Monday, June 29, 2009

That Old Time Religion

On Saturday, Tim Hudak was elected leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. Mr. Hudak entered politics at the age of 27, as a new member of Mike Harris' government. He married one of Mr. Harris' principal advisers, Deb Hutton. And, during the leadership campaign, he advocated the kind of policies Harris championed, like abolishing the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

When the party chose his successor, Ernie Eves, Harris left the building. On Saturday, he was in the front row, where -- according to The Toronto Star -- he "beamed like a proud father during his protege's victory speech." Mr. Harris certainly liked what Hudak stood for. What government needs to do, Harris said, is "to get out of the road so that the private sector can grow the jobs and the wealth we need to run the province." It all sounded remarkably stupid, given our present predicament. The Harris prescription is precisely why we are where we are. It is the reason GM and Chrysler are doing so well.

As Jeffrey Simpson wrote in a recent column, the private sector has not been a source of wisdom or innovation: "Fifteen years ago," -- when Mr. Harris was first elected -- "Nortel Networks employed 29,000 people. It was the country's high tech leader, known here and abroad. It did more research than any company in Canada. It spawned feeder companies. There were other high tech powerhouses like JDS Uniphase and Newbridge Networks. Today many of those companies have been demolished, broken up or taken over. Even Cognos, a wonderful Canadian success story, succumbed to an IBM takeover."

The Conservative prescription used to pass in the 19th Century for Liberalism. Back then, Edmund Burke's conservatism stood for community stability and government protection from wild-eyed individualism run amok. It was with The Great Depression and the New Deal that Liberalism morphed into a different creature -- a political philosophy which saw government as the banker of last resort. New Deal Liberalism gave us Unemployment Insurance, Old Age Pensions and Medicare. Twenty-first century Liberalism seeks to set people back to work, establish a green economy and slow global warming.

On that last score, American conservatives are still in denial. John Boehner -- the Republican leader in the House of Representatives -- called the climate change bill , which passed in the House last week, "a pile of shit."

Nineteenth century conservatives would never have used such inelegant language. The fact remains, however, that twenty-first century conservatives -- like Mr. Harris, Mr.Hudak and Mr. Boehner -- are stuck in the nineteenth century. For the last thirty years they have wanted to return to a simpler time -- when the rules were clear, most of the population was caucasian, women stayed home and government stayed out of the way. Like William Jennings Bryan's supporters during the Scopes Monkey Trial, they have advocated a return to "that Old Time Religion." Unfortunately for them -- and for Mr. Bryan -- we have evolved since then.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Burden of Neglect

The reaction last week to The Harper-Ignatieff agreement to study Employment Insurance -- and thus avoid a summer election -- has been all over the map. Norman Spector, in The Globe and Mail, cheered: ". . . we are blessed," he crowed, "in having two potential prime ministers who, at the end of the day, know how to behave as mature adults."

Tom Walkom, on the other hand, was not impressed. "Who are these ludicrous Liberals?," he asked in The Toronto Star, "And what exactly is it that they want?"

It was Susan Riley, in The Ottawa Citizen, who came closest to the truth: "As he has repeatedly shown, compromise is a strategy, not an instinct, for Harper. This time it was easy. He gave Ignatieff nothing but the time of day, staved off an election until (he hopes) the economy is improving and earned bonus points for looking accommodating. All Ignatieff did was rekindle doubts about his integrity, values and his political acumen. . ."

Riley's last comment was a little harsh, although she is voicing a commonly held belief which the Conservatives intend to exploit during the next campaign -- whenever it occurs. But the simple truth is that the uncivil war, which has consumed the Liberal Party for the better part of a decade, has left it unprepared to enter an election campaign. If Stephane Dion proved anything, it was that.

And, as I have written twice before in this space, the Liberals need time to reevaluate and rebuild policy. The EI Commission is a step in that direction. The problem is that last week's outcome offers cold comfort to the unemployed, whose numbers are growing.

The Prime Minister and his government will eventually fall, victims of their own carefully crafted inertia. However, as Jean Chretien reminded his party in 1990, there is a lot of work to do. It's time for the Liberal Party of Canada to stop blaming Mr. Harper and start proposing solutions, not strategy.

Still, at the end of the day, we get the politicians we deserve. Both Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff know that Canadians do not want a summer election. We didn't want the one we got before last week's agreement. We bear the burden of our own neglect.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Naked Balderdash

Lisa Raitt's apology last week to those Canadians awaiting cancer treatment may have been heartfelt. I do not doubt the pain the disease has inflicted on the minister and her family. After all, it killed both her father and her brother.

The problem, as Lawrence Martin, wrote last week, is that the apology was "too long in the making;" and it was an abrupt about face. "You can bet," wrote Martin, "that the prime minister's office instructed Ms. Raitt to get out before the microphones yesterday. You can bet that the day before, the same operatives had instructed her not to give an inch."

The problem for the last Conservative MP from Halton was that he refused to do the PMO's bidding. Garth Turner was infected with the novel idea that he was answerable first to his constituents and then to the Prime Minister. For this heresy, he and fellow MP Bill Casey were ejected from the Conservative caucus.

As James Travers also wrote last week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is in trouble because his own caucus has been infected by the same virus. It occurs -- or should occur occasionally -- in true parliamentary democracies. In 1990, Travers reminded his readers, "Conservatvies tossed Margaret Thatcher for the very minor John Major."

For all his wonkishness, in any situation, the prime minister's first principle is crass political calculation. Is that surprising? Or new? Or limited only to the present government? No.

But what is surprising is that a minority government -- caught in the grips of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression -- should display its ambition so nakedly. To Ms. Raitt, the shortage of medical isotopes -- caused by problems at the Chalk River nuclear reactor -- was a "sexy" chance to take control of a situation and make a name for herself. The obvious question is, "Whose interests are being served?"

The present government has operated from the beginning on the logical contradiction that self interest is in the public interest. That contradiction is at the heart of the financial meltdown and the devastation of Canada's manufacturing industries.

The real question is how long will the victims of this quackery tolerate such balderdash? Today Mr. Ignatieff will provide us with an answer.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Sixty-Five Years Later

This past Saturday marked the 65th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy. It was a long time coming; and there were those who felt that the Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had spent too much time cooling his heels in Britain. But Eisenhower was a shrewd judge of battlefields; and -- as later conflicts in Vietnam and the Suez Canal would prove -- when it came to going to war, he did not believe in rolling the dice. Moreover, the shear size of the operation -- 160,000 troops and 5,000 ships landed and anchored along a fifty mile stretch of French beachfront -- was staggering.

Despite the force which the allies brought to bear, they faced no easy task. The weather proved to be an obstacle; and the Germans -- who had been preparing for such an event for four years -- were ensconced in heavily fortified positions.

As Barack Obama reminded his audience this weekend, "It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide."

It was an immense task; and it needs to be remembered by each succeeding generation. For, as Obama also told his audience, "As we face down the hardships and struggles of our time, and arrive at that hour for which we were born, we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore."

It is also important to remember that "the best among us" were ordinary people -- from all over the world, from city and farm, from a plethora of backgrounds -- who worked together for a good that was more important than their own self interest.

Most of the soldiers who landed that day -- including those who did not come home -- achieved no notoriety. They have been lost to the culture of celebrity. And, as their dwindling numbers attest, there is a danger that what they did will be forgotten with their passing. We must not let that happen. For their sake and for our own.

Monday, June 01, 2009

"I Have the Tapes"

When the opposition demanded the Finance Minister's resignation last week, the prime minister had a curious response. "I cannot fire the Leader of the Opposition," he opined, "and with all the tapes I have on him, I do not want to." When under pressure, Mr. Harper displays his dark side. He is a man who sees enemies on all sides -- a man who likes to portray himself as a victim -- a mean spirited man, who has always had a chip on his shoulder.

Given the job the Conservative War Room did on Stephane Dion, the current round of attack ads -- which rely heavily on clips of Ignatieff functioning outside Canada -- were to be expected. What they reveal, however, is not an arrogant Leader of the Opposition, but a government which is intellectually bankrupt. Like the Fathers of the Church, when presented with Galileo's evidence that the universe did not operate on the rules they assumed were self evident, the Conservatives have retreated into noisy denial and attacked the man, instead of rethinking their theology.

For the real issue, as Lawrence Martin wrote last week in The Globe and Mail, is credibility. "In the case of the Finance Minister," he declared, "it's hardly in abundant supply." One only needs to add that Mr. Flaherty has been absolutely true to form. As Ontario's Minister of Finance -- despite his assurances to the contrary -- he left the province with a $5.5 billion deficit.

It's true that making predictions in a recession is difficult. As Bob Rae has testified, the numbers at least at the beginning -- keep getting worse. The problem has been that Flaherty refuses to acknowledge that fact. During the election campaign, and immediately after it, he refused to acknowledge that there even was a recession.

The truth, of course, is that Flaherty is a front man. It is Harper who considers himself the government's economic guru. And it is Harper who has failed to understand what is happening. So there will be no resignations. Faced with immediate execution, the Prime Minister might change course. But his behaviour in November suggests that he would rather prorogue Parliament than face it. Until then, his defense will be to call Mr. Ignatieff names -- the same technique he used against Mr. Dion.

Mr. Harper, according to some, is a very smart man. Unfortunately, his education has been very narrow and not very deep. He is not a man given to critical self examination. He embodies Franklin Roosevelt's definition of a conservative -- someone, "with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward."