Dispatch from The Front Line: A make-believe election

On budgetary nihilism, the intellectual bankruptcy of modern conservatives, unhelpful COVID models and the Star getting action (against itself)

Happy long weekend, beloved readers of The Line. We start with a few programming notes: as Monday is a holiday, we will be off that day. Barring anything massively important on the breaking-news front, your next piece from us will be the Bullshit Bulletin, and that will pop Tuesday morning, bright and early.

Second item of housekeeping: this is the final weekly dispatch that will be sent to non-paying readers. As of next weekend, this weekly feature is going behind the paywall. So if you've been enjoying them, sign up today.

You will still be able to get the exciting video version, though. And that's entirely because we don't think we can put a YouTube link behind a paywall (well, sure we can, but the link can just be sent to anyone). So you'll still get to see us chat about the dispatch, but you won't be able to read them.

A fate worse than death. So subscribe.


Oh, and that video? Here it is.


A friend of The Line who lives in Ontario sent us a delightfully snippy little text this week attached to the Ontario Science Table's latest COVID-19 modelling efforts. 

“Do you have any idea what would happen if I walked into a meeting with a range from 500-9000, and expected people to take me seriously?” she wrote. “I want to believe you scientists, but you are making it impossible to have any faith in your work.”

She's right. A range this wide is both useless and unfalsifiable. No government can look at this graph and decide what the best course of action ought to be, and no individual can look at this data and make reasonable decisions about how to go about his or her life. If you want to see catastrophic health-care collapse, it’s there at the top end, and if you want to see “pandemic is over” signal, it’s there near the bottom.

The Science Table might as well just put a giant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on the x/y axis and call it in. These guys have no goddamn clue what is going to happen, and they'd be better off just admitting as much.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s modelling was equally pointless. It’s predicting another literal off-the-chart case spike by October; 15,000 cases per day, which is almost a third higher than the peak daily case rate of the second wave. Somehow, this will happen despite the fact that more than 70 per cent of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated.

We at The Line are looking forward to October. The fall will bring with crunchy leaves, warm lattes, and the ability to compare these models to reality; but in the meantime, we have to ask, what the hell is the purpose of these things?

If public-health types are trying to scare people into getting vaccinated and maintaining distance, we’re sorry to break this to you, but that’s not going to work anymore. Those who can be scared into changing their behaviour have done so already. And those who refuse to be scared are going to look at another set of unfalsifiable modelling predictions and roll their eyes.

We cannot say this enough: COVID-19 is now an endemic disease. We’re stuck with it. It’s not going away. We are going to experience another wave of cases. Hospitalizations and ICU admissions will rise. Our mortality rate will also increase — although these latter metrics will rise at nowhere near the rate as previous waves thanks to vaccines. Delta will pass. Then another variant will pop up. And another after that. We can’t let ourselves be trapped on a Ferris wheel of restrictions and easing every time case numbers go up and down for a disease that may be with us for years. Eventually, we have to make our peace with the suck, return to some semblance of normal, and figure out how to live our lives in a sustainable and healthy way — albeit with this new way to get sick and die in them.

We have an 83 per cent first-dose vaccination rate among those who are eligible; vaccine mandates, passports, $100 gift cards, may, at best, add a few points to that total. We have reached the point where we are grasping at increasingly divisive policies to make ever more incremental gains — in short, the law of diminishing returns is beginning to kick in, as it always does. If our current vaccination, mortality, and hospitalization rates are is not good enough to call time on this pandemic then what, exactly, is the exit strategy? And just from a pure communications perspective, how does releasing another round of bonkers off-the-charts modelling serve that end?


OK, look, we’re reluctant to even talk any more about the loser protesters following Liberal leader Justin Trudeau around to hurl obscenities at him (or, in some cases, worse — more on that in a minute). This topic was covered specifically in Jen Gerson's Friday column, where she said, "We live in a free, liberal democratic society; one that allows dumb people to protest their dumb positions — even using vitriolic language and imagery to do so. Idiots are allowed to do idiotic things ... The line is properly drawn at violence, and the threat of same." We don't have much to add to that, but it's worth taking a minute to wonder who the protesters are, and who's controlling them. 

On the former point, the Toronto Star had an interesting report on that this week. Check it out. On that latter point, we think the answer is an alarming "No one."

To be clear, we wouldn't be shocked if there were some protesters being paid to cause a scene. We have a theory about who'd be paying for that (no doubt through a proxy) but for now, we are confident, as much as this will disappoint people determined to believe otherwise, that it is not the Conservatives, or any CPC-aligned proxy. And we're confident for three reasons.

First, the simple one — populist anger has been flaring up all over the world, in recent weeks. Check out these clashes in Australia, London, and the U.S. and you’ll see crowds that look awfully familiar to the loony tunes shouting down hospitals in Vancouver and Toronto. If your explanation for a thing that's happening in broadly similar terms across the entire free world is that the Tories are paying for it, your explanation sucks.

Second, another simple one: the protesters are the only lucky break Justin Trudeau has caught so far. The Liberals haven't been able to land a meaningful punch on O'Toole yet — they're sure as hell trying with guns right now, but we'll see if that works. So taking a bunch of nutty anti-vax morons and campaigning against them is probably their best move right now. If the Tories were paying for the protesters, they'd have stopped by now. 

The third reason is a bit more complicated, but it's important. We think there is a wildly unrealistic assumption on the part of people who aren't Conservatives about just how effective and nefarious the CPC is. The populist anger is far more likely to destroy the CPC, if we're being blunt, than be effectively weaponized by the party.

Let's have a real-talk moment here: conservative movements across the world have eagerly embraced a cancerous know-nothing anti-intellectual populist anger mulch because they thought this approach to politics could win votes. If you asked us, the Conservative Party of Canada largely exhausted its intellectual and philosophical reserves somewhere near the mid-point of the Harper majority. Into that vacuum rushed a toxic mix of divisive policy and sheer idiocy better suited to the shittier subreddits than to a modern political movement. Most of the intellectual heft in Canadian conservatism now exists outside politics, as right-of-centre big brains try to figure out what the hell they should believe in, and what Canadian conservatism ought to mean in 2021. Inside the CPC itself, there are still smart policy minded people — quite a few of them, in fact. But they now co-exist with a bunch of lib-owning trolls who've replaced actual right-wing answers to social and policy challenges with shitposts, memes and bottomless reserves of anger and arrogance.

One of the reasons we've rolled our eyes so hard in recent editions of the Bullshit Bulletin at those counting the words in Conservative tweets in search of Nazi dogwhistles is because the real ugliness and intellectual bankruptcy of many members of the Canadian conservative movement is already on full public display. They don't put it in code. They put it in tweets and email blasts and fundraise off of it.

There is still some intellectual weight in the Canadian conservative movement — not as much as we'd like, but some. We're confident that these are the people in Erin O'Toole's inner circle, and that they have no illusions. The idiots hurling obscenities at Trudeau would destroy the CPC just as Trumpism consumed the American GOP.

Canada's modern Conservatives have two paths forward: they can offer a smart, disciplined and socially moderate party that can win in all parts of the country (which it often will). Or they can be a collection of angry dudebro wankers churning out profane social content, living out their lives in opposition for the lulz. We think O'Toole gets it, and is leaning in the right direction. We also think he could go further, and faster, and should (blowing Cheryl Gallant out of a political airlock would have made a fine place to start — they'd lose that seat, sure, but probably do better in 30 others). Still, in the big picture sense, we truly believe O'Toole and his team know what they're dealing with. Or at least, they're starting to figure it out.

Playing footsie with the idiots on the campaign trail heckling Trudeau is something Andrew Scheer might have done, and actually kinda did do before later smartening up, but O'Toole is smarter than Scheer. We think he knows these guys will destroy him as soon as they're done with Trudeau. There is no safety for Conservatives on the far right — their future, if any, means holding the tenuous ground between the centre and the edge, drawing in centrists who tire of Liberal screwups, which inevitably happens.

Oh, and as for the ones waving placards showing Trudeau in a noose or uttering threats? That's a crime. Treat it as such.


Another deeply sexy campaign issue we’d like to note here is… spending. The Liberal platform is going to add scores of billions to the annual deficit, with no plan to balance the books in view. The NDP and Conservative platforms haven't been costed yet, which has been criticized, but, honestly, who the hell are we kidding?

Really. Who are we kidding? A few years ago, one of your Line editors was covering an Ontario provincial election — he can't recall which one in particular (there were a few in a short period). But he specifically remembers a particularly weird moment when a major (downward) revision in Ontario's provincial finances was imminently expected, but wouldn't arrive until after the vote. No one was in any denial about this. The pain was coming. But since the precise quantity of the pain hadn't yet been published, the Progressive Conservative, Liberal and NDP campaigns all continued to base their electoral promises on dated numbers that they all knew were bogus! It was politically convenient to pretend otherwise, because no one wants to talk about bad stuff during a campaign. So they ignored the writing on the wall and pushed forward, talking about all the happy stuff instead.

It was surreal. The entire thing was a make-believe election, with all the parties politely agreeing to share the same delusion.

And gosh, are we ever getting some deja vu right now, because that's exactly what this federal campaign feels like. 

Look, we have no idea what the future will be re: COVID (and neither do the modellers — more on that below). We can’t predict what the geopolitical situation is going to look like. We can only guess about how robust the economic recovery post-COVID will be, or when it'll even start. Literally every promise being made, and every proposal, has to be understood to be massively conditional on outcomes we cannot control.

We have no idea when the next lethal COVID variant — or something worse — will knock us on our asses again. We guess we’re in store from some real hurt from climate change. Eventually, some 9/11 like event will ruin a breakfast on a day we expected to go much like the one before. Meanwhile, we have exhausted a huge amount of the fiscal buffer that was so critical a part of the Canadian federal reality for the last generation — not all of it, but a shockingly huge chunk of it. Can we run some deficits for a while? Sure. Could we do the last two years all over again? Probably not! Unless we are very lucky and go a century before another major emergency, we will meet the next generational challenge in worse fiscal shape than we were in two years ago.

Your Line editors have a pretty dark sense of humour, which has certainly helped of late. We are good at finding the lighter side of everything. But the impulse here isn't to crack wise, it's to throw up our hands. One of us termed this feeling “budgetary nihilism,” and there's some truth to that — lol, nothing matters! Because anything can happen! We're getting daycare and $5,000 checks for renters and puppy protection!

Remember all that hard work from the 1990s we liked to talk so much about — that great financial position we were in, relative to our G7 peers? Yeahhh. We just spent all that. And the boomers are all gonna need new hips starting, uhh, now, basically.

So how are we going to prepare the country for the next big problem?

Ahh, nevermind. Spend it all, baby. Lol, nothing matters. Wheeee!!!

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So we guess that truce between Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford is over.

Earlier this week, Ford backtracked on a previous statement and announced that Ontario would be implementing some kind of vaccine passport system. In the process, he blamed Trudeau for the delay.

“Every premier wanted a vaccine passport and unfortunately, the federal government decided to go into an unnecessary election, which I'm still shaking my head over, in the middle of a fourth wave in a pandemic, then telling us just three weeks ago that they wouldn't be able to get it done till the 24th,” Ford said on Wednesday.

For his part, Trudeau returned fire, taking credit for the passport, and pinning it to a campaign promise of a $1 billion fund to create the damn things.

Whether you agree with passports or not, a few items warrant clarity. Firstly, no one ever really disputed the fact that we were eventually going to need some kind of vaccine certification for international travel. It also appears to be uncontroversial to note that this would fall under federal jurisdiction.

How these documents could be used domestically — ie; for sitting down in a restaurant or going to a concert — was always a matter for the provinces to decide. Similarly, you can use your federally issued travel passport to prove your identification at a registries agent, or provide evidence of proof of age at a bar. With us? Good.

The question, then, is why the provinces should need to create a parallel vaccine certification for domestic use if the federal government is eventually going to have to create some internationally recognized document?

Well our friend Justin Ling has looked into that, and the answer is pretty much what you would expect: Canada is a third world country that can’t get anything done and it’s Yes, Minister all the goddamn way down. Let’s just say, we hope none of you have travel plans before next year.

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Finally, we noted in our last dispatch the editorial changes afoot at the Toronto Star. Well, no sooner did we have time to praise the bulk hire of high-level managerial talent to that bastion of progressivism, than the Star got itself in some trouble for a controversial front page.

Its weekend edition A1 was smattered with actual quotes gleaned from that notoriously civil haven of high-level political commentary, Twitter, wishing death upon the unvaccinated.

It was, by any editorial standard, a great cover. If by “great” you mean, provocative, enlightening, and inclined to reflect some uncomfortable truth back at its readers.

However, we will concede that the cover suffered from design problems — particularly if you were viewing it folded in half, or in thirds, as many physical newspaper readers still do. It may not have been immediately obvious that these quotes came from the general public and were not, in fact, representative of the Star’s views on the subject. Within hours, the paper received 4,000 responses, according to the paper.

“Clumsy, poorly executed and open to misinterpretation,” Star editor Anne Marie Owens told the Public Editor, who gave the edition a tap on the wrist.

Public Editor, Bruce Campion-Smith went on to note: “The Star wound up stoking the very divisions it sought to write about.”

We are not sure the Star needed to be as apologetic as all this. It’s not the newspaper’s role to exacerbate, nor calm divisions in society — it’s the newspaper’s job to report on those divisions. There is no way to report on those divisions without displaying them, although some design tweaks might have helped provide more clarity about the paper’s intent.


Roundup:

(We can’t believe it took us this long to just start embedding the tweet links!)

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OK, folks. Enjoy your long weekend. We plan to. And barring any major breaking news, we’ll chat with you next on Tuesday, with our latest Bullshit Bulletin. We hope you’ve enjoyed this — and if you have, remember. These dispatches go behind the paywall starting … now.


The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: lineeditor@protonmail.com