Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Is Rex Murphy Secretly a Conservative Intellectual Bagman? Or, Responding to Liberalism Part I

I have long liked Rex Murphy. I found his commentaries odd, at times, but I generally found his Cross Country Check Up  talk show fair, (although I will confess I don't listen to it any longer and I understand that he's no longer the host). Thus, when Twitter alerted me to an op-ed he wrote for The National Post -- which you can find here -- I quickly hit the link and started to read. What I found shocked me and I hope it is an aberration. I know others have accused him of holding disguised -- but intense -- right-wing political biases but I've not really noticed them ... until reading this piece. It is, of course, an op-ed and op-eds have a specific objective. Their goal is -- or should be -- to encourage discussion of important issues (those could be political issues, social issues, historical issues, etc.).  They should be reasonable. They are supposed to "take sides" -- and in this differ from reporting that is supposedly more neutral -- but that taking sides should be based on fact, evidence, reason, etc. Canada has, perhaps because of its political culture, managed to avoid the political advocacy disguised as op-ed/reporting that Fox News has become in the US (in effect, Fox News -- in case you've missed it -- has become an unpaid branch of the Republican Party/Tea Party extreme) in which it no longer even makes much more than a pro-forma pretense to neutrality in reporting. Sun TV tried this approach in Canada. It failed for lack of an audience response. The National Post, tried this approach, too, but it failed for lack of a market and so while The Post retains its biases, the newspaper did try to adopt the standard trappings of mainstream journalism. Its op-eds always, however, have bent to the right-wing of the political spectrum, at least from what I can tell.

It is, therefore, perhaps appropriate that Murphy's oddly extremist anti-Liberal, anti-democratic distortions are published in The Post. After all, this was the newspaper that triggered Andrew Coyne's, a right-winger with a certain measure of integrity, resignation. You can read about that here. What confuses me, of course, is exactly what Murphy is doing writing what amounts to an ill-informed, at times silly, anti-Liberal diatribe such as he did. He is a respected commentator. Why sink to this level?

I am, I hasten to add, not trying to simply critique Murphy. He is more than entitled to his views. The problem, of course, is that when a respected individual offers views, they have an unusual weight. He might deny that, but it would be disingenuous. After all, my work will not appear on CBC or in a national newspaper. Thus, I would argue, that there is a responsibility that comes with being a serious public commentator; that is: if one wants to be something more than a Fox News north. That responsibility is accuracy, balance, advocacy based on reason, and the provision of evidence. In effect, what Murphy does in this column is to attack the Liberal party for things that it has not done but -- according to him but no one else -- might do. In the process he intuits a great deal of intention to the current government without providing a single shred evidence.

This is, I will eventually argue, more broadly important because it illustrates, I think, how conservative Canadians are going to respond to the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. I had hoped, in previous blogs, that changes in the character of Canadian culture and public life had made the conservative approach to electioneering -- to attaining government -- outdated. Indeed, I tried to argue that one of the reasons that the CPC lost the election was that they did not realize that this change had taken place (in part, I suspect, because they interacted only with their own true believers and not the wider Canadian public). Murphy's column -- along with a series of other public statements by Conservatives and conservatively-minded media outlets, suggests that (a) this is not the case and (b) that they intend to continue their negative, attack at all costs, approach in an effort to convince Canadians that there is something morally degenerate about Liberals (and, in this way, ideally winning back power).  More on this later, let me leave off this issue right now to return to my original point: what does all this have to do with Rex Murphy? Murphy's column, I think, is emblematic of the type of discourse that conservatives will seek to forge over the next four years in their effort to disable a government they don't like.

For those who have read this column, I am sure you already know that this is not one of Murphy's finer efforts. Murphy may or may not be a Conservative (I didn't know Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin were until they were appointed to the Senate). He might just be contrarian (I'll comment more on this in a future blog, too). But, what he should know is that his piece was published as one of a series of pieces (other examples here and here) that are thinly disguised anti-Liberal pieces masquerading as journalism. In other words, whether knowingly or not (and I sincerely hope not) he lent his voice to a partisan activity. In the process, he is part of an effort -- that we will see over and over and over again in the coming weeks and months -- to discredit the Liberal Party, to cast it as an elitist anti-democratic organization, and to suggest that the conservatives are a good alternative and should be voted back in. In the process, the Conservatives will claim that they are champions of "the people," while the Liberals are "corrupt," etc. Moreover, there is more than a little mystification here.

Now, at this point, I hasten to add that I am not a Liberal.  I say this frequently and, periodically, someone accuses me of such a political leaning. Here is my bias and my only statement with regard to the current government. I did not vote for them. I believe only that they should be given a chance to govern, like any other political party that wins should be given a chance to govern. Their policies can be and should be criticized. That is part of the democratic process but we should know what those policies are before we criticize them. That is it. After a year, for instance, I am less than happy with the provincial Liberal government we have here in NB, but that is after a year where we have had a chance to see what these folks are doing. Likewise, people who have read this blog for a while will know that I was initially optimistic about the PC government that predated our current provincial one here in NB. As time went by, there were an increasing number of policies with which I disagreed and I supported a different political party in the provincial election that brought the Liberals to power. But, in each instance, I waited until the "ink was dry" on the new letterhead before suggesting that there were things wrong with the government. In the case of Murphy, however, the simple fact that he's joined a Conservative partisan rush to create a negative impression of a new government's first days in power should be a telling sign. This government might be good; it might be bad. The truth is that right now, we don't know. (And, I'll say more about the generally positive views of the new government in a future blog as well).

My first concern with Murphy, then -- and what his piece illustrates about the conservative discourse we will see developing in the near future -- is that he decided to ditch what is the better sense of public commentary -- find out what is going on before one comments -- and perhaps unknowingly let his work appear in a series of anti-Liberal op-eds. I suspect, then, that we will see more of this "quick and dirty" public commentary offered through venues like The Post in the future.

There are, however, other problems, too. What are these? Let me highlight a few. First, they start with Murphy's title, which he might or might not have picked himself:

"The Liberal government does not have the right to unilaterally change our voting system"

The title slants the argument he wants to make against the Liberal Party because it makes it seem like the Liberal Party is trying to something illicit to someone else's property. Those Liberals are not a government, elected on a platform of democratic and progressive reform, but something else: a meddling bunch who have no mandate but are doing something nefarious to something of "ours". Murphy follows this up by demanding an referendum and stating that this is a matter of "right." He re-emphasizes this point at the end of this piece:

"So the idea of unilaterally making a decision to change our voting system without a full debate and a referendum is just simply wrong. It is not a government’s choice to make. It is the people’s choice."

Is this true? Obviously, on one level, this is truism. It tells us, in fact, nothing that we don't already know. In a democratic political system "the people" should have the final word. This, however, is so true, its silly to state it and one cannot believe that Murphy wrote a column to tell us something we already all knew. Instead, the point seems to be that the Canadian government -- provided that they are Liberal -- cannot change electoral law without a referendum. Is this true? Is the Canadian government required to hold a referendum before making changes to Canadian elections law? 

Well ... no. It is not. I am not saying I agree with this part of the constitution. I am saying that Murphy is empirically wrong, at least according to the Canadian constitution. Here his wording is important. He could have argued -- and I might -- that referenda are a good idea and here is an opportunity for Canada to enhance democracy and embrace a progressive reform. He didn't. He tried to say that the Liberals were doing something wrong, as if they were avoiding a provision of the Canadian constitution -- violating fundamental rights of Canadians -- in what is made to seem a nefarious effort to take away something that is "ours."  

This is just not true. A referendum might be a good idea or it might not. But, under the Canadian constitution, it is not required for changes in electoral law. The previous Conservative Harper government changed electoral law frequently (a list of those changes can be found here) without referenda and, to the best of my knowledge, no one suggested that they needed one. The basic idea of responsible government, in fact, is that the elected representatives of the people make decisions on the basis of a mandate given them by the people. Said differently, demanding a referendum is, in fact, breaking new ground and moving outside Canadian tradition and the constitution. Unlike our neighbours to the south, Canadians make very limited use of referenda (and, some have argued, for potentially good reasons). Perhaps Murphy just made bad use of language (something those who have heard him speak will find difficult to believe), because, as I said, if not, he is simply in factual error. The key point he wants to assert, then, in this op-ed is simply and bluntly empirically inaccurate. 

Second, you should also note that Murphy is suggesting that the Liberals are not going to have a full debae on this subject. Is this true? Well, we don't know. They might not. But, at this point, with the paint sill wet on the government, we -- again --  simply don't know. He is intimating that they won't but surely there will be debate because debate is required for a law to pass. There must, of course, be debate in Parliament and I suspect that over the coming months -- as Canadians consider electoral reform -- that there will be extensive debate in the media, in the scholarly periodicals, in "town hall meetings" perhaps event televised by CBC in which Murphy might have a role commenting. Certainly electoral reform is not a secret. Canadians have been discussing it, in different forms, for a long time. They party I support -- the Green Party -- has been asking for electoral reform for some time. They are a small minority but they have not been silent on this issue (I hasten to add that I don't personally agree with everything the Green Party has to say on this issue either). 

Thus, the second problem with Murphy's piece is that he's criticizing the Liberals for something that they have not done, ignoring discussion that has already gone on and that he has to know -- because he has to be familiar with the rule of Parliament -- will go on in the future. This is an odd blind spot and one that is difficult to attribute to a slip in language because to do so one either has to believe that (a) Murphy does not understand how a law is passed in the Canadian Parliament (which strains credulity), (b) does not believe that The Post, or CBC, or the Globe, etc., will not hold endless discussions of this matter (which strains credulity since he's been intimately involved in precisely these types of discussions in the media for years, (c) is unaware of the extensive discussions that have taken place in NB, ON, BC, and PEI regarding electoral reform already (which, again, I find difficult to believe). If all these things were true. If Murphy did not know how a law was passed, if he did not know how the media (that employ him) work, if he is unaware of the debates and discussions of electoral reform that have already gone on ... why would he be commenting on this matter? Surely, it would not bode well for his authority on the subject? 

Finally, let us also note a certain level of mystification. Murphy implicitly compares the Trudeau government to the Harper government and says that if the Harper government tried to change electoral law without a referendum Harper would have been called a tyrant (he neglects the fact -- noted above -- that the Harper government made frequent changes to electoral law). In the process he creates a classic misconception: he fails to note that there is a difference between a law that is intended to promote democracy and a law that is intended to limit it. I've made this point before and it might be worth making it again. Laws that are designed to maintain oppression or marginalization -- say, inequality for gay and lesbian Canadians, not something going on ... just an example -- are not the same as laws designed to promote equality. 

Thus, the question in dealing with changes to electoral law is not that there is a change but what is that change intended to do? Two of the changes the Harper government introduced (and -- again -- for which they required no referendum) disenfranchised some Canadians and limited the degree to which Elections Canada could encourage voting. These were *not* progressive, forward looking changes that those who support democracy -- which includes Murphy -- could support. These are a different order of change than a change -- whatever it might be -- that is intended to enhance democracy. 

The mystification here is that the one is being confused with the other. For example, imagine a change that the current government might bring it. Elections Canada can renew its encouragement to Canadians to vote. Does this require a referendum? Should not a democratic society encourage people to vote and is this not well done by a neutral agency (as opposed to a partisan group)? The Harper government added seats to Parliament in an effort to better represent Canadians. Is this a negative change? Does it require a referendum? Would a proposal to add still more seats require a referendum? 

I still might argue that a referendum is needed. I still might argue that it could be good. But, let's not confuse the one for the other. A law intended to enhance democracy -- a progressive reform of the electoral system that makes government more response to the people -- is not the same as a law that is intended to distance government from the people and make it less responsive to remove the right of some Canadians to vote. Let's not pretend that it is. 

Murphy's column, then, makes a number of serious mistakes. It is too quick off the mark, makes claims that are empirically incorrect (that is, simply factually wrong), ignores history (slamming the Liberals for things that Conservatives did, too, while being silent with regard to the Conservatives), insinuates specious claims, and mystifies the issues that will be before Canadians with regard to electoral change in the near future. I suspect that Murphy wrote the piece because ... well ... its his job to write pieces for The Post. I would if it were my job. I think, however, that it might be part of a broader pattern that is, in one way or another, designed to limit the power of the current government and limit the degree of progressive change that they can bring to the system. It is, said differently, illustrative -- and part -- of a new conservative discourse. 
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