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Dispatch from the Front Line: We will also not be reaching the NATO military spending target
But we're trying, okay?!
Happy Saturday, Line readers. We want to open with a note to our paid subscribers: we’ve had a few reports suddenly these last few weeks of paid-up subscribers no longer receiving emails from us. Normally when this has happened, it has been some kind of user error, but that doesn’t seem to be the case this time. If you are experiencing this issue, please email us at email@example.com with the subject “Email problem” and we’ll try and get this sorted.
A second note of housekeeping: our April experiment with leaving the paywall down on dispatches but putting our Line editors’ columns behind the wall continues. We’ll report back after this month about our future plans.
Also, a correction: We updated Harrison Ruess’s piece this week to note that the law under discussion is, in fact, a law, and no longer a piece of proposed legislation still under review. Our bad!
And now, on with the dispatch, starting with our video:
Podcast is here, too.
When it comes to the 120,000 or so striking federal public servants, we have some good news for them, some bad news, and a sharp beating with a reality stick.
Let’s start with the good news. A new poll out from Angus Reid suggests that a decent number of Canadians back the key demands of PSAC, which is one of the largest public-sector unions in the country. According to the poll, about 55 per cent of respondents support the right of the federal employees to work from home, while just under half — 48 per cent — are on board with the union’s wage increase demand.
This is actually a surprisingly strong level of support. If you had asked us where the centre of gravity of public opinion could be found, we’d have been inclined to agree with the striking workers who confessed to the Ottawa Citizen that they pretty much assumed they didn’t have the public on their side. As one striker said: “People hate us.”
Why they would feel that way is no big mystery. Compared to equivalent jobs in the private sector, unionized public servants are well compensated, have excellent benefits, and enjoy rock-solid job security. During the pandemic, when private businesses were struggling mightily to stay afloat, and millions of Canadians suddenly found themselves working essential but extremely precarious jobs under highly unsafe conditions, public servants got to work from home, collect their paycheques, and generally not have to worry much about their health or their finances. If Canadians weren’t inclined to cut them any slack on their strike demands, it would be totally understandable — as even the strikers appear to acknowledge.
The bad news is, the union’s strike mandate is weak and of questionable legitimacy. On Thursday, the federal labour board revealed that only 35 per cent of eligible PSAC members participated in the strike vote, of whom 80 per cent voted in favour of a walkout. Setting aside the very low participation rate, the labour board declined to invalidate the vote even though it found “major irregularities” in how PSAC handled the vote and its communications with members. Finally, PSAC refused to proactively disclose the turnout and result of the vote, a shadyness that has shocked at least some members of the labour movement.
All of this suggests that while the public might be more or less okay with at least the broad themes of the strike for now, the union’s membership is barely onside, with a PSAC leadership that knows it has questionable legitimacy yet is unwilling to be straight with its members.
But all of this is small potatoes compared to the bigger problem facing PSAC, which is that it appears completely clueless to how the world has changed. This has been clear since the strike began, when the union insisted that in order to collect strike pay members would have to show up in person at an actual picket line — this for a strike where the central demand is the right to, you know, not come in to work.
Well, no one has ever accused unions of having a firm grasp of the ironic mode, but it got even more ridiculous Thursday when Marc Briere, a leader with the Union of Taxation Employees at the CRA, expressed unhappiness with the government’s communications to its employees. The government’s crime, apparently, was in reminding PSAC members that if they wanted to keep collecting their paycheque they were free to continue to work … from home.
Officially, Briere suggested this was bad because the government is supposed to be supportive of anti-scab legislation. “I don’t think it’s cool. I don’t think it’s appropriate,” he said. But unofficially, it’s clear that the real reason this has aggravated the union leadership is that being able to scab without crossing a picket line undermines the ability of the union to threaten, abuse and ostracize members who choose to exercise their right to work. As the Globe and Mail reported:
Workers who cross the picket line during the current strike will face penalties from the union, as well as social consequences from their peers, said Mr. Brière. “The longer it lasts, the more temptation there will be out there for some people,” he said.
The attempt to square the desire to entrench the right to work from home while lamenting the consequences of work from home is throwing the PSAC leadership into some painful contortions. But they haven’t yet drawn the obvious lesson from this, which is that working from home is inherently anti-union. Collective bargaining, and the solidarity that underpins it, is borne of the common experience of the worker on the factory floor, on the assembly line, or at the coalface. It is about the power of a group willing to down tools collectively, stop the production line, and then physically block access to the place of work.
This core element of worker solidarity has always been more than a bit iffy when it is applied to white-collar public-sector workers. But the work-from-home gambit has completely exposed the essential fraud at the core of the PSAC action. If federal workers don’t need to be in the office to do their job, why do they need to even be in Canada? Who says the feds need to employ Canadians to do any of the myriad rote and isolated tasks that PSAC insists don’t require anyone to actually be in an office?
Work from home is just the remorseless logic of unbundled and outsourced capitalism pushed into the public bureaucracy. PSAC may win this fight with the feds (we suspect Trudeau will soon cave) but entrenching work from home will cost them the war. If the union leadership had any understanding of what was really at stake here, they would be fighting not for the right to work from home, but instead, demanding the right to come to the office.
A story we’ve been watching in recent weeks was the remarkable leak of sensitive U.S. national security documents onto the dark web, and from there, widely across social media. A young member of the Air National Guard has been arrested and now faces serious charges. News reports suggest that he had access to classified material at work and began sharing it privately with a small group of online friends, apparently simply to impress and inform them, with no broader political agenda. Some of those friends, in turn, appear to have leaked the documents further afield. It took months before anyone noticed, but once picked up by several individuals with large followings — including some who are none-to-friendly to the U.S. and Western alliance — the story exploded and the full scope of the leak was finally discovered.
This is, for the U.S., a huge embarrassment and a diplomatic nightmare. For us, it was simply a fascinating story. This week, though, we suddenly had the coveted Canadian Angle: the Washington Post claims to have reviewed one of the leaked documents, apparently prepared for the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, that assesses Canada’s military serious military deficiencies, and also reports that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has privately told fellow NATO leaders that Canada isn’t going to hit NATO’s two-per-cent-of-GDP spending target.
“Widespread defense shortfalls hinder Canadian capabilities,” the document says, “while straining partner relationships and alliance contributions.”
The assessment, which bears the seal of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says Germany is concerned about whether the Canadian Armed Forces can continue to aid Ukraine while meeting its NATO pledges. Turkey is “disappointed” by the Canadian military’s “refusal” to support the transport of humanitarian aid after February’s deadly earthquake there, the document says, and Haiti is “frustrated” by Ottawa’s reluctance to lead a multinational security mission to that crisis-racked nation.
Your Line editors just sort of sighed heavily and rubbed their temples when they read that. It was, to us, nothing we didn’t know already. It was actually almost some kind of a relief to know that the PM will at least say privately what he won’t admit publicly: we aren’t living up to our pledge, and don’t plan to.
The Post says that Trudeau told NATO that there won’t be much more military spending in this country until the political situation here changes. We aren’t sure if he meant the priorities of the voters or the composition of our parliament. It doesn’t matter — it’s true either way. We are disappointed, but again, in no way surprised, to see Trudeau seeing this as an issue that he’ll just accept as-is, as opposed to attempting the hard work of showing actual leadership. He’s always been more about the easy path of demonstrative gestures instead of working hard to achieve real change.
But hey. In this, he has a lot of company. The Tories under Harper were marginally better on defence, but not nearly good enough. We have little faith — next to none, really — that PM Poilievre would do any better on defence. What bums us out the most about this issue is that we recognize and even agree that the choice to neglect defence and shovel those dollars instead into other, more popular vote-buying files does indeed make political sense. It’s what the voters want. We wish it were otherwise. We’ve spent big chunks of our careers trying to change their minds. Our record to date is one of total, utter failure.
Still, never say die, right? So we’ll make this point: we understand and accept the criticism sometimes made by Canadian commentators, who argue that the two-per-cent-of-GDP target is arbitrary and somewhat meaningless. We don’t entirely agree — targets are useful, and two per cent seems reasonable. But we’d be open to an argument that Canada could still punch above its weight in the alliance, even while spending less, if we could deliver key capabilities.
But … we can’t. We probably could, once upon a time, but we can’t even do that now. The air force is a mess. The navy is a mess. The army is a disaster, and couldn’t even send Nova Scotia all the help it asked for after Hurricane Fiona. Sending a token plane or ship on a quick foreign jaunt is symbolism, not above-weight-punching. And the symbolism taps us out.
So we have to pick what we’re doing here, fellow Canucks. We can meet the two-per-cent target. We can find other ways to meaningfully contribute. Or we can do neither of those things, and admit it, but only in private. Right now, alas, we’ve chosen that third option. We see no sign that’ll be changing any time soon.
For all the hellfire and furiously scribbled takes that came in the wake of Twitter's decision to append a "government-funded” label to much of the free world's public journalism — including our own rambles here at The Line — we couldn't help but chuckle when the social media platform decided to, well, not do that anymore.
We're not quite sure why Twitter about-faced. It seems to have removed all the reviled "government funded" tags, as well as the "state affiliated" tags appended to organizations like RT and Xinhua and maybe that was the point? On the same day, Twitter removed all of the blue checkmarks for verified and legacy users, including your fine Line editors Jen Gerson and Matt Gurney.
We have only two initial reactions to all of this: The first is that Twitter's owner, Elon Musk has spent a hell of a lot of money to cement his place as King Troll. Given his global reach, we may even grant him the title of Emperor Troll.
The second, more serious, point comes from our perspective not as culture warriors or pundits, but rather as business owners: All of Musk's weirdness is making it very difficult to justify any kind of investment of time or money in Twitter. We're actually sympathetic with the need for the platform to make money, and the "Twitter Blue" service might be a justifiable and legitimate business expense, but why in the hell would we seriously consider it when Musk has demonstrated that he can't stick to a plan for more than a week?
We've watched the way the early Internet evolved into the middle Internet, and how the various algorithmic changes and SEO realities over that time affected newsrooms. We've been around to see major media corporations spend too much dwindling money looking for ways to game algorithms to maximize traffic and readership — only to see all that cash and work disappear with an arbitrary shift at Google HQ. We've even witnessed it recently: we at The Line used to get a solid viral hit per week. We suspect that Twitter began to throttle Substack links a few months ago, and since then those viral hits have disappeared. (Reminder, please subscribe and share The Line with friends and family!)
What we've learned is that we just cannot rely on social media to reliably juice growth, or to provide access to an audience. We need a consistent platform with steady rules that we can learn and master in order to succeed. Musk's trollery doesn't instil any faith that we'll get that from Twitter. So while we’ll continue to amuse ourselves there, and probably get ourselves into the odd bit of a trouble, as a place to focus any time, energy or money as a business-growth strategy? There’s just no case for that under the current management.
Further to the above, and further to our ramblings on all this "government-funded" nonsense, we couldn't help but note a particular kind of reaction from a particular kind of partisan in the midst of that now-defunct controversy. Remember that Conservative opposition leader Pierre Poilievre took full advantage of the new and now-gone label to declare that the CBC was a "propaganda" outlet that served the Trudeau Liberals.
Now we spared no quarter for the CBC: we do think that the public broadcaster has significant problems, internal bias being not the least of them. But the term "propaganda" has a very specific meaning that is obviously inappropriate in this context. We fully expect Poilievre to be smart enough to understand this. So the opposition leader took some lumps from Liberal partisans, and quite rightly.
Some of the response to Poilievre, however, was also predictably histrionic. There were borderline inferences that Poilievre's insult was akin to fascist attacks on media writ large; and a broad assumption that Twitter's accurate label was nothing short of a direct assault on democracy.
Not only is this kind of response self-evidently pretty silly, but frankly it's also pretty hypocritical. For all the idiocy of Poilievre's remarks, it's not like the Liberals don't have their own particular history of going after the media, and often more effectively. See: "The allegations in The Globe story this morning are false." Or go scroll through Trudeau's former principal secretary Gerry Butts' Twitter feed to see countless examples of him reducing media critical of the Liberals to untrustworthy "clickbait."
If you're actually committed to the importance of press freedom, perhaps take some time looking into the lasting harm the government is risking to media credibility and independence via Bill C-11 and C-18. If the term "government-funded" is a derogatory tag, might we draw your attention to how many media outlets it could now apply to thanks to desperate and poorly thought out Liberal subsidies. Subsidies that inevitably make those same media outlets dependent on the continuation of a Liberal government a matter of existential necessity.
We suspect that anyone compiling an impartial examination of threats to the media from the incumbent party and its supporters over the last eight years would find ample evidence of harm that far outweigh any damage the current opposition leader may have done with his — checks notes — mean tweet.
As The Line can not credibly be considered a business news outlet, we can’t spend too much time examining the deal announced this week that will incentivize Volkswagen to build an enormous EV-battery plant in southwestern Ontario. Canada will provide an initial capital investment of $700 million, followed by $13 billion in ongoing production subsidies, and expects to make much of that back within five years of opening. The government also expects the plant to create 3,000 direct jobs.
This is the kind of deal that Volkswagen could expect to receive from the U.S. government, given the amount of money being thrown around on green investment south of the border; and there's an obvious point to be made about this. When the U.S. begins to throw its considerable economic might around, a country like Canada can either pack it in, or attempt to keep up in a targeted way with eye-popping subsidies.
The political benefits of the deal are clear. This provides jobs and innovation to a struggling rust-belt that suffered a continuous drain in both in recent years. The area is already rich with car manufacturing plants, and the plant should have little trouble attracting workers or managing logistics.
Then we have the green credential that manufacturing EV batteries will add to the Liberal cap: this is precisely the sort of boutique manufacturing that champagne environmentalists ought to be comfortable with. It also provides some evidence that the "just transition" to a greener economy need not be met with economic stagnation or decline.
But we need only examine the Twitter feeds of our learned economist friends to see the objections. Namely, $13 billion plus a $700 million capital investment is a shite-ton of money for a country of Canada's size to be pouring into one company.
In selling this plant to the public, the government is leaning on a whole bunch of economic impact claims that economist types are calling out as bunk. For example, if the goal of the plant is to create "up to" 3,000 jobs, why not just give 3,000 people $4.3 million directly? That's how much the government is paying for each of those potential jobs.
It also assumes that none of those people would be gainfully employed absent the investment, which is almost certainly not true.
And then we get into the economic impacts, which rely on claims of multipliers that this dude has ably debunked.
All in all, the actual economic case for this investment is pretty dubious. That doesn't mean it won't produce a battery plant that will be the pride of Ontario; but it does present some questions. What else could we have spent that money on? And what kind of jobs, opportunities and manufacturing plants could we have if we simply created more competitive economic environment for business investment, rather than shovelling dollars out the door? No one can dispute that a government can get a superficially beneficial economic outcome by throwing a lot of money at a project; the question ought to be whether that's the most efficient use of cash.
Or as Alex Usher puts it:
In other news, interim ethics commission Martine Richard had to resign her post after it was revealed that she was Liberal cabinet minister Dominic Leblanc's sister-in-law. Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau stayed at a luxurious Jamaican estate belonging to family friends who happen to be billionaires, and when called out on it, accused opposition leader Pierre Poilievre of "struggling with the concept of friendship."
Fair enough. Who among us has not enjoyed a fully paid vacation at the estate of a former baronet from time to time, guys? What kind of "friends" do you have?
Anyway, this is all especially funny because it's not even the first time Trudeau has been criticized for staying at an island estate of an old buddy.
What can we say? Liberals gonna Liberal. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ll be vacationing on the island compounds of some billionaires we know and appointing our relatives to cushy public jobs. Why? Because friendship.
A final note for today, and a sad one. This week brought the bleak but not-unexpected news that BuzzFeed News would be shut down. Other media properties owned by parent-company BuzzFeed will remain operating, but the news division is kaput, taking almost 200 jobs with it. In its short 11-year life, it proved controversial at times, certainly, but also produced some truly stellar journalism, winning a series of prestigious prizes, including the Pulitzer. This is a loss for journalism.
Your Line editors have conflicted feelings about BuzzFeed, we admit, but for our purposes today, we are very much looking to our better angels and ignoring the little bastard on our other shoulder. You have to understand, we were young’uns when places like BuzzFeed were getting off the ground, and we put our bets (for a time) on the legacy dinosaur outlets like Postmedia, the CBC, and other fairly mainstream places. We remember well the swagger some of our colleagues, then also young, had as they marched out the door to join the new digital shops that, they were quick to tell us, were going to leave us in the dust.
It didn't happen that way. HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Vox and others all did some truly excellent work, but never found a viable economic model. As the investor money dried up, the outlets began contracting. Now BuzzFeed News is dead, and we truly mourn it, because we really did wish our departing colleagues — annoying as some of them were about it — all the best. Someone needs to figure out what the hell the next model for journalism is going to be. BuzzFeed gave it a go, and it failed, and that worries us, because we want someone — anyone — to succeed.
As word of BuzzFeed News's final demise came out this week, your Line editors reflected on how these once-giants really did embody the inherent digital quality of sheer speed. Newspapers in North America had a good run of about 200 years (you can quibble about the exact dates, but it's a long time). Traditional broadcast television and radio news had a few glorious generations in the sun before the reckoning came for them. The new digital guys? A decade, thereabouts, and then off to the same successive rounds of brutal cuts and layoffs that the legacy outlets are experiencing, or outright into the dustbin of history.
This all serves to convince us anew that outside of outright (and large) direct public subsidy, and notwithstanding a few global exceptions on the scale of The New York Times, the age of the big, general-interest news outlet is probably over, at least for the foreseeable future. There just isn't an economic model that currently exists that can sustain such an outlet at scale. We love those kinds of outlets — what newspapers were, and still pretend to be — but they're very expensive to run, and the money simply isn't there. We expect that you'll continue to see smaller outlets emerge. Some will be simply one person reporting or opining. A few will be little community shops covering a limited geographic area or wonk shops watching a specific policy file. Others will be along The Line's model: a few writers pooling their time and resources to try and cover more topics from more angles than a single writer could.
They'll all share one thing in common, though: they'll rely entirely or nearly so on subscribers. No other form of support will be reliable enough and valuable enough to underwrite a viable business model.
That was a hint, friends.
Alright, friends. Help us out if you can, and catch you next week.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org