Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Fire Next Time

Last week's blockade of CN's and VIA's main line by the Bay of Quinte Mohawks was a taste of things to come. When the Harper government tore up the Kelowna Accord soon after coming to office, native leaders warned that we would face a warm and uncomfortable summer. John Ibbitson, of the Globe and Mail, warned in March that "Reasonable, thoughtful observers with no axes to grind or drums to beat worry that aboriginal crime and aboriginal violence are about to escalate; that this silent long suffering underclass will implode under the pressures of poverty and substance abuse, and then explode in anger." This from a columnist who generally supports Harper government initiatives.

Then, in its recent budget, the government provided by-the-bootstraps money to solve native problems. It offered money to encourage native home ownership -- even though native homes are considered community assets; and it also offered money for job training. But, despite the flood of money to lots of other causes, there was no money to improve the deplorable conditions on native reserves.

After Finance Minister Jim Flaherty trumpeted his government's generosity, Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine -- fighting back tears -- declared, "I don't know how long we're expected to wait, but I don't think that this country can afford to see such poverty in such an incredibly wealthy country." Last week's actions along the shores of the Bay of Quinte are a signal that Canada's natives intend to wait no longer.

And, despite Mr. Flaherty's claims that his government's financial management of the country represents a "new approach," there is something well worn and utterly depressing about his rhetoric and his policies. As an article in this week's Globe makes clear, the federal government has been in the habit of ignoring its native peoples for over a century. In 1907, the Department of Indian Affairs sent its chief medical officer, Dr. Peter Bryce, on a tour of residential schools. What he discovered was an alarming incidence of tuberculosis among native students -- and a death rate of 24% over a fourteen year period. In some schools, the death rate was as high as 69%.

Bryce pleaded with the bureaucrats in Ottawa to quarantine sick children and to not allow them into residential schools when they were obvious carriers of the disease. The churches, which controlled the schools, refused to follow his recommendations. In order to protect the health of the schools' residents, Byrce recommended that Ottawa take control of the schools. It took over sixty years before Ottawa followed his advice.

Why? According to Dr. John Milloy, of Trent University, the government had set up residential schools on a "contracting out" basis. The deaths from tuberculosis, he says, were caused by "the policy of paying the churches on a per capita basis to run the schools. Numerous letters indicate that because of the funding policy, churches would admit sick children and refuse to send ailing ones home. Pleas to the department for more funding fell on deaf ears." To date, the Harper government has followed a similar policy. Rather than assume its constitutional responsibility for conditions on native reserves, it has left that file (like so many others) to the provinces -- a new form of contracting out. Having tried this failed policy in the past, we are now told it is part of the new conservative "ethic of individual responsibility."

But as Bill Bradley, in a recent essay in Time makes clear, neither the conservative ethic of individual responsibility nor the traditionally liberal "ethic of caring" make the solutions to the problems we face achievable. What we need, he says, is something which connects both the concepts of responsibility and caring -- what he calls the "ethic of connectedness." What we need is the recognition that we will only begin to solve problems when we realize that all of us have a stake in those solutions. We all want the same things, Bradley says -- good homes, good families, good jobs, good health care and good pensions. These objectives cannot be solely market driven. The require a shared sense of responsibility.

In a lecture at the University of Toronto last fall, philosopher Charles Taylor suggested that the only way out of the violence and nihilism of the so called War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations is to start from Dostoevsky' s insight that "we are all responsible." Only when we recognize our collective responsibility for the predicament we are in -- our "connectedness" -- can we hope to find the the solutions which the planet and humanity so desperately need. The rail blockade at Deseronto last week was a plea for connectedness. If we choose to ignore that plea, then we will reap the harvest of our own neglect. We will all face the fire next time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

To Tell the Truth

The recent agreement between Liberal leader Stephane Dion and Green Party leader Elizabeth May has generated alot of comment, much of it negative. Calling the agreement a "misguided gift to the Greens," The Toronto Star editorialized that, of the two leaders, May was the real winner. Worse, the paper maintained, there was "no compelling rationale" for the agreement. Jack Layton called the agreement "backroom wheeling and dealing;" and Chantal Hebert, also writing in the Star, claimed that the deal was a strategic mistake. She claimed that May has no chance of defeating Peter MacKay in Central Nova, a riding which he and his father have held for almost forty years. Moreover, she wrote, "the 10,000 voters who supported the Liberals in the 2006 election have been turned into political orphans."

On the surface, the disenfranchisement argument appears to hold water. But that argument cuts both ways. If 10,000 Liberals have been denied a potential voice in Parliament, there were 660,000 Green Party voters who were also denied a voice in the last election. And, in the absence of some kind of system of proportional representation, the Green Party -- unless May wins a seat -- will remain voiceless for some time.

Andrew Coyne, in The National Post, writes that "the real target of the operation is not Mr. Mackay. It's the NDP." He suggests that what Dion is doing is trying to unite the political left, so that it will not succumb to the weakness that dogged the political right during the Chretien era.

So there are alot of theories to choose from, all with an appropriate soupcon of cynicism. But there is another explanation; and, in advancing it, I may be looking at the world through rose coloured glasses.

All of these theories start from the same assumption. In the past, any Canadian Party has had to move to the political centre to win a Parliamentary majority. The Liberals have been particularly adept at this. In the '50's and '60's, when the NDP was on the rise, the Liberals advocated programs which began as NDP policies. Thus, we got the Canada Pension Plan and Medicare. With the rise of the Reform Party in the 1980's, the Liberals advocated balanced budgets and decentralization of the federal government.

Now, say the pundits, the Conservatives have borrowed the Liberals playbook. If the Liberals under Dion are tilting in favour of the environment, they will, too. And, if the Liberals (in pursuit of a majority) spread money around lavishly, then the Conservatives will, too. The Conservatives, they say, have stopped acting like the purists they have -- with the exception of Brian Mulroney -- always been. And the Liberals -- acting like the purists they have never been -- are marginalizing themselves, choosing not the political centre, but the left wing fringe.

All of that holds -- until the political centre undergoes a radical shift. That happened in 1966 when the Liberals, under Lester Pearson, introduced Medicare. Even though he led a minority government, Pearson realized that -- despite opposition from John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives -- medicare was an idea whose time had come.

Rather than playing politics as usual, Dion may be betting that environmentalism's time has come. If one examines the platform which won him the party leadership, one would have to conclude that he believes this to be so. And, given the Conservatives abandonment of their Clean Air Act and former environment minister Rona Ambrose, in favour of recycled Liberal policies and the combative John Baird, it is not too much of a stretch to conclude that the Conservatives are moving in the same direction. Couple that with the fact that the NDP has espoused green policies for longer than either the Liberals or the Conservatives, and it may be that Dion is right.

If Dion's political antenna have led him to the right spot, then the next election may be the Canadian equivalent of that old game show, To Tell the Truth. For those not old enough to remember, the show consisted of a panel of three guests and a panel of four celebrities. The guests all claimed to be the same person, someone who was notable for a particular accomplishment or personality trait. The task of the celebrity panel was to determine which person was the real thing and which two guests were impostors.

In the next election, I suspect that Mr. Harper, Mr. Dion and Mr. Layton will all claim the environmentalist's mantle. Mr. Duceppe, given the recent Quebec election results, will be working very hard to keep his party's raison d'etre viable. He may even be contemplating a move to Quebec to succeed Mr. Boisclair as the leader of the Parti Quebecois.

In such circumstances, the central question of the next election would be, "Will the true environmentalist please stand up?" Given Mr. Harper's recent conversion to environmentalism, his support for Quebec's status as "a nation within a nation" and his recruitment to the cabinet of David Emerson, it would not be surprising if Canadian voters did not buy what he was selling. And, despite the NDP's support for green initiatives, the Party has never garnered enough support to control the national agenda -- even in its halcyon days under Ed Broadbent. They simply lack the support to give their policies legs.

That would leave Mr. Dion, whose recent suggestion in the Star that we set absolute targets for greenhouse emissions and that we achieve those targets by instituting a carbon tax, would be a clear policy departure from both ineffective Liberal policies of the past, as well as the fuzzy policies of Mr. Baird and Mr. Harper. Support from Green Party advocates could give him political capital to put green policies in place.

Despite opposition, Pierre Trudeau made official bilingualism a part of the Canadian fabric and he repatriated the Constitution. Dion, like Trudeau before him, could put in place policies which, until his arrival, were unthinkable. He could begin the task of turning Canada green. The first steps in that direction might be taken if Canadian voters put together a coalition of Liberal, NDP and Green Party Members of Parliament. It would be their way of giving the policies a test drive.

A wide eyed delusion? Maybe. It certainly would be a departure from politics as usual. In the end it is, perhaps, too much to hope for. But there have been moments in history -- admittedly rare and far between -- when politics as usual has been abandoned for a new order. As Tennyson wrote,"'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."

Monday, April 09, 2007

Man of the People?

Watching George W. Bush since November's election, I am reminded of an old movie. In 1957, director Elia Kazan, writer Budd Schulberg and actor Andy Griffith collaborated on the film, A Face in the Crowd. It is the story of an Arkansas good old boy who sings a pretty good song and whose "aw shucks" persona pave his way to television stardom. It is a role which Griffith has perfected over the years. But in this film, Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes is a kind of Darth Vader from Mayberry.

On television he comes across as a man of the people, a common man of uncommon wisdom. Unfortunately, as his star rises, so does his ego. At the end of the film he is full of contempt for his viewers, feeling he can say anything he wishes; but he saves his most caustic comments for the end of his show, when the credits role and the sound has been muted. Beaming at his audience, he looks at the camera and tells them that they are fools. He can manipulate them in any way he chooses.

Of course, one of the many people he has betrayed slips into the control room and turns up the sound. The public sees behind the persona and abandons him because, in the end, they are not the fools he takes them for.

These days Mr. Bush seems alot like the defrocked Lonesome Rhodes. His theme is consistent: he continues to proclaim that he is "the decider." But one gets the sense that the public has changed the channel. Bush's contempt for the rules against domestic spying, his inability to mount an effective cleanup of New Orleans, the swamp at his Justice Department and -- above all -- the continuing disaster in Iraq, have torn the mask away from the good old boy.

In the last chapter of her book, The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman followed the quagmire of Vietnam from the end of the Roosevelt administration to the end of the Nixon administration. Calling the chapter "America Betrays Herself in Vietnam," she detailed how successive presidents fell victim to a kind of "self hypnosis," convincing themselves that unless the United States defeated the Communists in Vietnam, they would conquer all of Asia, eventually landing on the shores of San Francisco.

It is a history of paranoia and hubris, which no amount of evidence to the contrary -- of which there was plenty -- could alter. Certain that they were men of moral courage, five presidents (Democrats and Republicans) identified Vietnam -- which Lyndon Johnson referred to as a "raggedy-ass fourth rate country"-- as a clear and present danger. The last two presidents tried to bomb the place into oblivion, never understanding that each increasing show of force merely strengthened the resolve of the North Vietnamese, who were prepared to wait the Americans out.

There was an enemy, of course. But it was in Moscow, not Hanoi. And eventually the enemy did itself in, the consequence of the regime's own incompetence. Unfortunately, those who pulled the levers of power in Washington never understood this and they refused to change course.

But, despite Washington's ill conceived notion of courage, Tuchman did not disparage the real thing. In fact, she wrote, "Aware of the controlling power of ambition, corruption and emotion, it may be that in the search for wiser government we should look for the test of character first. And the test should be moral courage." However, she wrote, " there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter productive course, if the policy maker has the moral courage to exercise it."

Thus, the true test of moral courage was the courage -- in the face of a failed policy -- to change course. With so much invested in Vietnam, several presidents refused to cut their losses and chart a new direction -- until the people, through their elected representatives, forced that change. Such, it appears, will be the fate of George W. Bush. There is an enemy out there. But it was never in Iraq. Having reached the pinnacle of success, Mr. Bush is becoming just a face in the crowd.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Best Leaders Money Can Buy

This past Monday, statistics on how much the major American presidential candidates have raised in the first three months of the year were released to the public. It was not surprising that Hilary Clinton led the pack. What was surprising was how much money she had raised -- some $26 million. Mitt Romney led Republican candidates with almost $23 million; Rudy Giuliani has $15 million in the bank; and John Edwards, another Democrat, has raised some $14 million.

It is quite a stretch to claim that that kind of money is given out of a sense of civic responsibility. It is true that the internet has opened up campaign charity to people with twenty or thirty spare dollars in their pockets. But that kind of money doesn't come from the common folk. These days they are too busy just trying to pay their bills. Moreover, that kind of money doesn't buy a night in the Lincoln bedroom. It buys policy.

And, lest Canadians think that we are somehow free of such electoral corruption, it is worth remembering that Howard Dean was invited to last year's Liberal convention in Montreal to offer advice to the party faithful on how to win the next election. And earlier last year, the Liberals' provincial cousins invited James Carville to their annual retreat to show them how to navigate the road to victory in the election which we will face shortly in Ontario.

And it is not just the Liberals who have sought the advice of American political consultants. Carville's influence is being felt in both of Canada's major parties. Coincidentally on Monday, The Globe and Mail and Canadian Press ran stories about the new War Room -- a Carville innovation -- which the Tories have set up in suburban Ottawa. The new facility, which has been leased until January 2008, consists of 17,000 square feet. It includes a television studio to produce political propaganda; and it contains 100 new desks with new computers atop each one. After the facilities tour, staged for members of the national media, Environment Minister John Baird and Industry Minister Maxime Bernier ran the latest attack ad against Stephane Dion, which airs this week in Quebec.

Keep in mind that no election has been called. In fact, Baird says that he "sincerely" hopes that there will be no election for awhile. But, he says, that decision is in Mr. Dion's hands. Of course, given last week's vote on the budget, Baird's statement is patently false. That decision rests in Mr. Duceppe's hands.

What the Tory war room and attack ads confirm is that the "perpetual campaign" has finally come to Canada. We have reached the point where our politicians care more about running for office than they do about governing. And what this week's figures from south of the border confirm is that the perpetual campaign is very expensive.

Which begs the question, what if those funds -- and all that energy -- were directed toward policy rather than politics?

Politics is about means. Policy is about ends. Clearly, someone has confused means and ends. There used to be an axiom about the moral quagmire to which such confusion leads. One suspects that the people behind the war room operate on the assumption that the public is stupid. If they are correct, we are in deep trouble. However, as the last federal election -- the one which gave the Tories a minority government -- proved, the Canadian public generally knows exactly what it is doing. It's the party in power which cannot --or will not --draw the distinction between means and ends.