Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Case of Bait and Switch

The buzz in Ottawa this week has been all about how Maxime Bernier engineered his ignominious exit from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In fact, the ripples from the story spread beyond Ottawa: they made the hourly newscasts on National Public Radio in the United States. Bernier -- like Gordon O'Connor and Rona Ambrose before him -- was another minister whose lack of experience and judgment made him too small for his portfolio.

Amid all the sound and fury, it was easy to overlook a more important personnel change which the Prime Minister made last week. He announced that his chief of staff, Ian Brodie, was leaving the government -- and that he would be replaced by Guy Giorno, who used to do the same job for Mike Harris in Ontario. Giorno is more than competent. He will not let information slip out and become part of the American election campaign, as did Brodie. And he will not leave sensitive government documents on a lady's coffee table, as did Bernier.

But the appointment of Giorno signals the government's philosophical and policy direction more clearly than anything the prime minister might say. Giorno's job was to put Harris' Common Sense Revolution in place, by employing more or less the kind of shock therapy recommended by the professors in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago, and chronicled in tragic detail by Naomi Klein in her book, The Shock Doctrine.

However, long before Klein wrote her book, Dalton Camp was warning Canadians about what was to come. Back in 1999, in a column in The Toronto Star, Camp wrote that the country's two "conservative" superstars -- Alberta's Ralph Klein (no relation to Naomi) and Ontario's Mike Harris -- were not who they claimed to be. "We need to understand what the present rulers of Ontario and Alberta are all about, and it is not tax cuts. It is an effort to limit the role of the federal government, lessen public confidence in it, and destabilize Ottawa's existing relations with the provinces." But there was more. "The two premiers are wired to private interests and remain aloof from serious public interest issues and politics. The premier of Alberta would cheerfully privatize the provincial school system; both he and Harris would welcome the creation of a right-wing political party, subservient to corporate Canada (and America) and committed to their agendas."

Given what has happened since Camp's death in 2002, this all sounds pretty prescient. Two years before he died, in a lecture at The University of Waterloo, Camp returned to his argument that these so called "neo conservatives" were not conservatives at all. Citing Tom Wilson's book, No Ivory Tower, Camp argued that, as Wilson said, "The term neo-conservatism is a misnomer, unless we mean to turn away from the established meaning of conservatism," which is, "opposed to unbridled individualism, and stresses instead the beneficent and necessary functions of community." He then quoted Adam Smith, who Camp claimed neo conservatives have never read: "Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality. . . . The affluence of the rich suppose(s) the indigence of the many." Great property and great inequality were the twin legacies of the Common Sense Revolution, which Giorno worked tirelessly to implement.

Klein and Harris are gone; but, under Harper, Giorno gets one more kick at the can. And what does Harper get? According to James Travers, in The Toronto Star, "More than a fresh face for a tiring party," Giorno is, "the wise guy Ontario strategist Harper needs to make wedge politics work in the province that decides federal elections."

Camp did not trust the new conservatives. "Until we survive the reign of Harris and Klein," he wrote, "the nation is in peril and no Canadian is safe." The Prime Minister's appointment of Guy Giorno should remind all Canadians of the sense of foreboding which Camp took with him to his grave. An old advertising man by profession, he knew what bait and switch was all about.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

George W. Bush caused something of a political firestorm last week when, in an address before the Israeli Knesset, he rebuked those who would talk to Israel's and -- by extension -- his country's enemies. In a passage which many saw as a direct attack on Barack Obama, Bush said: "As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, 'Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler all of this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."

The ghost of Neville Chamberlain haunted the last century -- and it continues to haunt this one. And, while waving a piece of paper around and declaring "peace in our time," will not guarantee peace, the fact is that all conflicts end with a piece of paper -- after the belligerents have sat down and talked across a table. Often this occurs after particularly dreadful deeds. Such agreements -- like Roosevelt's and Churchill's alliance with Joseph Stalin -- are products of pure convenience. Sometimes they lead to a new relationship, which usually takes a great deal of time and patience. After all, while both sides like to claim a "special relationship," it is no exaggeration to say that, in 1776, contacts between the United States and Britain were more than a little strained.

Bush argues that talking to one's enemies is a sign of weakness. But the Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, James Baker, has declared flatly that it is necessary to talk to one's enemies. Bush's present Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has said that it is necessary to talk to Iran. And high level negotiations are presently going on with the third member of what Mr. Bush called "the axis of evil," North Korea.

Recently a number of political ads have featured "the red phone" at the White House. Many may have forgotten that John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev agreed to set up a direct line of communication after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Both men saw that talking was preferable to fighting -- and neither saw talking as a sign of weakness.

How does one account for the change in perspective between then and now? In his book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Frank Rich reviewed the conditions which existed in the United States before September 11th, 2001. He focused particularly on the narcissism of the baby boom generation -- of which the last two presidents are charter members: "A decade of dreaming was coming to an end. The dream had been simple -- that Americans could have it all, without having to pay any price, and that national suffering of almost any kind could be domesticated into an experience of virtual terror akin to a theme park ride or a Hollywood blockbuster." Unlike their parents, these men had not known sacrifice: they were used to getting what they wanted. And refusing to talk to someone you didn't like was the childish reaction of someone who got his own way and who was impressed with his own reflection in a mirror.

Lest Canadians try to take some comfort in what they think is their own moral superiority, it is worth remembering that our present prime minister is used to getting his own way -- and his unwavering support of Israel translates into refusing to talk with Israel's enemies. This is a radical departure from traditional Canadian Mid-East policy. As Linda McQuaig pointed out this week in The Toronto Star, Canada's "attempt at even handedness has utterly disappeared under Stephen Harper, who lavishly celebrated Israel's 60th anniversary with promises of Canada's 'unshakable' support, while utterly ignoring the fact that this is also an anniversary -- although a very different one -- for Palestinians." She noted that, in 1948, Canada's Justice Minister, James Ilsely, expressed concern that the UN plan to partition Palestine "didn't sufficiently answer 'the very strong moral and political claims' of Palestine's Arab community."

And to those who claim that Canada should have no dealings with terrorists, it is also worth remembering that the late Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin proudly admitted being referred to by British newspapers and Members of Parliament as "Terrorist Number One." McQuaig concluded, "If Harper isn't willing to be a tiny bit even handed, it would be helpful if he'd at least stop trying to play a role in the Middle East tinderbox."

Obama's commitment to talk to Israel's enemies does not mean that we will have "peace in our time." But it's virtually certain that unless the next American President sits down with his country's adversaries -- as Reagan did with Gorbachev and Nixon did with the Chinese -- there will be no peace in anyone's time. The next president will have to stop looking at himself in the mirror and look outwards -- to what is increasingly an unstable world.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Life on a Fact Free Diet

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty showed up last week at the Economic Club of Toronto and waxed lyrical about Canada's economic outlook. Actually, he didn't spend much time talking about the future. Instead, he launched into an attack on the opposition Liberals. His speech left his former colleague, Garth Turner, furious. "In the most partisan speech I have ever heard a finance minister give," Turner wrote in his blog, "the guy said -- flat out -- that the Liberals would raise the GST, usher in a massive increase in the gas tax and max out the country's credit card."

To be fair, Flaherty has not yet put this year's bills on plastic. However, as he is fond of reminding his audiences, the cupboard is now bare. Earlier this year, when he was engaged in a rhetorical battle with Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, Jeffrey Simpson wrote in The Globe and Mail: "In the war of words between the Harper Conservatives in Ottawa and the McGuinty Liberals in Toronto, please remember one salient fact: The Harper government and finance minister Jim Flaherty inherited a wonderful surplus and a declining debt from the outgoing federal Liberals; the McGuinty government inherited a big deficit from Conservative Ernie Eves and his finance minister, Mr. Flaherty." We have been down this road before.

If Flaherty's speech illustrated anything, it's simply that he likes to ignore salient facts. As Les Whittington reported in The Toronto Star, the Bank of Canada has concluded that "the economy is barely limping along in the April to June period and will grow by a weak 1.4% for the year as a whole." But Flaherty refused to acknowledge that things were less than bright. He "stressed that no one is predicting a decline of output in Canada." Once again, he ignored the news from the province whose finances he used to steward -- even as General Motors was about to announce the closing of an engine plant in Windsor, with the attendant loss of 1,400 jobs.

Flaherty has known considerable success in his life. A native of Montreal, he graduated from Princeton and Osgoode Hall, where -- after receiving his law degree -- he became a personal injury attorney. But often the price of success is that, as one rises up the ladder, one spends less and less time with the common folk -- the kind of people who sat high up in the cheap seats at the old Montreal Forum, where Mr. Flaherty used to watch his hometown Canadiens play hockey.

He clings to a vision which has long since been discredited. His solution for all economic problems is to cut taxes. The consequences of such a simplistic policy are all around us. The fools (who have an aversion to facts) have been in charge for sometime now -- a phenomenon Mr. Flaherty fails to appreciate. He appears to enjoy the company of fools more than the company of the folks in the cheap seats.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Shrewd and the Secretive

This week the Harper government killed CAIRS -- the Coordination of Access to Information Requests System -- a public database which tracks the number and kinds of requests made under Canada's Access to Information Act. The death was a quiet affair. According to Dean Beeby of The Toronto Star, "in a notice last week to civil servants on the Treasury Board website, officials posted an innocuous obituary: effective April 1, 2008, 'the requirement to update CAIRS is no longer in effect.'"

This was also the week when the government announced its new "communication strategy" -- which is essentially its old strategy -- that all government communications are vetted by the Prime Minister's Office. What is new is that communication of independent government agencies -- like the Auditor General's Office, or the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission -- are now subject to the same screening process. Auditor General Sheila Fraser immediately fired a warning shot across the government's bow, putting Mr. Harper and his courtiers on notice that she would not submit to such a policy.

Increasingly, all manner of oversight seems to be in the government's cross hairs. As Jim Travers -- also in The Star -- wrote this week, "Distrust is a constant when a party long in opposition comes to power. But Conservatives are turning a common reflex into the steady erosion of the few pillars still supporting trust in public institutions."

Whether it is opposition parties in the House seeking information about exactly what "financial considerations" the Conservatives offered Chuck Cadman; or the sacking of Linda Keen of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; or Elections Canada's investigation of the so called "in and out" campaign financing scheme, the pattern is the same. The Conservatives regard the oversight mechanisms built into our system of responsible government as black flies in the woods: they need to be exterminated if one is to live comfortably in this northern climate.

In retrospect, none of this should be surprising. After all, this is the government which invited David Emerson into its inner circle a week after he had been elected by his constituents as a Liberal -- and which brought Michel Fortier into the same circle, even though he had not been elected at all.

Former Conservative (now Liberal) MP Garth Turner revealed in his blog last week that he brought up the cases of these two gentlemen in his first private meeting with the Prime Minister. "Within a day," Turner wrote, "his chief of staff had threatened me with expulsion from the caucus. His party whip had read me the riot act. I'd been told to issue a media release recanting my comments, and to immediately discontinue this blog. In other words, to obey." Turner was expelled from the caucus, sat as an independent, then eventually joined the Liberals. But he still maintains his independence: "Does this mean I agree with everything Stephane does? Hardly. I am still in Ottawa as a representative of the people, who must faithfully give voice to the people and report back to them." Mr. Harper, on the other hand, has made it abundantly clear that his caucus reports to him. He insists that all branches of government follow his instructions.

We live in an age when greatness is equated with the acquisition and accumulation of power. Perhaps it has always been thus. But Leo Tolstoy (whose thoughts on greatness grace the masthead of this inauspicious publication) knew that greatness rested on three principles : simplicity, goodness and truth. The conventional wisdom was a lie. Mr. Harper has been seduced by the conventional wisdom. Several adjectives accurately describe the Harperites -- shrewd and secretive are two of them. But "democratic" isn't part of the litany.