Dispatch from The Front Line: Doug Ford's government in exile (all over again)

Also: Kenney shoots a few mutineers, Trudeau's cabinet comes up shorter than usual, and a bit of housekeeping for our readers.

It’s not so fucking easy, huh, Jason?

Do you want to know what one of our big survival advantages has been these last 15 months? Your Line editors have a real sense for, and appreciation of, the absurd. We love it. The weirder something is, the more easily entertained by it we are. We grew up on Leslie Nielsen spoof movies. What did you expect?

And even though the situation in Alberta is serious — situations, really, with COVID and economic struggles both hitting hard — we couldn’t help but giggle as an urgent United Conservative Party caucus meeting was basically live tweeted to the world. Say what you will about Derek Fildebrandt. He sure had the scoop of the day on Thursday.

For those who haven’t been paying much attention, here’s the basics. The UCP caucus is not happy with Premier Jason Kenney. Alberta is managing, reasonably well, a major outbreak of COVID-19. The numbers are bad, but the health-care system is holding it together thus far. But Alberta did roll out new stringent health restrictions in response to the surge, and parts of the UCP caucus — the rural parts, mostly — weren’t happy about it. The premier had at first said he was willing to tolerate a degree of dissent, but once members of his own caucus were outright calling for his resignation, it was time for ole Jason to put a few mutineers against the wall. That’s what he did on Thursday, with two MLAs, Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes, summarily executed by caucus. Expelled from the UCP, they will now sit as an independents.

It’s too soon to say whether or not this will really do it. At the very least, it should buy some time, and if Alberta is able to exit the worst of the public-health emergency over the next few weeks as the stick of lockdown meets the carrot of mass vaccination, things will probably settle down some. But longer term, Kenney’s got himself a real problem here. He has never really understood the challenges of the job of being premier of Alberta, or of the deep factional divides in his own caucus, between the old PC and Wildrose loyalists. He has simply not kept up with the changes within this province. And he has boxed himself in on a very narrow piece of political terrain.

When Kenney came back and united the right, it was a pretty simple sales proposition to the Alberta voter: the rightful governing party is back, and if you restore us to power, everything will be fine again. It worked! Kenney won a huge majority. But what ailed Alberta is not a fractured conservative party. The global economy is changing in a way that poses a fundamental and existential threat to Alberta’s energy sector. There is a huge and growing urban-rural divide in the province. The pandemic is only going to exacerbate major structural issues in the province's public spending. Future booms will likely not be as long or, well, booming as the province could once take for granted.

We at The Line are believers in Alberta. Unapologetically so. We're also occasional boosters for it. But we're also realists. The province can thrive. But it can't coast.

Air-dropping Kenney out of a C-17 flight direct from Ottawa into Edmonton to restore proper conservative governance just isn't gonna be enough to meet the challenges that are ahead ... or have already arrived.

Here's the thing about Kenney: he is a true believer. He’s not nearly as fanatical as some of his opponents make him out to be — an ideologue, yes, but his natural resting place is not nearly far enough to the right to truly unite some of Alberta’s more rambunctious political elements — and MLA's! — behind him. But he’s definitely too far to the right to ever reach out to the left. Many centrists feel the same — they don’t like his politics or his style. He’s therefore basically stuck trying to govern from a fairly thin slice of Alberta’s political spectrum: the right, but not the fringe right.

In a perfect world, that would actually probably be a pretty good place to run Alberta from. But none of us live in a perfect world. Kenney is being pulled both left and right by forces largely beyond his control, but he has no natural allies in either direction. It's not clear he himself understands how narrow his slice of the electorate is.

Alberta is a big, complicated place. It’s not 1993, as much as Kenney might wish it was. If he can get the pandemic under control, maybe he’ll be able to hang on through the next election. But that’s going to require not just good luck, but deft, agile leadership. There’s not much evidence to date that he has it in him. It he does, now would be a good time to bust it out.


Speaking of premiers, Doug Ford has been evacuated to a secure location again. Our Ontario readers might remember his catastrophic summer of two years ago, when the premier essentially vanished, leaving behind an office in chaos, after his heavy-handed tactics and an apparently incompetent chief of staff pushed the Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus to the point of open rebellion. This was an all-the-more impressive achievement for how fast Ford put himself against the ropes — this was all only a year after the party won a majority election after 15 years out of power. Ford lay low for the entire summer, allowing the PCs to begin improving in the polls absent his antics. This also meant that he was basically out of sight and out of mind during the 2019 federal election, when the federal Conservatives won the national popular vote but came up short, big time, in the GTA.

A lot has happened in the two years since. Including this whole pandemic thing. But what’s old is new again: after his government completely melted down in open panic as the third wave hit hard last month, Doug Ford is going to ground again — CTV's Colin D'Mello wrote this week that the strategy is to get Ford off the stage and let other ministers and officials take the heat as Ontario stumbles through the third wave. 

OK, fair enough. The situation is already improving quickly in our most-populous province; while the hospitals will need months to resume more normal operations, daily case counts are falling, fast. 

Your Line editors never overestimate the Ontario voter. As infuriating as many will find this, there's no real doubt in our mind that Ford could find a way to ride this out. If he vanishes, waits until the miracle of mass vaccination bails us all out of the shit, and then reappears to talk about Tim Hortons sandwiches or something, don't rule out him winning again.

But gosh. There have got to be some people in the PC party wondering if a guy who needs to completely disappear from view every two years or so is the best guy to take the party into the next election. Recall — Ford actually lost the party's popular vote for the leadership. He won due to fluking out with a weird proportional-weighting system. Some of his heavy handed tactics against his own colleagues have to be seen in this light. Ford is notoriously insecure, desperate to be liked, and knows he was not the preferred choice of many of his colleagues. His accumulated mistakes and errors and mounting criticism over the last 15 months can’t have helped.

It's been a long, exhausting pandemic. If Ford announced that he was burnt out and was stepping down in the fall, giving the party time to choose a new leader, the PCs could easily win. That's not what Ford will want to do — he'd be the last to back down willingly. But hey. It's not just up to him, is it? After all, what are those backrooms for?

We make no predictions. But this bears watching. Even as the pandemic recedes, things might get interesting in Ontario.

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One more quick note on politics. We feel almost silly bringing it up. The WE scandal seems like a million years ago. But this week, Mario Dion, the federal ethics commissioner, cleared Justin Trudeau of any conflict of interest, but savaged former finance minister Bill Morneau for multiple failures. 

This gets it about right, to our view. The prime minister showed terrible political judgment in not realizing how the entire thing would look. It is totally fair to question his political aptitude — good Lord, at this point, it ought to be obligatory. For a guy who clearly enjoys being in the camera eye, the prime minister has always had a weird blindspot for how some of his own actions will come across those Canadians not already counted among the ranks of Liberal partisans. This was a good example of that. It’s not that what he was doing was corrupt or inappropriate. It’s that he wasn’t self-aware enough to know that it could appear that way. 

Trudeau specifically, and Canadian Liberals generally, have a weird habit of assuming the public will cut them more benefit of the doubt than they have earned, and being shocked and offended to discover otherwise. We believe that this shock and offence is almost entirely sincere. What can we tell you? There is no cure for reading too many of your own fawning profiles and favourable press clippings.

So Trudeau is cleared, we think rightly, of explicit wrongdoing, and guilty, as is fairly typical of him, of smug self-delusion. Nothing new under the son — sorry, the sun — there.

We found the Morneau report more interesting. We won’t recap it at length here; we know you have better things to do than obsess over last year‘s scandal. (Unless you really hate yourself, in which case, here it is.) But the report was surprisingly scathing. Wasn’t Morneau supposed to be, you know, one of the smart ones?

If so, Dion isn’t buying it. Check out this (lightly compressed) snippet of the report's executive summary:

I found no evidence that Mr. Morneau was directly involved in [the] decision to propose WE as the administrator of the [summer jobs program]. Nor does he appear to have provided instruction or direction to anyone associated with [the proposal] However, his ministerial office had an unusually high degree of involvement in past files relating to WE that was also apparent in the matters under examination. There were frequent communications between members of Mr. Morneau's ministerial staff and WE representatives. ... It has long been understood that it would be improper for a minister or parliamentary secretary to conflate their ministerial duties with their parliamentary duties. Even though WE is an established charitable organization, WE and its representatives must still be treated like any other constituent stakeholder. It must make requests for assistance using the appropriate channels and be redirected to the relevant authorities without preferential treatment when, as in this case, personal and professional relationships are blurred.

I am of the view that Mr. Morneau gave WE preferential treatment by permitting his ministerial staff to disproportionately assist it when it sought federal funding.

These kinds of reports are always written in their own particular style — they aren't page turners. But take it from us, people who've spent more time reading these kinds of things than we care to recall. That is strong stuff. 

It is being increasingly noted, especially against the backdrop of terrible ministerial performances at National Defence and Heritage, that Trudeau does not have much bench strength left in his cabinet. Sure. But Morneau was supposed to be one of the better ones. Which suggests that maybe, just maybe, there really wasn’t all that much talent there to begin with. 

The Trudeau government is a triumph of branding, with actual competence in governance being a rare quirk, even a pleasant surprise, rather than a prerequisite. 

Which sort of explains a lot, when you think of it. The modern Liberal party is a few genuinely smart people, a whole bunch of affable mediocrities and a handful of genuine duds that are benefiting from a slick rebranding. It’s worked for them so far. It’ll probably work next time, too, if they can ride a successful vaccination campaign all the way to polling stations from sea to shining sea.

But it won’t work forever. Our country has real, serious problems. It’s getting increasingly hard to believe that this government has real, serious people to meet them. Trudeau seems to have concluded much the same, which is why he keeps dumping everything on poor Ms. Freeland. We’ll see how long that works for him.

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A purely housekeeping note to our readers: your Line editors have been busy behind the scenes lately, laying some groundwork for some exciting new stuff we hope to begin doing in the fall — sooner, if there’s a snap federal election (which we hope, for our sakes, does not happen!). Our publication schedule was a bit light this week accordingly, and might be a bit light next week, too. Never fear. We’re not going anywhere. Running The Line is a side gig and though we’re pretty efficient, there is some banal housekeeping we must do. We’ve been doing it.

Looking further ahead, and again assuming no federal election before the fall, we’ll take a few weeks off over the summer, and may publish a few fewer pieces even on our on weeks as things slow down and all our contributors flee to camp grounds and cottages. We’ll provide updates on our specific holiday plans as we firm those up.

In the meantime, we’ll be here for May and June. And here’s what we got up to this week.

ROUND UP

  • Brent Robinson started our week, noting that even during a pandemic, the government still owes the public transparency around the rules, and how they’re enforced. “Police independence is important,” he said, after some Alberta politicians ducked hard questions by saying they couldn’t comment because the police were involved. “Society is better off if police decisions about whether they investigate or prosecute someone are not based on whether the potential offenders are favoured by the government of the day. … However, if police independence is not accompanied by ministerial accountability for enforcement, we lack a democratic mechanism to hold failures of police enforcement.” He’s right! And that’s just how the politicians like it.

  • Howard Anglin wrote a fun one for us, musing on how Canadians perceive of class — mainly, they acknowledge it exists, but talk about it as little as possible. “Social sorting is intrinsic to human nature, perhaps even necessary — as the Bard has Ulysses remind us: ‘Take but degree away ... and, hark, what discord follows!’ — and it’s here in Canada too, if you look for it,” wrote Anglin. “Like the United States, Canadians early on replaced a class system based on titles with one based on the more easily-acquired currency of, well, currency. And, as in America, this immediately created a new opportunity for class to subtly reassert itself.”

  • Ken Boessenkool wrote a quick memo to Jason Kenney, urging quick action on the caucus mutineers. Perhaps Kenney was reading, because, hey, the executions came quickly. But the important thing Ken said, and we hope politicians all across Canada keep this in mind, was this: “Ultimately, if you can’t govern yourselves, Albertans won’t let you govern the province.”

    Yup.

OK, friends. That’s it for us this week. We’ve picked up a ton of new free readers lately — hello, free readers! — but free readers don’t pay our writers or put food on the table. We’re building The Line to last, but we need money to make that happen. Subscribe today, or we’ll send you off to wherever the Ontario PCs have banished Doug Ford. And no one wants that. So click the little blue button.


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