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Dispatch from the Front Line: We don't just neglect security. We disdain it.
The Johnston fallout continues. Alberta prepares to vote, probably. And a fun announcement (and then an appeal) from The Line.
Well, for a short week, that was a pretty busy one, eh? We hope the news tsunami this week didn’t entirely wash way your post-long-weekend good moods.
Mind you, even if it didn’t, our dispatch meeting probably will.
Podcast here, if you prefer.
The release of Johnston report this week, technically the first of an expected series of reports into foreign (largely Chinese) electoral interference in our domestic politics, has by now been well covered. We doubt we’ve written or published our last about it, but for the purposes of this dispatch, rather than rehash some of what your Line editors each wrote in respective columns this week, we thought we’d take this opportunity to comment on some of the issues adjacent to the report, as it were, but not directly related to its content, or its author.
The first point we wish to make is admittedly somewhat inside baseball for media types, so we won’t dwell on it. But it’s worth mentioning, as we have told our readers many times before, that Canada is a transparency desert. Canadian governments publish far too little information by default, are slow to respond to requests for further information or documents, and when they do reply, often send you a carefully written set of political talking points instead of the sought-after information. This is not a partisan issue, we’re afraid. All the parties are bad — they all talk a good game about transparency when out of office, but once in power, realize that, hey, actually, maybe we don’t want anyone to know anything that might embarrass or hurt us. Journalists are forced to make do with what information they can get, and carefully cultivate sources to obtain what data they can.
This obviously has some resonance to the specific issue of leaking; in his report, David Johnston grants that none of this would be happening without the leaks, and agrees that we need more transparency across the board. We welcome this. But that’s actually not the point we wanted to make: between February’s publication of Justice Paul Rouleau’s Public Order Emergency Commission report and now, this week, the first Johnston report, Canadians have been given exceptionally rare looks behind the scenes at how a critical component of our federal government — the national security apparatus — functions.
And it’s horrifying.
Again, we won’t repeat our earlier work this week, but good Lord. Both Johnston and Rouleau have had once-in-a-generation opportunities to really peer behind the curtain of Canadian federal governance. It is only a happy coincidence — unhappy, actually, come to think of it — that the reports landed within months of each other, and that both, of necessity, were looking at issues of intelligence collection, distribution and utilization in Canadian governance.
This is lightning-striking-twice unlikely, friends. On top of the obvious conclusion that we need to massively and urgently reform our national security systems, we’re also more convinced than ever that what Canada really needs is a long series, probably literally dozens, of public inquiries into basically everything.
That would be awfully strong medicine. It would be absurd, really. But it will take medicine that absurdly strong to begin overcoming our governments’ reflexive, and generally entirely successful, patterns of secrecy.
Many other countries find ways to share vastly more information than we do. Many other countries have much-better functioning access-to-information systems. Many other countries haven’t allowed their public media-relations teams to adopt “Share as little information as possible, and never stop pushing the party’s political narrative” as their mission statement.
Canada, alas, has royally screwed this up. And it’ll take major, major corrective action to even begin turning this around. We do not recommend our readers hold their breath. We need our paying customers alive, after all.
Continuing with the Johnston report fallout, The Line has been pondering a tweet by Thomas Juneau, one of the country’s relatively few genuine experts in Canadian intelligence and national security. Let’s state this up front: The Line likes Thomas Juneau. He’s written for us before, we hope he’ll write for us again. Nothing that follows should be seen as disagreeing with or nitpicking the professor, because The Line broadly agrees with the point he was making, and found his entire thread on Twitter worth the read. But let’s zoom on this particular comment:
What specifically caught us was this part: “We have been able to neglect national security for decades.”
Again, no disagreement here. Both your Line editors would have made that literal exact argument countless times before in their careers, because it’s true, and likely with essentially identical language. But we read Juneau’s tweet when the Johnston report, and the POEC report before it, were much on our minds. And we’ve been unable to shake the feeling ever since that perhaps “neglect” isn’t the right word for how Canadians approach security. Maybe, we’re wondering, it’s something closer to “disdain.”
Canada has “neglected” a lot of things, after all. And we don’t even mean that in the sense of a lament or criticism. There’s a ton of policy areas or even simply fields of knowledge and expertise that Canada hasn’t paid any particular attention to or made a priority. As Line editor Gurney cracked on the podcast this week, we’ve also neglected botany as a national endeavour. But if some strange international development or social change required Canada to up its botany game, we suspect we’d just … do that. We’d recruit botanists from abroad, schools would open botany colleges, we’d create a Progressive Feminist Botanical Middle-Class Tax Credit (though you’d probably need to attest that you are pro-choice to apply for it). Pivoting to botany wouldn’t be a problem. We’d just emphasize botany, and let a thousand flowers bloom. As it were.
Whenever the issue is anything even remotely proximate to national defence and security, though, the mere suggestion that we should maybe do better, spend more money, allot greater resources, pay more attention, and build up current and future capabilities, is met with something that goes beyond neglect. Neglect implies a degree of apathy. The default Canadian response to any push for a greater emphasis on national defence and security is something closer to hostility.
“Like, why would we care about that weird stuff,” the default Canadian response goes. “That’s dumb. What, do you think Russia is going to invade us or something? What does Canada even need an army or spies for? Why would we even want to have experts on this stuff? This is Canada. We don’t need that stuff. Are you just some kind of weirdo or just some wannabe American?”
Your Line editors agree it’s a problem, but we aren’t sure exactly the root of it. Gerson thinks it might be more just an aversion to thinking about unpleasant things; we quipped on our podcast that talking about defence and security in Canada results in the kind of aghast stares a first-class passenger during the last dinner on the Titanic would have received from his dining companions if he’d casually mentioned he’d been counting the number of lifeboats and had noticed something interesting.
Whoa, dude, we’re having a lovely dinner here. Why you gotta be bringing that up? You think the ship is gonna sink or something?
Gurney thinks there’s truth to that, and would add that if that’s the problem, it goes beyond what we would think of as defence and security, and go all the way into emergency preparedness. Canada and Canadians are chronic under-investors on emergency preparedness and underpreparers because Bad Things Don’t Happen Here, They Happen Somewhere Else, Thank You Very Much. Our typical emergency response plan is “Don’t worry, that won’t happen.” Gurney also thinks this all might be related to how Canadians continually define themselves in opposition to Americans: since the Americans do invest heavily in national defence and security, there’s probably some Canadians out there who have concluded, even subconsciously, that that is an American thing to do, and we don’t do American things.
The above is all a bit theoretical, we grant, but we can’t stop thinking about it all the same. What if the problem isn’t that we neglect security so much as actively dislike thinking and talking about it? If so, that’s a bad habit that may prove difficult, and ultimately expensive, to break free from.
A final note on the Johnston fallout. Gurney has been on the receiving end of more than a few missives this week, mostly private, from experienced professionals either currently serving in the Canadian public service, or who are now retired from it. They acknowledge the damning findings in the Johnston and POEC reports, but they want to offer up nuance, and understanding, and explanations.
Look, we get it. Only someone who’s “been inside” will ever be fluent in all the complexities and intricacies. Expertise matters, real-world experience matters, and we truly are grateful when people offer us their perspective and hard-won insight. Truly. It helps us be better at our jobs, and we never want you to stop.
But, like, oh my God, people. Did y’all spend so much time surrounded by dysfunction that it’s that normalized for you?
It’s important to have an open mind, but not so open that all your brains fall out. We always welcome perspective from those inside, but there has got to be a line. Failure is real, folks. It’s a thing. Stuff breaks. Stuff does not work as expected and needed. Things don’t pan out. Good intentions fail to magically produce good results. Inputs are not always matched by outputs.
And when things break and fail and don’t function as needed, what this country needs is people with the courage and the clarity of vision to say so, simply and without equivocation. “This is broken, and we need to fix it.” “We’re spending too much money on this to realize too little benefit.” “This didn’t produce the expected and intended result, and we should stop doing it and figure out something else to try.”
Words to that effect, right? They won’t kill you.
But what this country tends to get instead is reasonable, complex and nuanced explanations for failure that, in the end, amount to apologias or even simply weary but ultimately forgiving tolerance. Ah well. Everyone gave it their best, and they’re nice folks. Can’t blame ‘em.
So let us follow our own advice, and speak plainly: we know you all mean well, but an inability to call a failure a failure, and our cringingly polite refusal to ever want anyone to be held accountable for failure, is a major problem in this country. It is hobbling us. It might be actually ruining us. And we need to fix this and do better. Because as someone once told us, better is always possible.
So we’re sending this message to everyone inside Canadian politics and governance: damn near all of you have spent so much time around failure and dysfunction that you have become used to it. You’ve normalized it … because it’s normal. We get it. That’s very human. But we can’t accept it any longer. The stakes are too high. So please, for the love of God, give your heads a shake, and look around at your institutions and workflows and processes and ask yourselves if this is actually the right way to be doing it. And if it’s not, ask yourselves why you aren’t trying to fix it.
We cannot accept that you’re all actually this comfortable devoting your life’s work to pushing paper around in a dysfunctional loop of ineffectualness. You can be better. We need you to be. We need results, not good tries. Get to it, friends.
Another chapter of Alberta's weird and interminable political soap opera is coming to a close, and what a season it has been. On Monday, the electorate heads to the polls and while Twitter's most vile and ugly corners are spatting about the latest poll numbers, we will use this space to reiterate that we neither believe, nor pay too much attention, to such things. As such, we have no predictions to offer, merely observations.
The NDP, already facing a difficult map, has run a comparatively weak campaign; balanced against this is a UCP that is managing itself a little like a university student election. The map is on their side, the province is flush with cash, and the economy is doing well. In a province as tribally affiliated to the Conservatives as Alberta, this should not have been a competitive election at all. And yet it was. What to draw from this?
The first is that the UCP's leader Danielle Smith is not particularly well liked or well trusted with significant swathes of the electorate. Given her history of floor crossing, and her long record of gaffes and controversies, this ought to be no mystery. We do think the NDP probably underestimated her — in fact, we think quite a lot of the Conservative movement has underestimated her. Smith is extremely likeable, and as such, she maintains a well-honed talent for retail politics. She comes across as genuinely empathetic, and willing to listen to just about everybody regardless of their credentials or position. Sometimes these tendencies work to her disadvantage — as they certainly did when she chose to have a long chat with known gadfly and resident Pastor/martyr Art Pawlowski to discuss pending charges related to the border blockade at Coutts last year.
For all her skills and smarts, Smith lacks both discretion and judgement. She often rambles on with a high degree of confidence and rapidity about a wide range of subjects of which she possesses a superficial understanding. To her audience, who may not understand the nuances of the subject, this makes her seem credible and quick. But experts who pick apart her statements, or merely do some preliminary research on them, will note that they are often conflicting, poorly informed, or outright incorrect. Review the debacle of the Sovereignty Act to witness this failing in question.
Smith brings a lot of potential to Albertans, and if she surrounds herself with advisors who can make up for her lack of discretion and judgement — and if she listens to those advisors — she could well be on the way to establishing herself as a generational premier.
The risk is that she will plough the province head-first into poorly conceived and ideologically contrived policies that will harm Albertans in the long run. We're looking at tax cuts bound by legislation that demands a referendum to raise future revenue as a classic example of this: nothing could be dumber than the UCP's signature policy, to bind a high-spending jurisdiction dependent on volatile resource revenue to a measure that will make it near-impossible to raise taxes. These policies will put the province on a crash-course for future American-style deficit and debt drama in the long run.
But as we at The Line live and consume chaos for our bread, we have to admit that the misanthropic dark heart of our souls will have no choice but to enjoy the show.
As to the NDP: we have noted above that they ran a weak campaign when they needed to score a significant breakthrough. The party lacked vision and popular policy: the key promise of this election was a plan to raise corporate taxes a little while eliminating small business tax. Both of these policies were presented haphazardly. Despite the party's healthy fundraising and wide support, the NDP seemed weirdly absent and without direction. They were nowhere to be seen in the six months prior to the writ drop, a time when they needed to be aggressively re-introducing themselves and their record to Albertans.
The end result is an election in which, we suspect, many Albertans feel deeply ambivalent about both potential outcomes, and will likely only decide how to cast their ballot in the coming days and hours. How this will translate on election day not our prerogative to predict.
What we will note is that this is the election that secures for us the assurance that the days of one-party rule in Alberta is over. The last three elections have been heavily contested — and the NDP won one of them. Many Conservatives dismissed that win as a fluke brought on by a divided conservative movement in chaos. Two elections later, we're not so sure.
The NDP has out-fundraised the UCP for many quarters consecutively; they've suffered comparatively little internal warfare while the drama-loving queens of the UCP has successfully turned their own leadership into the poisoned chalice of Canadian politics. The province of Alberta is not nearly as committed to the ideology of conservatism as many of its most ardent UCP party members would like to believe. Further, the UCP of 2023 is sufficiently removed from the highly successful PC party of now-distant memory that it would be naïve to assume that the NDP will not be able to present a credible centre-left alternative palatable to this province in the near future. They're just going to have to get better in order to do so.
A few brief final notes.
First, one of thanks, to subscriber Gordon Gibson, who recently made a generous contribution to The Line that allowed a large number of people to receive complimentary one-year subscriptions. Recent changes in social media algorithms have made it observably harder for us to spread our reach via conventional online channels. This leaves word of mouth more vital to our success than ever. Gibson went above and beyond, and for that, we are deeply grateful. We wanted to say that publicly. Thank you! May we find a thousand more just like you!
Also: while The Line has certainly accepted donations, we’ve never sought advertising, preferring to remain 100-per-cent subscriber funded. We are going to reverse that policy in a limited and narrow way. We are excited to announce that we’re preparing to host our first live, in-person event. Details to come, but right now, the plan is for it to be in Toronto in the fall. And we need an event sponsor!
We don’t have any specific structure for that in mind. We are new at this, though we’re working with a great team. As our first event, we come into it with no expectations or preconditions, so hey. If you think you see value in helping us pull off an event, or even simply want to defray our costs with a donation because you like us that much, hit us up! We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and are extremely open to offers! More details about our event will come as we are able to provide them.
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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. Pitch us something: email@example.com