Thursday, March 31, 2011

Grudge Match

Stephen Harper's suggestion that he and Michael Ignatieff go one on one in a leaders debate is intriguing. I doubt that it will happen. As Elizabeth May is proving once again, you simply can't exclude the leaders of the other parties. Nonetheless, Harper's suggestion is interesting because of what it reveals about him. For Harper, this election isn't about the budget. It's not about a "wreckless coalition." It's not even about Canadians. It's personal. It's a grudge match between him and Michael Ignatieff.

A recent editorial in The Globe and Mail proclaimed that: "Personal attacks on Mr. Ignatieff have been the preferred tactic of his political opponents from the moment he entered political life after a distinguished career as a human-rights theorist, writer and academic." More than that, though, Ignatieff's career makes Harper's accomplishments look picayune. The editorial continues:

He is indeed an extraordinary Canadian. He was listed as one of the world’s 100 leading public intellectuals by Foreign Policy for his thinking on the “tension between security and human rights, the fight against modern terrorism and the philosophy of freedom.” (That quote is taken from the citation of one of his 11 honorary degrees.) His books have received many awards, including the Governor-General’s Award for Literature and the George Orwell Prize, and one was short-listed for the Booker Prize. The American philosopher Francis Fukuyama called Mr. Ignatieff’s Lionel Gelber Prize-winning book, Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, “a marvellous work that shows the diversity, complexity, agonies and horrors of nationalism with greater depth and insight than most, if not all, academic treatises.” He has written for The New Yorker, hosted programs for the BBC, and has held teaching positions at Cambridge, the University of London and Harvard.

That list of accomplishments does not qualify Ignatieff for the job. But they do make Stephen Harper look small. Against Ignatieff's academic credentials, Harper offers his Master degree in Economics. And, next to Ignatieff's record of publication, Harper offers his Master's thesis and a book on hockey -- which, we are told, is a work in progress. Other than that, we have the attack ads, which have been relentless.

Mr. Harper plays on an old Canadian prejudice about achievement abroad. He was born two years after Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; but it's no stretch to imagine that Mr. Harper would have held that against the late Prime Minister -- who, incidentally, also led a minority government. And, even though he was in office for less time than Mr. Harper, Pearson gave Canadians the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, and a flag.

The truth is that Stephen Harper's record of accomplishment is embarrassingly thin. He knows it. It's my hunch that his lack of accomplishment is what drives his personal animus against Ignatieff. That animus, I believe, is what should -- in the end -- disqualify him from the Prime Minister's job. But that is a decision for all Canadians.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Confronting The Reality Based Community

A report in yesterday's The Globe and Mail claims that the Conservatives "wreckless coalition" strategy is entirely Stephen Harper's idea:

Mr. Harper pushed his campaign team to put the majority-or-coalition issue front-and-centre, according to someone close to the campaign, because he personally believes those are the only possible outcomes. Polls show that most voters oppose the idea of a so-called “coalition of losers,” or of any party governing with the consent of the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois.

The problem, of course, is that he called a meeting and signed a letter which undermines his two arguments against a coalition. First, he proposed changing governments without having an election. He suggested that then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, consider "all of your options;" and he noted that "the opposition parties, which together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation." Second, he did not possess a majority of seats in the House. When the Liberals faced a non-confidence motion, they occupied 135 seats, the Conservatives 98 and the NDP 20.

Together Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton could only muster 118 votes. They needed at least some of the Bloc Quebecios votes to pass legislation. The non-confiedence motion failed by one vote, because a former member of Mr. Harper's party -- who ran and won as an independent -- voted with the government.

Now Mr. Harper claims that governments can only change after an election; and that the party with the second largest number of seats cannot form a coalition. His problem, of course, is that the two men he "consulted" with in 2004 are still on the scene to set the record straight. Mr. Duceppe now waves the letter in public, points to Harper's signature, and says:

"When Mr. Harper says the party that finishes second can’t be prime minister, he’s lying,” the Bloc Québécois Leader said on the campaign trail Sunday. “When he says it’s anti-democratic, it’s the opposite of what he wrote in 2004. He’s trying to build his majority on a lie."

Mr. Layton backs up Mr. Duceppe. A coalition, Layton says, "certainly was one of the options that was discussed around the table." A leader firmly grounded in reality could have seen this coming. The letter to Ms. Clarkson has been in the public domain for a long time. But Mr. Harper is like that anonymous adviser to George W. Bush who told the journalist Ron Suskind:

the reality based community believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality. But that's not the way the world works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.

The real world came down around George W. Bush's ears in November, 2008 -- just as Stephen Harper won his second minority mandate. Since then, certain that Canadians didn't want to go to the polls any time soon -- and, therefore, believing that the opposition parties would not bring his government down -- he has governed as if he had a majority. The opposition parties have now called his bluff. Unfortunately, Mr. Harper still believes that -- like Jean Luc Picard on the bridge of the Enterprise -- he can bark, "Make it so!" and everything -- reality included -- will fall into place.

The Prime Minister is clearly delusional. The question we now face is, "Do Canadians buy his delusion?"

All He Has Is Fear Itself

Prime Minister Harper's speech in front of Rideau Hall this morning offered Canadians a glimpse into what makes him tick. He completely ignored the non-confidence vote -- claiming that it was an under the Peace Tower game which doesn't impress Canadians. That's been his position for the last five years.

Instead of "confidence" Mr. Harper wanted to talk -- repeatedly -- about "coalition." It got him out of the hole he dug for himself three years ago -- and he believes it will work for him again. Never mind that he proposed exactly the same kind of arrangement in 2004 with the same leaders of the same parties. All of that has gone down the memory hole.

His budget is empty. And he knows that if he costs out the prisons, the jets and the tax cuts, it will blow a huge hole in his deficit reduction targets. Like the second President Bush -- who kept two wars off budget -- he believes that citizens are lousy mathematicians and frightened children. Both men have followed the Wall Street Model. We have been living, despite the rosy picture Mr. Harper paints, with the consequences.

We shall see if we the people have learned anything over the last three years.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It Had To Come To This

It has been obvious for a long time, that -- despite his claims to the contrary -- the Prime Minister has been engineering his government's fall. As Hamlet said of another melodrama, he "doth protest too much." For months, he and his ministers have crisscrossed the country, announcing all kinds of government goodies. The attack ads -- which never go on hiatus -- have increased. And pundits like Jeffrey Simpson and Chantal Hebert claim that the election is Harper's to lose.

Mr. Harper approaches the election with the same kind of hubris which led him to rename the government in his honour. Jeffrey Simpson -- again -- claims Harper is absolutely in the driver's seat:

Whatever happens in the campaign, the government presented a reasonable, moderate budget that contained some sensible spending increases, avoided additional and unnecessary tax reductions, and promised a credible, if somewhat leisurely, march toward a balanced budget. The budget won’t survive the House of Commons, but it will carry the Conservatives through an election they’ll almost certainly win.

Simpson's claims that "very few voters pay attention to the goings on under the Peace Tower." Like that great cynic, H.L. Menken, he seems to believe that Canadians are card carrying members of "the booboise." Simpson's colleague, Lawrence Martin, is more measured in his response to Tuesday's events. The election, he writes, hinges on Michael Ignatieff. But unlike Stephane Dion -- who did not allow the Prime Minister his coveted majority -- Ignatieff is no Dion:

While Mr.Ignatieff’s polling numbers are just as weak, he is considerably more gifted in terms of leadership potential. He is more articulate and trenchant. He is stronger in debate, better organized and surrounded by a better team. There will be no grainy videos arriving late at TV studios as there was under Mr. Dion. Mr. Ignatieff is unlikely to have to restart an interview several times, as did Mr. Dion, occasioning an embarrassing mishap at a critical period in the ‘08 campaign.

Moreover, Ignatieff has gotten better at his job. David Olive -- who has published a number of critiques of Ignatieff -- says it's time for Canadians to engineer Mr. Harper's exit:

As Mr. Trudeau said when the press got on his case, "Consider the alternative." And so we thought of poor Bob Stanfield and Joe Clark. And Trudeau lost an election and won four, and served some 15 years as PM. As we should have given Harper his chance - and trust me, we've seen as good as it gets from this cold, mildly paranoid, mean-spirited and visionless man - the most viable alternative now deserves its chance.

Olive has it right. If Simpson has correctly sized up Canadians -- and they are not willing to give the most viable alternative a chance -- then we have engineered the demise of our democracy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

We Need an Election

Yesterday, in The Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson argued that "we're headed for an election we don't need." While Canadians don't want an election, Simpson wrote, their politicians do:

because politicians live for partisan advantage, and each party now sniffs, for different reasons, that an election will deliver such an advantage. In part, because they’ve turned on their election machines and can’t find the off switch, as witnessed by their spending millions on party ads, finding candidates and using every waking hour to attack each other
In the end, Simpson wrote, there is no consensus in the country for change. Several months back, Mr. Simpson argued that Stephen Harper's prorogation of Parliament would be a blip on Canadian radar screens. I believe that, once again, he has underestimated Canadian voters. In this case, it's not the economy, stupid. The crescendo of Conservative contempt for Parliament -- and Canadian voters -- keeps rising. Besides proroguing Parliament, the Speaker has found the government in breech of basic parliamentary democracy three times.

John Baird argues that all of this amounts to a distraction. If he means that all of this emphasis on rules is a distraction for the Conservatives, he's right. Life would be much easier if the government didn't have to face the opposition parties. But the real issue is government hypocrisy. This is a government which was supposed to stand for transparency and accountability. This was a government which supposedly stood foursquare for the common man.

When Parliament demanded information on Afghan prisoners, Mr. Harper padlocked Parliament. When it asked for cost estimates on the government's tough on crime legislation, it refused to provide it. And, last week, when it dumped thousands of documents on the table, it admitted that estimates which had been discussed in Cabinet were being kept under wraps.

Now the Bruce Carson Affair has put the government's position on crime in a stark light. And, once again, it is all about hypocrisy. Mr. Carson went to work for the Conservatives long after he was convicted of defrauding his clients and disbarred. Allan Woods wrote in The Toronto Star that:

According to archived newspaper accounts, Carson, then 37, was criminally convicted of two counts of theft for misappropriating almost $20,000 of his clients’ funds by forging their signatures and stashing the money in his own bank account.

Carson was convicted in 1980. But after his conviction and disbarment, Carson went to work for the Conservatives:

In the meantime, Carson had taken a job as a researcher in the Library of Parliament from 1979 to 1981, then returned to school for a Master's degree in law at the University of Toronto. That helped launch his reinvention as a constitutional wonk and returned him to Parliament Hill for a distinguished career as a high-level Conservative operative.

He rose to become a senior adviser to the Prime Minister. For a man who claims to be tough on criminals, Mr. Harper clearly sees room for exceptions. Those exceptions apply to him and the members of his party.

That is why we need an election.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Taking Credit For Nothing

Wednesday night, in Quebec City, Stephen Harper claimed that the Bloc Quebecois was a party without a mission. He and his party, he said, were responsible for the Bloc's fall from grace:

“In spite of the popularity of the Bloc and other sovereigntist parties, support for sovereignty itself has fallen dramatically since our government came to office.”

Mr. Harper has a habit of taking credit for things which have nothing to do with him. For the last three years, he has travelled the world, extolling the virtues of the Canadian banking system, as if his government built it. The banks were protected from the rampant speculation of American and British banks because the Prime Minister's forebears did not follow the policies he says he believes in.

For the same three years, he and his government have peppered the nation with signs and television ads which sing the praises of Canada's Economic Action Plan, conveniently forgetting that the economic statement he and Jim Flaherty delivered in 2008 was about belt tightening, not expansion. Only when faced with a revolt of all three opposition parties, did he deliver a budget with the biggest deficit in Canadian history.

Now he and his confreres are responsible for the death of Quebec separatism. Those of us who grew up in Quebec know that Quebec nationalism is a dormant volcano. All it needs is a Maurice Duplessis, or a Rene Levesque or a Lucien Bouchard to encourage an eruption. Pierre Trudeau declared separatism dead. So did Jean Chretien. And now Stephen Harper takes credit for its demise. Only a man who thinks that The Harper Government is the Government of Canada would be foolish enough to make that claim.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

History and Destiny

Over the weekend, David Sirota wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, in which he opined that, "the 80's just won't go away." There is money in nostalgia. But there is more than that:

This collective deja vu moment is part coincidence, part commodified nostalgia and part impulse to rehash successful old political and entertainment brands. But the similarities between today and the 1980s also reflect a country now run by those who came of age in that decade - people whose worldviews were molded by an era that began with a Chrysler bailout and ended with foreign students protesting dictatorship in a distant square.

In the minds of many of today's leaders -- at least those in the Republican Party -- the Age of Reagan was a Golden Age, where America emerged from the doom and confusion of the seventies, personified by Jimmy Carter, into "Morning in America." Like Reagan himself -- who wanted to return to a pre-Depression America and a roaring economy presided over by Calvin Coolidge -- today's Republicans want to return to the optimism and the good times they associate with The Gipper.

The problem is that their memory -- like Reagan's -- is highly selective. Ronald Reagan came to office endorsing supply side economics -- until David Stockman announced quite publicly that the numbers didn't add up. The president quietly changed course. Reagan railed at the size of government and the deficit, while allowing both to increase substantially. It's true he did not become entangled in the Middle East -- in fact, he withdrew Marines from Lebanon. He did, however, lead a successful invasion of another country -- Grenada. And, rather than cutting back social security, he increased payroll taxes to ensure its solvency.

But he left it to others to deal with the consequences of his signature policies. To George Bush Sr. he left the Savings and Loan Debacle. Bush established the Resolution Trust Corporation and actually prosecuted the high rollers behind the savings and loan mess. Bush also increased taxes to restore fiscal balance -- a wise move. But to howls of treachery, he lost the next election. Then, of course, there was Ollie North and Iran Contra. And, to Reagan's credit, but unthinkable to some -- particularly to the Tea Partiers of his own day -- he sat down and did business with The Evil Empire.

Ronald Reagan -- like the America he loved -- has been mythologized. The problem with mythologizing the past is that you can't learn from it. The golden glow surrounding it makes it impossible to see its hard edges, its tragedies and its stupidities. Today, from Wisconsin to Washington, Republicans have been captured by a myth. In such moments, history becomes destiny.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Giroux's Hope

Henry Giroux was born in Rhode Island in 1943. He began his working life as a high school social studies teacher in Barrington, Rhode Island. He then went on to teach at Boston University, Miami University and Penn State University. In 2005, he came to Canada to teach English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. All the while, he has kept a close eye on his native land, commenting regularly on political and cultural life in the United States.

Giroux was no fan of the second Bush Administration. But he likewise has been singularly unimpressed with the Obama Administration. He believes that the two major parties have been co-opted by the wealthy. The consequences for the United States, he writes, have been catastrophic:

Ronald Reagan's infamous "it's morning in America" slogan, used as part of his 1984 presidential campaign, paved the way for a set of market-driven policies that historians faithful to the human record will be compelled to rename twilight in America to signal a historical crisis fueled less by a spirited hope for the future than by a shocking refusal to be held accountable to and for it. The policies that informed Reagan's neoliberal agenda have given way to the intense assault now being waged by his more extremist governmental descendants on all vestiges of the democratic state. This brutal evisceration includes a rejection and devaluing of the welfare state, unions, public values, young people, public and higher education; and other political, social and economic institutions and forces in American life that provide a counterweight against the political power of mega-corporations, the rich and the powerful.

The result, Giroux writes, is that democracy in America has been hollowed out:

Political power is now up for sale just as government resources are increasingly being contracted out or sold off to the highest bidder. Like lemmings in heat, thousands of corporate lobbyists flock to Washington determined to corrupt the political process, while multibillionaires such as the Koch brothers use their $42 billion-dollar war chest to fund right-wing think tanks, the Tea Party, and other conservative groups in order to crush the labor movement and enact legislative policies designed to decimate the social state and hand over the levers of political and economic sovereignty to the rich.

The picture he paints is dark -- almost hopeless. But he finds some cheer in what is now happening at the state level. As citizens protest against what Governor Walker and Governor Kasich are attempting to accomplish, he sees promise for his country's democratic institutions:

The current upsurge in collective resistance against the corporate state will succeed if it speaks to and connects with a broader crisis of public values, the eclipse of a democratic public sphere and the disappearance of the social state. If the principles of democracy are not to be turned against themselves in order to further the savage assaults waged on the American people by advocates of casino capitalism, it is crucial that emerging social movements emphasize what the late Tony Judt called the raising of social questions through a language that stresses the importance of public goods, shared responsibilities and a language that connects private troubles with social considerations.(8)

There will be those who will criticize Giroux for leveling this criticism from north of the 49th parallel. But Hemingway and Fitzgerald always claimed that they truly saw what was great about their country -- and what was not -- from outside its borders. Giroux, I think, would agree with them.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What's Behind A Name?

Late last year, word went forth from the PMO that the Government of Canada would henceforth be known -- in all official government communications -- as "The Harper Government." It was an act of extraordinary hubris. No government in Canada's history has claimed that privilege. But the government which now bears the Prime Minister's name -- like the man himself -- has never seen hubris as a political liability.

That decision was made before the "In and Out " scandal blew up in the government's face, before Bev Oda floundered trying to explain why she altered a document and claimed it came from her advisers, before Jason Kenny used his office for political fundraising, and before skyrocketing fuel and food prices started to threaten the economic recovery for which "The Harper Government" is taking credit.

If one were looking for the source of such hubris, the Prime Minister himself would be a good place to start. But there is another clue to what drives these folks. Murray Dobbin noted a short time ago that:

When Stockwell Day (the Christians’ man in cabinet) ran a Christian school in Alberta years ago, its curriculum included this assessment of democratic governments: “[they] represent the ultimate deification of man, which is the very essence of humanism and totally alien to God’s word.” Those believing that government is essentially the devil’s work don’t lose sleep over a little lying or fraud. It’s the will of God.

"The Harper Government" isn't on government's side. But they appear convinced that God is no their side. Wiser human beings have discovered that it's dangerous to claim inside knowledge of the Creator.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

James Travers 1948 - 2011

Much has already been written about James Travers in the twenty-four hours since his passing. I add this small comment simply because I could not let his passing go without acknowledging my personal debt to him. Readers of this space know that I have frequently quoted from his work.

He received a National Newspaper Award for a column which documented Canada's diminished democracy. He truly talked the talk. But, as his colleague -- and former parliamentarian -- Doug Fischer noted, he also walked the walk:

Once, Fischer remembered, he visited Travers while his colleague was working as the Middle East correspondent. They went to a Palestinian village and when Travers saw a young Arab boy being dragged away by the hair by a group of soldiers, he handed his notepad and tape recorder to Fischer. He confronted the laughing soldiers.

“There was a scuffle and he was lucky not to get beaten up or arrested, but he didn’t back down. Eventually, they let the boy go and they pushed Travers away.

He was a man with the courage of his convictions. And for that reason -- most of all -- he will be sorely missed. His family is in our prayers.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Capra Moment

Frank Capra would have appreciated the present moment. In two of his best films, Mr. Smith Goes the Washington and Meet John Doe, the political system is entirely beholden to big money. And in both films, those financial interests control media empires which can crucify inconvenient upstarts who rock the boat. In the end, the only thing which stands between those interests and doing the right thing is the uncommon decency of the common man.

Financial interests sought and successfully repealed the Glass Steagall Act. The Citizens United decision gave them unfettered access to several media empires. With the exception of Bernie Madoff, no member of the financial elite has been punished. However, workers -- whose pensions that elite managed -- have borne the consequences of its failures.

Today, in Wisconsin and Ohio, those same workers are being told that their states can no longer afford their right to organize. But, in the midst of the debacle, there have been acts of uncommon decency. The Chief of Police in Madison announced that his police force would not serve as the governor's "palace guard." Six Republican state senators defied their governor and almost stopped Governor Kasich's bill to limit collective bargaining. And, when Fox News aired footage of supposedly violent protesters in Wisconsin, ordinary people were quick to notice the California palms in the background.

Capra had an immigrant's faith in the common man. Cynics dismissed his work as feel good schmaltz. After all, life was not that wonderful; and it was foolish to believe that an angel would save you when you stood on the bridge between life and death.

The criticism never diminished Capra's faith in "the people." Not that Capra didn't give money and power a wide swath. In the end, however, the people eventually set things right. It should be remembered that the citizens of Wisconsin have the right of recall.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Bogeymen

Paul Wells writes that, when Stephen Harper's attempt to eliminate public funds for his opposition rivals blew up in his face, the Prime Minister was in a very black mood. He was certain that his government -- which had won a minority mandate five months before -- was going down to defeat:

Let them win, he said, with no great conviction. Let Stéphane Dion try to run the country, with Jack Layton calling the shots and Gilles Duceppe sitting in judgment over the whole mess. It’ll fall apart in six months. We’ll pick up the pieces in the next election. Come back stronger than ever.

Then he saw that picture of his rivals shaking hands. And he saw the bogeymen. He and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty began to fulminate -- in apocalyptic terms -- about the dangers of a "socialist-separatist coalition." Flaherty, who grew up in Montreal, should know better. But then, for generations a significant portion of the English population there lived behind the barricades and rarely travelled east of St. Lawrence Boulevard. Harper doesn't understand Quebec. But he knows a wedge when he sees one -- and this was the biggest wedge of all.

Chantal Hebert tells the story of a Montreal businessman who found himself in a Calgary airport lounge as a report of the newly formed coalition appeared on television: "I figured it was not a very good time," he said, "to speak English with a French accent."

If there is any one decision which offers insight into Stephen Harper's character, it is his reaction to his imminent defeat in November, 2008. He fanned the flames of paranoia then prorogued Parliament. He will put personal, partisan advantage ahead of the country's national interest.

And you can bet that he'll use the same argument in the next election. He is a master of McCarthyism -- shrewd but not courageous. More importantly, he personifies what John Kenneth Galbraith wrote over fifty years ago: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

That is the claim he makes about Michael Ignatieff. It would appear that the pot is calling the kettle black.