The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - Rick Anderson, Anne McGrath and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.



Rick Anderson:

Hi all, been an interesting summer politically, not as quiet as sometimes. Little flurry over nothing re: the much-anticipated prorogation/Throne Speech announcement, lots and lots of Senate stuff (unhappily), the worsening tragedy in Syria, and Justin Trudeau lighting up the pot debate.

I think he's very brave to do that, some say foolhardy, but moderating our approach to marijuana may well be a change which most Canadians likely think is a) no big deal (b) long overdue and (c) a reorientation of law enforcement resources towards more important things.  


Anne McGrath:

I agree that politically there has been some interesting activity over the summer and I also agree that the marijuana debate is interesting and long overdue.

However, I think that it is right to question why the Liberal Leader would be so specific about that particular piece of policy and so reticent to express positions on others such as prorogation, pipelines, telecommunications, infrastructure, etc.

I understand the desire to resist firm platform announcements and that makes some good sense politically but you can't help but invite criticisms about priorities, and you must be able to comment on important public policy matters.

It does seem that it might have been more about damage control and getting in front of the issue more than expressing it as a burning critical and central national issue in the absence of commentary on other important issues.  


Richard Mahoney:

Justin Trudeau has kicked off an important policy debate on the legalization issue.

It's strange that, instead of coming up with solutions that would, as Rick says, put our law and order resources towards more important things, you have the spectre of Mr. Harper's silly argument that somehow this idea would make marijuana more accessible to children (the prohibition experience teaches us the opposite is true) and the equally vacuous notion that he is "busy" focusing on the economy, when his government is doing virtually nothing to grow the economy.

Mr. Mulcair also has little to contribute in terms of ideas to get organized crime out of the business of selling marijuana to Canadians. As Anne's argument indicates, his preference seems to be to belittle the issue, rather than to address it.

Maybe one day, we will have parliamentary leaders that actually propose ideas across of a range of subjects that will help Canada progress.

Too much to ask for?


Rick Anderson:

To be fair, Mr. Harper also indicated that he would look "very carefully" at a proposal coming forward from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to substitute ticketing for the current process of charging people in the courts:

Ottawa looking ‘very carefully’ at marijuana-ticket proposal, PM says

    - The Globe and Mail

Ottawa looking ‘very carefully’ at marijuana-ticket proposal, PM says

In Ottawa, it is usually too much to hope that these "dialogues" proceed without political slapping-around (as we see here), but nonetheless an interesting policy discussion has been (re) launched.

The thorny part of the issue, in my mind, is not so much that with respect to individual consumers, but rather the awkward question of distribution. How can you change the rules, without the unintended consequence of creating a bonanza for organized criminal distribution?

This leads to a discussion of possibly licensing legal distribution (as the provinces already license alcohol distribution); I wonder - is that a bridge too far?


Anne McGrath:

I think there is probably pretty widespread agreement that the current situation is not working and that criminal charges and incarceration create more problems and doesn't work. Rick is right though to flag the issue of unintended consequences, which is why I personally favour a gradual approach starting with decriminalization.

With respect to political commentary and politicians, it is important to ask questions about motives, consistency, priorities, and coherence.


Richard Mahoney:

The issue itself is important for a number of reasons.

First, Justin Trudeau's candor on this is refreshing, and perhaps courageous.

It is also wrong that over 500,000 Canadians have been convicted of the crime of simple possession since Stephen Harper became Prime Minister. That is unfair, and unjust.

And it is right to expect our politicians to address unfairness and injustice.

Rick has put his finger right on the issue: once we are prepared to, as law enforcers suggest, get the criminal law system and the courts out of this, the real issue is the involvement of organized crime.

Apparently, Mexican cartels are involved in distribution of cannabis throughout North America. It's time to end that and the only way to do that is through legalization and licensing, as three American states have recently concluded.



Rick Anderson:

I'm quite taken with the Syrian issue, which exploded at summer's end, fuelled by the apparent use of chemical weapons resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths.

If you read international media on it (which I mainly rely on) you see the depth and breadth of what is a very complex set of inter-related topics. And you are struck by the lack of consensus on the Big Questions:

Who gets to decide when an attack on another country might be justified?

Are we prepared to let Russia veto that, if there is broader international consensus?

Are we prepared to see the U.S. act unilaterally, without broader international consensus?

And last but far from least, what kind of intervention might really help, rather than hurt, the situation?

Sadly, in contrast to a vigorous international discussion, what we are repeating here in Canada is our tendency towards navel-gazing about our own domestic politics, as if that were the main point, or even important.

I don't think we do ourselves much good by being so introspective, not to say myopic.  


Anne McGrath:

International decision-making is very messy and frustrating and it is clear that the mechanics of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine raise many more questions than answers.

I agree that this is an issue that demands serious attention and I'm disappointed that there isn't a parliamentary discussion and debate on Canada's response. 

It is refreshing to watch the US Secretary of State John Kerry appear before the Foreign Relations Committee to get support and face the many questions.

While many people from different political perspectives agree that action may be necessary and that the RTP is valid, the nature of the debate seems always to be focused on military intervention, which may sometimes be necessary, but the humanitarian response never attracts the same attention.

Canada needs to have the debate and I think on this subject we can.


Richard Mahoney:

I agree that there is still a surprising lack of consensus on when to intervene, and what is sufficient consensus. Russia's role is a problem.

I don't think we help the debate by simply critiquing the decisions of an ally to intervene. The world should not sit idly by while Syrians suffer - many Canadians have relatives in harm's way.

I think the first step should be the Prime Minister and his government leveling with Canadians on what we can do, and leading this debate in Parliament, so Canadians can have access to the discussion, and the decisions we make.  


Rick Anderson:

I think the key things from the government's perspective are: first, an international response is needed, not only to avoid further use in Syria but, as John Baird has put it, to avoid giving "a green light to any dictator to use these weapons of mass destruction against their own people in future conflicts".

And, second, that the kind of response being contemplated, so far at least, does not involve the kinds of military capabilities which Canada is able to provide.

That may change as the international discussion proceeds. In the meantime, the government has been briefing the opposition leaders, as one would expect and as is normal in the circumstances.  


Anne McGrath:

Watching the debates in England and in the United States puts our lack of engagement into stark relief.

It seems that as the world considers how best to respond to the terrible situation in Syria we have failed to step up. I don't disagree with much that John Baird has said but I think that the discussion has to be wider, and if parliament were to discuss and debate we might find other ways to assist and we would focus the country's attention.

I worry that we have not had the kind of wide open and encompassing debate that such an urgent situation warrants.


Richard Mahoney:

One of the least admirable aspects of the Harper government is its narrow, closed anti-democratic character.

Anne brings up a very good point of the stark contrast between the sound of one hand clapping in Ottawa and the open debates in the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress.

What does our government do? Sends Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird out to muse on it for a little bit.

The world is debating whether and how to intervene.

Why isn't our Parliament debating that? Why wouldn't our PM be leading that debate?


You can follow The Salon's strategists on Twitter:

Rick Anderson: @RickAnderson

Anne McGrath: @OttawaAnne

Richard Mahoney: @RicMahoney

About The Salon (Anderson, Mcgrath, Mahoney)

Rick Anderson is former senior advisor to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Anne McGrath was Chief of Staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.
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