of Northern Ireland’s provincial politicians, schooled in the tribal minutia of a nationalist conflict, battling a global natural disaster has been arresting.

North-south co-operation has also been in the spotlight. This is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement. While Belfast and Dublin agreed they would share information on the virus, deficiencies in coordination have been exposed.

Another feature of the crisis in Northern Ireland has been the outpouring of support for the NHS from across society. Remarkably, murals praising this (British) institution have appeared in both unionist and nationalist areas.

Does any of this matter? When the deluge of COVID-19 subsides, there are three possible scenarios. The first is, of course, that there won’t be any long-term consequences of the pandemic and that political life picks up mostly where it left off.

However, the pandemic could, on the other hand, worsen divisions. Stormont now has its own roadmap out of lockdown, which is different to those of both London and Dublin. This has cross-community support but there is still plenty of room for unionists and nationalists to split over virus policy.

Anger at the Conservative government’s handling of the crisis, and the prominence of the devolved administrations, could hasten the end of the UK, with all the tumult that would bring to Northern Ireland. Paramilitary murders and threats have continued during the shutdown. And the dreary steeples of Brexit have never been fully out of view.

A chance to change

But a third possibility – and narrowly, the most likely – is that the virus, overall, has a stabilising influence. It could put political identity politics into perspective.

While COVID-19 is an external shock, it has shone a light on existing social realities: inequality; challenges in education; the quality of people’s environment, lifestyle and relationships; and above all, the health service. Public interest in these issues may increase over Orange-Green politics.

As the success of the non-aligned Alliance Party and Greens in the 2019 election showed, this process was already under way. Before the crisis, the main parties knew that the current period of devolution could be the last chance they get to show the public that they can govern effectively. The socio-economic damage of the shutdown may stimulate bold, unprecedented policy solutions.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster prepare to present their coronavirus plan.
PA

Irish republicans have argued that the pandemic, which respects no borders, proves the illogic of partition on a small island. But pandemics, we hope, will not be something Ireland or any country has to face often. And the problem of differing strategies between neighbouring countries is not unique to Ireland, but has been felt across Britain and Europe. The crisis may actually slow the momentum of the Irish unity discussion, which had been given so much oxygen by Brexit, especially given the looming financial pressures.

When the dust settles, Northern Ireland could have a stable executive focused on everyday politics in the north, pragmatically aligned with Dublin or London or Brussels on particular issues. In other words, the region could find itself closer to the vision of the Good Friday Agreement than it has been for some years.

What is beyond doubt is that sectarianism, Northern Ireland’s local brand of social distancing, offers no protection from an infectious disease. Whatever its legacy, COVID-19’s indiscrimination proves that the physical space is in fact a shared one. Those who live in that space share the same fate, no matter the imagined national communities to which they purport to belong.

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Politics – Moe must continue to remember his roots – Yorkton This Week

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More so than just about any business you can think of, politics is all about knowing whom you are and where you have come from.

The problem, however, is that it’s quite easy to forget all that, even under normal circumstances.

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And with the stakes so high in this COVID-19 crisis, it’s likely even harder for our leadership to remember the fundamentals of this province.

As such, Premier Scott Moe had some mixed results in being able to do so.

There is one area in which Moe has been rather successful in remembering where he has come from and reminding all of us in Saskatchewan of exactly who we are.

The Premier recently wrote: “Hats off to our farmer for perseverance and hard work this season” to congratulate that seeding was at the five-year for this date.

In a world where nothing seems normal – Saskatchewan lost a staggering 53,000 jobs in April – agriculture saw a 1.4-per-cent increase in employment in April as seeding got into full swing.

It’s done so without receiving anything resembling the federal subsidies other business are getting. So far, only $252 million has been made available to farmers across the country to deal with effect of COVID-19 – very little of which has made its way to western farmers and ranchers. Moreover, it’s only one-tenth of what the Canadian Federation of Agriculture requested.

Yet farmers are demonstrating what Moe aptly described as “perseverance” in carrying on with seeding that will be an estimated 37 million acres this year. Some of them have had to leave last year’s crop in the field because of horrific harvest conditions last fall.

Agriculture is simply soldiering on, pumping millions into the local economy as farmers buy seed, fertilizers, chemicals and fuel.

The net result is that Saskatchewan has seen an increase in exports in the first quarter of 2020, largely due to canola, pulse, agricultural machinery, oats and soya beans sales.

 It is important for Moe and others to acknowledge what we are – especially, in these tough times when the impact of the pandemic is taking its toll on all of us.

However, Moe and his government hasn’t always been quite so successful at remembering its roots, as was demonstrated by the recent Saskatchewan Health Authority driven decision to temporary close to 12 rural hospital emergency rooms as part of the SHA’s pandemic readiness plan.

One gets the need to prepare health staff everywhere in the province for the potential impact of a COVID-19 outbreak.

But the simply fact of the matter is there has been no more than one active COVID-19 case in all of central and southern rural Saskatchewan for a month. To even “temporarily” completely close rural ERs during seeding poses a very real problem.

That it comes from a government that represents all 29 rural seats is even more bizarre.

It took a letter from 21-year Arm River-Watrous MLA Greg Brkich to the SHA and to his own cabinet before the Sask. Party administration seemed to realize this.

In his letter, Brkich expressed frustration over the temporary closure of the Davidson Hospital ER – the only hospital between Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Outlook.

“Local folks are being short changed again in rural Saskatchewan” by being left without quality emergency care, Brkich wrote.

Given the history of the closure of 52 rural hospitals by the former NDP government 27 years ago, it’s especially strange that the Sask. Party government would have missed the significance of what it was doing.

To his credit, Moe took responsibility for the “communication” problem and offered assurances the closed ERs would be re-opened in mid-June.

But it does seem to demonstrate how important it is for politicians to remember where they come from.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics since 1983.

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Politics This Morning: Parliamentary group calls for creation of special Hong Kong envoy – The Hill Times

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Good Thursday morning,

A handful of Parliamentarians from Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K. have banded together to call on their governments to establish a special envoy for Hong Kong to address the situation in Hong Kong, where a new national security law from China that bypasses the city’s legislature is expected to come into effect this fall. Liberal MP Michael Levitt, the Canadian representative of the group, issued a press release saying “we must move rapidly to ensure there is a system in place for the observation and transparent reporting of the true impact this new law will have on currently legal freedoms in Hong Kong.” The group sent letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and UN Secretary General António Guterres, appealing to them for their support in providing a mandate for an envoy to be deployed when the special session convenes later this month.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said that foreign detractors who are raising alarm over the new law are applying “blatant double standards.” She argued that China within its rights to introduce the law because of the local resistance.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, in a press briefing, said the some 300,000 Canadians living abroad in Hong Kong are “very, very welcome to come home anytime.” She was asked whether the government is considering following the U.K.’s lead in pledging to admit three million people from Hong, making what he called would be one of the “biggest changes” to the country’s visa system. Ms. Freeland declined to say whether it’s being considered, only noting that “Canada  continues to be a country that welcomes immigrants and asylum seekers from around the world.”

A joint Canada-U.S. study found that hydroxychloroquine—the drug frequently touted by U.S. President Donald Trump as a preventative medication for COVID-19—is ineffective at inoculating one’s self from contracting the virus. Mr. Trump had made the claims about its effectiveness without scientific basis, saying that he was taking the drug himself.

Canada’s Supreme Court is ready to make the switch to virtual hearings amid the pandemic. Starting next week, the top court will be conducting hearings over Zoom.

All four police officers at the scene where George Floyd died now face charges for their alleged role in his death. The lesser charges include aiding and abetting, while Derek Chauvin, the white officer who was first charged, is now facing second-degree murder, which was upgraded from third-degree murder.

Former Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day stepped down from his post as a board member of Telus amid outcry over his comments equating racism with getting teased for wearing glasses during an interview with CBC. The telecom giant issued a statement distancing itself from Mr. Day, saying his views “are not reflective of the values and beliefs of our organization.” In a tweet, retreating from his remarks the previous day, Mr. Day said, “by feedback from many in the Black and other communities I realize my comments in debate on Power and Politics were insensitive and hurtful.I ask forgiveness for wrongly equating my experience to theirs.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to deliver remarks during the virtual Global Vaccine Summit, which the U.K. is hosting. The summit kicks off at 8 a.m.

In other scheduled events, the House Affairs and Procedure Committee is scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. to hear from former Speaker Bill Blaikie and former acting clerk Marc Bosc, among others. The House Finance Committee, meanwhile, is scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. to hear from a range of witnesses, including Genome Canada and the Colleges and Institutes Canada.

The Human Resources Committee, meanwhile, will meet at 4 p.m. to hear from groups such as the Canadian Women’s Foundation and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada.

The Hill Times

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