One day after two top UCP cabinet ministers announced they would not seek re-election in May there were still few answers to be had.
After a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, national attention was slow to turn to the crash. That has now changed decisively. In the past 10 days, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, former President Donald Trump, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg have all visited the town. A lively national political debate has also emerged, but it’s one that, like the burning rail cars, has produced a lot of heat, but not a great deal of light.
The disaster has become a proxy battle where existing political divides are playing out—and where the failings of both of the contemporary parties are on clear display. The Democratic Party struggles to respond effectively to a crisis with empathy rather than technocratic policy lectures. The Trump-era Republican Party, meanwhile, says all the right things and advocates for all the wrong ones.
The conversation on the right is especially revealing. Some factions of conservative media have accused the mainstream press and Democratic establishment of ignoring the story, though in fact Fox News was just as late as its competitors. Nonetheless, Trump and other MAGA-minded Republicans, like Ohio’s newly elected senator, J. D. Vance, have embraced East Palestine as an example of how the Democratic Party has abandoned white working-class areas of the industrial Midwest. Tucker Carlson has gone farther, arguing that the response has been slow because the town is conservative and largely white.
The derailment is a curious type of crisis, because the material effects are so unclear. Unlike some other recent rail catastrophes, no one died in the initial derailment and fire—contrast that with the 47 people who died in a 2013 wreck in Quebec, near the U.S. border. The longer-term environmental effects are still uncertain. State and federal authorities claim that the water is safe to drink and that the chemicals that burned shouldn’t have long-term health harms. Many residents, who were evacuated, experienced odors and rashes, and saw the flames, are understandably not convinced.
Both the diagnosis and policy ideas that the MAGA Republicans have advanced offer little hope. Speaking in East Palestine on Wednesday, Trump claimed that the Biden administration had offered assistance only because he had come to visit. “They were intending to do absolutely nothing for you,” he said. Vance made a similar charge. But Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, though not close to Trump, said he had declined federal assistance: “Look, the president called me and said, ‘Anything you need.’ I have not called him back after that conversation. We will not hesitate to do that if we’re seeing a problem or anything, but I’m not seeing it.” The EPA did eventually move to take over the disaster response, likely in part because of pressure from Trump—but that’s different from ignoring the situation.
Vance has offered a more interesting perspective, describing a disaster that “stands at the intersection of corporate power and government power.” He’s right, and he’s also right that many residents of the region don’t trust the federal government. But these points run into the fundamental paradox of MAGA, which is the mullet of politics: populist in the front, corporatist in the back. Vance has said he wants to see higher fines for corporations like Norfolk Southern, the railroad whose train crashed. Yet when Trump was in office (as the Biden White House has been eager to point out), his signature initiatives included rolling back environmental regulations, cutting fines to corporate wrongdoers, and reducing government oversight. That even extended to eliminating rules around safety for trains transporting chemicals.
Trump has discovered that he can get away with taking actions that don’t actually help if he’s able to show up and make people feel he’s on their side. His ability to do that is one reason that East Palestine twice voted heavily for Trump. Democrats seem incapable of communicating effectively to voters in places like East Palestine, despite having the better arguments about corporate accountability and environmental safety.
And neither party has much to offer after the initial cleanup, though the intense attention on the wreck might help produce some immediate assistance to East Palestine. The town depends on the railroad, which produces some inherent risk even with good safety rules. The prospects for new economic development are dim. Trump peddles resentment, racial and otherwise, as a salve. Biden’s enormous stimulus plans may reshape the American economy but are unlikely to make much of a dent in small, depressed towns like East Palestine. “We are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw wrote in a statement over the weekend. That’s a promise he probably can’t keep. Recovery may be possible, but thriving is remote.
One day after two top UCP cabinet ministers announced they would not seek re-election in May there were still few answers to be had.
On Friday afternoon, both Finance Minister Travis Toews and Environment Minister Sonya Savage announced they were opting to spend more time with family instead of running again in the next provincial election.
Premier Danielle Smith on her Saturday radio show on QR770 noted Toews’ ability to manage through the pandemic and deliver two consecutive balanced budgets. She called Savage her “point person in dealing with Ottawa.”
“I’m grateful to both of them,” said the premier. “I’m looking forward to finding out how we might be able to continue to use their incredible talents post-election in an advisory role, because I think that they’ve done so much for our province and I want to continue to see them have an opportunity to contribute.”
Smith, in a press release on Friday, said she will appoint replacement UCP candidates for Toews’ riding in Grande Prairie-Wapiti as well as for Savage in Calgary-North West.
The two are the latest cabinet ministers who have withdrawn from the coming spring election. They join former Jobs, Innovation and Economy Minister Doug Schweitzer, who stepped down before the UCP leadership race last summer, and Minister of Trade, Immigration and Multiculturalism Rajan Sawhney and party whip Brad Rutherford who have withdrawn since Smith took office in October.
Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt said it is not uncommon to have a 25 per cent turnover in MLAs. What is different is to have so many cabinet ministers — especially single-term politicians — decide not to run again.
Adding to the intrigue is both were at one point prepared to run again. Toews was the first runner-up to Smith in the leadership race, while Savage had already secured the nomination for her riding.
He called the reasoning to spend more time with family a mere cliché but said it is difficult to know their full reasons for not running again.
He also does not expect this to be the end of the withdrawal of cabinet ministers, pointing to the potential of two more members of former premier Jason Kenney’s inner circle — Health Minister Jason Copping and Justice Minister Tyler Shandro — stepping away before May.
“You wonder how united the party is as Smith was able to rally them,” said Bratt.
Smith said Toews promised to stay on to at least deliver his fifth budget, which he did on Feb. 28. The implementation bill was passed on Thursday and he then informed the premier he was not going to run again.
Bratt said the deal could potentially have been that Toews was to stay on to get the budget passed before stepping away all along, while Savage was just “hedging her bets and keeping her options open” until the legislative session was over.
“I don’t know how you could ignore the shift in leader and the role that that plays,” he said.
Melanee Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said it is curious what changed for the finance minister. If he didn’t share the premier’s vision, he likely would not have been given the power to put the budget together.
The question is, how this will play out come election time, especially with Calgary considered to be a key battleground with both the UCP and the NDP needing to win the city to win the election.
While Calgary-North West has been a long-time conservative stronghold, Thomas said Savage stepping down could mean the riding is up for grabs.
“The NDP vote is inefficient in Edmonton. The UCP is inefficient in rural areas, which means that it comes down to who wins all the seats in Calgary,” she said.
Bratt said the fact two more high-profile ministers have decided not to run again, regardless of the publicly stated reasons, will play on the minds of the undecided electorate when it comes to the UCP leader.
“You know, people do have questions and wonder, ‘if I have doubts about Smith, well, maybe Toews and Savage and Schweitzer and Sawhney have doubts about her as well,’” he said.
Sanctions have become all the rage in international politics. The United States and its allies are imposing them on rivals with increasing frequency and severity. And those rivals are reciprocating where they can.
Now, American states, too, are increasingly getting in on the act. And that’s bad news — for the world, and for US foreign policy. A much-publicised episode of a Chinese balloon entering US airspace seems to have created new energy for such restrictions and has led to legislation being proposed in at least 11 states.
On Wednesday, the South Carolina State Senate passed a bill barring ownership of land in the state by citizens of US geopolitical adversaries Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba. The bill’s top sponsor even compared a planned purchase of South Carolina land by a Chinese biomedical firm with the Trojan Horse plot of Greek mythology.
Meanwhile, Texas State Senator Lois Kolkhorst has proposed a similar law that has drawn strong condemnation on human rights grounds but has been defended by Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor. A simple reading of the original version of this bill would lead one to conclude that any individual who holds citizenship from any of the mentioned countries, or any firms which they own, would be barred from owning property. This would have included American citizens who hold dual citizenship. Since then, the language has been softened to protect dual citizens and permanent residents but not citizens of those countries residing in Texas on a visa.
Implementation of such language would impose new and unusual due diligence requirements on common land transactions. Meanwhile, creating special restrictions on various immigrant communities to own property poses human rights concerns.
Existing sanctions laws and Treasury Department designations already block leaders from those American adversaries from transferring money into the US or owning property in the country. Meanwhile, recently introduced federal legislation aims to ban US adversaries from purchasing large swaths of farmland in the US.
So why would a state engage in what is essentially a foreign policy and national security matter?
On the one hand, some scholars see sanctions as often being a product of domestic politics, aimed at portraying muscle to the electorate, at times influenced by pressure groups such as “ethnic lobbies”. Those in this camp of scholars are more inclined to believe that sanctions are not particularly effective. If sanctions are for the satisfaction of domestic onlookers, they will not be designed and implemented with an eye towards efficacy and the security context.
Other scholars, however, argue that sanctions are indeed imposed due to a meaningful effort to address national security concerns.
Like many in the national security decision-making scholarship community, I feel both of these binary constructions frequently fail when confronted with the history of economic sanctions. The truth is that foreign policy choices are a product of complex national security matrices that accommodate both foreign policy and domestic political considerations.
Yet irrespective of one’s overall view on the efficacy of sanctions more broadly, it is hard for anyone to deny that policies against foreign nationals adopted by state governments can have little explanation other than domestic and even local politics.
In the US, the executive branch has always been best suited to make foreign policy decisions due to its clear mandate and wherewithal in this field. Congress has a constitutional role in foreign policy matters but it’s far more likely to be influenced by domestic political pressures and national anxieties.
The executive branch largely controlled sanctions policy throughout the Cold War era. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, as major threats to the homeland faded, Congressional and sub-federal forces became increasingly involved in this field.
While Congress has largely ceded its war power authority in the modern era, it has become more active in sanctioning due to an impulse of members to be seen as projecting power against American adversaries even when it interferes with the president’s efforts to engage in strategic policy.
What about state legislators and governors? They have no real national security staff nor the relevant mandate, as their elections almost always lack any meaningful foreign policy discussion and are decided based on provincial issues, whether taxes or abortion rights.
Yet their meddling in foreign policy isn’t superfluous — it can actually be reckless, for global diplomacy and for US foreign policy. Here’s how.
As written, the mentioned measures are unlikely to meaningfully interfere with the federal government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy. But one can imagine a scenario in which sanctions imposed by states do just that.
New York state and California preside over major nodes of the global banking community and the international technology supply chain. Texas itself is a major player in global energy markets. Other states can wield a more narrow version of such powers as well.
There are already examples of when New York State has targeted European firms for their perceived violation of sanctions, ignoring objections at the federal level. States can, as the federal government has often done, impose restrictions on firms operating in their jurisdiction in a way that has extraterritorial consequences.
This in turn sets up a precarious dynamic. The federal government might have to mollify or negotiate with state governments led by ambitious politicians responding to special interests or catering to local constituencies.
Equally, state governments of the party in opposition can actively undercut diplomatic efforts of the federal government using such sanctions. For example, a federal effort to ease sanctions on Cuba could create political momentum for state sanctions in Florida, where families of those who fled communist rule are a powerful lobby.
Ultimately, sanctions are a tool of foreign policy and the capacity to modulate or even repeal them is critical to accomplishing the political goals behind sanctions campaigns. For the president or Congress to have to lobby with state governments, each representing a fraction of the overall population, to alter America’s sanctions against a country would represent a bizarre new obstacle to the federal government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy obligations.
The proposed Texas and South Carolina laws are textbook examples of sanctions as political grandstanding meant for domestic consumption. They are also a reminder of the jingoistic zeal that can be nurtured and exploited by foreign policy amateurs at the state level.
As we embark upon what scholar Peter A G van Bergeijk calls the “second wave” of global sanctions, states will likely look further to getting in on the act with human rights and global affairs.
Washington’s basic ability to carry out a coherent foreign policy hangs in the balance.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
OTTAWA — Beijing says it has nothing to say about ongoing allegations that China has meddled in Canadian affairs, including those regarding a member of Parliament who has left the Liberal caucus.
Han Dong is now sitting as an Independent as the Liberal government has a rapporteur investigate claims of Chinese interference, including allegations the Toronto MP willingly received electoral support through Chinese officials.
Dong resigned from the Liberal caucus Wednesday night after Global News, citing unnamed security sources, published a report alleging that he spoke about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig with a Chinese diplomat in Toronto in February 2021.
The MP says he met with the diplomat but disputes any suggestion that he urged China to delay releasing the two Canadian men, who by that point had been detained for more than two years.
Dong told the House of Commons he would defend himself “against these absolutely untrue claims” and that he did nothing to cause Spavor and Kovrig any harm.
Asked about Dong’s resignation at a press conference today in Beijing, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry says “the Canadian side may be in a better position” to comment, and that “China opposes interference in other countries’ internal affairs.”
He adds that this applies to broader allegations about Chinese interference.
“We have no interest in and will not interfere in Canada’s internal affairs,” Wang Wenbin said in the official English transcript. “There should be no irresponsible comments on this.”
China’s detention of the men who became known around the world as the “two Michaels” occurred in apparent retaliation for the December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Beijing has insisted the cases are not linked, despite a close alignment in the timing of each being detained and then released the same day in September 2021.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.
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