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Look at the way I've been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history has been treated worse or more unfairly.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: After days of more investigative breaking news stories that have put his judgment, his integrity and his intent into question, the US president is again lashing out at the messenger. And while it seems to reinvigorate his Republican base, it may be starting to tear at those under the congressional dome. Some American conservatives are beginning to challenge their elected Republican colleagues to consider the consequences if they remain silent and compliant in the face of such serious revelations. They say Republican lawmakers defending the president may face a choice of career over country, party over patriotism. We'll hear a few thoughts on that in a moment. And then while Washington is engulfed with outrage from certain corners, with Sarah Palin ridiculing the left ones called splodey heads, we are taking the pulse of Canada's democracy.
If Canadian democracy was a patient, it would be in the hallway on a gurney on its way to palliative care. The majority of Canadians are completely disgusted by Canadian politics.
AMT: Four MPs from different parties say it's time to mess with parliamentary tradition and change the way politics plays out in this country. Hear them in half an hour. And then if you need a reminder of how the world can turn on politics and on the politicians of the day, stick around for our third half hour today.
In school we were never taught true history. We was taught the conqueror’s his-story. At the end of the day, I think it's a wonderful thing that the city of New Orleans is doing.
AMT: As New Orleans tepidly topples statues honoring the Confederacy, it joins a long list of locations where once-venerated monuments now lie in the dust or in the weeds. It is a fight that stretches from Baghdad to Moscow to Halifax and Louisiana, where those cast in bronze or chiseled into perpetuity can become leaden with the hindsight of history. Anyway you hear it, we are all politics all the time today. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.Back To Top »
Why the Republican Party won't break ranks with President Trump
Guests: Adi Sathi, Charles Sykes
It is obvious there are some people out there who want to harm the president. But we have an obligation to carry out our oversight regardless of which party is in the White House and I'm sure we're going to want to hear from Mr. Comey about why, if this happens as he allegedly describes, why didn't he take action at the time? So there are a lot of unanswered questions. What I told our members is now is the time to gather all the pertinent information.
AMT: Well, that's the speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan at a news conference yesterday speaking to the multiple ongoing scandals involving President Donald Trump. Most Republicans in Washington have been sticking with the president so far, but recent events from the firing of FBI Director James Comey to reports of Mr. Trump sharing Israeli intel with Russian officials are testing the patience of the party faithful. Some long-time Republicans are now publicly warning that the time may have come to put country ahead of party. This is MSNBC host and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough addressing Republicans yesterday.
Don't go beyond last week. Just look what's happened this week to the deputy attorney general, the national security adviser and a lot of conservatives that are trying to be good foot soldiers for this lifelong Democrat who discovered birtherism in 2011 and became a Republican. It's not worth it. He's going to leave town at some point and you are going to be stuck with a reputation that you can either destroy over the next several months or you can make. It’s your choice.
AMT: Adi Sathi has some thoughts about standing by the president during this time of crisis in the White House. He's the former vice chair of the Republican Party in Michigan. He's in Washington, DC. Hello.
ADI SATHI: Hello. How are you?
AMT: Well, I'm wondering what you're thinking. What do you think of that message by Joe Scarborough to you and your fellow Republicans?
ADI SATHI: It’s garbage. I can't even believe he would go out and say that publicly.
ADI SATHI: I just don't believe it. I mean I'm not sure what he's convinced about but he is a lone ranger.
AMT: So how would you describe the relationship between the president and Republican lawmakers right now?
ADI SATHI: I couldn't be more happy about the idea that we have a Republican president. We’ve been waiting years for this and we are very happy with the idea that not only do we have a Republican president, but a Republican Senate and a Republican House of Representatives.
AMT: Do you think at all there are people in the hallways of Congress now who are starting to worry about how this is going to play out over the next several months and how this could affect them?
ADI SATHI: I don't imagine that elected officials in Washington, DC could be any happier knowing that after eight years of holding their breath, they can finally speak and believe in what they want to actually accomplish for the American people and get it done.
AMT: But how much of that agenda is getting done with what's going on in the White House these days?
ADI SATHI: A lot more than I think anybody would even pretend to question. I mean I always start by saying that Judge Gorsuch is going to be a Supreme Court justice. That is not something that anybody would have thought probably many years ago and I think that's the number one statement right there. So I think people believe that things are getting done. I think that we're talking about health care. I think that we're talking about tax reform. Those are things that we never talked about in a long time.
AMT: So how do you respond to yesterday's announcement that the former FBI Director Robert Mueller is now going to be special counsel into the investigation into—
ADI SATHI: The funniest—
AMT: Go ahead.
ADI SATHI: Anna Maria, the funniest thing is the Democrats are the ones that were fighting for that not so long ago and then all of a sudden the Republicans are the ones that actually got it done. We're doers, not talkers and all of a sudden now that we did it and they didn't do it, they want to complain about it.
AMT: So are you at all concerned about what might come out of that investigation?
ADI SATHI: I'm not.
AMT: All of the stories that have come out this week, the story of Mr. Trump sharing Israeli intel with the Russians, does that concern you?
ADI SATHI: No because it’s not true.
AMT: How do you know that?
ADI SATHI: I mean I just think that people want to find scandals and it's quite sexy to talk about the president that way. It’s just not true.
AMT: Now Adi Sathi, you are a former vice chair of the Republican Party in Michigan. Which Senator do you work with in Washington?
ADI SATHI: I currently talk on behalf of myself as a young Republican but I do currently work in Senator Orrin Hatch’s office.
AMT: And Orrin Hatch is a real supporter. But he's a real supporter of Mr. Trump. He's one of the strongest supporters of Mr. Trump right now.
ADI SATHI: He is, but again, I’m here speaking on my behalf, not on behalf of the senator.
AMT: Okay. Are you at all concerned that what is going on, what is being exposed in some of these stories will come back to bite Republican lawmakers?
ADI SATHI: I don't think so. No. I mean if you look back at every presidency both sides of the aisle, there's always been people that want to question the background and the history and the integrity and the issues and the situation. If you look back to even Democratic president Barack Obama, there's a long period of time when people are discussing the idea that he was born in Hawaii. Sorry. Not Hawaii. That he was not born in Hawaii, but he was born in Kenya.
AMT: Well, we know that's a lie. But hang on a second. This is false equivalency. Come on. I mean you got stories coming out of the White House that your president is handing Israeli-collected intel to the Russians and you think that's the same as the birther movement?
ADI SATHI: I just believe that every presidency has scandals. Every people want to hear something come out of the White House that makes news on some level. I want to make sure that people are clear that there are a lot less serious allegations than what they’re hearing.
AMT: Though there is concern that there may actually be obstruction of justice involved in some of Mr. Trump's actions in a conversation that has been reported that he had with Mr. Comey asking him to drop the investigation into General Flynn. How do you respond to that?
ADI SATHI: That’s just not true.
AMT: How do you know?
ADI SATHI: It’s just not true. You’ll find out in the news. Wait for it.
AMT: So do you know something that Mr. Mueller doesn’t?
ADI SATHI: It just sounds fun to talk about things like that because people want to hear about it. I just believe it's not the case.
AMT: Okay. But I want to understand. These are very serious allegations. This is about the rule of law in the United States of America. And your response to it is “it's just not true”?
ADI SATHI: I mean I personally believe that even through the election process, even through the current state of the presidency, Donald Trump has been treated—and mistreated rather—more than any other president in modern era and I think it's unfair. People want to be able to say these things that aren’t even true. That’s it. That’s where I stand.
AMT: But how is that mistreating him, looking into allegations that are very serious? Why is that mistreatment?
ADI SATHI: Looking into things are happening in every aspect of every president in the past. That’s common. The way this message is communicated to the rest of society is inappropriate.
AMT: What does that mean? The way it's messaged? They're just reporting. They're reporting what they're learning.
ADI SATHI: It's not the same as in the past if you had Barack Obama as president when in these situations similarly. Nobody said anything. People defended him. They said it's wrong, it's wrong, it’s wrong. More or less the same types of things.
AMT: But when was Mr. Obama accused of obstruction of justice? When was Mr. Obama accused of sharing sensitive intel with someone working against the country that collected the intel? When did that happen?
ADI SATHI: Well, I think I would say this. He had a secretary of state that had questionable situations and e-mails that were sent that were against the interests of the American people. And yet she was not persecuted. And instead she ran for president of the United States and that was something that everybody overlooked and nobody talked about it. Nobody questioned. Nobody said anything. Media never said anything.
AMT: Well, it was all over the news actually.
ADI SATHI: It was on the news but people did not treat it the same way, right? I mean I think that the way that you approach it and the general phrasing of the conversation that people were having were very offensive. So I mean I think you can actually see that.
AMT: So are you telling me you give Libya the same geopolitical weight as Russia?
ADI SATHI: I think when American people die in another country, there are supposed to be diplomats from our country. You should be able to care about those people and every country matters and every diplomat matters and all countries matter from the perspective of us being a foreign leader.
AMT: Yeah. But in terms of the geopolitical weight of countries, you think Libya and Russia are equal.
ADI SATHI: I think that every country matters. I think we should care about every relationship we have.
AMT: Okay. Well, it's important to hear how you think. Adi Sathi, thank you.
ADI SATHI: Thank you.
AMT: Adi Sathi, former vice chair of the Republican Party in Michigan. He speaks as a young Republican. He works in Orrin Hatch’s office, GOP senator, the most senior of the GOP senators. Charles Sykes is a long time conservative commentator. He says he'd like to see the GOP stand up for conservative principles even if that means breaking ranks with the president. Charles Sykes is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Hello.
CHARLES SYKES: Good morning. Excuse me. I'm pounding my head on the desk after listening to that last interview.
AMT: Why does it bother you?
CHARLES SYKES: You know what you just heard there is the mindless loyalty that you're seeing among some ranks of Republicans who have decided to create this alternative reality in which Donald Trump can do no wrong and are committed to defending—basically writing out a blank cheque—defending things that are I would say indefensible. But again, in answer to any question, are the Republicans going to break with Donald Trump, I would just suggest they listen to the last several minutes of your program to realize how far some conservatives are going to go to show their loyalty in this what has now become a cult of personality.
AMT: And so what do you see happening in Washington? Do you see Republican lawmakers who are starting to take a step back and ask more questions or do you see more unquestioning loyalty?
CHARLES SYKES: Well, I think generally behind the scenes, what you're seeing is a lot of Republicans in Washington are recognizing the gravity of these charges. I mean you know in public you might play that game of what about-ism. Let's talk about Obama. Let's talk about Hillary that you just heard. But I do think that there are a lot of Republicans who understand that this is serious, that there are constitutional issues here, that the consequences to the country are grave and the political consequences are significant. However, you're not going to see congressional Republicans break with President Trump until the Republican base moves. And the Republican base is still committed, is still very solidly behind Donald Trump. They're deeply emotionally invested in this presidency and they will tell themselves what they need to tell themselves in order to stay loyal. But you do wonder the cumulative effect. You know every single day, actually multiple times a day, you get another bombshell report about this administration and I think in Washington, at least the people who are actually paying attention and are intellectually honest, are realizing that this is serious and also that it's not going to stop, that these stories really go to the heart of this presidency and of this president.
AMT: And so the appointment of Mr. Mueller now, the former FBI director, does that change anything?
CHARLES SYKES: It changes a lot of things. Number one, it certainly escalates the investigation and even though as you hear some Republicans are still in denial that this is a serious issue, obviously the appointment of a special counsel makes it very, very difficult to simply brush this off as fake news. This is really the last thing that the Trump White House wanted to have. They have now lost control of the process. In a lot of ways, I think the firing of James Comey has now backfired spectacularly. On the other hand, this is good news for Republicans in Congress because essentially now they can push this off their plate. They can wash their hands of it. They can say okay, we don't need to talk about this every single day. We can get back to the agenda. And by the way, the agenda is pretty much dead in the water. The Republican moment has really been eclipsed by these scandals.
AMT: And so what part of the Republican agenda, what are the items that you believe are being sidetracked because of what's going on in the Oval Office?
CHARLES SYKES: Well, you think about first of all what they claim they were going to be able to do in the beginning of the year. They've waited for eight years for this moment. But it certainly does not look like they're going to be able to get tax reform or tax cuts through, which should have been the easiest thing for Republicans. That's what Republicans do. You're not seeing any discussion of infrastructure bills, the Obamacare repeal. Any momentum that they had coming out of the House of Representatives is now gone. I think it's very possible or certainly was 24 hours ago that you could go the whole first year of the presidency without a single major legislative win, which is stunning considering that Republicans control all three branches of government.
AMT: Well, a lot of Republicans were willing to work with Mr. Trump over some of this to push that agenda through. Is that changing?
CHARLES SYKES: No. I think that they've made a calculation that they're willing to look the other way over a variety of things—I mean think how many things they have swallowed during the campaign and since January 20th—because they think they're so close. They're just inches away from being able to get this agenda approved. So my good friend Paul Ryan is extremely reluctant to criticize President Trump because he's made the calculation that it is a President Trump who will sign the health care bill. It is a President Trump who will sign the tax reform bill. My question is what happens when Republicans finally wake up and realize that electing a game show host was probably not the best way to get the conservative agenda approved? And they may not get any of these things?
AMT: Well, what's your reaction when people say the GOP is putting the party ahead of the country when it comes to supporting Trump in the midst of these scandals?
CHARLES SYKES: Well, it's true. And that's the tragedy and that's what's very difficult for me as a conservative to watch how conservative principles have basically been pushed aside in order to serve this particular individual agenda. That's really part of the tragedy of American politics right now, is that in fact a lot of these issues, as you pointed out earlier, involving national security, involving the possible interference in our election system ought to be nonpartisan. There should not be a liberal and conservative Republican Democrat response. I am so old, Anna Maria, that I can remember when Republicans would have cared very deeply about allegations that the Russians were tampering with our democratic process. And to watch how conservatives have decided that they're going to outsource their morality and their judgment to Donald Trump, it's very hard.
AMT: Well, I've got another clip for you to hear here. This is Sean Hannity of Fox News. He's embodying some of that defence of Trump.
So after the firing of James Comey, the destroy Trump propaganda media, destroy Trump democrats, never Trumpers who have been seething in the dark, along with weak Republicans and of course, the deep state, these groups are now working themselves into a feeding frenzy and clearly are now out for blood.
AMT: What do you think?
CHARLES SYKES: Well, Sean Hannity of course has been a fan boy for Donald Trump for some time. But this is part of the narrative that you will see on the right that this is not really about the substance of Donald Trump's conduct of the scandals. It's all about Donald Trump the victim. Donald Trump under siege. And I think you're going to see that narrative and this is something that I would caution the left in this country to understand, that the more over-the-top they become or if they exaggerate or engage in hyperbole, this will simply serve to reinforce the Trump supporters who feel besieged. And they will—to mix my metaphors—circle the wagons more tightly and of course that's what you're seeing from people like Sean Hannity.
AMT: Well and in fact today, speaking of besieged, the Washington Post is reporting a month before Mr. Trump clinched the Republican nomination. One of his closest allies in Congress, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill to fellow GOP leaders that Mr. Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Putin. That's just come out this morning since I've been talking to you.
CHARLES SYKES: Yeah. There's some dispute about whether that was a failed joke, whether it was a quip. Look, this Russia story, the ties between the Trump campaign or Donald Trump himself and the Russians, the story's not going away. And if in fact there's nothing there, if in fact this is a completely made up story, why has the Trump administration and the Republicans behaving the way they are behaving? Why are there so many lies? Why have so many people have had to recuse themselves?
AMT: Lots of questions. Lots of questions. Charles Sykes, we have to leave it there. We're out of time. But thank you for your perspective on all of this today.
CHARLES SYKES: Thank you.
AMT: Charles Sykes, long-time conservative commentator, author of the forthcoming book, How the Right Lost Its Mind. Charles Sykes is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Stay with us. The news is next and then we're talking Canadian politics and cleaning up Canada's own House of Commons. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current on CBC Radio One.Back To Top »
How to reform Parliament: 4 MPs from different parties aim to fix democracy
Guests: Kennedy Stewart, Michael Chong, Elizabeth May, Scott Simms
AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come, in New Orleans, the city is removing statues honoring the slave-owning confederates of the Civil War. But it's not without controversy—pulling down statues means taking history off display. The politics of that, including a statue in Canada in half an hour. But first, house cleaning.
VOICE 1: And our new defence policy is going to fix that, Mr. Speaker.
VOICE 2: Order. It is the right and the duty of the official opposition to ask tough questions. But I hear from many Canadians, but I hear from many Canadians who are unhappy with behaviour in this House, particularly heckling. And I don't think that members like that of the member from Cypress Hills-Grasslands, from whom I've heard heckle 12 times already today, would really approve of that kind of behaviour. So maybe he'll hear from them. But I ask members to consider the views of Canadians on this and restrain themselves and stick to tough questions.
AMT: That is not a school teacher or a parent trying to bring a group of kids under control. That is Geoff Regan, speaker of the House of Commons chiding parliamentarians at Question Period this month. Conservative MP David Anderson was in his crosshairs for heckling. But he's an equal opportunity admonisher turning off NDP MP Nathan Cullen’s microphone the very next day following this unparliamentary outburst.
When it comes to the cash for access scandal, the Liberals have somehow conveniently managed to miss the entire point. They keep polishing that turd but it's still a turd somehow. The same special access to the prime minister’s cabinet sit—
AMT: Oh, there goes the mic. Of course, opposition MPs can be forgiven for being at their wit’s end sometimes when day after day, government MPs and cabinet ministers rise to repeat what appear to be the same canned answers and approved talking points. That's the state of Question Period today. But the question is whether that's a sideshow or the sign of much larger problems with the country's democratic institutions. Today I'm joined by four MP from four different parties who do believe there is a problem here and have some ideas on how to address it. Kennedy Stewart is the NDP MP for Burnaby South in BC. Michael Chong is Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills in Ontario and a leadership candidate for the Conservative Party. Scott Simms is the Liberal MP for the Newfoundland-Labrador riding of Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame and Elizabeth May is the leader of the Green Party and MP for the BC riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands. They have all contributed to a new book called Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada's Democracy and they are all in Ottawa. Hello and welcome.
MANY VOICES: Hi.
AMT: You all wrote a book together and no one put you in a corner and kicked you out?
MANY VOICES: Not yet. [laughs]
ELIZABETH MAY: My caucus and my leader are very happy with this book.
AMT: Well, we’ll talk about that too, Elizabeth. Let me start by asking each of you to tell me briefly what you think is the most annoying or problematic part of how parliament works right now. Kennedy Stewart.
KENNEDY STEWART: Well, I think it came through in the book. It was the control of the party leadership. It’s the dominance of parties in parliament, but it's also the control of the party leadership and they control about 95 per cent of what happens in the house and that's probably the most annoying thing for me.
AMT: Michael Chong.
MICHAEL CHONG: I have to agree with Kennedy on this. I think the degree to which party leaders—particularly the prime minister—control all aspects of the House of Commons is, I think, the single most troubling aspect of our parliament.
AMT: Scott Simms, what bothers you about the way parliament works?
SCOTT SIMMS: Yeah, the third time's the charm. I would agree with both of my colleagues and I would add that once you have more freedom, you also have more freedom for the members of parliament to speak their minds. I always said that if you cannot stand in the House of Commons and speak for 20 minutes without notes, then you probably shouldn't be there.
AMT: Elizabeth May.
ELIZABETH MAY: I agree and it's not just the control of party leadership or the prime minister. It's the fact that the backroom strategists working up to the next election for each of the parties, the big parties, is determining what happens in the House of Commons. So we have for the last few months, I’d say in parliament, we've been at a standstill of all kinds of monkey wrenching of the liberal agenda because the conservatives and the NDP are working together to drive the liberal house leader crazy and push them to doing all the things that Harper did that were anti-democratic. It's an electoral strategy. It's not about getting work done in parliament.
AMT: Kennedy Stewart, what happens on the floor of the House of Commons during Question Period that is not caught by the microphones or the cameras?
KENNEDY STEWART: Well, really they call it a theatre but it isn't in a sense. It's kind of like inside jokes. You can't wait to get there because you'll see somebody embarrassed and you kind of nudge the person next to you and really if you're in the gallery or watching it on TV, you don't see this whole acting out on the floor and it is the Ottawa bubble. I've been there six years now and it gets pretty tedious, I’ve got to say.
AMT: Michael Chong, what ideas do you have for reforming Question Period?
MICHAEL CHONG: Well, Anna Maria, I think the number one problem in Question Period is that 90 per cent of the members of parliament are mere spectators. Our system has changed dramatically over the last three decades. MPs no longer have rights in the House of Commons to ask questions. It's now up to the party leaders through the Whips and House leaders to determine who asks and answers questions. As a result, Anna Maria, only about 30 MPs participate in Question Period. The rest of us are just there to watch. And I think the first thing we need to do is we need to take away the power of the prime minister and other party leaders to determine who gets to ask and answer questions. And we need to take away the power of the prime minister through the Whips and the House leader to determine who gets to answer questions and restore those powers to the speaker of the House of Commons.
AMT: So you're all talking about rigid control. Scott Simms, what does Question Period reveal then about the state of our political institutions?
SCOTT SIMMS: Well, first of all, the dynamic of Question Period was supposed to be something that obviously requires answers. It's not in the name but it's certainly in the function by which the Question Period is meant to be. The problem is it becomes so rehearsed and so canned and the only reason why it becomes so rehearsed and canned is because we don't want to get in trouble. It is the most expensive dinner theatre in the country and it's not a good dinner theatre at that. So it's not in good value for money but the whole point of it is that you cannot say—the minister does not want to say something that gets him or her in trouble. And by the same token, the questions are only 35 seconds. They’re canned, they’re rehearsed and you have to lay down the zinger as it were. And because of that, it just becomes very boring and tedious.
AMT: So if you want to ask a question and you're in opposition, you have to go, Kennedy, do you have to go to the people deciding and they say whether you get to ask it?
KENNEDY STEWART: Yeah, you pitch questions. At least we do in the NDP. We pitch questions the night before and then the House leader and a bunch of other staff decide who gets the questions and they essentially send you written text and they help you practice it and then you go in and deliver it.
ELIZABETH MAY: It's crazy. And I would pick up on Michael's point. There are no current rules that say that the Whip gets to choose. In fact, on the challenge that was made in the 41st parliament about this issue of Question Period, the speaker ruled look, just catch my eye. I'm not paying attention to the list of speakers that come from the Whip. Well, that is fiction but there are no rules. This nonsense. I have to say how offensive I find it that people do QP prep. When I worked in the eighties in the office of the minister of environment, there was no such thing and what it does is it takes out—number one, it takes out the human element. It takes out the people asking the question actually know what they're talking about—which is a key feature of the Westminster Parliament in London—that people on their feet actually know what they're talking about. I'm lucky I don't have to do QP prep and I can change up my question. Scott, sorry. We're here seeing each other’s fingers go up. And Anna Maria, you’re in Toronto. I’m sorry about that.
AMT: Yeah, okay. So Elizabeth, you've got to give them space. But I'm going to ask you Elizabeth. Let's talk about the way political parties function in this country because you make the point. A candidate’s party affiliations were not even on the ballot until what, 1974?
ELIZABETH MAY: Yeah.
AMT: That's hard to imagine.
ELIZABETH MAY: Well, it was our system of Westminster parliamentary democracy. It’s not about electing a prime minister nor is it about electing a political party. Political parties aren't mentioned in our Constitution. So it's not strange at all that between 1867 and 1970, early 1970s, if you went to vote you were voting for someone in your community. Now you might be presumed to know that that person was basically a Grit or basically a Tory, but it wasn't on the ballot. And in the early seventies, it was put forward that really communities were getting bigger and not everybody knew everybody else. And this branding of candidates by their national party identity started with putting the name of the parties on the ballot. And law of unintended consequences, in the process Elections Canada thought well, we better know this person is legitimately representing that party. That's when they started saying the leader of the party must sign the nomination papers for every candidate and in that, they gave leaders of parties a really big club with which to threaten and punish.
AMT: Okay. Go ahead, Michael.
MICHAEL CHONG: It was the 1972 election where sweeping new changes were made and that was the beginning of what we've now experienced for 45 years—the use of the party leader veto to disallow candidates that have been locally nominated. We are the only—the only—western democracy where party leaders have the power to veto a locally nominated party candidate.
AMT: Kennedy, you went up against this when you ran.
KENNEDY STEWART: Right. Well yeah. My two nominations that I ran for the NDP in 2004 and 2011, I wasn't the favoured candidate and I had to fight my way in both times. I learned the hard way how that happens and I think I have experienced the discipline throughout my time here in parliament. For example in Question Period, the attack questions I refused to ask them and then I find I wouldn't get a question for another six months or something. So I don't want to tell tales out of school because I know what happens in every party, but you do see the cumulative effects of you going up against the party and then what that does for your career.
AMT: Well, Michael Chong, talk to us about what it's like to go up against the wishes of a party. You've proposed a private member's bill under Stephen Harper's government. The party wasn't necessarily on your side. Were you punished?
MICHAEL CHONG: No, I wasn't actually. I think that's to Mr. Harper's great credit. I certainly from time to time had my disagreements with him, but on that one bill he gave me free reign to pursue it. But the bigger point here is that there are structural problems with our system. Our system would be unrecognizable on this 150th year of Confederation to the fathers of Confederation.
ELIZABETH MAY: The mothers would be really upset.
MICHAEL CHONG: That's right.
AMT: I was just going to ask about the mothers. Michael, before we go further, what was the bill?
MICHAEL CHONG: The bill was the Reform Act. It was passed by parliament—
AMT: How appropriate.
MICHAEL CHONG: June of 2015 and it had to be significantly amended to get all parties’ support. But in essence what it does is it gives caucus-elected members of parliament the decision on which powers the party leader will have and which powers elected members of parliament will have. So as a result of the bill, in the conservative caucus today, the party leader has been stripped of the power to expel an MP from caucus. The party leader has been stripped of the power to appoint to caucus chair. The caucus chair David Sweet was elected by caucus as a result of this bill.
AMT: Well, let's talk a little bit more about those who go against what the party as a whole is doing. Rookie MP and backbencher Nathaniel Erskine-Smith has voted against the party on a number of occasions since the Liberals took power. He apologized to voters for his party breaking a promise around electoral reform. Who wants to tackle that one? What kind of political future is in store for him?
MANY VOICES: I do.
AMT: Who am I hearing first?
MICHAEL CHONG: It’s Michael Chong.
MICHAEL CHONG: This is a really important point. Our party discipline is so strong because of the control that party leaders have that in the House of Commons today—and this has been true for the last 15, 20 years—the average Member of Parliament never breaks rank with their party. The average compliance of the 337 members of parliament with their party is 100 per cent. In Westminster in London, the average compliance is 70 per cent. In other words, members of parliament on average break rank with their party 30 to 40 per cent of the time and that is a result of one thing and one thing only. In Britain, they have the system that we used to have where the party leaders have a lot less power to determine how the House of Commons is run.
ELIZABETH MAY: And the parliamentary caucus in the UK and in Australia and every other Commonwealth Westminster democracy can decide this particular leader of our party—which in a majority government, or minority means they’re the prime minister—is past their best before date, we’re going to replace them. It doesn't create an election. I mean Margaret Thatcher was booted by her own conservative caucus and replaced with John Major. This approach gives the leaders of parties a lot less reason to threaten their caucus all the time.
AMT: Well, I want to keep on with just the example of Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. Kennedy Stewart, what kind of political future is in store for him?
KENNEDY STEWART: Not much. He's not going to be a parliamentary secretary or a minister and I wouldn't be surprised if he's challenged in his nomination. It's tough when you're brand new coming in here because you don't really know and I think Nathaniel is going to find out the hard way. And I think others will as well, especially when you have so much churn in the House of Commons. We had 200 new members. We have not only the toughest party discipline. We also have the most churn, way more new rookies every parliament they have to learn this. And then again, learn about how tough the party discipline is.
AMT: Scott Simms, the Liberal. Do you want to weigh in on this one?
SCOTT SIMMS: Should I really? You know what, I find Nathaniel to be a very intelligent person and he's a very independent person and I think it's a breath of fresh air what he brings because I think what a lot of people don't understand about this is that in Ottawa or any parliament for that matter, provincial legislatures as well, once you go against the party, that's it. You're out. Not necessarily. However, it's all in the nuance and this is where the nuance comes into it. As Kennedy just pointed out, certain things you may not be in line for. If you want to ask a question, the Whip decides that question will be put in “not a priority”, we’ll say in quotes. It's that kind of nuance that makes it a little bit more difficult around here which is why some of the themes here about more independence for the Member of Parliament is good for that reason. As Michael pointed out, I just got back in the United Kingdom and we watched one of the Conservative backbenchers ask a question to the conservative prime minister and it was not very kind, not very kind at all, to which we were in shock.
AMT: You know party leaders might argue that you can't have them going rogue or you will end up like Margaret Thatcher.
SCOTT SIMMS: One of the things, Anna Maria, in the past, I’d say 20 years at least—certainly since Michael and I've been here since 2004—and that is our parties and our governments as well spend a tremendous amount of money in communications now. A tremendous amount for us to stay on message. So what ends up happening is that the 45-minute Question Period is tailored for a national audience that may break its way through the media that exists only in Ottawa. If I want to ask a question and I know that the only person, the only people that will pick up my questions story will be my local Grand Falls-Windsor Advertiser back home, chances are that's not going to get there in Question Period simply because of that. And that's a shameful part about Question Period too.
AMT: Now Scott Simms, I want to pick up on the whole issue of electoral reform. How much division has the broken promise on electoral reform by the liberals caused among MPs?
SCOTT SIMMS: I wouldn't say it's a lot only because a lot of us came in with pretty strong opinions one way or the other. I don't think what this has done—like some people are certainly in for electoral reform, others not. Like I did a town hall in my riding in Central Newfoundland and it was unanimous there. They just did not want to change it. They would have accepted a ranked ballot but that was about the extent of it. As critic in the last Parliament, I went to Vancouver, spoke to people and everybody in the room were all for proportional representation. So it's a conversation that I think needs to be expanded because in Newfoundland and Labrador, we've never had a provincial discussion about electoral reform and I have a deep respect for my colleagues sitting here, especially Elizabeth, and we've talked about this a lot and I know where she is on this in a big way.
AMT: Well, Elizabeth, tell us how important is electoral reform in this conversation about improving our democracy?
ELIZABETH MAY: Other than abolishing political parties, it's the number one thing we could do to improve the quality and the content of democracy in Canada, is to get rid of it. Because the first past the post voting system that we currently have—and we are the minority of democracies in the world that we use this perverse system that separates the popular vote from the seat count. But as a result of that, you end up with strategies that are electoral strategies of wedge issues or for many people now say dog whistle politics. That nastiness is embedded in the electoral system we're using and that's what turns parliament into an increasingly toxic place. If we had electoral reform to a proportional system, it would not be immediate but over time parties would start realizing I can cooperate across party lines. I can give credit to the leader of the Conservative Party or credit to the leader of the Liberal Party or the NDP without seeing it drain my vote at election time as people begin to figure out where do I put my vote to best get rid of the party I hate the most?
AMT: I just want to put up on something. You said we're in a minority of countries that do it the way we do it now.
ELIZABETH MAY: Yes. Modern democracies use proportional representation.
AMT: Okay. But like one of the reasons you want to do this is because you see like the rise of populism that is alarming to many and it's threatening democracy. Aren't some of those same countries also facing that with their own systems?
ELIZABETH MAY: No. If you look at the Dutch election, it's very instructive. I mean everybody was all phobic about the rise of an anti-immigration racist Netherlands first, Geert Wilders’ party. But when you have an electoral system with 26 parties running, even if his party had gotten more votes than the others relatively, they would have been miles from ever being able to form government. The moving of our political agenda to the right is a product of first past the post. I think people who belong to the Progressive Conservative Party for example are the number one victims of first past the post because the pressure unite the right, meant that the Progressive Conservative Party got cannibalized by the Reform Party and emerged as something permanently potentially, to the right of where progressive conservatism has its roots.
AMT: Michael, do you want to speak to that?
KENNEDY STEWART: This is Kennedy here. I wanted to say the absurdity of our system is really playing out in BC where we have a recount going on in a riding with nine votes will determine whether or not Christy Clark becomes a majority premier or a minority government premier. And that it hinges on nine votes.
ELIZABETH MAY: Especially since the 40 per cent is all she's going to get the popular vote. That’s not going to go to 50 per cent plus something.
KENNEDY STEWART: But can I also say that we purposely didn't talk about electoral reform in this book because we knew we had varying opinions and we also knew that this was being covered very well by parliament. So everything in this book is about how to change things other than the electoral system.
AMT: And I realize that but I just thought I’d ask anyway.
MANY VOICES: [Speaking at once]
AMT: It’s that elephant in the room, you know?
SCOTT SIMMS: I think look, I didn't support the Liberals’ proposal for electoral reform. That said, I think that people who are advocating for electoral reform have identified in trying to solve a problem that exists, which is the fact that ordinary voters, many of them feel that party leaders stifle the debate in the House of Commons, that parties are not reflective of the diversity of voices in this country. And so people advocating for electoral reform are trying to tackle this problem. I come from it from a different perspective. I think weakening the power of party leaders, I think will strengthen the role of the locally elected Member of Parliament and that in turn will give greater voice to those constituents. Even if they didn't vote for that particular member of parliament, it will allow that MP to break rank with their party 30 per cent of the time, 40 per cent of the time in order to represent those people, many of whom who didn't vote for that person.
AMT: Okay. I want to move on to another issue. I want to ask about parliamentary committees. Elizabeth May, how important are committees when it comes to the work of government?
ELIZABETH MAY: As an objective observer, since I'm not on committees, I can say they're essential. When I worked in government in the 1980s in the office of the minister of environment back then, parliamentary committees worked much better than now. They're working better now than they did in the Harper years. I’m going to give credit to the Trudeau liberals for improving the way committees work by making them much less a battleground over partisan interests. There are many more amendments being accepted now than in the past. But they're still too partisan.
AMT: Okay. So Michael Chong, how would you like to see those committees reformed in other ways?
MICHAEL CHONG: Well, quite simply I think we need to make two major reforms. First I think the 10 members on committees should be elected on a secret ballot vote at the beginning of each parliament just after we elect the speaker of the House of Commons. And secondly, I think when those committees of 10 MPs meet for the first time, they should elect the chair on a secret ballot vote as well. Those votes should be mandatory so that the parties can't game the system and prevent the secret ballot election of both committee members and committee chairs. That will create 24 truly independent committees. Committees provide three vital functions in our parliament. It's there where the vast majority of work of the House of Commons is done. The three vital functions they perform are first, they amend government legislation. Secondly, they approve all spending and taxation and third, they are the place where government ministers and departments are supposed to be held accountable.
AMT: And this matters on big issues: finance, defence, health.
MICHAEL CHONG: The prime minister, for example. It is unheard of. Unheard of. In fact, I can't recall any time in recent Canadian history where the Canadian prime minister has been hauled in front of a standing committee of the House of Commons to be held accountable. In the United Kingdom, the British prime minister is regularly pulled in front of a standing committee of the House of Commons and held accountable. That doesn't happen in Canada because the party leaders control committees.
AMT: Scott Simms, would you like to see these changes?
SCOTT SIMMS: Yeah, I would because I'm on a committee right now. I'm on the standing committee of fisheries and oceans and we've by reputation have been the most friendly committee, we’ll say, and also one of the more productive ones. But we've been productive because we've managed to go beyond partisan lines. Like right now, in two weeks, we're going to Northwest Territories and British Columbia to study marine protected areas. And this is not a partisan—this was an initiative by the current government, the Liberal government to have 10 per cent marine protected areas in the country. But the motion to study this was done by a conservative. So I guess it's really about behaviour when it comes right down to it. I mean how does a committee—the committee is a master of its own destiny.
ELIZABETH MAY: In theory.
SCOTT SIMMS: In theory. But it's judged on its behaviour. I’m on procedure and house affairs committee—not well. It's not that well at this point because it behaves in a more partisan nature and that's too bad. And maybe with Michael's suggestion, if you get more towards a strike some type of independence for these committees, then they can be far more productive.
AMT: Okay. I'm going to hold it there for a moment. I'd like you all to stay with me. We have to take a 90-second break. But we are talking about ideas, practical ideas according to the title of the book, for reforming Canada's democracy with four MPs who are talking about turning parliament inside out. We will take a break and then when we return, we'll be back with Kennedy Stewart, the NDP, Conservative MP Michael Chong, Liberal MP Scott Simms and Green Party MP and leader Elizabeth May. You are listening to The Current on CBC Radio One. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti.
AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with a group of four members of parliament from four different parties about some of the problems they believe are plaguing Canada's democratic institutions—problems that are turning Canadians off politics. If you missed the first part of our conversation, you can find it on our website or on the CBC Radio app. Kennedy Stewart is the NDP MP for Burnaby-South in BC. Michael Chong is the Conservative MP for Wellington- Halton Hills in Ontario. He's also a leadership candidate for the Conservative Party. Scott Simms is a Liberal MP for the Newfoundland and Labrador riding of Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame and Elizabeth May is the leader of the Green Party and the MP for the BC riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands. Now they all contributed to a new book called Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada's Democracy and they are all four together in Ottawa. Welcome back everyone.
MANY VOICES: Hi.
AMT: Scott Simms, I want you to tell us about your idea for the creation of the Assembly of the Federation. What is that? How would it work?
SCOTT SIMMS: Where does one start? Notice they put me in the back of the book, by the way.
KENNEDY STEWART: End with a bang.
SCOTT SIMMS: End with a bang, that's it. What this is is something that I experienced when I was on the Council of Europe. And what this basically is is that in the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, France, politicians from around Europe—47 nations—come together to pass motions to bring back to their home government. So I thought there is one politician in this country that does not get enough attention and is not a part of the national discussion and that is the provincial backbencher, your MLA, your MPP, your MHAs as we call them in Newfoundland and Labrador. They work very hard in health care and education. Their issues are on the forefront. So what I would like to see is you take the Senate twice a year, you bring backbenchers—a select few of them—to Ottawa to discuss issues such as education, health care but also federal issues like environment. And they pass motions and they bring them either back to their own legislatures or they put to a federal parliament to say here's what the Assembly of Federation believes in. Like I used the example in the book, let's create a history course for high school students across the country. So they put together a motion and the parliament votes on it as well. So that way when you get into a debate with premiers and provincial cabinet ministers, they say though that's provincial jurisdiction you're not allowed to touch that, bad federal government. But they can say well, look, the Assembly of the Federation, provincial backbenchers said yes to this.
AMT: Let me just play devil's advocate here. You are talking about the reform of parliament at a time when you all recognize that there are voters who are feeling disenfranchised and left behind. And you're just talking now about creating another layer of something. Are they disenfranchised because parliament is not doing something or is it because of politics? And what you're talking about now is trying to fix the politics that's there with more politics. Are you going to just end up pushing more people away because they think they hear about another layer?
SCOTT SIMMS: Well, I think I think people are rightfully cynical and upset about the lack of reform in our system. You know we see a current government that broke its promise on electoral reform. To be fair to the current government, this is a pattern that has been repeated many times. I think a lot of voters want reform. They understand that our system has structural problems. People are frustrated. They want a greater diversity of voices. They want ordinary people to have a greater say. And if we don't respond to these demands, we risk undermining the legitimacy of our political system. This rise in populist sentiment is not a recent phenomenon and it's not going away. And if we don't reform our system, we risk pushing those populist voices outside of our democratic system and to very destructive consequences.
KENNEDY STEWART: That's actually how this book came together, was because it's about decentralization, partly the theme and how Michael and I really got to know each other is through my effort to bring electronic petitioning to the House of Commons. I'm happy to say everybody around this table supported it. And that is actually trying to use technology to bring in citizens and give them a legitimate voice.
ELIZABETH MAY: The power of an individual citizen to know that their vote is going to count is really fundamental. Getting the hyper partisanship out of the political theatre that we see in front of us or whether it's more like a gladiatorial spectacle. It's terrible and people avert their eyes. You can't have them averting their eyes and expect them to participate.
AMT: I want to ask another question about who's representing whom. The government has prided itself on having gender parity in cabinet. Elizabeth, is it doing enough to give women a voice in government?
ELIZABETH MAY: No, but I wouldn't downplay the significance of it. It was back in the mid-eighties that the first woman prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, appointed a gender balanced cabinet and it changed not only politics in Norway. It changed business in Norway. Norwegian boards of directors also now have gender parity. So it's a significant step but it's only symbolic if it isn't matched with other measures. And I think it's a terrible shame—speaking of the man across the way from me there, Kennedy Stewart's private member's bill.
AMT: I was just going to ask him about that.
ELIZABETH MAY: Which I very strongly supported.
AMT: Well, let's ask Kennedy to explain. What were you proposing in that bill?
KENNEDY STEWART: Yeah. The bill was a very mild incentive scheme to push parties to nominate more women candidates. Parties are reimbursed for expenses in every election and the further the party is away from having 45 per cent of their candidates being women, the less money they're reimbursed. And so this would hit parties in the pocketbook. It isn’t the quota but I thought the incentive scheme might work and I did have a lot of support from the Liberal backbenchers. We had about I think about 40 liberal backbenchers.
AMT: Scott Simms, were you one of them?
SCOTT SIMMS: No.
AMT: Why not? Why not?
SCOTT SIMMS: Well, no. I mean for several reasons. I like that. I just thought it was a tad bit overly prescriptive. No offence.
KENNEDY STEWART: That’s fine.
SCOTT SIMMS: But I thought the idea was good. I just thought it could have been toned down a little bit. I got lost in the details perhaps. But I do like that idea. I hope you didn't take it the wrong way. I disagree with it. But that's one of the issues we have when it comes to passing legislation is sometimes we get lost in the details but fundamentally the concept is good.
AMT: Okay. So as I listen to all of you, have you thought of starting your own party together?
ELIZABETH MAY: Well, they're welcome in mine because the Green Party doesn't believe in party discipline. We don't have a party Whip. And literally that's true if you look at Green Parties around the world. But no, I don't think we want to start a new party.
MICHAEL CHONG: Anna Maria, I'm running to lead my party.
ELIZABETH MAY: It's yours if you want it, Michael.
MICHAEL CHONG: We'd have to work on that seal hunt thing.
ELIZABETH MAY: Yeah, yeah. I know but there’s no party whip or club.
MICHAEL CHONG: We are starting discussions though. Anita Vandenbeld is starting a group that's going to be talking about this. And again, what we really need is to create some space to have these conversations. So we don't necessarily have to join the other party in order to talk to each other.
AMT: So you know that the lifeblood of many a political speech is attacking an opponent. Do you think voters in Canada would prefer to see all of you being nicer to each other and trying to find ways to work together and do you think that would pay off for you at the ballot box?
ELIZABETH MAY: Absolutely that's what voters want. And believe it or not, the liberals spent millions of dollars on a survey of Canadians that told them exactly that. The vox populi poll which had many things wrong with it, 70 per cent of the respondents—there were hundreds of thousands of them—said we would rather see many parties work together to come to consensus rather than one party making all the decisions, even if it takes longer.
KENNEDY STEWART: But if there's a big issue, like for example they're trying to put the Kinder Morgan pipeline through my riding, I can't sit down and have a nice conversation about that.
ELIZABETH MAY: But we could. We could have a nice conversation.
KENNEDY STEWART: Not at this point.
ELIZABETH MAY: Well, we may have to be having that conversation from in front of the bulldozers, but the point is we should have had a conversation.
AMT: A lot of people get into politics because they’re passionate. They want to take the fight to the centre of government.
ELIZABETH MAY: But the fight should never be personal. I've never given a speech attacking someone personally. The ability to disagree is trite but true for Canadians. We can disagree without being disagreeable.
AMT: Okay. So Kennedy, we're almost out of time. I’m going to give you the last word. The book includes forewords by Ed Broadbent, Preston Manning, Bob Rae. They make the case that it is quite urgent to reform the system now. What's at stake if we don't do this?
KENNEDY STEWART: Well, it's increasing cynicism by the public. And again, we're seeing around the world a move to populist politics that are negative, the rise of the far right. We see what's happening down south in the United States and we need to reassure people that our institutions work and include them more. It’s up to us now here in parliament to make it better.
AMT: We have to leave it there. Thank you all of you for taking the time to be part of this discussion and for your thoughts.
MANY VOICES: Thank you, Anna Maria.
AMT: Kennedy Stewart, NDP MP; Conservative MP Michael Chong—he's running for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Scott Simms is a Liberal MP. Elizabeth May is the lone Green Party MP and the leader of the party. They all joined me from Ottawa. Now over to you. Tell us what you think of the ideas put forth by these four politicians. Do you have any suggestions they have missed? Tweet us @thecurrentCBC, find us on Facebook. Email us from our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent.
AMT: I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you are listening to The Current on CBC Radio One, Sirius XM, online on www.cbc.ca/thecurrent and on your radio app.Back To Top »
Amid death threats, New Orleans dismantles Civil War statues at night
Guests: Malcolm Suber, Kirk Savage
[Sound: Protesters yelling]
AMT: Well, that is the sound of tensions running high in New Orleans over something that often fades into the background of city life. Protesters clashing over statues, monuments in this case, to the Confederate side of the US Civil War that the city of New Orleans is removing. There are four Confederate monuments coming down. The third was removed Wednesday at three o'clock in the morning with workers wearing face masks and bullet proof vests because of ongoing death threats. To many, those statues represent white supremacy and past injustices. To others, removing them as an erasure of history. Malcolm Suber has worked for decades to have those monuments removed. He is an organizer with Take ‘Em Down NOLA and an adjunct professor in political science at Southern University in New Orleans and he joins us from New Orleans. Hello.
MALCOLM SUBER: Good morning.
AMT: Those have been some tense scenes when the monuments come down. What's it been like for you to witness this?
MALCOLM SUBER: It's been a very enjoyable moment for us who've been labouring for years to rid the city of this onerous presentation on public squares. So it was a great feeling to see that all of our work has come to fruition and that we are beginning a dialogue in this city. Too often there have been no real honest discussions about the impact and the effects of white supremacy here. So this is welcomed for me.
AMT: So tell us about these monuments. What are they?
MALCOLM SUBER: Well, basically these monuments were put in place during the Jim Crow era to reassert that whites were in control of the politics of the south. These laws all followed reconstruction and the abolishment of the enslavement of African people. And basically black people for the first time were given the right to vote, have representatives, had important positions in government and all of that was erased during the Jim Crow period. And we would not see that happen again until the 1960s and the civil rights movement. And so these statues were funded by the descendants of the slave holders and they asserted of course that the South had been abused by the Civil War and that they were invaded by the Northern Yankees. And just an interpretation that they had fought a just war and that war of course created a myth that the war was not about the enslavement of African people.
AMT: Right. So given the history and given how loaded it is, they took it down in the middle of the night, huh? Why’d they have to do that?
MALCOLM SUBER: Well, the mayor claims that they had an abundance of caution and threats that they were getting. But you know we and Take ‘Em Down NOLA have always taken the position that the whole debate about taking these things down occurred in the daylight. Everybody could participate. And so we think that this was a kowtowing to the racists and the white supremacists who came to town brandishing weapons and making threats. And we said to the mayor, you got a police force. You've got undercover officers. Why can't you just go in and disarm these people and throw them in jail? Because we have local ordinances. Even though the state of Louisiana is an open carry state, we have local ordinances in New Orleans which says that you cannot have weapons near schools, churches or playgrounds. All of these statues are close to those institutions.
AMT: Right. Well, I don't want to get into the details of the nitty-gritty of that law because I want to ask you more about the opposition. We know just last Saturday night in Charlottesville, Virginia there was a group carrying torches led by the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer that had a demonstration around the Robert E. Lee statue there to protest its removal. What does it say to you that there are still some very vocal in threatening people in opposition to the removal of statues like this?
MALCOLM SUBER: It says that you have some elements in the white community who cling to white supremacy, are not ashamed to admit that they are white supremacists. Of course we live in a white supremacist society which has a detrimental impact upon all black people in terms of over incarceration, lack of jobs, lack of opportunity. And so these are just reflections of the struggle of black people for freedom and equality in the United States. And that's why this movement is all across the south. Black people are finally standing up and say we are tired of these insults and that's what these statues represent.
AMT: And you know there are people who say that this is erasing history. How do you respond to that?
MALCOLM SUBER: You know history is not statues. History is the actual events that brought about the conditions where these statues were created. So removing these statues is not removing history. It’s just removing objects of art. And you know this is fundamentally a question of who controls the public land spaces in our cities. And when the racist whites were in control, they decided to put up monuments to their heroes of the Confederacy. And we’re saying that those things were insults to the black community about oppression and exploitation and we want to embrace a different future. And that's why it's important [unintelligible] today.
AMT: Okay. Well, Malcolm Suber, thanks for talking to me today.
MALCOLM SUBER: You’re welcome.
MALCOLM SUBER: Have a good day.
AMT: You too. Malcolm Suber, organizer with Take ‘Em Down NOLA. He's an adjunct professor of political science at Southern University in New Orleans and we reached him in New Orleans. In Canada there are divisive statues as well. In Halifax, a panel is being set up to discuss how to remember Edward Cornwallis in public spaces. He's one of the founders of Halifax in 1749. He also called for the extermination of the Mi’kmaq people that same year. He issued a scalping proclamation and offered cash to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person. Daniel Paul is a Mi’kmaq historian. He's been calling for the removal of the Cornwallis statue for decades. CBC producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh met with Daniel Paul in the downtown park named after Edward Cornwallis at the base of that statue.
VOICE 1: I see a lot of pigeon poop on it. [laughs] That's a good place for them to do it. Really it's a symbol of what's the worst in history, not what’s the best.
VOICE 2: So you've been fighting for this for 25 years and there he is standing as tall as ever. What do you make of that?
VOICE 1: Let's put it this way. He may be still standing there but I don't think he's tall as ever. In a great many eyes in this province today, he is a parasite and should be taken down. He is a symbol of barbarity from the past that you don't really need in this day and age. You're not taking him out of history books. People will still read about him. But you show me a plaque anywhere around there that states that that man tried to exterminate the Mi’kmaq people and it's not there. Originally in the early 1990s, I suggested that plaque be put up that stated the fact that he tried to exterminate the Mi’kmaq. I would have been satisfied with that at that time. But the answer was no, you can't do something like that to a hero. Well, the man isn’t a hero. It's a fact of life. This is 2017. We're supposed to be a more enlightened people. So we have a more inclusive society and when you have a more inclusive society, you take away irritants from view that I think to me, it is. It's a symbol of white supremacy. If they want to take him and drop him in the deepest end of the harbour, I couldn't care less. Get him out of here.
AMT: Well, that is Mi’kmaq historian Daniel Paul in Halifax speaking to our Mary-Catherine McIntosh, CBC Halifax. Now of course statues are highly visible political symbols and at times of unrest or revolution, they are always ripe for toppling. Think back to Baghdad in Iraq in 2003 when US Marines helped pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein.
[Sound: Crowd cheering]
That is at once a pathetic and symbolic representation of Saddam Hussein. It says it all about what is going on. He has been toppled from his pedestal head down.
AMT: Well, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the statues of many Soviet leaders have been toppled, most recently during the fighting in Ukraine in 2014.
[Sound: Crowd cheering]
AMT: You can hear the thud there. Just two weeks ago, a statue of Hugo Chavez was pulled down and rolled through the streets by protesters in Caracas, Venezuela.
[Sound: Yelling and clapping]
AMT: Well, Kirk Savage tallies the topplings. He teaches history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. He's the author of a book called Monument Wars and another called Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves. And Kirk Savage joins us from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Hello.
KIRK SAVAGE: Hi, good morning.
AMT: You can really hear something as these statues are falling and being rolled along. What do you think when you hear that?
KIRK SAVAGE: Well, in the latter cases you're talking about regime change. You see a lot of anger. In the first two cases that you brought up, I see them as a bit different though. These are both monuments to white supremacy which is something that is ongoing and we haven't yet grappled with or found a solution to. So it's a somewhat different matter and it's an ongoing fight. Whatever happens to the statues.
AMT: How far back does the practice of toppling statues go?
KIRK SAVAGE: Well, to ancient times certainly. I mean when the Roman Emperor was going to be, when the vandals were at the gates. Of course what they want to do is destroy the monuments that represented the authority of that regime, that power. So it's something that continues up to the present day and we've seen in the history of the United States, one of the early revolutionary moments was the toppling of a statue of George the Third in 1776 in New York. So it’s sort of baked into our history as well.
AMT: And so what role does statues and monuments play in our society today?
KIRK SAVAGE: Well, the interesting thing is that they carry a lot of authority in whatever communities they’re erected in. Even though they're mostly ignored, most of the time people don't even know that they're there or realize that they're there, they still represent or seem to represent the kind of popular will of the community. And that's why they're so divisive now and remains so important because when they are no longer in sync with the way in which the community understands itself or they are no longer in sync with those people in the community that now have voices in the political process that didn't have a voice when the monuments were erected, we have a big problem on our hands. And so these monuments then are representing the community in a way that the community can no longer accept or at least major elements of the community no longer can accept.
AMT: And what do you say to those who think that's an erasure of history?
KIRK SAVAGE: Well, I would completely agree with Malcolm Suber on this point. Monuments are not history. It's an understandable mistake. It is a mistake to equate monuments of history and it's an understandable mistake for the reason that I’m mentioning because they do seem to speak with such authority that people take them as if they have somehow dropped out of the sky as representations of history. But if you look into any monument’s own history, you quickly learn that these were all erected by particular groups of people with their own political agendas and people who had the power to be able to project their statement at that moment in time. So it's not like a history textbook or a professional history book that's supposed to be balanced and comprehensive and so on. These are tendentious objects from the very beginning.
AMT: I know that in some places, notably Moscow, there's a big park with a lot of Lenin and Stalin busts and toppled statues. That's where they all ended up. What do you think should be done with the statues that are coming down in the US?
KIRK SAVAGE: Well, that's a very good and very difficult question. And in an ideal world, I would think these could all be put into a museum of white supremacy, a national museum of white supremacy in which we actually confront the history of this white supremacy, say across the North American continent. It’d interesting to include Canada in that discussion. But the problem is that obviously we don't live in an ideal world and all the solutions that are required that take money and resources. So even to put one of these monuments into a museum is going to be very, very costly. And then how do you set up a process that would reinterpret that monument in a way that's authentic to the community? This is the kind of underlying question here. It’s the question a lot of help for New Orleans which is how does that dialogue continue? How do we reinterpret our past in a way that is meaningful for us now?
AMT: As you point out, this is also a question to ask in Canada as the fight goes on on that particular statue there. We have to leave it there, Kirk Savage. But thanks for your thoughts today.
KIRK SAVAGE: Sure. Thank you.
AMT: Kirk Savage, professor who teaches history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. He's the author of Monument Wars and of another book called Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves. He joined us from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Hello. I'm Richard Goddard, senior producer at The Current in Toronto. This week the show was produced by Idella Sturino, Howard Goldenthal, Ines Colabrese, John Chipman, Lara O'Brien, Shannon Higgins, Sujata Berry, Kristin Nelson, Karen Marley, Liz Hoath, Samira Mohyeddin, Pacinthe Mattar and Willow Smith. Special thanks to our network producers: Anne Penman in Vancouver; Suzanne Dufresne in Winnipeg; Susan McKenzie in Montreal and Mary-Catherine McIntosh in Halifax. The Current’s writer is Peter Mitton. Lisa Ayuso is our web producer and Ruby Buiza is our interactive producer. Our technical producer is Gary Francis. Our documentary editor is Josh Bloch. Cathy Simon is our senior producer in Vancouver and the executive producer of The Current is Kathleen Goldhar.
AMT: That's our program for today. Stay with Radio One for q. Guest host Ali Hassan is waiting in the wings. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. Thank you for listening to The Current.
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