Wednesday, January 26, 2011

``We Do Big Things``

As Barack Obama used the phrase last night, it was no boast. It was a a simple statement of fact. From Abraham Lincoln`s establishment of the land grant colleges, to Franklin Roosevelt`s electrification of America through projects like of the TVA, to Dwight Eisenhower`s construction of the Interstate Highway System, to John Kennedy`s commitment to land on the moon -- what Obama said was no opinion. It was a statement of fact.

Obama also wants to do big things because, as he put it, ``this is our generation`s Sputnik moment.`` It will not be easy. As Micheal Gerson reminded his readers this morning: ``Paul Ryan and many Republicans believe that America has entered a fiscal emergency that requires a fundamental reconsideration of the role of government.`` For Republicans, this is not a new idea.

Obama did not argue for the status quo. Indeed, as his example of the government`s responsibility for salmon illustrated, there is a great deal of wasteful duplication. But he also did not argue -- as Ronald Reagan did -- that government is the problem. As Gerson also observed, he was ``unapologetic about the need for government activism.``

And so the battle has been joined. And make no mistake. It will be a battle. At some point, Obama will be faced with the political equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. But last night the president asked Americans to tap their imaginations -- to think big. Because before Americans can do big things, they have to dream big things. May he and his fellow citizens succeed.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Whose Sacrifice?

Over the weekend, Stephen Harper delivered a speech in which he congratulated himself and his party for five excellent years. He claimed that he and his Conservatives were merely humble public servants. "We are not in Ottawa for what we are owed and what we think we can get." he trumpeted. "If anybody is, they are in the wrong party. For Conservatives it is about public service and public service means private sacrifice."

But who, exactly, is doing the sacrificing? James Travers notes that: "On average, Canada's CEO's, the 21st Centrury's income rock stars, lugged home 2009 rewards averaging $6.6 million. In sharp and growing contrast, working stiffs typically pocketed about $43,000, more than 150 times less."

Wealth, too, is concentrating. Less than four percent of Canadian households now control more than 65 percent of our net wealth, excluding real estate. That's up from 61 percent five years ago.

So when Mr. Harper tells us that Canadians are doing better, the question is, which ones?

There has always been a huge gap between what Mr. Harper says and what he does. Back in 1991, he ended his Master's Thesis is Economics with the following conclusion: "The record indicates that particularly activist Keynesian policy has been rare in the post war period. The results indicate that it should remain so." This, from the man who has applied that biggest Keynesian stimulus since The Great Depression.

So, what do the results indicate? They indicate that Mr. Harper will do whatever it takes to survive. When other politicians take that course, he calls them hypocrites. Or he questions their patriotism. His most recent ads questioning Mr.Ignatieff''s patriotism are a case in point.

The question is simply this: "When the Prime Minister opens his mouth, can you believe him?" I suggest the answer is "No." Our humble public servant is neither humble nor honest.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Stark Choice

In a recent column in The New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote about the chasm which exists between the two major parties in the United States:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state -- a private enterprise economy but one in which society's winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net -- morally superior to the capitalism, red in tooth and claw, we had before the New Deal. It's only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft.

Historically, the Liberal Party of Canada has stood for the first option. It was a notion which the old Progressive Conservative Party also stood for. The rise of Stephen Harper's Conservatives represents the ascendancy of the second option -- which is why the late Dalton Camp spent his final years warning his readers of the dangers of what he correctly diagnosed as a faux Conservatism.

There have been other Cassandras. In yesterday's Toronto Star, James Travers writes that the Prime Minister has changed the country "more than we realize." Harper has done this by effectively operating below the radar, by shutting down Parliament, by capitalizing on the Liberals' disarray, and by smearing his opponents:

Wrong footing rivals is the Prime Minister's favourite dance step.Those who criticize building super prisons, Canada's laizzez faire environment record, or Canada's diminished reputation are quickly forced to defend themselves against message track charges that they don't share Conservative concerns about victims of crimes, energy jobs or principled values.

The opposition needs to begin its defence with an attack on the Conservatives' so called "principled values." Once again, the Harperites have begun to beat the "separatist coalition" drum. But, in September, 2004 -- when the future of the Martin government hung in the balance -- Mr. Harper penned a letter to Adriennne Clarkson, the Governor General. He wrote:

We respectfully point out the the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise, this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all your options before exercising your constitutional authority.

That principle has disappeared into the aether. So has the principle of government accountability and the commitment to balanced budgets. This Prime Minister will -- to mangle John Kennedy -- avoid any price and abandon any burden to get elected. The only time the opposition parties stopped him dead in his tracks was three years ago when they threatened to form a coalition.

Harper only respects his opponents when they can do him real harm. Otherwise, he rules --as Susan Diebel has noted -- through fear and loathing. Given what is at stake, it is imperative that the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois think carefully about how to deal with Mr. Harper. He is focused on his objective. And he will stop at nothing -- short of an effective coalition -- to obtain it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Arizona on My Mind

The tragedy in Arizona this weekend has generated an ocean of comment on both sides of the border. In The New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote:

Where's that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let's not make a false pretense of balance: it's coming overwhelmingly from the right. It's hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be "armed and dangerous" without being ostracized; but Representative Michelle Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the GOP.

In The Toronto Star, James Travers saw plenty of blame to go around: "In Ottawa as in Washington, the result is that abuse is now the common tongue of policy debate. Invective and vitriol are heaped on those who reach different conclusions."

Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh attacked Sheriff Clarence Dupnick for fanning a left wing conspiracy aimed at shutting down free speech. And Sarah Palin's spokeswoman -- not Palin herself -- suggested that the cross hairs on her electoral map were meant to be taken metaphorically, not literally. Both pundits deny any responsibility for what happened. And they are both right. Neither is legally culpable. The man with the gun is in custody.

But what both Limbaugh and Palin appear absolutely ignorant of is the truth which Abraham Lincoln felt in his very bone marrow -- that words can be used as weapons; and that democracy works best when citizens are guided by their "better angels." He stuck to that conviction throughout the Civil War. He said it best at his second inaugural:

With malice toward none; with charity toward all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who has done the battle, and for his widow and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.

It's worth remembering that when invoking the name of the Creator, Lincoln never claimed that God was on his side. He did, however, hope that he was on God's side. We suffer from the delusion that we are the instruments of righteousness. Certainly Limbaugh and Palin suffer from that disease. We need to find an antidote. We could start by practising a bit of humility.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Hollow Man

Stephen Harper claims that he does not want an election. But there he was, in today's National Post, testing the electoral winds and drawing lines in the sand.

He talked again of a separatist coalition: "I think what we've seen is that it's pretty clear that next time, if there's not a Conservative majority, the other parties will form a different government;" and he further claimed that he "will not back down on corporate tax cuts, which he said are essential for the Canadian economy."

Never mind that he was quite willing to enter such a coalition to bring down the Martin government. Never mind that he broke his own fixed election law in calling the last election. No, said Mr. Harper, it's all about principle:

We have made it a fundamental principle of our government since we got into office that we would have a competitive tax structure for job creators, for employers in this country.

It is, indeed, remarkable that Mr. Harper can repeat this stuff with a straight face, after thirty years of growing economic inequality. And, again raising the coalition chimera, he claimed that the coalition partners will move "the next day" to relegate his party to opposition status. No, said Mr. Harper, a coalition would be bad for the Canadian economy. It couldn't take the strain. Never mind that the Canada Pension Plan and Medicare were the products of coalition government. The nation is too fragile for such an arrangement. What the country needs is strong leadership -- his leadership.

Gerry Nicholls, writing in the Globe and Mail, knows what this is all about. Nicholls used to work with Harper at the National Citizens Coalition:

To be blunt, Mr. Harper's ultimate strategic goal really isn't to win a majority government -- it's to eradicate the Liberal Party as a viable political force.
Indeed, his desire to eliminate the Liberals is something he and I discussed way back in the days when we worked together at the National Citizens Coalition. His theory, as he explained to me, was that conservatism would be better served in this country if Canada had a two party system, one that pitted right against left, free enterprise against socialism, Conservatives against New Democrats.

There would be no room for coalitions in such a landscape. But there's more. For Harper, says Nicholls, it's personal:

In his view, the Liberals have exhibited an anti-Alberta bias since the days of Pierre Trudeau, a bias that resulted, among other things, in the disastrous national energy program. Mr. Harper holds a grudge, and he wants payback.

Nicholls is only another in a long list of people -- from Preston Manning to Deborah Grey to former Harper staffers interviewed for Lawrence Martin's book, Harperland -- who have a less than salutary opinion of the Prime Minister.

Canadians would be foolish to ignore these signs. They would be wise to dump this prime minister -- and a coalition government would be the perfect instrument to accomplish that end. Mr. Harper enjoys a reputation for strategic genius. But, as Eliot reminded us, hollow men have head pieces "filled with straw." And, as Joseph Conrad -- who inspired Eliot's poem -- reminded us, such men seek to fill that emptiness with power.