Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Harper Government

Much has been written over the last few days about the "Harperization" of Canada's government. As much as the term "Harper Government" is an affront to to all Canadians, it is an absolutely accurate characterization of what has happened under this prime minister.

Jeffrey Simpson argues that the present government is not -- nor was it ever -- a conservative government. He makes the point, not by comparing the Harper government to previous Liberal regimes, but by harkening back to the record of the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney. Since returning to Parliament, the Harperites have moved to quickly end debate and pass legislation which would abolish the long gun registry and the Canadian Wheat Board. And, of course, there is the omnibus crime bill:

Mr. Mulroney’s party, enjoying two huge majorities, never moved on these fronts. The PCs had a minister of state for the Wheat Board who was committed to the institution’s proper functioning. They tweaked the criminal justice system but they never dreamed of an all-fronts “tough on crime” approach in the face of overwhelming evidence that such an approach wouldn’t work. And, if anything, they wanted to toughen gun-control legislation, not weaken it, although, in fairness, the long-gun registry came after Mr. Mulroney left office.

All of these initiatives sprang from the government's Reform Party roots. And, as Simpson makes clear, anyone who thinks the Reform Party is dead is whistling into the wind. Traditionally Conservatives have stood for conservation. But we have it on the authority of Environment Minister Peter Kent that conservation is nowhere on this government's agenda. They are a 166 member wrecking crew, focused on overturning Canadian institutions -- not the least of which is Parliament itself. As Andrew Coyne notes:

Parliament, in this version, is not a body of legislators charged with scrutinizing bills and holding government to account. It is simply an electoral college. Its sole function is to convert a minority of the popular vote, through the alchemy of the first past the post electoral system, into a majority of the seats. Should it fail in that responsibility, delivering what the British call a “hung Parliament,” the government is entitled to carry on without it, as governments have in recent years: ignoring confidence votes, or proroguing Parliament to avoid them.
The simple truth is that the government of Canada has become government of one man, by one man and -- in the final analysis -- for one man.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Stephen Is Watching You

Stephen Harper -- a fat man in a flight jacket -- is promoting Canada's military. The latest installment in this carefully orchestrated campaign occurred during last weekend's Grey Cup game. As Lawrence Martin writes this morning in The Globe and Mail:

For our part in the NATO Libya campaign, the Defence Minister took bows on the field. A Canadian flag was spread over 40 yards. Cannons boomed.

But there is much more Orwellian spin going on in Ottawa these days:

The propaganda machine has become mammoth and unrelenting. The parliamentary newspaper The Hill Times recently found there are now no fewer than 1,500 communications staffers on the governing payroll. In the days of the King and St. Laurent governments, there were hardly any. In recent decades, the numbers shot up, but Mr. Harper is outdoing all others, a primary example being his institution and maintenance of a master control system wherein virtually every government communication is filtered through central command.

Conservatism, as preached by the Harperites, is supposed to be about small government -- about getting government out of people's lives. But, as Martin points out, government is everywhere in Stephen Harper's Canada:

State surveillance, the rationale being security, is being taken to new levels. The Conservatives are bringing in legislation that will compel Internet service-providers to disclose customer information. A Canada-U.S. agreement is on the way that will contain an entry-exit system that will track everyone.

And ignorance -- state proliferated ignorance -- has become the prime directive:

Research that contradicts the government line is discarded. Civil liberties fade, new jails proliferate. Those who speak out better watch out. When the NDP’s Megan Leslie stated an opposing view on the Keystone XL Pipeline, she was accused by the government of treachery.

The Harperites are continually searching for new Emmanuel Goldsteins. Dissenting voices -- within and without -- are silenced. And all of this has been accomplished with the support of 25% of Canadian voters.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cynical and Cowardly

The Harper government has made it official. It will celebrate Christmas by pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol. Peter Kent, the Minister of the Environment, announced Sunday that "Canada goes to Durban with a number of countries sharing the same objective, and that is to put Kyoto behind us."

Admittedly, this is not really news. But it does confirm what the rest of the world has known for sometime: Canada is becoming an international pariah. Whether the issue is refusing to declare asbestos a hazardous substance or letting the planet warm to cataclysmic levels, Canada puts profits before people.

NDP environment critic Megan Leslie, who Kent recently accused of  "treachery" -- when she travelled to Washington to voice her party's opposition to the Keystone pipeline -- called the decision "cynical and cowardly." That assessment applies to most of the government's agenda -- be it economic policy, criminal justice or the Canadian Wheat Board.

Mr. Harper has been able to attract people like Mr. Kent and Senator Mike Duffy to his ranks. Their media savy is considerable. Unfortunately, the prime minister has not been able to attract a brain trust of wise men and women.

When it comes to the Harper government, the old adage is still true: empty barrels make the most noise.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Send In The Clowns

I first became interested in politics in 1960, as a twelve year old kid growing up in Montreal. That was the year Jean Lesage defeated Antonio Barrette and the remnants of Maurice Duplessis' Union Nationale. That was also the year John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon. Sitting north of the border, I had no voice in that election. But I was for Kennedy. I distrusted Nixon. And he lived down to everything I suspected.

In 1964, the Republicans chose Barry Goldwater as their candidate, and it has been downhill ever since. The advent of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush merely confirmed what I believed fifty years ago: Republicans are clowns.

The present batch of Republican candidates illustrates that claim in spades. Jeffrey Simpson has correctly assessed the modern Republican Party: "the Republican Party is an angry, boiling, roiling mess, throwing up a gaggle of second-and third-rate would-be candidates."

It appears that, after watching each of their saviours -- Bachmann, Perry and Cain -- implode, the choice for Republicans comes down to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Simpson writes:

Mr. Romney, slick, packaged and rich, has changed positions on key issues more times than Jennifer Aniston has changed boyfriends. No matter how much he tries to pander to religious Republicans, Tea Party frothers, antigovernment ideologues, isolationists and the close-the-border crowd, they just don’t see him as a True Believer.

And Gingrich, who smugly condemned  the Occupy Protestors -- because, he said, they lacked a moral centre and needed a bath -- should never have come back from the dead:

Earlier in the campaign, those who know Mr. Gingrich best – his entire top political staff – resigned en masse. They saw arrogance when none was warranted, insufferable wordiness, political immaturity and a candidate who would listen to no one but himself.

From where I sit -- still north of the 49th parallel -- not much has changed. When it comes to both candidates and presidents, the Republican Party keeps sending in the clowns.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

There Is A Long Way To Go, But. . .

Things are moving in the right direction. Despite the evictions of protesters from public spaces across Canada, Linda McQuaig writes that the Occupy Movement has managed to "change the public discourse, putting inequality front and centre — something activists and writers, myself included, have failed to accomplish despite decades of trying."

Even members of the elite are switching sides. Last week a retired Philadelphia police chief was arrested "at a New York protest where he told the cops they were just 'workers for the 1 per cent.'” And former prime minister Paul Martin -- who slashed social spending when he was finance minister two decades ago -- has come on board:

The fact is (the Occupiers) have touched a chord with Canadians and, I’m sure, with Americans,” said Martin. “Look, there’s something fundamentally wrong here . . . For the last hundred years, certainly in North America, every generation has felt it’s going to have a better life than their parents. For the first time, that’s not there.”

It's a little late for Martin to come to the table. But, like the retired police chief, he's there. Their presence does not mean that the battle has been won. As Murray Dobbin warned his readers last week, the people who make the decisions in Ottawa, Washington, New York and Toronto are still in charge:

Those decisions involve power and as the occupiers are discovering anew, that power is entrenched, protected and ruthless, and it will not be denied easily what it has accumulated over the decades.

Like Franklin Roosevelt, Martin and the police chief will be called traitors to their class. But McQuaig writes that the Occupiers deserve our admiration:

Wow. After only two months, the Occupy movement — without backing from billionaires or governments — seems to have moved us into a new era. Not bad for a leaderless group that sleeps in tents and doesn’t even use microphones.

This is a dark time. But it is not a time without hope.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The New Generation Gap

Yesterday, Elections Canada released a study on the problem of youthful apathy on voting day. The study suggests that  "young Canadians don't vote because politicians aren't able to connect to the issues that matter to them." That conclusion isn't all that surprising. But when you dig down into the numbers, things get interesting:

The study also selected several specific groups of youth — aboriginals, the disabled, unemployed, ethnic and youth in rural areas — to determine why they said they voted in lower numbers than the general population.

In the case of the unemployed and aboriginals, which includes First Nations and Inuit groups, only 42 per cent of those surveyed said they voted. About 55 per cent of those with disabilities and 61 per cent of ethnic youth asked said they voted.

Put simply, those who could be helped most by government don't vote,  perhaps because they have figured out that government -- at least as it is presently constituted -- has no intention of helping them.

And, even more importantly, knowledge of Canada's current political landscape is a good predictor of who will and who will not vote:

Political knowledge and interest were major factors the study suggests affect the likelihood someone will vote. Only 28 per cent of youth who aren't interested in politics voted, compared to 88 per cent who said they were interested in politics and did vote.

All of this suggests that progressive parties have to take voter education seriously. After the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, political activists in the United States fanned out across the country. Their mission was simple: to get out the vote.They obviously did not solve all their nation's problems. But the United States has its first African-American president.

There is a lesson there. Things will only change in Canada when the opposition parties find new ways to communicate with the young, the disaffected and the marginalized.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Who Tricked Who?

Ezra Klein wonders how smart Republicans were when they talked Barack Obama into automatic spending cuts once the supercommittee failed:

Imagine if the Democrats offered Republicans a deficit deal that had more than $3 in tax increases for every $1 in spending cuts, assigned most of those spending cuts to the Pentagon, and didn't take a dime from Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare beneficiaries. Republicans would laugh at them. But without quite realizing it, that's the deal Republicans have now offered to the Democrats.

That outcome is not without huge risks. As Klein points out, in an already weak economy, the consequences could be dire. Still,

the Democrats are in the driver's seat. Gridlock means a deficit deal that they [the Democrats] could never have imagined getting any other way. Basic negotiating theory would suggest that whatever the Republicans offer them must somehow be better even than that. And yet, that's not how either party is acting. Republicans don't seem particularly worried about the triggers and Democrats don't seem particularly interested in pressing their advantage. At least for now.

But it's hard to imagine that, in an election year, the Democrats won't press that advantage. Grover Norquist is taking bows these days, noting that Republicans fear to cross him. But, like Captain Ahab's crew, their maniacal refusal to raise revenues could sink the Republican ship -- with only one or two Ishmaels left to tell the tale.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Who Do You Serve?

As Toronto police cleared St. James Park this morning, one of the few remaining protesters yelled at an officer, "Excuse me! Who do you serve? That's the basic question behind the Occupy Movement. And every elected official needs to answer that question -- in the context of what the figures tell us.

Jeffrey Simpson writes that, in the United States -- where the Occupy Movement began -- the non partisan Congressional Budget Office has offered a pretty clear picture of what has happened:

The CBO looked at the years 1979 to 2007. It found that, whereas average household income after inflation grew by 62 per cent, the top 1 per cent of the population had enjoyed income growth of 275 per cent. The bottom 20-per-cent’s after-tax income had grown 18 per cent. Said the CBO: “As a result of uneven income growth, the distribution of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979.”

Unfortunately, no politician in the present presidential race is talking about income redistribution. And, in Canada, that phrase would never cross the lips of any member of the Harper government. They will tout the number of jobs created; but they will say nary a word about the quality of those jobs or about the income they generate. The reason is simple. That information indicates that the country is marching backwards.

Even more importantly, it's interesting to compare the government's priorities to the priorities of Canada's citizens. In a recent survey

the share concerned about poverty/income inequality was 30 per cent, behind health care (of course) at 47 per cent, unemployment/jobs at 39 per cent and taxes at 37 per cent. That ranking showed an increase in concern about poverty/income inequality, since it now ranks well above crime, immigration, environment and climate change.

But most Canadians -- as indicated by the last election results -- don't vote. Until they do, things will get worse. And the police will continue to serve their present masters.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Premature Obituary

Predictions are in the air these days. Not long ago, Lawrence Martin predicted that, after spending time in the wilderness with Bob Rae, the Liberal Party will be led to victory by Mark Carney. Peter C. Newman predicts that the party will not rise again: "I maintain that instead of being a punishing time-out, it's game over for the Liberals," he confidently asserts in The National Post.

Newman accurately recounts the reasons for the Liberals fall from grace:

The Grits lost their once unassailable electoral fortresses in Toronto and most of Ontario, as well as their former strongholds in Quebec and the Maritimes. West of Kenora, they remained an endangered species. Theirs has been a political self-immolation seldom equalled in Canadian history.

The problem with Newman's analysis is his assumption that Quebec and Ontario are lost forever to the Liberals.The wholesale disgust Torontonians feel for Rob Ford -- Stephen Harper's ally in establishing a foothold in the GTA -- suggests that beachead is already crumbling. And Tim Hudak's implosion during the recent Ontario election suggests that the Conservative brand is still not a household word in Canada's largest province.

As for predictions about Quebec, those of us who grew up in the province know how volatile the province's politics are. Anyone who thinks that the NDP will be a powerhouse in that province for more than one election cycle doesn't understand the place.

I have no crystal ball. But experience suggests that those who are writing obituaries for the Liberal Party need to remember Mark Twain's reaction to his own premature obituary. Reports of the death of the Liberals are greatly exaggerated.

And, when it comes to Stephen Harper's long term political future, it would be wise to remember Mr. Newman's assessment of the man. Harper, he writes, has "the best medieval mind in the Commons."

Monday, November 21, 2011

True North

In today's Globe and Mail, Robert Redford -- who lately has spent a lot of time in Vancouver -- offers another take on the Canadian-American partnership, which Stephen Harper trumpets so loudly:

I want to be very clear that I’m not pointing a finger at the people of Canada; neither is any American I know. We’re all in this together, and that’s the only way we’ll turn it around. We need to stand up, Canadians and Americans as one, to draw the line at tar sands.

The Harperites have never believed that we are all in this together. They believe that the basic principle which guides the inhabitants of this planet is, it's every man and woman for him or herself.   When that principle was applied to oil production in Alberta, the results became devastatingly clear:

In Alberta’s great boreal forest, one of the last truly wild places on Earth, tar-sands producers have turned an area the size of Chicago into an industrial wasteland and international disgrace.

Where spruce and fir and birch trees once rose and waters ran fresh and clean, tar-sands production has left a lifeless scar visible from outer space, a vast repository of enduring pollution that threatens fish, birds, animals, public health and an entire way of life for native people.

And for every single barrel of oil produced, at least two tons of tar sands are excavated and tapped, a processing nightmare that generates three times more carbon pollution than is released to produce conventional North American domestic crude.

Redford writes that he has always been inspired by the Canadian concept of  "True North." When two members of Canada's official opposition visited Washington recently to voice their opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, the Minister of the Environment called their trip "treachery." Redford understands the meaning of True North. Canada's present government doesn't.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Limited Intelligence

When Megan Leslie and Claude Grevelle went to Washington this past week, Environment Minister Peter Kent was furious. The two NDP members of the House, he said, were taking  "the treacherous course of leaving the domestic debate and heading abroad to attack a legitimate Canadian resource which is being responsibly developed and regulated."

But, as Tim Harper wrote in The Toronto Star:

They went to Washington to provide a different point of view on the Keystone XL pipeline project and to tell American legislators that, contrary to the cheerleading of Stephen Harper and his cabinet, not every Canadian was a proponent of Alberta’s tar sands.

None of the Conservatives mentioned, of course, Stephen Harper's trip to New York after Jean Chretien choose not to join the "coalition of the willing."  Harper told Americans that he spoke for "the silent majority" of Canadians who supported the American invasion of Iraq. Nor did they mention Mr. Harper's speech to the Council for National Policy, an American Think Tank, where he proclaimed:

"[Y]our country [the USA], and particularly your conservative movement, is a light and an inspiration to people in this country and across the world."

The irony is so thick you can cut it with a knife. But Mr. Harper, Mr Kent and the rest of their party have no appreciation for irony. I've always believed that an inability to detect irony is a sign of limited intelligence.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pension Shell Game

Tom Walkom writes that the only real pension is a defined benefit pension -- the kind of pension which allows you to know how much you will receive in retirement -- like the Canada Pension Plan. For the past thirty years, private pensions have been disappearing, through company bankruptcies. Or they have been replaced by what Walkom calls bogus pensions -- defined contribution plans,  where workers know how much they contribute, but they have no idea  how much money they will receive when they retire.

Last week the Harper government introduced a new "pooled pension" scheme. These pools of capital are essentially group RRSP's, which -- like all RRSP's -- are voluntary retirement plans. It all sounds very wise. But, as is the case with so much of this government's legislation, more is less. Walkom writes:

And the best real pension plan going is the CPP. It is solvent, big enough to remain that way and relatively cheap to operate.

It is also compulsory, which prevents free riders — either employees or their bosses — from gaming the system.

Certainly, an expansion of the CPP is the best way to deal with the 60 per cent of workers — particularly younger workers in non-union shops — who have no other pension plan.

It doesn’t rely on the good intentions of employers (which appeals to labour unions). And by taking the strain from programs like Old Age Security, it saves taxpayers money — which appeals to fiscal conservatives.

And, until Quebec and Alberta sabotaged Jim Flaherty's plan to beef up the Canada Pension Plan, it looked like Canadians could count on real pensions. Now the government has presented a plan that will do nothing for those close to retirement; and it will offer no security to the young, who -- for that reason -- will probably opt out of it. The only people who will benefit from the new proposal are those who work for financial institutions, which will administer it. Remember, this government is pathologically adverse to government involvement in anything -- with the exception of defense.

If the government is intent on implementing an opt out provision, I suggest it let Quebec and Alberta opt out of an expanded CPP. I suspect that the residents of those provinces -- when they see what is happening -- will clamour to get on board the train before it is too late.

That's the best way to put an end to the pension shell game.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Spreading The Gospel

Rick Salutin writes this morning that the real question facing the Occupy movement is not "Should I go, or should I stay?" The real question is, "Join us or join them?" The second question is the right one. The relevant lesson, Salutin writes, comes from Spain:

The 15-M movement began there last May 15. It wasn’t an occupation. It was a protest held in Puerta del Sol square over the economic crisis that became an overnight occupation. Then it was dismantled by authorities, then it turned into a see-saw conflict over whether they would stay or go. A month later, when they finally went, it was by choice. One veteran of 15-M (there are no leaders) said: “It was a strategic move that led to the survival of the movement.” Almost happenstantially they had evolved another preference: to fan out into districts of the city (and elsewhere in Spain) and conduct regular meetings with local residents. These then forwarded proposals to a weekly “assembly” held in the square.

While the public may focus on what is happening in the parks, the real battle has always been political. It has always been about generating support for progressive policies instead of the tired -- and obviously failed -- bromides  of the last thirty years. The solution lies in elections.

Paul Krugman, in today's New York Times, comes to the same conclusion. Instead of wringing their hands about the imminent failure of the Congressional Supercommittee, he writes, Americans should rejoice:

The gulf between our two major political parties is so wide. Republicans and Democrats don’t just have different priorities; they live in different intellectual and moral universes.

There can be no compromise when the gap between the parties is so wide:

Eventually, one side or the other of that divide will get the kind of popular mandate it needs to resolve our long-run budget issues. Until then, attempts to strike a Grand Bargain are fundamentally destructive. If the supercommittee fails, as expected, it will be time to celebrate.

We had an election in May. Canadians voted for more of the same -- except the majority of Canadians chose to stay home on election day.  If things are going to change, progressives have to do more than occupy the public square. Like old fashioned evangelists, they are going to have to use that square to spread the gospel  -- and toss the moneychangers out of the temple.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Heat Is On

Even though he gives Toronto's Occupy Protesters credit for being civil, Peter Worthington has no sympathy for them:

Although the campers (to give them a polite description) have been served with eviction notices, they've been given a reprieve until at least Saturday, thanks to injunctions and Charter of Rights hearings and the mumbo-jumbo of lawyers and the sober considerations of the judge.

No matter. For all practical purposes the month-long long protest and park sleep-in is over. Patience has run out.

On the other side of the argument, Toronto law professor David Schneiderman argues that the protesters have a right to stay put. There is an important principle at stake:

At what point did the exercise of constitutional rights become intolerable? The city has simply issued an ultimatum without seemingly taking into further account the protesters’ objectives and their preferred means of expression. This is not a carefully calibrated assessment of the protesters’ rights and the city’s obligation to preserve public property but an outright ban.

And, yesterday, in response to a question from Nycole Turmel -- has the government listened to the message behind the protests? -- Stephen Harper proclaimed that the NDP's focus on the Occupy protests merely proves that they are "unfit to govern."

Mr. Harper likes to think he supports the Arab Spring. However, he forgets that the movement started as a protest against scarcity -- scarcity of jobs and resources. He and Mr. Worthington live on another planet. Unfortunately, it is not the planet most of us occupy. That's why they are unmoved when the heat is on.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Harper and Iran

Israel is moving -- inexorably -- towards a confrontation with Iran. As Tom Walkom points out in today's Toronto Starthe Israelis do not necessarily believe that Iran will unleash a nuclear attack on their country. The result would surely be mutually asssured destruction. But the bomb is Israel's trump card. The Israelis are:

terrified that the loss of Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East would weaken its hand in its dealing with other enemies, a weakening that, in the long run, might encourage Jewish citizens to abandon a country that prides itself on being a Jewish state.

However, recent events have also led the Iranians to some rock hard convictions about nuclear weapons:

The 1980 war with Iraq, however, reawakened Iran’s appetite for weapons of deterrence.

By 2001, Iran faced Saddam Hussein’s hostile Iraq on one side and an equally hostile U.S. operating in Afghanistan on the other.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq eliminated Saddam. But it also demonstrated that countries without nuclear weapons could be easily picked off — which spooked Iran even more.

In short, both nations see nuclear weapons as the guarantors of their existence. In the past, Canada wisely stayed out of such conflicts, believing that discretion was the better part of valor:

We sat out the brief 1956 Suez war that pitted Britain, France and Israel against Egypt. We avoided involvement in America’s bruising Vietnam War and explicitly rejected Washington’s entreaties to join its 2003 invasion of Iraq.

We went into Afghanistan only after the United States invoked a clause in the NATO treaty that obligated us to do so.

But that was then. Stephen Harper's foreign policy does not depend on discretion. He believed that Canada should have joined in the invasion of Iraq. And his support for Israel is unconditional.

Walkom puts the choice quite succinctly:

Is it better to let Iran follow in the footsteps of the U.S., France, Britain, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea by acquiring nuclear weapons?

Or is better to unleash another Mideast war?

 For Canadians the question is, which choice would Stephen Harper make?

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Rae Of Hope

Lawrence Martin  -- who admits being inspired by MacKenzie King -- looks into his crystal ball this morning and predicts that Bob Rae will lead the Liberals in opposition and Mark Carney will lead them back to power. At the moment, both predictions are a bit of a stretch. However, Martin accurately notes that Rae is off to an "impressive start."

Those who believe that the centre has dropped out of Canadian politics will not be impressed. And, truth be told, rehabilitating the centre will not be easy:

Although Stephen Harper is brandishing his ideological stripes in some policy domains, in the area that counts most, the economy, he is showing himself to be adroitly capable of moderation. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s decision last week to put back his deficit-elimination target was an example.

Nor will it be easy for the Grits to make gains on the second-place New Democrats once that party has selected its new leader. It has a strong list of candidates to draw from.

Despite his pronouncements, however, Canadians know that Mr. Harper does not occupy the political centre. His present legislative agenda proves that. Moreover, the last three elections have proved that Mr. Harper, even with his majority, is not where most Canadians are. Regardless of the cheerleaders at The Globe and Mail and The National Post, the facts tell a different story. And whoever leads the NDP will be faced with the problem of holding a restless caucus together.

The Liberal Party of Canada has a long road ahead of it. And, at this stage, it is folly to predict who will eventually lead the party. But Martin is right on one other point: Bob Rae is "probably a big enough improvement on previous leaders to save the Liberal Party."

Monday, November 14, 2011

They Don't Know What They're Talking About

The Hill Times reports that an invitation has gone out to all Conservative MP's and senators to come and network at the Albany Club on December 1st. The speical guest for the occasion will be Treasury Board President Tony Clement. The menu is part of the draw:

a 10 oz. U.S. bone-in prime beef filet mignon, braised Alberta buffalo stew, vodka smoked salmon among the main course fine meals and French valette goose foie gras terrine among the appetizer delicacies.

Every Conservative Prime Minister from John A. MacDoanld to Stephen Harper has been a member of the club. But the membership fees are a little steep:  "up to $4,500, with a further $2,400 in annual dues for the business men and women it draws from Toronto." Obviously these folks continue to believe that Toronto is the centre of the universe.

Charlie Angus has it right:

This is the old boys’ network. They’re sending a real clear message that these are not ministers who are accountable to the people, they’re not accountable to Parliament, but you come hang out at their exclusive club and you get access.

These folks are not concerned with democracy. But Stephen Harper's Conservative Party -- "the new Conservative Party" -- has never been about democracy. And, more to the point, those who preach austerity -- like Mr. Clement -- don't know what they're talking about.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Angry Old Men

Last week, in The Globe and Mail, Brian Topp  wrote that a little discussed part of the government's Omnibus Crime Bill represents a significant change in policy at Canadian prisons:

To be specific, the Tories want to amend article 4(d) of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (1992). The relevant clause establishes the principle “that the service use the least restrictive measures consistent with the protection of the public, staff members and offenders.

Apparently that change had been recommended in a report to former Public Security Minister Stockwell Day back in 2007:

The panel believes that this principle has been emphasized too much by staff and management of CSC, and even by the courts in everyday decision-making about offenders. As a result an imbalance has been created that places the onus on SCS to justify why the least restrictive measures shouldn't be used, rather than on offenders to justify why they should have access to privileges based on their performance under their correctional plans.

Anyone who has followed this government over the years should not find this bit of information surprising. In fact, it is entirely consistent with the worldview of the present powers that be. But as a former senior official of Corrections Canada told Topp:

I've had meetings with prison administrators, and then I've explored every corner of our prisons right down into the hole. I know what's going to happen if they take that clause out of the Act. What's going to happen is that guards are going to feel free to use more force, a lot more force, to control inmates. There's going to be an enormous rise in violence in our prison system. 

All of this confirms what should be perfectly obvious by now. The Harper government is a government out for vengeance. Topp writes:

In all of this, the Conservatives are demonstrating the real character of their government. This is rule by angry old uncle. A character in many families, not without his charm and soft side, who shouts his angry views for the hundredth time, demanding firm measures and an end to many abuses, even if the facts all point the other way.

These folks aren't simply grumpy old men.They are angry old men. Even Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt, when she muses about declaring the economy an essential service, sounds like an angry old man. The Prime Minister of Canada -- at the ripe old age of fifty-two -- is an angry old man. One gets the impression that he was an angry old man when he was in diapers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

They Get It

The reaction is starting to set in. The Occupy Protesters have been evicted from their camps in London and Halifax. Mayor Rob Ford has told the people in St. James Park it's time to go. John Gardiner, who calls himself "an old hippie," writes that the civic officials who are evicting the protesters don't get it:

They don’t understand why people are willing to endure the squalor and the cold to try to change the system. And that’s because for most older middle-class people, life has been good. They don’t understand what there is to complain about.

They are the powers that be. Back in the 1960's, they were called "The Establishment:"

Back in the 1960s, the Establishment was just getting its footing, just starting to entrench itself in our societies. Today, it’s everything and everywhere.

It’s what sets the price of oil. It’s what starts wars where poor people fight it out. It’s what causes big banks to collapse so the little people can pick up the pieces. It’s so powerful that governments bow to it and bail it out when it gets itself into trouble. It’s the Establishment, plain and simple.

The protesters, Gardiner writes, are 21st century hippies:

Its members are people who can see the future and who want to change it. Just like the hippies, who were like the canary in the coal mine. When they died – and die they did – we should have seen the so-called writing on the wall. We should have known there was poison in the air. But we didn’t get it. And the results are all around us.

There were those -- the Establishment -- who called the hippies naive. There were hippies -- like Jerry Rubin -- who went to Wall Street and became part of the Establishment. And, most of us -- because we had to pay the bills -- accepted that the world had always been a cruel and unforgiving place.

And, in the meantime, the world became more cruel and more unforgiving. Gardiner, I'm afraid, has got it right:

I’m convinced that a thousand years into the future – if we can stagger that far forward – our current era will be known only for its barbarism, both economic and physical. It’s a time of great darkness, regardless of the apparent gains in technology.

Like the hippies of another time, the Occupy Protesters are simply trying to make the world a better place. They get it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day, 2011

I awoke this morning to the refrain, "And the band played waltzing Matilda." I thought of my father, who spent some of World War II in Australia. Most of the time, he was behind anti-aircraft guns -- the kind that fire large shells and make a lot of noise. Understandably, by the end of the war, he wanted nothing to do with guns -- large or small. I never saw him go near one.

However, he did not feel the same about the army. He said it taught him self-discipline, how to organize on the fly, and how to fix things. And, when he returned, it offered him an education. Late in his life, he told me that he owed his return not to anything he did but to "pure dumb luck."

When we buried him a couple of years ago, two of the men he served with came to the grave site -- with their wives and their walkers. "If ye break faith with us who die," John McCrae wrote, "we shall not sleep."

Today we keep the faith.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It's More Than The Economy

Chantal Hebert writes in today's Toronto Star that the Liberal Party is floundering because Canadians believe Stephen Harper is a competent economic manager:

The global economic downturn has become to Harper what the unity debate was for a string of successful Liberal governments — a defining file that he is managing to own.

So far, no opposition figure is emerging to give the Harper/Flaherty tandem a real run for its money. The opposition narrative on the government’s economic management is failing to find traction with the public.

But, once again, Hebert focuses on only part of the narrative. The Harperites have been ramming through highly ideological legislation -- which has infuriated different segments of Canadian society. The Omnibus Crime bill has both Quebec and Ontario up in arms. The bill to abolish the central desk at the Canadian Wheat Board has alienated a significant number of Canadian farmers.  Killing the gun registry -- and the data base that goes with it -- has created significant opposition in Canadian cities. And the government's prohibition of strikes in the private sector has unions seething.

Anyone who thinks that Mr. Harper's attempt to restructure Canadian society is a political no brainer should look at what has happened in the United States during this week. E.J. Dionne writes that Republicans are taking a "shellacking:"

This week’s elections around the country were brought to you by the word “overreach,” specifically conservative overreach. Given an opportunity in 2010 to build a long-term majority, Republicans instead pursued extreme and partisan measures. On Tuesday, they reaped angry voter rebellions.

In Ohio, voters rejected Governor Kasich's attempt to restrict union bargaining rights. In Maine, voters exercised a "peoples veto" of Republican attempts to outlaw same day voter registration. And, most surprising of all:

In Mississippi, perhaps the most conservative state in the union, voters beat back a referendum to declare a fertilized human egg a person by a margin of roughly 3-to-2. Here was overreach by the right-to-life movement, which tried to get voters to endorse a measure that could have outlawed popular forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization.

Since coming to power, Mr. Harper has followed the Republican model. It would appear that American voters have looked at the Republicans and have had buyer's remorse. One wonders if Stephen Harper is paying attention.

Ultimately, voters will judge him on much more than his stewardship of the economy.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

When Every Vote Counts

Every several decades, David Shribman writes, the United States has an election in which "the country seems to approach one of the hinges of history." The election of 2012  will be such an election. While a significant number of voters may be in the center, the nation's two political parties are not:

Sometimes, it seems as if the two parties are occupying different universes. In Congress, where liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats once made common cause, the chasm between the two parties is wider than the aisles that separate them – indeed, wider than at any time in memory. In fact, for the first time in the modern era, there’s no ideological intersection between the two parties. The most liberal Republican, a phrase that increasingly is an oxymoron, is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat, a phrase that also seems an antique.

Faced with such a stark choice, a lot of voters could choose to stay home. They did that recently in Canada, where the Liberal Party -- which has always occupied the political center -- was almost reduced to an historical footnote. But, as Canadians are discovering, even with the support of only 25% of the voting public, the winning side is proceeding -- full speed ahead -- on its agenda.

So, one way or another, Americans are going to get the complete package. Their problem will be to decide which package they prefer. Shribman writes:

Here are some of the questions at issue: Should the country press ahead with a comprehensive overhaul of health care or peel away at the Obamacare program passed in 2010? Should Washington regulate how banks and other financial institutions behave and pay their executives? How should the country pay for retirement supplements and health-care obligations undertaken when the country was richer and younger, now that it’s poorer and older? Are central banks such as the Federal Reserve redoubts of tyranny or tools to tame, or spur, the economy? Are taxes the price of civilization or a threat to freedom?

This will be an election where every vote counts -- and where every decision not to vote also counts.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Dull But Brilliant

Canadians tend to think that their country's history is dull. But like William Lyon Mackenzie King -- one of Canada's longest serving prime ministers -- there is much that is brilliant below the surface. Lawrence Martin writes that King was unquestionably a weirdo:

Few knew that seances, table-rapping sessions and communing with the likes of William Gladstone, Wilfrid Laurier and other stiffs occupied big stretches of King’s time. In contemplating affairs of state, he ascribed great significance to the formations of his shaving cream. At breakfast, it was the configuration of tea leaves that arrested him. Before heading off to work, he would shoot the breeze with his dog, Pat.

But King spent his youth as a labour negotiator; and he was, in his mother's apt phrase, "the Official Harmonizer."  King's style of governance defined the Liberal Party for eighty years:

His exemplary displays of centrist brokerage politics, his placing of national unity at the forefront and his securing of Quebec were pillars that endured for decades. But the fracturing began under Mr. Trudeau and was accelerated by Mr. Turner, who clashed with both Mr. Trudeau and Jean Chrétien. The party took sides, dividing into long-lasting Trudeau/Chrétien and Turner/Paul Martin blocs.

Today we live among the ruins of King's legacy. Stephen Harper -- who is as wily as King -- is trying to get the country to do a one hundred and eighty degree turn. The difference is that King, for all his weirdness, had a gut feel for the country. Stephen Harper -- who, in some ways, is equally dull -- suffers from a Louis XIV complex.

King knew that his grandfather would have been appalled to hear his grandson proclaim, "l'etat c'est moi!" So he worked hard at being dull -- but brilliant.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Sun Also Rises

Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times that solar power is no longer the Impossible Dream:

. . . progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.
This has already led to rapid growth in solar installations, but even more change may be just around the corner. If the downward trend continues — and if anything it seems to be accelerating — we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

While the United States waged war in Iraq, the cost of solar power declined dramatically. However, the fossil fuel industry -- in both Canada and the United States -- has funnelled billions into the conservative parties of both countries:

Let’s face it: a large part of our political class, including essentially the entire G.O.P., is deeply invested in an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels, and actively hostile to alternatives. This political class will do everything it can to ensure subsidies for the extraction and use of fossil fuels, directly with taxpayers’ money and indirectly by letting the industry off the hook for environmental costs, while ridiculing technologies like solar.

Fifty years ago, the oil industry made war on the electric car. That war was so successful that it has only been in the last decade that people have seriously considered battery powered automobiles. We should expect the same reaction now.

The question is: Are we going to be bulldozed a second time?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Problem of Political Courage

Chantal Hebert argues in today's Toronto Star that the repatriation of the Constitution in 1981 unleashed a tide of populism which has paralyzed Canada's parliamentary institutions:

In the three decades since the patriation conference, the parties and the politicians who have espoused the new culture of populism have thrived; those who clung to the old ways have wilted. Canada’s traditional parties were in the latter category. So were the country’s parliamentary institutions.

Perhaps. But it's also quite possible that the problem lies not in the institutions so much as in the leaders who followed patriation. Much more saliently, Hebert writes:

Over the past 30 years, political courage has become a rarer commodity in Canada. As in the case of other more tangible commodities, the rule that if you don’t use it you lose it applies to this near-extinct virtue.

She claims that the two phenomena are linked: the rise of populism has led to a decline in political courage. Our leaders have, indeed, lacked political courage. But I'm not convinced that populism is to blame. To begin with, the so called populist revolt has given us Stephen Harper, one of the most dictatorial prime ministers in this nation's history. One would think that populism would serve as a check on the prime minister's power.

Secondly, Hebert takes no notice of the corporatist forces which have grabbed the reins of power in almost every Western democracy. The corporatist agenda has led to our present crisis. Populism is not the cause of our problems. The concentration of wealth and power got us into this mess.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are part of an almost universal populist movement. Rather than causing our problems, populism may be what gets us out of this mess -- provided our political leaders can rediscover the true meaning of courage.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Sophocles Knew How The Story Went

Two weeks ago, I applauded as European leaders finally forced their mega banks to take a haircut. But events this week have illustrated how fragile their plan is. The union is too multifaceted to deal with the extraordinary mess the so called best and brightest have managed to create.

As Tom Walkom points out in The Toronto Star, what began as a noble experiment fell victim to arrogance:

The arrogance emerged in 1999 when Europe’s leaders, smug with success, transformed this quite workable trade agreement into a far more ambitious scheme — a full-fledged monetary union.

Based on a new currency called the euro, that union was a step too far. It tempted fate.

And in the end, it brought on itself the wrath of the gods who, as the ancient Greeks knew well, like to smack humans when they get too uppity.

The  idea of a common currency -- like the so called "liar's loans," which fueled Wall Street's profits for over a decade  -- came with problems no one thought were of consequence:

From the beginning, the monetary union was fatally flawed. That it attempted to link entirely disparate economies through a single currency was difficult enough. Economically, countries like Portugal and Spain had virtually nothing in common with Germany, France or the Netherlands.
But its real flaw was lack of back-up. A central bank was established to issue the new euro. But unlike the Bank of Canada, this European Central Bank is explicitly forbidden from acting as a lender of last resort when regional institutions get into trouble.

More important, and again unlike the Canadian or American federations, the 17-member eurozone has no mechanism for transferring money from rich areas to those in need.

That, too, is explicitly forbidden.

It's possible that the Europeans can save themselves. But creating a bigger pot of money is only a stop gap measure. They need a central bank with more sweeping powers than just the ability to print money. However, those powers would infringe on the national sovereignty of all seventeen European nations. Getting to that kind of agreement is much more difficult than getting the private banks to take a haircut.

Sophocles knew how the story went.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Science is Useful

When the Harper government encounters facts which contradict its preconceived notions, it simply ignores them. That is certainly the case with the government's tough on crime agenda. As Jeffrey Simpson writes in this morning's Globe and Mail, homicides in Canada are at their lowest level since 1966; and, because homicide rates are considered a "social barometer,"  those numbers should be taken seriously:

Peel back the general statistics and look more closely at homicides. For example, 13 per cent of those accused of homicide in the past decade were suspected of having a mental or developmental disorder. “Tough on crime” measures are hopeless in these cases.

The government stiffens penalties for gun-related offences, even as the number and rate of firearm-related homicides are falling. More people are killed from stabbings and beatings than guns. So why don’t we crack down on knives and baseball bats?

And, as it cracks down on firearm offences, the government abolishes the gun registry and delists sniper rifles and the semi automatic rifle which was used in the Norway massacre. Then it tells the provinces they must bear some of the cost of its anti-crime agenda, even though it refuses to reveal the projected costs of the legislation. The problem, Simpson writes, is that:

Homicide rates in Ontario and Quebec are also falling. Both rates are below the national average, and Quebec’s is also at the lowest level since the mid-1960s. No wonder, then, that the governments of both provinces are annoyed by the Harper government’s crime bills.

Ontario’s beefs seem mostly to be about costs, a complaint understandably shared with other provinces. More criminals in jail mean higher prison costs, which will fall on provinces. Ontario, like others, wants recompense from Ottawa, which has thus far steadfastly refused. 

Quebec's Minister of Justice, Jean-Marc Fournier, has put things most succinctly: “Science is useful. At some point, someone discovered that the Earth is round.” But, as far as the Harper government is concerned, the earth is still flat.

Thursday, November 03, 2011


Tony Clement was grilled yesterday by a parliamentary committee  reviewing spending for "border security" in his riding. But, as Lawrence Martin writes this morning, "It's John Baird who is on the hook for G-8 money games." The trouble is that Baird sees only a picayune bureaucratic transgression:

It should be noted that the $50-million was more than just a top-up. It was the bulk. The border fund was only $33-million. Baird’s add-on made it $83-million. 
Baird explained that the border fund was used as a way of trying to expedite things. He wanted the legacy fund projects – which included things like new sidewalks, outdoor furniture and landscaping, some of which was far away from the Huntsville summit site – to get rolling quickly. But what kind of morality is at play when a senior minister of the Crown feels it’s justifiable to camouflage a major expenditure under a different budgetary category for the sake of hurrying things along?

Remember, these were the folks who were apoplectic about the Sponsorship Scandal. They howled about the rot which had engulfed the Chretien government. But this, says Mr. Baird, is small potatoes. The two transgressions -- both uncovered by the auditor general -- were not of the same order of magnitude.

Baird is effective at disarming critics and was so again at the hearings. It was like, ‘Ah well, we made some mistakes, we agree with the Auditor-General, we’ll do better next time, let’s move on.’

Baird's  hypocrisy is extraordinary. It's so egregious it deserves a name of its own. Call it "Harpocrisy."

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A Place To Talk

Dan Gardiner, in the Ottawa Citizen, asks the most important question Canadians are facing:  "Why have a Parliament at all?" The question has become front and center because, as Gardiner points out, Stephen Harper has been imposing unprecedented time limits on debate:

Harper has imposed time limits at a much higher rate than Chrétien did, even at his most imperious, and he is on track to set an all-time record. But let's not get distracted by trivia, as the PMO flack would say.)

Of course, Harper's strategy is contemptuous of parliament. That's what the last election was supposed to be about -- but somehow it got lost in the scuffle. And, therefore, Parliament these days is not about debate. Gardiner writes:

One may note that almost one-third of MPs have never debated these issues in the House of Commons and, if Parliament is to be something more than a fig leaf covering the prime minister's naughty bits, parliamentarians must have the right to stand up and debate as long as they damned well want.

Parliamentary debate ensures good legislation. Tony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, recently pointed out in committee that the government's omnibus crime bill was flawed:

The government has often said the bill will create a mandatory minimum of six months in jail for anyone who grows at least six marijuana plants for the purposes of trafficking. It's supposedly a measure targeting gangsters, but that, frankly, is nonsense. The legal definition of "trafficking" includes selling, giving, or offering any quantity, so we can be quite sure that most people who fall within the ambit of the law are not Hells Angels and wouldn't know one if they tripped over their big leather boots

But read the legislation. There is a second mandatory minimum of nine months in jail that applies under certain circumstances. One is when the marijuana plants are grown "on real property that belongs to a third party." So if you grow pot in a condo, it doesn't apply. But grow it in a rented apartment and it does. And there's no cut-off. Even a single plant would trigger the mandatory minimum.

The Conservatives blamed that oversight on the NDP. The government, however, is supposed be be responsible for its own legislation. Had there not been a forum to discuss it -- as limited as that forum was -- an already bad bill would be even worse.

Nevertheless, the Conservatives plan to continue limiting debate. They really despise the place we have set aside to talk about the issues.The problem with that policy is that it assumes infallibility. The last time I checked, we elected a Prime Minister, not a Pope.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The People They Refuse To See

As Stephen Harper jets off to Cannes, trumpeting his government's economic performance, someone should follow him with a copy of the latest Food Banks Canada  Report. That report, which was released today, contains some very disturbing numbers:

More than 851,000 individuals visited a food bank in March alone, a number that’s little changed from last year’s record and still 26 per cent above prerecession levels.

And the picture gets bleaker:

The findings reveal that recipients span the spectrum. Nearly 100,000 of them are first-time users and one in five actually has a job or has recently been employed. More than one in ten are immigrants or refugees – many of whom are highly educated, and usage is growing among seniors.

The monthly numbers are not an aberration. According to Craig Alexander, chief economist at the Toronto Dominion Bank, they reflect long term trends:

While the number of jobs lost in the recession has been recouped, many new positions aren’t as well-paid as the former ones. Wage growth has not kept pace with inflation. Globalization, outsourcing and technological changes have eliminated many middle-skilled, middle-income jobs. And displaced factory workers are having trouble re-entering the work force.

Worse still, the present government doesn't want to see these trends. It has worked hard to sweep the numbers under the rug:

The federal government no longer produces national welfare statistics, and not all provinces publish their social-assistance caseloads. Unlike the U.S., Statistics Canada doesn’t publish how many unemployed people run out of EI without finding work. And the agency’s data on incomes is published with a two-year lag – meaning the last national indicator on poverty rates is from 2009.

The gap between the poor and the rich is widening, a recent Conference Board of Canada paper found. It said income disparity has risen more rapidly in Canada than in most of its peer countries, including the United States, since the mid-1990s.

Mr. Harper won a majority claiming that, for Canadians, things were getting better. The Food Banks Report makes clear that his claim was cynically untrue. This government is allergic to facts. It's also allergic to the poor. It simply refuses to see them.