Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Seeing the Future

Robin Sears has an interesting piece in this morning's Huffington Post. Those who are predicting the demise of the Liberal Party should read it. Sears' take is particularly interesting, given his deep roots among New Democrats:

It is facile to suggest that faced with surging social democrats on their left and entrenched conservatives on their right that there is no place for a third party in between. If that were true, the Liberal Party of Canada would long ago have faced this squeeze play.

No, the reality is that a series of bad choices in leadership, a decline in support in its previous bastion of Quebec, and flukes of circumstance have reduced one of Canada's great parties.

A strong new leader, with a strong contemporary vision, could well seize ground back from a fading second-term Conservative government, or an undisciplined NDP Opposition. Let us assume that such a powerful man or woman can be recruited by new, wiser elders of the Liberal party than those whose idea of good political leadership hunting ground was Oxbridge and the Ivy League.

The Conservatives bridge to the future is essentially a return to the past -- when life (supposedly) occurred in straight lines and the population was smugly complacent. The future for the New Democrats will probably be something like life for Brian Mulroney's Conservatives. Jack Layton will have to work hard to hold his coalition together -- and it will always exist on a knife's edge: capable of fracturing at any moment.

Those conditions provide an opening for the Liberals, writes Sears. The key lies in figuring out how to overhaul the 21st century nation state:

A new Canadian Liberal leader cannot out-promise other opposition parties, nor can he claim better governance or fiscal chops than a conservative government. But there is a huge unsatisfied political hunger among middle-class voters for a leader with a credible message of reform in the delivery of services in health, education, public safety and innovation.

Bob Rae's task is to set the stage for such a leader. It is an enormous responsibility.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pap The Republican

The news that forty Republican senators have announced their support for Paul Ryan's budget plan is not surprising. But, when you review what passes for the usual Republican boilerplate these days, what is surprising is how much the Republicans sound like Pap Finn.

Pap only puts in a quick appearance at the beginning of Twain's novel, where he goes on at some length about the tyranny of government:

They call that govment! A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this. Sometimes I’ve a mighty notion to just leave the country for good and all. Yes, and I told ‘em so; I told old Thatcher so to his face. Lots of ‘em heard me, and can tell what I said. Says I, for two cents I’d leave the blamed country and never come anear it agin. Them’s the very words. I says, look at my hat-if you call it a hat but the lid raises up and the rest of it goes down till it’s below my chin, and then it ain’t rightly a hat at all, but more like my head was shoved up through a jint o’ stove-pipe. Look at it, says I-such a hat for me to wear-one of the wealthiest men in this town, if I could git my rights.

The government, Pap fumes, is always standing between him and the money which is rightfully his. Never once does it occur to him that his circumstances are self inflicted. A recent chart, published in Talking Points Memo puts the deficit into perspective:

While they rail against the profligate Obama administration, the fact is that Republicans have been the chief architects of the problem. Like Pap, they go through occasional periods of remorse and pledge themselves to fiscal sobriety. But the conversion never lasts long.

Twain wrote that Huck Finn suffered from a "deformed conscience." His salvation lay in the fact that he was willing to rebel against the conventional wisdom of his time and place, even if it meant -- wrongly, of course -- that he would "go to hell." If Republicans (and Democrats) had the courage to rebel against the prevailing economic theology of the age, they just might find salvation.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Jet Set

Last week in Washington, as the Senate discussed the F35, the red flags were everywhere. Robert Haddick, in Foreign Policy, reported that:

The troubled and long-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program came under renewed scrutiny this week. The Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and many foreign partners plan to buy thousands of the fighter-attack jets over the next two decades to replace a variety of aging aircraft, but the development schedule of the stealthy fighter has slipped five years to 2018 and the projected cost to the Pentagon for 2,457 aircraft has ballooned to $385 billion, making it by far the most expensive weapons program in history.

Defence Minister Peter Mackay has assured Canadians that there is no cause for concern. Canada, he says, has ordered the stripped down version of the airplane -- the equivalent of the family sedan, not the Dodge Viper. And, besides, there are more immediate concerns to be dealt with -- like the per vote subsidy, which sucks a whopping $27 million from the nation's purse.

And now that Tony Clement holds the strings to the nation's purse, we should all be able to sleep at night -- knowing that the man who was so parsimonious with government funds in his own riding will now ride shotgun on those who wish to waste the people's hard earned money.

We live in the best of all possible worlds. We have entrusted the nation to Canada's new Jet Set.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rae To The Rescue

The Liberals have chosen wisely -- although there are those who wonder if Bob Rae has been equally wise. His is a daunting task. For the immediate future, he leads a party which was decimated at the polls, is woefully short of resources and -- when the Prime Minister axes the per vote subsidy -- will be even more bereft of resources.

Stephen Harper has been out to destroy the Liberal Party ever since he arrived in Ottawa. Bob Rae's job is to make sure that doesn't happen. And, as dark as things seem, the truth is that Rae -- at this point in time -- is the most important resource the Liberal Party has.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Prime Minister will love to go up against Rae, because Rae's record as Premier of Ontario will give Harper piles of ammunition. The truth, however, is that Harper's most trusted ministers -- John Baird, Jim Flaherty and Tony Clement -- are retreads from the old Mike Harris regime. They left all kinds of debris behind them -- and Rae knows where all the garbage was dumped. Moreover, Rae is a much better politician -- and a much more accomplished communicator, in both languages -- than anyone on the Conservative benches, including the Prime Minister.

Rae's real advantage is his character. He's known difficult circumstances and he's had time to reflect upon defeat. Unlike Stephen Harper, he has not always gotten his way. Through it all, he has never become cynical. Harper is nothing -- his recent Senate appointments underscore the point -- if not cynical. In the end, Rae's optimism can trump Harper's puritanical hypocrisy.

And Rae has another truly appealing characteristic: he has a quick and ready sense of humour. Rumour has it that Stephen Harper also has a sense of humour. But few have seen it. Unfortunately, Harper fits the stereotype of the dour, well fed Conservative. The Liberals do not possess the vicious attack machine which Harper has had at his disposal. But someone like Bob Rae can make Stephen Harper look ridiculous.

No, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Where Are The Woodwards and Bernsteins?

Lawrence Martin has a timely column this morning on the the state of Canadian journalism. Martin writes of the late James Thomson, who warned that the biggest occupational hazard for journalists is being co-opted by the powerful. Martin then turns to the press in Canada:

Much wonderment has been expressed recently on why stories of abuse of power don’t seem to hurt Stephen Harper’s government. The stories don’t stick, it is said. The reason may well be, to cite Mr. Thomson’s cautionary words, because we in the media don’t stick to them. It’s episodic journalism. We report one story, then move on. We don’t probe deeply. If a Watergate was happening, the public would never know it.

The economic environment is much different than it was forty years ago. Newspapers, which used to generate huge profits, are now hanging on by the skin of their teeth. And to date, no one has been able to come up with a model which makes electronic journalism a reliable source of income. Last but not least, with the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, the need to feed the beast causes not just sloppy reporting but ephemeral reporting. Journalists just don't dig the way they used to.

Still, Martin writes, Canadians could take a page from the New York Times or the Washington Post:

During the election campaign, there were stories of voter-suppression tactics by the Tories, of barring people from rallies, of pork-barrelling with G8 funds and the like. In the last week of the campaign, there was a seeming attempt by a Conservative operative to present Michael Ignatieff as an Iraq war planner. One can imagine what would happen if this kind of thing, straight out of Nixonland, happened in a U.S. campaign. The media would blow the roof off. Here, the story passed in a day or two without further comment.

The Times and the Post are not above criticism. After all, both papers were hoodwinked by the second Bush administration in the run up to the Iraq War. And they were not alone. Frank Rich has chronicled that sad tale in his book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Rich maintains that modern politicians are masters not only of voter suppression but of information suppression. They use access to buy spin.

The sign of a healthy democracy is a vigorous, and courageous fourth estate. The young Woodward and Bernstein personified that kind of courage. The question is, who are this generation's Woodward and Bernstein?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Austerity Myth

At last summer's G20 Conference, Stephen Harper worked hard to get all the participants to buy into the Austerity Myth. That myth is based upon the belief that, in Paul Krugman's words, "sound money and balanced budgets [are] the answers to all problems."

It's the same myth which 39.6% of Canadians bought in our recent federal election. Unfortunately, writes Krugman in today's New York Times, it is public policy grounded in fantasy:

Underlying this insistence have been economic fantasies, in particular belief in the confidence fairy — that is, belief that slashing spending will actually create jobs, because fiscal austerity will improve private-sector confidence.

Unfortunately, the confidence fairy keeps refusing to make an appearance. And a dispute over how to handle inconvenient reality threatens to make Europe the flashpoint of a new financial crisis.

Working from this theory, the European Union bailed out Greece and insisted that government spending be cut to the bone. The same model was applied to Ireland, Portugal and Britain. And what have been the results? Things have gone from bad to worse. In all cases, the private banking system was saved, while the public picked up the tab. And the public now must endure the consequences, because the so called "best and brightest" have concluded that, while pain is not good for elites, it is good for the common man.

Stephen Harper, who has always seen himself as a card carrying member of the best and brightest -- with his newly minted majority -- plans to implement the same "wisdom" here. As Krugman writes, " . . . if this seems incredibly foolish, who ever said that wisdom rules the world?"

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Broken System

Angelo Perischilli and I share few opinions. But this morning, I find myself heartily agreeing with him. In today's Toronto Star, he writes that Ruth Ellen Brosseau can "take credit for exposing the inconsistencies that are weakening the Canadian political system and changing the attitude of the electorate toward it." Brosseau is a symptom, not a cause:

How can we criticize a 27-year-old single mother for going on holiday during the campaign without criticizing the voters who elected someone they didn’t even know existed?

But nor can we criticize the voters for acting in such an apparently irresponsible way without asking why they did it.

What happened in Berthier-Maskinongé on May 2 was not an isolated anomaly but the result of conditions that are now common in nearly every riding. The only difference is that in Berthier-Maskinongé all those anomalies piled up and produced an unexpected offspring, one conceived by the unhappy marriage of a dysfunctional political system and flawed electoral laws.

The problem is that, with an unassailable majority, Stephen Harper is not going to fix a system which has rewarded him so handsomely. He may talk "reform" -- after all that was the name of the party which thrust him into the spotlight. But, as his appointment of three failed Tory candidates to the Senate illustrates, that was then, this is now.

And, as far as that contempt of parliament motion is concerned, one need only note that Bev Oda -- who misled parliament and whose actions were at the heart of the contempt motion -- is still a minister in charge of the same ministry.

If there is one ray of hope it is this: Historically, Conservative governments -- even when they are ushered in with overwhelming majorities -- are inherently unstable. That was true of both the Diefenbaker and the Mulroney governments. They rotted from within. You can already see the signs of Conservative discontent brewing in the reaction to Harper's Senate appointments and in the looming battle over the status of Conservative riding associations. And then there is the problem of all those backbenchers who have remained loyal and who have been consistently passed over for cabinet appointments.

Mr. Harper's grasp of Canadian history seems to go back only as far as Pierre Trudeau and the National Energy Program. In the past, when he faced opposition from within, he banished the dissenters. Consider Belinda Stronach, Garth Turner, Bill Casey and the hapless Helena Geurgis. It will be interesting to see what happens when a growing number of Conservatives raise their middle fingers to the Prime Minister and then go public.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Manufacturing Renaissance

On the day after Chrysler announced that it was repaying the U.S. Treasury $7.5 billion in debt, Paul Krugman wrote that manufacturing was making a comeback in America:

Crucially, the manufacturing trade deficit seems to be coming down. At this point, it’s only about half as large as a share of G.D.P. as it was at the peak of the housing bubble, and further improvements are in the pipeline. The Boston Consulting Group, which is now predicting a U.S. “manufacturing renaissance,” points to major U.S. firms like Caterpillar that once shifted production abroad but are now moving it back. At the same time, companies from other countries, especially European firms, are moving production to America.

And one potential disaster has been avoided: the U.S. auto industry, which many people were writing off just two years ago, has weathered the storm. In particular, General Motors has now had five consecutive profitable quarters.

America’s industrial heartland is now leading the economic recovery. In August 2009, Michigan had an unemployment rate of 14.1 percent, the highest in the nation. Today, that rate is down to 10.3 percent, still above the national average, but nonetheless a huge improvement.

Some worry about the decline of the American dollar. It's not without consequences for Canada. Our dollar is now worth more than the American dollar; therefore, our exports to the United States have become more expensive.

On the other hand, because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the American and Canadian economies are joined at the hip. That is why, when President Obama rescued GM and Chrysler, the Canadian and Ontario governments joined in the bailout.

We are each others largest trading partners. When the United States does well, Canada does well. Both countries have a huge stake in an America which makes things.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Who Are the Real Opposition?

Those who are looking to the NDP to provide counter arguments to the Harper juggernaut should take a look at this morning's National Post. In a blistering comment on yesterday's festivities in Ottawa, Scott Stinson writes that those who are really furious with Harper are Canadians who consider themselves true Conservatives:

It’s not just that Mr. Harper decided to appoint three more unabashed partisans to the Senate. It’s not just that the Senators-to-be, Larry Smith, Fabian Manning, and Josée Verner, were rejected by Canadian voters only two weeks ago. And it’s not just that the PMO’s announcement of the appointments was seemingly timed to be as contemptuous of the public as possible — just after the new Cabinet was announced, and mere moments after the Prime Minister had completed a question-and-answer session with the media in Ottawa. It’s all of it, in one tidy package: more patronage, less respect for democracy and less accountability. He’s long since given up the pledge to only appoint “elected senators,” of course, but it takes some gumption to swallow all those principles at once.

Besides rewarding what Harper used to call a "coalition of losers," there's the problem of the bloated cabinet. Once again, Stinson is not impressed:

A 39-member Cabinet, nearly the largest in the country’s history, for the party of small government. The same attention to petty worries such as regional balance — Quebec has four Cabinet members out of five MPs, while Alberta has four out of 27 MPs — means that Cabinet becomes ever more bloated. Had Mr. Harper wanted to signal serious change, he could have easily whacked a bunch of positions and returned the ministry to a more manageable, less costly size. Was it surprising that Mr. Harper did not celebrate his majority victory by essentially firing a dozen ministers and returning them to the back benches? No, it wasn’t. But the point is, he could have done so. It would have been a clear sign that, as conservatives wait for Conservatives to show any sign that they haven’t forgotten the meaning of the word, Mr. Harper intends to govern like the politician he must have once intended to be — back before he had the balancing act of a minority government to worry about.

As everyone should know by now, there has always been a galactic distance between what Stephen Harper says and what Stephen does. Some of us had hoped that Canadians would have taken note of that during the election. It would appear that those who have now noticed Harper's political hypocrisy used to be his most ardent supporters. I suspect that a good number of them were among the 39.6% of eligible voters who gave the Prime Minister his majority.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Triumph of the Philestines

The news in this morning's Globe and Mail that John Baird will become Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs is truly depressing. A graduate of Queen's University, Baird is not stupid.

The problem is that he is uniquely unqualified for the job. He proved that in spades last year when he carried the Prime Minister's water at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Baird argued that there could be no progress until China and India signed onto a deal. He stood for inertia as the planet continued to warm. And that, in a nutshell, encapsulates the Harper government's foreign policy: Despite the evidence, it's best to ignore inconvenient truths.

Harper's appointment of Baird reminds those of us who taught in Ontario of Mike Harris' appointment of John Snoblen as his first Minister of Education. Snoblen dropped out of high school in grade eleven, never to return. But he inherited his father's waste management company and became quite wealthy. He then set about "reforming" Ontario's education system by applying the same skill set he used to move garbage. He was famously videotaped, lecturing his ministry's employees on how to accomplish his objective. Sometimes, he said, one had to "create a crisis" to accomplish change. And that is exactly what he did.

Harris himself was a failed teacher. After dropping out of university following his freshman year, he attended teacher's college and taught elementary school for three years before moving on to more lucrative employment. Yet Harris and Snoblen -- based on their vast experience -- were certain that they knew how to fix education in Ontario. The province's schools have never recovered from their efforts.

Baird no doubt has the prime minister's confidence. That is the key qualification for the job. The fact that Foreign Affairs is not Harper's bailiwick is irrelevant. Harper would never appoint someone who he felt knew more about a portfolio than himself. When the United Nations rejected Canada's bid for a seat on the Security Council late last year, they grasped this inconvenient truth. The world does not need more philistines.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

There Is Nothing So Powerful

Lawrence Martin sees difficult times ahead for the NDP. He writes that, even with their considerable numbers and their beach head in Quebec, the left has dreams, Harper has the cards. The evidence is compelling:

Just like the Liberals, the New Democrats are at a huge financial disadvantage. When the Conservatives feel so inclined, they’ll strike with brutal advertising that the NDP won’t have the resources to rebut. Does anyone think Thomas Mulcair’s outburst about Osama bin Laden won’t be aired countless times when the appropriate moment arrives? Or Jack Layton’s massage-parlour visit? Don’t put it past the Conservatives.

The Conservative advantage in the media is staggering. Beyond the Toronto Star, which is more Liberal than NDP, do the New Democrats have even one backer, one standard bearer, among major Canadian outlets? By contrast, the Conservatives have squadrons, not the least of which is Sun Media, which now has a television network (run by one of Mr. Harper’s former public-relations directors) devoted to the conservative cause.

The NDP has two advantages. It has ideas and the support of the young. Neither should be underestimated:

Young Canadians have become more politically engaged, and the New Democrats have a big slice of that market. The Dippers are out front of the Conservatives on green issues and health care. They’re out front on representing the proverbial little guy. If they handle it properly, they can make the issue of growing income inequality – the egregious gap between rich and poor – a front-burner issue, as opposed to a tiresome cliché.

The Conservatives have said absolutely nothing about income inequality. In fact, their policies -- and statistics -- continue to support it. But, as the young continue to find doors closed to them, and while the income gap between their parents and themselves continues to grow, "the Harper government"-- which presently thinks it is in the cat bird seat -- will find itself the target of youthful rage. Mr. Harper, whose foreign policy takes no note of Arab aspirations, seems to have forgotten that the Arab Spring grew out of the frustration of a younger, educated generation to find its place in a top down society.

If income inequality continues to grow in Canada, Stephen Harper will eventually face his own crowds of protesters. Despite the money and the media, as Victor Hugo noted, "There is nothing so powerful an an idea whose time has come." A Just Future with a Just Income is just such an idea.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

On The Subject of Fiscal Stewardship

Only time will tell what kind of opposition Jack Layton's New Democrats will become. But four days after the Conservatives abandoned their pledge to balance the nation's books by 2015, Haroon Siddiqui examined Stephen Harper's claim that his party is the party of adult financial supervision while the New Democrats are wreckless, spendthrift adolescents.

It's true that New Democrats have never formed a government in Ottawa; but they have formed various provincial governments; and they have a long history of dealing with government finances. That history, Siddiqui writes, is revealing:

Allan Blakeney in Saskatchewan (1971-82) produced 12 balanced budgets. When his successor, Tory Grant Devine, left a huge deficit and a $14 billion debt, the NDP’s Roy Romanov (1991-2001) balanced the books. In Manitoba, Ed Schreyer (1969-77) produced surpluses in eight of his nine budgets. When his successor, the Conservative Sterling Lyon, racked up a deficit of $200 million within four years, his NDP successor Howard Pawley cleared it and created a surplus. (Pawley’s memoir, Keep True: A Life in Politics, published by the University of Manitoba Press, has just been released).

Only Bob Rae in Ontario (1990-95) left a big deficit, a legacy of a debilitating recession as well as poor management.

By contrast, look at the conservatives’ record — the deficits and debts created by Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper and Mike Harris.

It is also interesting to note that the last finance minister in the Harris-Eves regime was a man named Jim Flaherty. Of course, during the election campaign, Harper and Flaherty referred to the Rae government as a fiscal catastrophe. But, to be fair, Rae came to government at the beginning of a recession. And -- like Mr. Harper-- he left a deficit in his wake. It is one of Canadian history's political ironies that Rae -- who used to show his exasperation by referring to the Federal Liberals as "the red army chorus" -- has joined that party.

The history of Conservative governments -- on both sides of the border -- is a history not just of deficits, but of record deficits. Their claim to prudent stewardship is -- in financial terms, at least -- a fraud.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Making The World Safe For The Wealthy

The pledge was pretty straightforward. This, after all, was the government of the "steady" hand. The Conservative platform proclaimed that: "Through accelerated reductions in government spending, a re-elected Stephen Harper government will eliminate the deficit by 2014-15.”

Yet, when asked on Wednesday about keeping that pledge, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that "the budget will account for commitments made during the campaign, including setting money aside to strike a deal with Quebec over sales taxes." So, no, the budget won't be balanced by 2015.

That news should surprise no one. The numbers never added up in the first place. What is surprising is just how quickly the Conservatives broke that pledge, which was their key argument for "stability." But, all huffing and puffing aside, this election was never about the deficit. It was about rewarding the Conservative base. It was always about rewarding the Conservative base. And that meant -- not to put too fine a point on it -- making the world safe for the wealthy.

If you treat those people well, Stephen Harper argued, they will create jobs for the less fortunate. We have thirty years of data which disprove that contention. Yet a good number of the less fortunate voted against their own economic self interest. And so the saga continues. It began when Ronald Reagan first agreed to act as a shill for General Electric. Stephen Harper has learned from a master.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Micheal Ignatieff In Retrospect

In a recent column, Kate Heartsfeld recounts an incident which occurred less than a week after the election:

Five days after the federal election, I was sitting in a car dealership in suburban Ottawa, reading the paper and drinking my watery free coffee. A woman next to me was reading a newspaper, too. At one point, she said to her husband, "I see Iggy's got a teaching job in Toronto." The husband made a listening noise. "He should go back to wherever he came from," the woman continued, bitterly.

It is one of those stories which makes you shake your head. As a grade six student back in Montreal, I read that Ignatieff's father, George, was Canada's Ambassador to the United Nations. Why did this woman not know that? More importantly, what does the anecdote say about us? How can a woman who never visited her riding -- and who vacationed in Vegas during the election -- be elected with such a significant majority of the votes?

Shalini K. Rao -- a Canadian writing in the Harvard Crimson -- sees Ignatieff's defeat as a defeat for traditional Canadian ideals:

Crafted as “elitist,” “insincere,” and “just visiting,” Ignatieff not only had to argue for broad political ideals regarding open democracy—which were oftentimes compromised by Harper’s politics, but he was also forced by his opponents and the media to prove himself as a legitimate candidate. Instead, Ignatieff ought to be thought of as the real icon of what a Canadian looks like; born to a Russian immigrant father and Canadian mother, he worked hard to achieve a world-class education and now stands as a prominent figure in both political thought and academia. Additionally, in his defense of human rights and the protection of democracy, Ignatieff represents the very ideals that Canada prides herself on in the first place.

During the Liberal leadership race in 2005, Ignatieff was not my choice. I argued that Bob Rae was the best politician of the lot. He had served in government and in opposition and would, therefore, make the best Leader of the Opposition. And, I wrote, the Liberal Party needed time to rebuild. I did not expect Stephen Harper to be pathologically partisan. I was wrong.

In retrospect, the Liberal Party has made quite a few mistakes. But to hang them all on Ignatieff is simply unfair. We have become a much different country during Stephen Harper's stewardship. Instead of a country which is open to the world, Rao notes that:

The defeat of Ignatieff and his Liberal Party is, indeed, a sad moment in Canada’s narrative not only for what it signifies politically, but also because it shows a widespread fear of progress. The close-mindedness that grips Canadian politics is manifest in the Opposition that maneuvered itself against Ignatieff for fear that he had spent too much time abroad and learned too much from the world around him. For a country that is stereotyped here in the U.S. as a country that is accepting of everyone and everything, this federal election depicts a Canada that is moving in a steadily more exclusive and narrow direction.

A man with Ignatieff's talents will survive his defeat. What worries me is that the Canada I love may not survive Stephen Harper's triumph.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Shifting Blame

I suspect that the 24% of Canadians who gave Stephen Harper his majority don't read Paul Krugman. But, as Mr. Harper and his acolytes rest smugly in their certitude that corporate tax cuts create jobs, the rest of us should read Krugman's column in this morning's New York Times. He writes that the so called wise men of economic policy are blaming the public for the financial meltdown:

The idea is that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorate’s foolishness. So this seems like a good time to point out that this blame-the-public view isn’t just self-serving, it’s dead wrong.

The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.

Mr. Harper's entire campaign was about getting serious. To make matters worse, the opposition parties bought his framing of the issue. It was all about who was more serious about the deficit. They all claimed that they would eliminate it by 2015. Even more preposterous was the Prime Minister's taking credit for the wise economic decisions of his predecessors. He not only shifted blame -- away from the people who got us into this mess; he also shifted responsibility for Canada's good economic fortune to himself and his "steady hand." In short, he created a fable and Canadians bought it.

Those fables are the problem, writes Krugman. They perpetuate a state of ignorance, because:

by making up stories about our current predicament that absolve the people who put us there, we cut off any chance to learn from the crisis. We need to place the blame where it belongs, to chasten our policy elites. Otherwise, they’ll do even more damage in the years ahead.

Convinced that Stephen Harper is a reliable messenger, Canadians have done precisely the opposite.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Something Wicked

In the same week that Canada's political pundits hailed Stephen Harper's "remaking of the political landscape," -- the week that Micheal Ignatieff resigned as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and headed to the University of Toronto -- Andrew Coyne recounted a meeting with one of Harper's operatives, a veteran of the Conservative War Room. Obviously proud of his work, he distinguished between the two strategies the Conservatives used in the attack ads which took down Stephane Dion and then Micheal Ignatieff:

They say that we try to portray Ignatieff in our ads and so on as a weak and flailing professor,” the war room staffer said. “No, that’s how we portrayed Dion. Dion was weak, you know, Dion was ‘not a leader.’ We’ve never said Michael Ignatieff isn’t a leader. We’ve never called him weak. And we’ve never called him a flip-flopper. Even when he changes his mind, we don’t say he’s a flip-flopper. Michael Ignatieff, in our narrative, is a political opportunist who is calculating, who will do and say anything to get elected.

“He’s a schemer. When he says one thing and then he changes his mind the next week, it’s not because he’s indecisive and a flip-flopper. It’s because he’s an opportunist who will say different things to different people. I don’t think we’ve even used the phrase, even internally, ‘He’s a malicious human being.’ But that’s kind of the sentiment we’re getting at. With Dion, we were trying to portray him as weak. You can’t trust him to lead us out of the economic recovery because he’s a weak man. With Ignatieff, it’s ‘He’s a bad man,’ right? He’s someone you don’t want your daughter to marry, right?

I bears repeating that the man who hired this Apostle of Sweetness and Light hired Bruce Carson. He smeared Richard Colvin. He fired Linda Keen. And then there is the sad tale of Remy Beauregard. Yet despite all the evidence -- on the public record -- last Monday a majority of Canadians chose to re-elect Stephen Harper for a third time. The difference was that this time they gave him the keys to the car and told him that he could drive it unsupervised.

It was an act of folly which will have tragic consequences. As Shakespeare's three weird sisters warned, "Something wicked this way comes."

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Mushy Middle?

Those who are hailing the new "clarity" reflected in Monday's election results should read Dan Gardner's column in this morning's Ottawa Citizen. Looking back at the demise of the British Liberal Party, Gardner writes:

Something similar is quite possible here. In a matchup between the Conservatives and NDP, particularly at a time when voter turnout is appallingly low, the electoral math may show that moving to the centre to grab some of the dwindling number of Liberal voters is no longer the smartest option. The more effective strategy may be to identify, engage, and energize the party’s base.

If the government and the opposition begin to define themselves in terms of their differences, the eventual result could be stalemated government. An example, writes Gardiner, is close at hand:

If that sounds impossible, look south. A mountain of research shows that Americans are overwhelmingly clustered in the political middle. Very simply, most Americans are moderate centrists. And yet, American politics is divided and polarized like never before because, in part, the political dynamics reward division and polarization.

Americans seem to have forgotten the strategic advice of the man who led the D-Day Invasion, kept his country out of Vietnam and Suez, and built the Interstate Highway System:

People talk about the middle of the road as though it were unacceptable. Actually, all human problems, excepting morals, come into the gray areas. Things are not all black and white. There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.

As what some see as an historic realignment begins to take shape in Ottawa -- and before more people begin to write the obituary of the Liberal Party of Canada -- they should contemplate both Gardner's and Eisenhower's counsel.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Russell's Nightmare

Canada changed last night. It was a change which voters made consciously and deliberately. In doing so, they ignored the warning of one of Canada's best known constitutional scholars. A week before the election, Peter Russell appeared in what will become a seminal video. "This is the most important federal election in my lifetime," he declared:

What is at stake is nothing less than parliamentary democracy. If the electorate rewards Mr. Harper with a majority, it will mean that he will be able to operate as a presidential prime minister without the check and balance of Congress. It will also mean that two out of five Canadians think very little of the need to hold government accountable to Parliament. Mr. Harper has reduced parliamentary debate to "bickering" and the role of parliament in the formation of government to irrelevant constitutional stuff. I hope and pray that the parties of parliamentarians win a majority next Monday.

Russell warned Canadians that Stephen Harper has absolutely no respect for Canada's constitutional conventions. Retiring Speaker of the House Peter Milliken made the same point when he found the Harper government in contempt of Parliament.

A significant number of Canadians have forgotten that it was respect for those conventions which helped us through some of our most trying times. When Quebec separatists chose the Algerian terrorist model as the way to independence, Rene Levesque moved the cause from planting bombs in mailboxes to seeking legitimacy through ballot boxes. When he lost the 1980 Quebec Referendum, it was Levesque's respect for those conventions which was behind his pledge, "A la prochaine!"

And the next time, when Quebecers voted again on Quebec Independence -- and lost the vote by one half of one percentage point -- they returned to their homes, secure in the knowledge that they still had a voice in the House of Commons through Gilles Duceppe. Respect for those conventions allowed for a party dedicated to the breakup of the country -- a party which, for awhile, served as the Loyal Opposition. It was those conventions which have allowed Canadians, despite their differences, to talk through their problems.

Last night Canadians elected a man who does not talk to his opponents. He demonizes them. He demonized the Bloc Quebecois in 2008, when his decision to cancel vote subsidies -- a decision he made without consulting his caucus -- almost cost him his government. He belittled Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, a man whose international reputation will survive, even in defeat.

Canadians now have the government they deserve. Only a little more than 61% of us cast our ballots -- a result foreshadowed in an earlier Angus Reid Poll. I suspect that -- like voters in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan -- it won't be long until voter remorse sets in. But the nightmare has just begun.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.