Follow the money, but also look in the mirror
The biggest threat to liberal democracy isn't what you think it is
The biggest threat to liberal democracy is not what most people are saying it is. It’s not the “freedom convoy” that is calling for an end to mobility restrictions and vaccine mandates. Yes, many of them are wacky. If you spent as much time as I did scrolling through your Twitter feeds, you’d have found a video of a naked man army-crawling across a cement road, in a crowd of protesters cheering him on, with party music blaring to the discontent of Ottawa’s downtown residents. The video has since been taken down. It’s wacky, but it’s not democracy-destroying. And neither is the chattering class of cottage-dwelling MacBook-wielders, who are calling for authorities to suppress what the New York Times’ editorial board called legitimate democratic expression. These people need to take a breath and count to ten more than they need a refresher in political philosophy.
The biggest threat to liberal democracy is the poor state of our public institutions. Law enforcement and our governments should have drawn the line weeks ago. Honking your horns on Parliament Hill in the late afternoon, and occupying a small strip of Wellington Street? Go ahead. That’s a liberal democratic vibe. Breaking decibel metres in the middle of the night, and blocking the Canada-United States border? Truck around and find out. But our public institutions were so busy pointing the finger at each other that they didn’t have any hands left to draw the line, let alone hold it.
That we let things get bad enough to invoke the Emergencies Act is as clear a sign as ever that our public institutions aren’t up to snuff. Along with its emergency powers, the federal government announced a slew of measures to follow the money: authorizing banks to cut suspected funders of civil disobedience from their bank accounts, and forcing crowdfunding platforms and payment processors to register with our financial intelligence and crime unit, FINTRAC. The private sector’s role in all of this—the good and the bad—has been under the looking glass for a while now. Recently, a parliamentary committee on public safety and national security agreed to study the role of the private sector in funding extremism. The usual suspects were named: social media, crowdfunding platforms, payment processors.
Calls to follow the money are fine. But where are the other calls? We should ask whether private institutions had a hand in this, but we should also ask why public institutions have a record of being outperformed by their private counterparts. GoFundMe, the original crowdfunding platform for the “freedom convoy,” froze almost $5 million in donations on January 25 because its terms and conditions were being violated. It wasn’t until February 10 that the Ontario government froze the funds being raised on GiveSendGo, an alternative crowdfunding platform the convoy’s enablers started using. Now the convoy has turned to bitcoin. It’s a game of whack-a-mole the government can’t keep up with.
The situation is emblematic of the public-private dynamics we’ve been watching since the beginning of the pandemic. The NBA, a private institution, shut down on March 11, 2020, which is before our government took bold action to suppress community transmission of the novel coronavirus. The NBA had been speaking to public health authorities in the United States and Canada before making a decision. Meanwhile, Canada’s public institutions were losing months of time to act because they were scattered and slow. Canada is just a big social insurance scheme, argued Andrew Potter. It’s good at writing cheques but bad at logistics, such as suppressing community transmission of a virus, or managing a mostly peaceful protest until it fizzles out.
Our public institutions lack capacity because we don’t invest in them to meet future logistical challenges. For example, the extraordinary power the government has exercised to follow the money going through payment service providers didn’t have to be extraordinary. It probably could have been a business-as-usual power if the federal government had passed the Retail Payment Activities Act when it was supposed to. Passed in 2021 but not yet in effect, the RPAA will even give the federal government the power to shut down any payment service provider, whether that’s for “prescribed” reasons or for reasons related to national security. This potentially broad power wouldn’t be invoked lightly, but then again, neither should the Emergencies Act.
As I told the senate committee on banking last year, the RPAA had been years and years in the making. We’d been talking about it for the better part of a decade. Word on the street is that it was supposed to pass a few years before 2021, but it was put on the shelf because good policy isn’t good politics. The RPAA is esoteric payments legislation that puts people to sleep. No political party opposes it, and so you can’t bludgeon your ideological opponents over the head with it. The political gains are nonexistent, and so it languished. There was also a tiny risk that Quebec was going to flip a table and accuse the federal government of overreach. Never mind that the RPAA was designed precisely to avoid a Constitutional crisis by minding the federal government’s limits. No political gain and a small risk of upsetting Quebec? Translation: do not proceed.
The RPAA could have helped the federal government stop the money, rather than merely follow it, but it wouldn’t have been enough. Though regulating payment service providers as a matter of normal business is better than what the government has done under the Emergencies Act, it’s no panacea. If it was, Ottawa’s police chief wouldn’t have resigned. Our hospitals wouldn’t be struggling to adapt to the demands of this pandemic. Our public institutions wouldn’t be outperformed by their private counterparts as often as they are. Combine our inability to follow the money without suspending the rule of law and multiply it by everything else we can’t do—what you get is death by a thousand cuts.
When the government’s emergency powers expire, and things go back to normal, I hope the government looks up from the money every now and again to look at itself in the mirror. Because it will need to get ready to meet the next logistical challenge it doesn’t yet have the capacity to meet.