Elements of discourse
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It’s funny how something can be a great big story in Quebec and even the media-political class in English-speaking Ottawa doesn’t notice it. Case in point: McKinsey’s decade-old plot to drown Quebec in immigrants. Sorry, alleged plot.
But first, updates on my last two posts before this one. The common theme of this next section is: If you’re not reading the Paul Wells newsletter, you’re missing out. You know this, but you should tell your friends. Of course what follows is self-promotion, but I think it’s important for subscribers to know what they’re getting; I’ll try to keep it entertaining; and I do have some points I want to make along the way.
Exhibit A: The resolution that was bad
Last Friday I wrote about a policy resolution at the big Liberal Party of Canada national convention that was, in my opinion, bad. This was the resolution that would have the party “request the government explore options” to “hold on-line information sources accountable” by requiring that they “limit publication only to material whose sources can be traced.”
How do you limit publication to traceable sources? I have to assume you clear the sources. “This resolution has no meaning,” wrote I, “unless it means I would be required to clear my posts through the federal government, before publication, so the ‘traceability’ of my sources could be verified.”
Some people disagreed, but I had a hard time getting them to describe what it could mean if it wasn’t what I thought. I was careful to note that party conventions aren’t binding on governments. Commenters sympathetic to the Trudeau government latched onto all the this-might-mean-nothing language, the stuff about “request” and “explore options.” At their convention, a tiny minority of registered Liberal delegates attended a “policy workshop” at which nothing was debated. Amid considerable confusion about where these resolutions were in the party’s own process — Althia Raj covered it on Twitter; go look if you like — this resolution became party policy with no discussion at all. That was on Saturday.
On Tuesday, Justin Trudeau went before reporters and said no Liberal government would ever implement this Liberal policy. Other cabinet ministers followed suit, and one MP who didn’t benefit from the counsel of the Monday-morning issues-management call had a rougher time executing the U-turn.
Look, I think the amount of self-inflicted ballistic damage to the government’s own foot here is minor. Unworkable and swiftly-disavowed tinpot dictatorship is, statistically, one of the least damaging forms of tinpot dictatorship.
But I want to let everyone in on a secret of my journalism, and indeed of most journalism: Criticism of politicians is often advice to politicians. I actually don’t spend a lot of time hoping governments and opposition parties will keep pursuing self-destructive and country-destructive choices indefinitely. I always hope a bit of mockery, especially pre-emptive mockery, will help inform their choices. If it stings when Wells writes it, it might sting worse when everyone is saying it.
Ministers of the Crown who didn’t need to wait for the Monday-morning issues-management meeting to tell them what to think could have spent the weekend thinking for themselves. They might even have invited their own staffs, riding executives, and Liberals at large to think for themselves. A dozen or so hardy souls, out of 3,500 registered delegates, might then have showed up to the policy workshop willing to debate.
“Uh, Paragraph Two looks hinky. How would a government enforce that?”
“Well, it doesn’t apply to reputable journalists.”
“Great, thanks. Remind me who decides who’s reputable? Any thought on who’ll be making those calls once we’re no longer in government?”
Maybe somebody would have added a friendly amendment. “For greater clarity, nothing in this paragraph impinges….”
I can even imagine a cabinet minister showing up for those floor debates and influencing the party’s direction single-handed. I’ve seen it happen in other parties. But I had Liberal friends over the weekend explain to me that no such thing ever happens. Fine, it’s your funeral. Basically we’re watching a party choose between two different models of public-policy deliberation:
OPTION 1: Smart people think and talk.
OPTION 2: Everybody in the party defends rickety thinking until it blows up in their faces.
I’m not kidding when I tell you most people in political communications would defend Option 2. We’re living in a time that values message over thinking. But folks can’t say I didn’t warn them.
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Exhibit B: Freeland’s meeting in Washington
The stakes with this story are higher. On Tuesday I wrote about a meeting between a high-level Canadian delegation and their U.S. counterparts in Washington. This was the first meeting of the Canada-US Energy Transformation Task Force, which received very little coverage anywhere else because it was announced by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Canada, with photos on the Twitter account of Chrystia Freeland, who has 331,000 followers. Even given the state of the industry, it’s still amazing to me what doesn’t get covered.
Tuesday’s post wasn’t virtuoso reporting. All I did was quote language on the Task Force from a joint Biden-Trudeau commuiqué, identify some of the people who came for the meeting, and… google Amos Hochstein, the guy Biden sent to sit across from Freeland.
That post had a paywall. I’m going to leave it there. But I’ll let you see the first two words that appear below the subscriber cutoff.
“Which brings me to a topic not listed, one that tends to come up at just about any other meeting Amos Hochstein attends.
Well, I have had an interesting few days since Tuesday. That post, necessarily speculative, posited a stark difference between the American team’s position on natural-gas exports and the Canadian team’s. I’ve since had that hypothesis confirmed by people with better information about the May 2 Washington meeting. And I’ve heard, from Canadians who work at banks, pension funds and consulting firms, that there’s real discomfort about the Canadian position.
The Philippines got 58% of its energy from coal in 2021, one observer told me. A national government that doesn’t understand that the Philippines would be better off burning natural gas is considered, in many places, not to be a serious government.
I’ve even heard from people who think Chrystia Freeland might be benefitting from the relative privacy of the Task Force table to try to haul her government closer to Hochstein’s view on such matters. That’s not a widespread view. The widespread view is that the minister has brought her Rolodex to a chess tournament. If I ran a large news organization, I’d think such questions were worth coverage. Meanwhile I cover them here.
Once again, here’s the original post from Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the sacking of Quebec
And now, at last, today’s weirdly prominent, weirdly ignored news.
Question Period in the House of Commons used to draw too much attention. These days it gets ignored like everything else. Here’s Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, whose questions come right after the first five Conservative questions, at Tuesday’s Question Period:
“Mr. Speaker, let’s talk about interference. Are we talking about China’s interference in Canada’s affairs, or are we talking about McKinsey’s interference in Canada’s affairs?
“McKinsey is behind this idea of 100 million Canadians at the end of the century. For something so extraordinarily important, of course, the Prime Minister is consulting. So when he consulted Quebec on a population of 100 million people, or 500,000 more people per year, what did Quebec say? Didn’t he speak to Quebec?”
Even translated, it can be hard to parse. Here’s the head of Parliament’s third party asserting a plot by McKinsey to nearly triple Canada’s population in 77 years. Blanchet didn’t get this from nowhere. He got it from a week’s front pages on Le Journal de Montréal, a scrappy tabloid that (a) often does excellent reporting (b) has a weakness for narratives about Quebec being snubbed, insulted, outnumbered or humiliated.
It’s been a banner week for Le Journal. A 10-member team, reporters plus designers, rolled out a series of stories on immigration. To summarize the claims in the team’s many stories:
(1) Justin Trudeau’s federal government is sharply increasing immigration levels.
(2) It did this at the behest of former McKinsey boss Dominic Barton, who used two mechanisms to box Trudeau in. (a) As head of a government-appointed Advisory Council on Economic Growth, he proposed massive new immigration in a 2017 report. (b) Since then, he’s kept the pressure up with a blue-chip national pressure group, the Century Initiative, whose goal is to prepare for a Canada with 100 million citizens by 2100.
(3) The material interest for McKinsey is that this level of immigration would cause administrative headaches, and the Trudeau government has been making ever-greater use of consulting firms to handle administrative headaches. Firms like McKinsey.
(4) Whatever the merits of a sustained immigration wave in Canada, in Quebec it’s often seen as trouble, because Quebec can only make so many immigrants a year learn French. So over time, Quebec’s share of the national population, its political clout, and its francophone nature would decline.
Le Journal’s stories were followed by cries of dismay the usual suspects among its columnists. Le Journal doesn’t decide what Quebec thinks any more than other papers, but neither is it ignored; columns echoing its concerns or eloquently contesting them have followed elsewhere. Politicians have reacted. François Legault, a big Le Journal reader, is concerned. The National Assembly passed a resolution. The feds have been caught a bit flat-footed by all this. Yesterday they announced their immigration policy isn’t set by this Century Initiative organization.
There’s a lot to unpack here. The various assertions of fact in the Journal de Montréal stories strike me as accurate. Immigration is up sharply; Barton’s growth panel did recommend big increases in immigration; there is an organization called the Century Initiative that wants 100 million Canadians by 2100, and while the page calling Barton its co-founder is now blank, the rest of its team has rich representation from the nation’s great and good. And while there’s a wide array of opinions on immigration in Quebec, I hope it’s obvious why it’s a prominent topic of debate. I think keeping French as the common language of Quebec is important and I’m hardly surprised when Quebecers worry.
In fact, just about every element of the Journal stories appeared in less elaborate form in a January article from two Radio-Canada reporters, including the link between immigration policy and McKinsey. At first I ignored the immigration angle. Le Journal sure didn’t.
In the headline I called all this a “conspiracy theory.” I mistrust most such things, including this one, but they’re often built on foundations of fact and depend for their effect on guesses about motive and influence that can’t be proved or refuted. It’s obvious that the Trudeau crew thinks the world of Barton; just read the PM’s farewell note when Barton left the embassy in Beijing. The Century Initiative published an impact report in which they claimed great influence over public opinion. A Century Initiative is a weird thing to have. No wonder people are curious about it.
What I’d say to colleagues at the Journal is what they know: that the Century Initiative wasn’t necessary for the notion of increased immigration to find takers in Canada. Outside Quebec, among policymakers, there’s a near-consensus that more newcomers equals more hands to do more work in an economy that could use the help. (Indeed, that was the argument Philippe Couillard made as Quebec’s incumbent premier in the province’s 2018 election. He lost big.) There’s less agreement about immigration at the level of citizens, but Maxime Bernier’s inability to turn his opposition to ever-higher immigration into electoral success continues to entertain. Doug Ford and François Legault have a lot in common, but since Ford doesn’t have to worry about Ontario losing English, they disagree completely on the usefulness of high immigration.
Sean Fraser, the immigration minister, has been pretty strong in defending the policy, including in French, which doesn’t come easily to him. The Liberals have some history of trying to soft-pedal their policy. The Couillard-Legault confrontation over immigration defined the 2018 Quebec election, but in two election platforms since then, the federal Liberals have said barely a word about their intentions on immigration. In 2019: “To keep our economy strong and growing, we will move forward with modest and responsible increases to immigration, with a focus on welcoming highly skilled people who can help build a stronger Canada.” In 2021: Liberals “have worked to increase immigration levels,” which sure reads like the past tense.
I used to be apologetic about wishing politicians would just explain themselves. I’m getting less apologetic. Earlier prime ministers would have given a big speech in Quebec, maybe more than one, making the case for their immigration policy. If Justin Trudeau did that, he’d have company: business leaders, younger voters, some of Montreal’s best columnists. Instead Dominic Barton’s name gets scrubbed from the Century Initiative website. Because that’ll work.
This sprawling weekend-read edition of my newsletter turns out to be variations on a theme. The theme is: whatever we’re doing in our politics today, it isn’t talking in any sense that previous generations of Canadians would have recognized.
Disinformation and the decline of traditional media are big challenges. Many of the proposed remedies are ham-fisted at best. Talking about the tradeoffs is better than pushing out message and then pushing out disavowals three days later. People used to see political conventions as good occasions for such discussions.
Canada’s an energy superpower in a world where the demand for traditional energy sources is whipsawing and complex, not monotonically declining. Again there are tradeoffs. Again, lobbyists shouldn’t be the only people invited into the conversation, because then maybe our government would have better answers ready when it sent delegations to Washington.
Immigration has complex effects that are worth discussing. At a minimum, immigration isn’t just a button you push to save the economy: newcomers need housing, social supports, proper welcome. Trudeau’s friend Barton started a pressure group to participate in these conversations, and I bet he’s bewildered at how that’s gone. Again, more conversation seems in order.
These days nobody has conversations because everyone’s terrified of being disagreed with. There’s no reason to expect that would change if the government did. It’s a problem.