Discover more from Paul Wells
Podcast: The tyrant next door
Plus, thoughts on the death of transparency
Here’s your Wednesday update on the latest episode of The Paul Wells Show podcast. But at the end I’ve tacked on:
• Some thoughts about broader lessons to be learned from the mammoth report on Ottawa’s light-rail debacle;
• news of an excellent resource for people who aren’t yet done obsessing over the Rouleau Commission testimony — and news of my next big writing project
We’re a full-service operation here at the Paul Wells newsletter. Let’s get to it.
In the wake of my recent visit to the Halifax International Security Forum, I’ve got two interviews with people who took the podium at that annual high-profile discussion about war and democracy.
If there’s a thread running through this episode of The Paul Wells Show, it might be grace under pressure. The person who best embodies this quality is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
When 2020 began, she wasn’t expecting to run for the presidency of her country — poor landlocked Belarus, too close to Russia, perennially misruled by a leaden thug named Alexander Lukashenko. It was Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, a prominent Youtuber, who was contemplating a run. But the mere announcement of his candidacy landed him in prison. She ran in his place. And probably won. But Lukashenko doesn’t believe in a fair fight, and massive repression by the country’s security forces let him keep power.
Tsikhanouskaya had to leave Belarus too. Last month she was in Halifax, and then in Ottawa to meet Justin Trudeau. In between, she and I met at Ottawa’s Macdonald-Laurier Institute to talk about rising to a challenge, the loneliness of political life, and the fate of her nation and of Europe. It was one of my favourite conversations since we launched this podcast.
We’ve paired it with another fascinating talk, with Janis Kazocins, who’s national-security advisor to the president of Latvia. But he took the long way around to get there: he was born in the UK, rose through the ranks in the Royal Army, and didn’t become a Latvian citizen until 2003. You can hear his past in his plummy accent and love of anecdote. As former head of the country’s external security service, he brings deep experience and front-row perspective to his analysis of Russia’s designs on its neighbours. It’s a vital region for Canada, of course, because 700 Canadian soldiers are leading a NATO battle group in Latvia, to ward off any Russian invasion.
Here’s the episode on Apple Podcasts.
Here’s where to find it on other platforms.
And here’s where I thank my partners.
The Paul Wells Show’s Founding Sponsor is Telus. Our Title Sponsor is Compass Rose. Our Ottawa partner is the National Arts Centre. Our Toronto partner is the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, where I’m the inaugural journalist fellow-in-residence. Antica Productions handles production for the podcast. The Toronto Star and iPolitics distribute and promote The Paul Wells Show. Kevin Breit recorded and performed the music.
If you like what you hear, share it or tell a friend.
Your convoy commission update, served two ways
Readers who liked my coverage of the Public-Order Emergency Commission, presided by Paul Rouleau — nine long posts on this newsletter, beginning with this one — will want to be aware of two new resources for understanding what happened.
The first is this extraordinary website run by researcher Lucas Cherkewski. He’s archived transcripts of commission testimony by day and by speaker. So if, hypothetically, you wanted to find every intervention by OPP lawyer Christopher Diana, across the whole six weeks of testimony, it’s right here.
I’ll be making extensive use of Cherkewski’s meta-archive as I write a short book about the convoy commission. It’ll be the second issue of a new quarterly series of essays on current topics.
The series is called Sutherland Quarterly. The model is simple: One rich and detailed story or argument, at about 25,000 words, per issue, plus letter-length discussions of previous issues. It’s published by Sutherland House, the non-fiction publishing house run by Ken Whyte, my former editor at Maclean’s, the National Post and Saturday Night magazine. The first issue — John Fraser covering the Queen’s funeral, a chef’s-kiss pairing of writer and topic if ever there was one — is already published and available for order or in bookstores. There’s more information here. Here’s the planned cover design for my issue:
In this instalment of his SHuSH newsletter, Ken explains the genesis of the Sutherland Quarterly project. Short version: He wrangled rights to a longstanding Australian predecessor, Quarterly Essay. The Aussie publication has 9,000 subscribers, which generates the kind of royalties that make it very interesting for writers who want to tell big, compelling stories at a length and depth no magazine or newspaper could match. I assume it’ll take time for SQ to reach that kind of subscription list. But since I’m actively trying to persuade other writers — especially writers who are younger than Fraser and me — to contribute to SQ, I’m hoping to write something that will help persuade people to take a leap of faith and subscribe. I think the Rouleau commission offered an extraordinary glimpse into how we’re governed and how decisions get made, so I’m grateful for the chance — and, not for the first time, for peer pressure from Whyte — to treat it all with the ambition it deserves.
Honest communications? Good luck with that
And if 25,000 words isn’t enough reading for you, there’s always the really big reads. Like the 700-page report into another commission of inquiry, Justice William Hourigan’s investigation into the “breakdowns and derailments” of Ottawa’s new light-rail train system.
The short version: the trains don’t work well. Strong perceptions of mishandling the mess probably led former Mayor Jim Watson to decide not to run again. City manager Steve Kanellakos quit two days before the Hourigan report came out. Nobody looks good.
A longer summary is here from reporter Joanne Chianello, whose superb and sustained coverage of the LRT debacle probably led to the creation of the Hourigan Commission. A still-longer summary from transit blogger Steve Munro is here. And the whole report, well-written and compelling, is on the commission website.
In some ways I can’t usefully add to all that. But I do want to focus on something Hourigan mentions repeatedly: the constant breakdown in public communications about what was, after all, a $2.1 billion public-works project that took years to build.
City officials withheld vital information from the public and from city council. Contractors withheld information from the city. Ottawa residents weren’t told what they needed to know, but even within the sprawling project, honest and frank information-sharing was rarer than it should have been. And, in a feat of cheek that enraged Hourigan, Watson’s administration distributed daily “spin” summaries of the testimony while the commission was doing its work. From Hourigan’s report:
“[T]he City published, at taxpayers’ expense, a summary of the proceedings that was a blatant attempt to spin the testimony in a way that was favourable to the City. This appears to be unprecedented in Canadian judicial history and is part of a troubling pattern of controlling and shaping information flow to Council and the public.”
So Hourigan delivers a bunch of recommendations about improving communications. Here they are:
Hourigan wants to see “a culture of early reporting of issues, challenges and mistakes.” “Reliability and safety issues” should be shared between partners working together on a complex project, and with the public. The legislative function — Council at the city level, and by extension provincial legislatures or Parliament at other levels — “must be kept fully informed.” And so on.
It is to laugh.
I don’t normally like to quash optimism, but that may be my only value-add in the current situation. Since Watson and his team haven’t commented since the Hourigan report was released, let me indulge a little speculative mind-reading. And then I have a few general thoughts on the likelihood that we’ll ever see a “culture of early reporting of issues, challenges and mistakes” from any of the the people who govern us anytime soon.
First, I suspect Watson and his staff believe pretty strongly that the way they built the LRT is preferable to due process and proper care in this one regard: the way they built the LRT built an LRT, whereas due process and proper care would have Ottawans still riding only buses.
The information that got covered up included ballooning cost, looming delay, failure to meet contractual performance standards, and so on. If this had come to light, surely someone would have said “This isn’t working; scrap it” or, at a minimum, “Back to the drawing board.” A transit project that had already been pushed back for ages would have been pushed back again. And transit users who had been promised a shiny light-rail network for Confederation’s sesquicentennial year of 2017 would still, in 2022, have nothing to ride but virtue.
Do it shady, and at least you have a train you can improve. Do it virtuous, and you wind up with only more proof that governments can’t get stuff done. Again, this isn’t my argument, but I suspect it’s Watson’s. This sentiment — after me, the flood — is widespread in public life. And in intensely partisan circumstances it’s practically required by party leadership.
Which is why, though I might wish as a citizen that governments had “a culture of early reporting of issues, challenges and mistakes,” as a journalist I don’t give such a culture much of a chance.
Examples? Look around. I’m honestly surprised this page about the $1.7 billion Erie Connector project is still on the Canada Infrastructure Bank’s website, although (a) you can’t find it from the CIB’s main page (b) we’ll see how long it stays up, now that I’ve linked to it. When reporters asked hard questions about the project’s rationale, the Bank and the federal environment minister didn’t acknowledge them in their public remarks. Since the project collapsed, a $655 million public investment apparently not having sufficed to make ends meet, there has been no hint of an after-action report from the people who were super-happy to consider making that investment on your behalf.
Other examples? I enjoy whiling away the hours trying to make head or tail of the federal government’s infrastructure website, where, years after I began complaining that there was no information on completion dates for thousands of projects, there is still no information on completion dates for thousands of projects.
I do think governments are pretty good about sharing safety concerns. But “issues, challenges and mistakes”? Hoo boy. Judging from hundreds of readouts of the prime minister’s phone calls with public officials, amazingly none of them has ever criticized any federal government action. There are no issues, challenges or mistakes to report! Lucky us.
You may prefer to believe a new government would be more forthcoming. I’ll leave you to that. I still can’t get the opposition leader to explain what the hell he thought we was doing when he set out to harass a private company for the sin of disagreeing with him.
Enjoy the rest of your day.