Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Knowledge Is Their Enemy

Since they came to power, the Harperites have insisted that there are all kinds of things we can't afford. Their latest claim is that six Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries no longer serve a purpose. In the digital age, they argue, the libraries simply take up space. But Andrew Nikiforuk writes that a secret government memo reveals that the government's claim has nothing to do with digitizing books:

In fact, the document, a compendium of cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that can be read in its entirety at the bottom of this story, mentions only the "culling of materials" as the "main activities" involved as the science libraries are reduced from nine to two. Specifically, it details "culling materials in the closed libraries or shipping them to the two locations and culling materials in the two locations to make room for collections from closed libraries."

 Scientists have warned for a long time that this government is at war with knowledge:

As reported by The Tyee earlier this month and again here, scientists are sounding alarms about libraries dismantled by the government, including the historic St. Andrews Biological Station (SABS) in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, where famed environmental scientist Rachel Carson did some of her research for her groundbreaking book on toxins, Silent Spring. Also shut down are the famous Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg and one of the world's finest ocean collections at the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland.

Scientists who use the libraries say priceless information -- essential for the legal and political security of Canada's waterways as well as the defence of the longest coastline in the world -- was thrown into dustbins, burned or scavenged by private consultants. In Winnipeg, a consultant's group operating for Manitoba Hydro backed up a truck to collect materials from the dismantled library.

Like any well run criminal enterprize, the Harper government is focused on destroying evidence. And just how much money is being saved?

In fact the closure of libraries containing vital material nearly 100 years old on the state of Canada's fisheries, freshwater ecosystems and oceans will save taxpayers just $443,000 a year, according to the document.

In one case the government closed the climate-controlled library at the St. Andrews Biological Station in New Brunswick just after the government spent millions modernizing the famous facility.

They continue to claim that they specialize in financial management. But, like the prime minister's claim that Nigel Wright acted alone, that is a lie.

On an entirely different note, Happy New Year to all.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Competence And Intelligence?

At this time last year, Michael den Tandt predicted that Stephen Harper would undertake a charm offensive. Perhaps he was simply hoping for the impossible. For a man who doesn't like people, Harper has chosen a curious profession.

At any rate, den Tandt is not looking for a charm offensive this year. This year, he predicts:

Harper in 2014 will make a visible effort to re-engage – likely through more frequent speeches, perhaps even more frequent press conferences. He will do so not by choice, but by necessity. The Wright-Duffy mess, the sheer scale of the venality and dishonesty exposed within his own office, among people he appointed, has shaken his personal standing. The only practical remedy is to shore up his positives, namely his reputation for competence and intelligence. He can only do so by communicating.

Den Tandt, may well be right. Harper has no other choice. But "a reputation for competence and intelligence?"  If this year has proved anything, it has proved -- beyond a doubt  -- that Mr. Harper possesses neither. Worse still, it has proved that he no longer possesses a shred of integrity, although there are some of us who have argued that he never possessed that quality.

As for the Liberals and the New Democrats, den Tandt predicts that their rivalry will get nasty. And that prediction could well prove true, even though that fight might once again give Harper -- devoid of competence, intelligence and integrity -- the keys to the kingdom

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Vengeance Is Theirs

As part of their tough on crime agenda, the Harperites have instituted mandatory victim fines. They claim that the fines will ensure justice is done. But, Michael Spratt writes, the fines have nothing to do with justice -- and judges have refused to impose them:

Given the lack of evidence supporting the use of minimum penalties and the potential negative impacts of mandatory victim fines, the current confrontation was entirely predictable. Conflict between the courts and government is what you get when legislative ideology isn’t backed up by facts.

Turning a blind eye to evidence and expert opinion is a dangerous game. Poor policy choices can have lasting and substantial impacts on Canadians and their communities.

Had it looked at the facts, the problems with mandatory victim fine should have been obvious to the government. For many people convicted of crimes, even a few hundred dollars is a lot of money. Such fines impose undue financial hardship on people already living at the margins of society.

But this is a government which steadfastly refuses to look at facts. It is absolutely convinced that it is a fountain of truth. The facts be damned. According to Spratt:

But the mandatory victim fine laws aren’t about evidence. They aren’t about helping victims. They’re about politics. Justice Minister Peter MacKay claims that, when he was a prosecutor he routinely saw  judges "simply waive [fines] out of hand." 
But did MacKay — as a prosecutor — ever appeal one of these egregious and inappropriate uses of judicial discretion? As justice minister did he ever direct his prosecutors to appeal judges who waived the surcharge?

If MacKay was truly concerned about victims why did he not appeal decisions that he now characterizes as inappropriate and harmful to victims?

No, mandatory victim fines aren't about justice. They're about buying votes in the next election. They're about ensuring some voters that vengeance is theirs.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Crippling Government

Eugene Lang writes that, if you want to know what Stephen Harper has "accomplished," all you need do is tally up his tax cuts:

Over the past eight years, most major categories of federal taxes have been cut deeply — from personal income taxes, to corporate income taxes, to the GST — so much so that Canada now has the second lowest business and consumption taxes in the G7. In addition, a litany of tax credits have been put in place, notably the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit, the Public Transit Credit, The Home Renovation Tax Credit and The Tax Credit for first time home buyers. And added to the list is income splitting for seniors — another major tax cut — which the government has committed to extend to families once the deficit is eliminated.

As you might expect, a tax jihad of this magnitude, like all wars, drains the treasury. One credible estimate pegs the total value of these tax cuts to be on the order of $45 billion annually in foregone revenue. To put that figure into context, it’s about one third more than the annual cost of Old Age Security, the biggest and most expensive federal social program, and about two and a half times the size of the federal deficit. 

There are consequences to draining the national treasury:

Federal revenue has been reduced to its lowest level relative to the economy in two generations. As a result, Ottawa’s capacity to author significant new programs — to deal with issues like income inequality, rising health-care and post-secondary education costs, and an aging population — is neutered, especially when no political party is willing to make the case for substantially increased revenue and all are committed to balanced budgets. 

Harper has delivered on the central Conservative dogma -- taxes are evil. But what is even more disturbing is that the two main opposition parties have also bought into the anti-tax mania. Tax cutting began under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. Now the NDP also touts the doctrine of minimum taxation:

The NDP argues for incremental revenue restoration through tweaks to corporate income tax rates and possible increased taxes on the highest income earners, both of which are largely symbolic and will do little to unwind the fiscal structure the Conservatives have put in place.  

In other words, the three major parties have all had a hand in crippling government.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Toxic To Civic Health

The conventional wisdom is that the price of political scandal can be measured in money and reputation. But Robin Sears -- an  old hand at getting out the vote -- writes that the real cost of scandal is deadly:

There is an even higher price.

The damage that these scandals do to public trust. Not since the dawn of universal suffrage in the established democracies have voters been more angry at their governors. Nor have so many citizens in so many countries acted on the bumper sticker exhortation: “Don’t Vote! It Only Encourages Them!” 

In fact, a cynic might conclude that it could be to a party's advantage to manufacture a scandal:

It is easier to steal an election where four out of five citizens stay home — it costs less and requires little organization. Years of research in all the old democracies demonstrate that those who consistently turn out in times of declining participation are the angry, the haters, the zealots, the “wacko birds” in John McCain’s delightful parlance, Ford Nation in ours. 

Before you descend to that level of voter defection, it is the young, the newcomer, the poor and the disconnected that stay home. It is surely not partisan to observe that a community governed by leaders chosen by the old, the rich and the angry is not likely to treasure our values of tolerance and inclusion as priorities.

Trust is the coin of the realm. Destroy it, and you bring the kingdom down:

Francis Fukuyama’s majestic study of successful societies, called simply “Trust,” offers powerful proofs of the price paid for a collapse in that trust. “A low (trust) society is not only likely to have small, weak and inefficient companies; it will also suffer from pervasive corruption of its public officials and ineffective public administration. … In Italy … there is a direct relation between social atomization and corruption as one moves from North … to South.”

Whether they be Dalton McGuinty's Liberals, Stephen Harper's Conservatives, or Ford Nation, we have been -- and are -- governed by leaders who are toxic to civic health.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Our Politics And The Loss Of Community

The Tyee has dusted off a piece which Murray Dobbin wrote four years ago. It's worth a read. Dobbin maintains that progressives have been infected by the same consumer culture that is destroying our politics and our planet:

We have known for years that our consumer culture is out of control and our obsession with having more and more stuff has reached the status of a virus. Our consumer-driven global economy is a lethal threat to the planet and every one of its ecosystems.

The lock that consumerism has on Western so-called civilization is formidable -- a virtual death-grip on our culture and our future as a species.

Consumer culture is buttressed by what Michael Lerner calls "secular fundamentalism  --  the tendency amongst mainstream activists to stick rigidly to a rationalist and technocratic interpretation of both politics and culture." That commitment to rigid rationalism leads to civic apathy -- unless, like the Right, you bemoan the loss of community. According to Learner:

The Right speaks about the collapse of families, the difficulty of teaching good values to children, the fear of crime, and the absence of spirituality in their lives. The Right seems to understand their hunger for community and connection.

The Left, writes Dobbin, needs a radical vision of community. It needs to rise above rationalism and appeal to the common good and to common decency. The Right bemoans the loss of community while it advocates hyper individualism. The challenge for the Left is to connect the dots. Hyper individualism leads to the loss of community.

Community is fundamental. Our politics and our planet are at stake.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

It seems to me that Dickens had it right. We live in a bipolar world.  Your life and the lives of your children depend on good fortune and the world in which you live. It is either the best of times or the worst of times:

It is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair.

And that is why, at Christmas, my thoughts always return to A Christmas Carol. Scrooge was the arch-typical Neo -Conservative. Dickens knew him well. But he also knew that redemption was in each person's grasp. And that is why, at the end of the tale, Scrooge

became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

After all, the point of life is not to have everything, but to have enough -- and to make sure that others have enough. That is not the attitude of our present masters. But Scrooge -- and Christmas -- remind us that there is always hope for a better world.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Whatever It Takes

You would think that Stephen Harper's recent troubles might spur a little self examination. Not so. Jeffrey Simpson writes:

Instead of rethinking, the Prime Minister has doubled down on his long-term strategy, which depends on polarizing the electorate and identifying and mobilizing the Conservative vote. He reshuffled his cabinet to add younger ministers of the same type as the more experienced ones: hard-edged communicators and sharp-elbowed partisans. He regrouped people in his office and at party headquarters who are unreserved loyalists. There are no even mildly discordant voices, let alone fresh faces or new views, in Mr. Harper’s inner political circle.

Harper knows that 30% of voters would vote for him after attending his wake. He also knows that 60% of Canadians would never vote for him -- alive or dead. That means that he must persuade the remaining 10% of voters that he has their interests at heart. What that means is that, for the next two years, all Conservative policies -- domestic and foreign -- will be aimed at that 10% of the population.

In foreign policy it means:

more wooing of Jewish voters through blind support of every Israeli government position, helping Toronto’s Tamils recall the boycott of the Commonwealth Conference, reminding Filipinos about Ottawa’s efforts after Typhoon Haiyan. As an ambassador of a traditional ally recently remarked privately, never had the representative ever seen a government whose foreign policy was so driven by local ethnic appeals.
In domestic policy,

there will be all sorts of micro-initiatives directed at the 10 per cent: action to “protect” consumers against high wireless fees and cable charges, little tax breaks for this group or that, income-splitting mostly to benefit the middle to upper-middle class, protection against bank charges or whatever focus groups reveal Canadians don’t like about the banks.

There is no vision and there are no principles guiding Mr. Harper. It's all about doing whatever it takes to win.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hypocrisy Squared

There was something a little hollow about Stephen Harper's praise for Nelson Mandela. Murray Dobbin writes:

In 1989 Harper was a member of the Northern Foundation (NF) about the same time that he became policy chief of the Reform Party. The exclusive mandate of the NF was to counter the serious efforts of the Canadian government of Brian Mulroney to pressure the South African government to release Nelson Mandela from prison and to end apartheid. 

Certainly, when it comes to the matter of justice, the two men live on different planets. Steve Sullivan delineates their differences:

But what if Nelson Mandela, a man who promoted peace and dialogue and forgiveness, was an opposition leader in Canada? Those are all qualities that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would attack. Mandela would be portrayed as soft on crime. He would be damned as someone who cares more about child rapists than children and he would be held up as an advocate for criminals.

Mandela had a vision about how to address harm and conflict. Stephen Harper has slogans. Mandela embraced dialogue; Harper vilifies anyone who disagrees with him. Mandela lived forgiveness; Harper knows only how to attack.

Yet there Harper was two weeks ago, singing Mandela's praises. The praise was well deserved. And coming from Brian Mulroney it rang true. But from Harper? Consider some of the founding fathers of the Reform Party. Murray Dobbin pulls no punches:

As I documented in my book Preston Manning and the Reform Party, the Reform Party's connection to, and harbouring of, pro-apartheid activists went right to the top. William Gairdner (a right-wing public speaker and immigration critic) was one of the party's favourite key note speakers and regularly attacked Canada's policy on South Africa and leveling attacks on the "One party dictatorships of Black African countries."

Stan Waters, the Reform Party "senator" (he won an election for senator in Alberta) was the party's foreign affairs spokesman. He was openly supportive of white rule in South Africa: "South Africa should think twice before allowing majority rule because most black African countries live under tyranny." 

Sullivan captures the differences between the two men in one simple sentence: "Mandela forgave his jailers. Harper is building more prison cells — and doing his best to fill them."

Mr. Harper is hypocrisy squared.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Mad And Stupid

Ken Dryden writes, in this morning's Globe and Mail, that Stephen Harper is the prime minister of Canada and Rob Ford is the mayor of Toronto because people are mad as hell:

People everywhere are mad. Mad at their jobs, mad at the money they don’t make. Mad at others for getting the chances they don’t. Mad at seemingly getting the short end of every stick. Mad at the mess around them: crime, litter, traffic. In stores, on phones, mad at being treated as if they don’t matter. Mad that others get away with everything they don’t, mad at not being able to stop them. Mad that life isn’t what they thought it would be. Even those who have done well – mad that others’ stick is longer.

And together, mad at all those people who have the power, or believe they do. People who think they’re so smart. Who know everything. Who study and analyze. Who have all the facts. Who sound so smug, so superior. Who make everyone else feel so stupid.

That's the great divide in our politics. Dryden describes that battle as a contest between the know-nothings and the know-everythings:

Each year, the gap between the know-everythings and the know-nothings widens – income, education, opportunity. And each year, the know-nothings have a choice. They can play the know-everythings at their game – information, compromise, opportunity – and lose. Or they can play their own game – outrage, disruption – and sometimes win, or not lose by keeping the know-everythings from winning.

Both Harper and Ford know how to play up to the know-nothings. This morning, Stephen Harper tells Global News that when he learned of Nigel Wright's cheque to Mike Duffy he felt "anger, betrayal, disrespect ... disappointment." And, every time Rob Ford opens his mouth, he proves he's a card carrying member of the know nothings.

The problem, as Andrew Coyne wrote earlier this week, is that knowing nothing leads you to a very dark place -- and to stupid government policy. From income inequality to the tragedy of Lac Megantic, the evidence of that stupidity is everywhere.

There is such a thing as righteous anger. But -- most of the time -- when people get angry, they get stupid.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Eminent Victorians

It was a remarkable gaffe -- as defined by Michael Kinsley. Last Friday, James Moore gave us a brief statement of what he really believes, unvarnished by spin. When asked about the problem of child poverty, he answered, "The government says it's my job to feed my neighbour's child? I don't think so."

There could be no clearer statement of modern conservative boilerplate. In Margaret Thatcher's words, "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families." And it is a family's responsibility to feed its children.

Government does not concern itself with people -- only things. Government doesn't invest in people. It invests in things -- fighter jets, prisons, ad campaigns. But people must invest in themselves. And, if they don't, there are prisons and workhouses.

If, at Christmas time, Moore sounded eerily like Scrooge, it was no accident. The Harperites policy playbook comes straight out of the nineteenth century. In the 21st century, their profoundest ambition is to be eminent Victorians.

Moore quickly tried to backtrack. "An apology. The cause of fighting poverty is not helped by comments like those I made last week. I am sorry."

Bah! Humbug!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Birnam Wood Is Moving

The year end interview with CTV's Bob Fife is off. That's because there's nothing Stephen Harper wants to talk about. It's been that kind of year. It's been the kind of year that Eric Grenier believes may well have sunk the good ship Harper:

The polls have gone from bad to worse for Harper, as his government plumbs the depths of its time in power. Never before has support for the Conservatives dropped so low for so long since they defeated Paul Martin in the 2006 election.

Challenges by St├ęphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, who both led Liberals into first place in the polls for a few months at a time, were easily swept aside in the past. However, Conservatives have been unable to put a dent into the lead Justin Trudeau has built and maintained. And this in a world where New Democrats routinely poll in the mid-20s.

The Senate scandal is undoubtedly the main source of the problems hobbling the prime minister, but it is not the only one. Conservatives have tried very hard to cultivate an image as serious and responsible fiscal managers, but another image is being created as the years in power start to drag on.

In fact, the image the Conservatives project is the very image of the government they replaced:

That image is one of entitlement, something that contributed to Liberal defeats in the past and the hollowing-out of that party culminating in the 2011 election.

Issues related to election finances led to the resignation and byelection defeat of Peter Penashue earlier this year and the pending legal case facing Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro. Millions of dollars have been spent on advertising touting the government's achievements. An apparent double-standard related to the hue and cry over Trudeau's infrequent pot-smoking and the relative silence over Rob Ford's crack-smoking (etc.) has instilled the perception that a different set of rules applies to Conservatives.

The Senate scandal played right into this building narrative. The refusal of the government to admit any error and to shift the blame entirely on to Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy alone has done lasting damage to the Tory brand and particularly that of the prime minister.

Like Lady Macbeth, Stephen Harper has found that it's impossible to wash the blood from his hands. And, like her husband, he battles on -- apparently believing that no man of woman born can harm him.

But Birnam Wood is beginning to move to Dunsinane.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In A Dark Place

The Harper Party has changed its name three times. First it was the Reform Party. Then it was the Canadian Alliance. And, finally, it called itself the Conservative Party. The last label is entirely disingenuous. Both Rob Ford and Stephen Harper claim they are Conservatives. Those claims are as fatuous as the name which the present federal government proclaims. Andrew Coyne writes:

So no, Ford is neither a product of conservatism, as such, nor a particularly sterling example of it; nor should Conservatives be tainted by association, except in so far as they associate themselves with him. This last is the point: It is clear that Ford, and Fordism, are very much an outgrowth of the same political culture as the federal Conservatives, a culture each has done much to create and nurture. It just doesn’t have a lot to do with conservatism.

There is a noble conservative tradition in this country. It was best embodied -- at least in my memory -- by Robert Stanfield. Many forget that Stanfield fought and lost an election on the issue of wage and price controls. In the inflation ravaged 1970's, Stanfield favoured them and Pierre Trudeau did not. After Stanfield lost the election, Trudeau adopted wage and price controls. Today's Conservative Party would have -- and has had -- nothing to do with Stanfield.

Modern conservatism is, quite simply, a fraud. Coyne writes:

The modern Conservative movement is built on two things: populism and pragmatism (sometimes indistinguishable from opportunism). Both have contributed to the Ford phenomenon: populism, with its heavy emphasis on the social divide separating Us (suburban, less educated) from Them (urban, more educated), its infantilizing insistence on the need for a strong leader to protect the former from the latter; pragmatism, in detaching the party from any principled foundation, a contempt for “purism” that too easily bleeds into an expedient disregard for principles of any kind.

Put them together, and you get a number of subsidiary traits: hostility to intellectuals (fancypants who think they’re better than us; academics who don’t understand how politics is actually played); imperviousness to facts (manufactured by a biased media elite; expendable in the pursuit of power); and so on. What is observable in the Harper Conservatives reaches its ultimate nihilistic expression in Ford, where absolutely no amount of evidence is sufficient to discredit him.

Modern conservatives canonize ignorance and promote division. Like cats marking their territory, they define their boundaries by urinating on those they consider outside those boundaries. And that, Coyne writes, "is taking our politics to a very dark place."

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Same People

As finance ministers meet today, Jim Flaherty argues that our fragile economy can't afford enhancing the Canada Pension Plan. It's the latest version of an old argument -- the very argument that got us into our mess in the first place. Paul Krugman writes that Flaherty's world view is at the heart of the problem, Focusing on the United States, he writes:

Start with the numbers. On average, Americans remain a lot poorer today than they were before the economic crisis. For the bottom 90 percent of families, this impoverishment reflects both a shrinking economic pie and a declining share of that pie. Which mattered more? The answer, amazingly, is that they’re more or less comparable — that is, inequality is rising so fast that over the past six years it has been as big a drag on ordinary American incomes as poor economic performance, even though those years include the worst economic slump since the 1930s.

But the prime minister and Mr. Flaherty pay little attention to numbers. Their budget documents are remarkably free of them. They speak for the conventional wisdom  -- both before and after the Great Recession:

What do the pre- and postcrisis consensuses have in common? Both were economically destructive: Deregulation helped make the crisis possible, and the premature turn to fiscal austerity has done more than anything else to hobble recovery. Both consensuses, however, corresponded to the interests and prejudices of an economic elite whose political influence had surged along with its wealth.

This is especially clear if we try to understand why Washington, in the midst of a continuing jobs crisis, somehow became obsessed with the supposed need for cuts in Social Security and Medicare. This obsession never made economic sense: In a depressed economy with record low interest rates, the government should be spending more, not less, and an era of mass unemployment is no time to be focusing on potential fiscal problems decades in the future. Nor did the attack on these programs reflect public demands. 

In the United States, the boogeyman is public healthcare. In Canada it's public pensions. But the same people are leading the charge. And they're the same people who got us here in the first place.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

They Call That Accountability

Last week, the Harper government announced that it was going to tighten the rules on the transportation of petroleum by rail. But, for this government, the proclamation of the rules and the enforcement of them are mutually exclusive propositions. Cutbacks cripple enforcement. David McGuinty says:

“My first concern is the cuts (are) beginning to take effect on the good people at Transport Canada,” he says. “There’s a serious capacity crisis.”

Phil Gibson writes that the Harper government doesn't take the Ministry of Transportation seriously:

Transport Canada has been “victimized” by budget cuts since the current government assumed office, McGuinty says.  “In seven and a half years we’ve had five ministers. The department isn’t being taken seriously with a series of junior ministers (who are) going nowhere.” Frequent ministerial switching blurs accountability.

So who’s to blame for the rail safety budget being cut by 19 per cent between 2010 and 2014? Or the $14-million budget for transportation of dangerous goods being reduced by a million dollars over the same time frame?

Accountability mechanisms are so weakened by cutbacks that staff can’t meet their own targets. A plan to analyse the performance of all federally-regulated railways operating in Canada by March 31, 2012 wasn’t half-completed by the department’s own deadline, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson warned last month

It's become a well established pattern. The government says it supports a policy and then cuts the money needed to support it.

They call that accountability.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

From Newpeak To Nospeak

We learned in the Throne Speech that the Harper government was consumer friendly. But this week -- when Canadians learned that they would be paying more for less service from the Post Office -- the House of Commons was empty. Andrew Coyne writes:

Not only was the House of Commons conveniently shuttered, but neither the minister responsible, Lisa Raitt, nor any Canada Post executives were on hand to answer questions regarding this drastic reduction in public services. But then, in this they were only following the example set by the prime minister, who has for months avoided answering questions about the scandal that is slowly destroying his government.

He does not answer the questions put to him in Parliament — simple questions of fact, on matters he would be in a position to know about, that one would think could be dispatched with a quick yes or no — when he chooses even to pretend to. He does not hold press conferences, in any but the most perfunctory sense. He does not consent to interviews, except under the tightest of conditions, and with the friendliest of interviewers.

It's come down to self preservation for the prime minister:

because the story he has been telling — of a conspiracy among virtually everyone around him to dispose of a matter in which he had previously taken a great interest, in a way that he now insists he would have prevented had they not, all of them, lied and kept him in the dark — is not credible. It is indeed an open question whether he will consent to the sort of in-depth year-end interviews that prime ministers traditionally conduct. How can he?

He has closed down all roads of inquiry -- most recently in the Senate:

I refer to the decision by the Tory-controlled Senate internal economy committee to refuse to call as witnesses any of those alleged to have taken part in the audit tampering. The committee — which, after all, had commissioned the audit in the first place — had earlier made a show of investigating the matter, hearing testimony from those responsible for conducting the audit that confirmed, at a minimum, there had indeed been highly improper inquiries made by a senior partner at the firm, Michael Runia.

His government is in lockdown. And he's getting away with it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mr. Harper And The Pope

Conservatives are not happy with Pope Francis. He has attacked their rosetta stone. And he's pulling no punches:

“The danger in today’s world," he says, "pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”

Prominent conservatives claim that Francis doesn't know what he's talking about. Paul Adams writes:

More than a few conservatives have criticized the Pope for being economically naive. Perhaps that’s a cue for us to ask some embarrassing questions about the moral and spiritual sophistication of the works of the Chicago School.

The problem with free market ideas has never been that they don’t describe the economy. It is that they are like oregano in a garden — growing like topsy, crowding out other ideas and sometimes smothering them. They invade our moral and political reasoning and replace it with the mechanical logic of homo economicus.

And there is no more vigorous  -- and narrow -- a spokesman for homo economicus than Stephen Harper. Harper sees everything through an economics lens. His world is pinched, lean and mean. And it is precisely that world which the Pope rejects.

Harper claims to be an evangelical Christian, so the odds are that he pays little attention to what the Pope says. Unfortunately, he pays little attention to what anybody says.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cruel And Unusual Punishment

Jim Flaherty vows that the budget will be balanced by the next election. But at what cost? Daniel Tencer, of The Huffington Post, writes:

Job creation in Canada this year has been the weakest in a non-recession year in more than a decade, and the low quality of the jobs being created is causing some economists to raise concerns about the country's economy.

Looking at StatsCan’s latest job numbers, released last week, BMO economist Benjamin Reitzes notes that Canada created fewer than 175,000 net jobs in the year to date (meaning all of 2013 except December).

It's not just about a paucity of jobs. It's about the kind of jobs that are being created:

Even the latest numbers for November look negative when digging into the details. While the jobless rate held steady at 6.9 per cent and Canada registered 22,000 new jobs during the month, 20,000 of those were part-time, notes Erin Weir, an economist for the United Steelworkers.

Broken down another way, 19,000 of the employment increase were people reporting themselves as self-employed,” Weir writes. “Canadian employers actually hired fewer than 3,000 [net] additional employees last month.”

Mr. Flaherty pitches this as progress. But he is not a policy genius. When he was running for the leadership of the (misnamed) Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, he suggested that the way to cure homelessness was to sweep the homeless off the street and throw them in jail.

It is no wonder that Mr. Flaherty is balancing the budget on the backs of the unemployed.  Like his proposed solution to homelessness, it is cruel and unusual punishment.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Where's Justin?

There's been a lot of talk about Michael Chong's Reform Act. But, curiously, neither Justin Trudeau  nor Tom Mulcair is doing any talking. Lawrence Martin wrote yesterday that:

For a long time, the Liberals and New Democrats have been questioned about the need to prepare grand reform and for a long time, they’ve hesitated. They say they already have some proposals in their party platforms. There are some worthwhile measures, yes, but not the type to draw attention like Mr. Chong’s. Nor is the public aware of them. They haven’t bothered to give them a big push.

Justin's silence is particularly strange:

With his freshness and youth, he is best positioned to bring forward a new democratic vision, one that will appeal to the younger generations so turned off politics.

A broad reform plan works in so many ways. It’s not an issue of the left or right, but cuts across party lines. It’s not an issue that requires big expenditures from the public purse – the Conservatives will be at the ready to decry any new opposition program proposals as tax-hike schemes. This issue will not give them that opportunity.

If there is an issue that appeals to the young who don't vote -- the segment of the population David Herle calls "The Spectators" -- it's parliamentary reform. They stand to benefit the most from the Reform Act. According to The Spec.com:

What's truly interesting — and even spooky — about them is that, for the most part, it is not apathy, not ignorance, not the generational aberrations that accompany being young, that shape their beliefs and values but a concrete rejection of established social institutions coupled with fear that the Western idealized dream of progress forever is dead and that what's coming down the road toward them, economically and socially, is not nice.

Samara, in its study on the politically disengaged in Canada ("The Real Outsiders"), has found a widespread parallel feeling of powerlessness and rejection of the current institutions of Canadian democracy as effective instruments of the people's voice. 

Trudeau says he is targeting young voters. Parliamentary Reform should be his issue.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Not A Banner Year

This has not been a good year for Stephen Harper. It began with Harper unleashing the Deloitte audit dogs on Chief Theresa Spence. And it ended with his attempt to call them off Mike Duffy. Between the Deloitte bookends, it was one debacle after another. Michael Harris writes:

The PM had come across for First Nations all right. He apologized and promised “change”, but he delivered the paternalistic status quo — and budget cuts to bands from coast to coast. He did his best to destroy Chief Spence in a very public humiliation. He left the reputation of National Chief Sean Atleo in tatters.

Of greater tactical significance, he divided the Assembly of First Nations. Tellingly, Harper’s approval ratings rose as a result of beating up on the poorest demographic in Canada — a sign of where this PM has led Canadian public opinion.

Then, having put the screws to Canada's native peoples, the news of administrative screw ups fell like freezing rain on an already snow covered road:

It came to light that Human Resources minister Diane Finley had somehow lost the computer records of 538,000 young student loan holders, including their contact information. Despite the apologies, it was disquieting.

A court decision in 2013 found that there had indeed been fraud in the 2011 election that gave Harper his majority. Fraudsters directed voters to the wrong polls using a list the judge in that case said was identical to the one in the Conservative party database. Based on previous Conservative electoral dirty pool, including the in-and-out scandal, it wasn’t strange that people were concerned about Finley’s data loss.
A huge list of what was potentially the most important voter demographic in the next federal election had somehow walked out the door of Finley’s Human Resources department. Whatever was behind the mystery, it was hardly an endorsement of Conservative management skills and it might be a sign of something far darker.

But there was more than missing names:

As ironic as that was, greater ironies lay ahead. In his report to Parliament in 2013, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson reported that he could not find $3.1 billion from the Public Security and Anti-Terror initiative. The reply from the Harper government came from Treasury Board President Tony Clement: It was okay because no one was saying the money had been misspent. Coming from Gazebo Tony, that was a very great comfort indeed.

And, of course, there was the Senate scandal, which refuses to die. This was the year that Canadians learned for certain that Stephen Harper has no eye for talent and no talent for administration.

It was not a banner year.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Smaller and Smaller

There has been lots of speculation recently that Stephen Harper might be ready to walk off into a snowstorm. But his appointment last week of Dimitri Soudas as the executive director of the Conservative Party has dampened such speculation. Michael den Tandt writes that no one knows what Harper is planning to do:

Harper seldom does what he is expected to do, and he never does what the media tells him he should do. He was urged to move the party to the centre and undertake a “charm offensive” the summer before last. Never happened. We half expected the same this past summer, along with a reboot in the PMO and in Cabinet. Nope. And in each case, at every turn, even senior people in the party confessed they didn’t really know which way the wind would blow. They didn’t know then. They likely don’t know now. Stephen Harper keeps his own counsel.

The appointment of Ray Novack to head the PMO and Soudas' appointment make one thing clear: When the going gets tough, Stephen Harper goes to his bunker. His present troubles have not opened his mind. If anything, he is building his firewalls higher.

Some men are challenged by problems. Harper blames them on someone else. Some men grow while in office. Harper keeps getting smaller and smaller.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Paying The Piper

On Thursday, Andrew Mitrovica summarized what we know about Rob Ford:

We now know this about Ford. He is a habitual liar. He is said to have uttered racist and homophobic slurs. He pisses behind elementary schools in broad daylight. He has repeatedly exchanged suspicious packages at suspicious times with an alleged drug trafficker who was once his occasional driver.

He threatens to kill people. He refuses to be interviewed by police who have — ever so politely — asked him to answer a few questions. He’s purchased and consumed hard drugs. His friends and acquaintances include an alleged extortionist and gangsters, who were apparently willing to blackmail Toronto’s mayor over video showing him smoking cocaine from a crack pipe. He may have offered thugs $5,000 and a car for the video. A young gang member he was pictured with outside an alleged crack house was subsequently murdered. That man may have had a copy of that infamous video. A former Ford staffer feared that the man’s homicide may have been connected to the crack video. Drug traffickers “love and respect him.” 

The day before, Lawrence Martin, writing about the Harper government, declared:

Never in all my years of political coverage have I seen a government get caught up in so many deceptions, falsehoods and bare-assed lies as this one.

It has reached the point where it is becoming difficult for any journalist to accept anything Stephen Harper and company say at face value.

The problem is that we knew that both of these men behaved this way before we elected them. Time has only confirmed that behaviour is spades. The question is, knowing what we were getting, why did we elect them? The answer is in their common program: Lower taxes, and bitter resentment.

 They have delivered on both promises. And now we must pay the piper.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

For The Birds

The irony is of epic proportions. The Jewish National Fund plans to put Stephen Harper's name on  a bird sanctuary. It shall be called The Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre. Michael Harris writes that naming a bird sanctuary after Stephen Harper is like naming a kids' summer camp after Rob Ford. Consider what is happening in Northern Alberta:

Bloomberg Businessweek [reports] that by 2020 wastewater from the Canadian tar sands will cover 62,000 acres of Northern Alberta and possibly spread through the boreal forest ecosystem.
Big players like Syncrude are planning what are being described as “end-pit lakes”, thirty of them in total. If they are allowed to go ahead with their plans, Canada will have a new lake district.

The district will be full of what the oil industry calls "replica lakes:"

A replica lake starts as a dump of toxic slurry covered by freshwater to a depth of sixteen feet — the amount of water allegedly required to keep the bad stuff on the bottom.

Eventually, these poison lakes will “replicate” living lakes, complete with fish, frogs and mosquitoes. The exact number and location of eyes, fins and legs remains unknown. But life will return, or so Syncrude scientists say. Turns out there are naturally occurring microbes in that sludge that suck the poison right out of those pollutants. That’s right, the poison lakes will heal themselves.

Canada’s greatest living freshwater scientist, David Schindler, isn’t so sure. He told Bloomberg, “Nothing is going to grow in that soup of toxic elements except perhaps a few hydrosulfide bacteria.  All of the unforeseen consequences are being downplayed.” And, so, in Israel, at least, Stephen Harper is feted as a friend of the environment.

We now have proof positive that the man who was going to make government accountable, the man who was going to reform the Senate, the man who was going to bring moral clarity to government  is -- for the birds.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela

For Nelson Mandela, greatness was not the province of a few. For him, every man and woman who walked the earth had the potential to be great. "We ask ourselves," he said, "who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?"

Actually, who are we not to be? You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won't feel unsure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

He believed that the true mark of greatness is a person's ability to tear down barriers and heal divisions. As Michael den Tandt writes in this morning's Ottawa Citizen: "His appeal crosses all party lines, from left to right; all political persuasions, from libertarian to communist; all races; all creeds."

Greatness does not imply perfection. Mandela freely acknowledged his shortcomings. He knew only too well that to err is human. But he understood in the deepest sense that to forgive is divine. His life reminds of the potential divinity -- and greatness -- that is within all of us.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Floating On Hot Air

The Warrior-in-Chief has been cowed. Tom Walkom notes that Stephen Harper's bellicose rhetoric has cooled:

The prime minister’s references to Afghanistan now are usually brief and elliptical, as they were on Remembrance Day when he listed Kandahar as one of the many places in which Canadian troops have fought and served since 1914.

Canada still has 620 troops in Afghanistan tasked with training local forces. But Harper no longer travels there to pose for the cameras with them.
He used to regularly show up at military bases to praise soldiers and their families. That practice, too, appears to have been curtailed.

And now that the bills have come due -- in the cost of ruined lives and suicides -- Mr. Harper has little to say. It wasn't always this way:

In speech after speech, he explained why the war was necessary, why Canada would prosecute it to the bitter end and why he would never do what he eventually did do — set a firm target for withdrawing all troops

In one 2006 address to soldiers, he sneered at suggestions that Canada might pull out its troops before the Taliban was fully defeated.

The war had to be fought and won, he said at yet another military event.

"You can’t lead from the bleachers,” he told Canadian troops in his first of his three trips to Kandahar."I want Canada to be a leader."

What he really meant was that he wanted to be a leader. And, if others suffered collateral damage, well, that was the price of leadership.

Today returning veterans are suffering from the wounds of war as the government closes Veterans' Affairs offices. The deficit is more important than they are. And, if they are released, rather than supported as the price of their service, that is -- likewise -- the price of leadership.

Those who bang the drums of war float on hot air. And, when it comes to floating on hot air, Mr. Harper is a master.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

By The People

It's an indication of just how far we have strayed that Michael Chong's bill merely seeks to put centuries old parliamentary conventions in writing.  Not surprisingly, Andrew Coyne writes, there are a chorus of naysayers:

The bill, it was said, would never pass. Or if it did, would make no difference. Worse, it might. Parliament would be destabilized, said some, by a series of democratic “palace coups” against party leaders by their faithless caucuses — the same caucuses who, others maintained, had shown no interest in using their existing power to do the same, and thus had demonstrated it was unwanted. Or rather they had, many times — and thus had proved its superfluity.

Remove the power of the leader to decide who may run under the party banner, warned some, and it would lead to a wave of neo-Nazis hijacking nomination meetings. At best, it would empower tiny parliamentary factions to divide and disrupt the party’s business. No, claimed others: giving a majority of caucus the power to expel a member would inevitably give rise to mob rule, and the suppression of unpopular opinions.

Some claim the bill will not pass. But, Coyne writes, "more and more MPs and other influential voices, from James Rajotte to Bob Rae to Hugh Segal, have come out in its favour. "It is people like Pierre Poilievre, with the Orwellian title of Minister for Democratic Reform, who are against the bill.

Others claim the bill would legalize coup d'etats. We should fear the unknown they say. That's a red herring:

It is easy, of course, to conjure up all manner of devils from the unknown. But in this case the unknown is well known. The proposal before us is merely to replicate the model already in place in the other Westminster democracies: the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. It is, indeed, the model on which this country was founded, and under which it grew to maturity, but from which we have strayed in recent decades. It is to that system — the system of Macdonald and Laurier — that the bill would return us, nothing more.

Chong's bill would reinstate responsible government. We used to believe in it -- government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Mankind Is The Business Of Foreign Affairs

Trade Minister Ed Fast announced last week that, under the Harper government, the Foreign Affairs Department would focus on "economic diplomacy." Michael Harris writes that Preston Manning understood Stephen Harper's limitations:

Former mentor and Conservative guru Preston Manning remembered this of Harper’s time as a Reform MP: “One thing that did surprise me about Stephen … He had no interest in international stuff. We simply couldn’t get him to travel.”

Harper, Manning said, had a one track mind:

“The economy, the economy, the economy … The way into his head is the economy. It is the most open door.”

Harper's narrow focus helps explain his monumentally stupid approach to foreign affairs:

Harper has made thunderingly ill-informed judgements on many countries and international issues, none more egregious than in the Middle East. At a time when the rest of the world is moving towards peace with Iran, Canada closes its embassy, slanders the new government in Tehran, and contributes nothing to the negotiations but immature cynicism.

Then there is the Harper stand — virtual silence — on illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, the demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and the ongoing siege of Gaza, “all of which violate the Geneva Conventions that Canada signed and ratified.” Those are the words of Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Paul Heinebecker, in his recent book, Getting Back in the Game.

And that narrow focus explains why we will be sharing the rent with British diplomats, where a more mature leader would choose another tact:

Won’t that be image-building for Canada: bunk-mates in Myanmar with the same country that gave the indigenous population all those fond memories … annexation with India, the looting of oil, teak and rubies and three brutal Anglo-Burmese wars stretching over 60 years.

Mr. Harper is all about business. This Christmas, he could use a ghostly visit from Jacob Marley, who would remind him that, "Mankind was my business!'

Monday, December 02, 2013

Too Late?

Michael Warren writes that Stephen Harper is rapidly approaching the moment where he will have to choose between himself and his party:

The events that unfold in front of him in the months ahead hold little hope of vindication. His unlikely version of the Senate scandal will either completely collapse or remain in haunting limbo.

Harper’s defence is that he didn’t know about the political scheming that’s swirled around him for a year. If he had, he would have stopped it.

But for many Canadians that’s not an acceptable ethical standard.

Even if he didn’t know, he should have. It’s his office. It’s his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust by the RCMP. It’s his appointed Senators, Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau who disgraced themselves and were removed from the Upper House.

If he acts only for himself, he'll drag his party down with him:

He thinks he can cling to his narrow ethical standard of “I didn’t know” and continue to stonewall his way through this crisis. He can’t. He and his party are being judged by a much broader standard of behaviour.

And, even if he resigns, there are many legal battles ahead:

If charges are laid against Wright and any of the named Senators — which seems probable — it could mean years of criminal trials.
They will be media spectacles. Those accused and the witnesses called (possibly even Harper), will have to give their account of events under oath — for the first time. The resulting revelations will serve to reactivate the current atmosphere of clear and present danger for the Conservatives up to and including the next election.

That said, Harper's resignation may be too little too late. The Privy Council Office reports that they have discovered Benjamin Perrin's deleted emails. The worst is yet to come.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Surveillance State

Stephen Harper claims that Bill C-13 is the bane of cyber-bullies. That's true. But, Michael Spratt writes, the bill is much more than that:

The government’s talking points notwithstanding, only a small portion of C-13 deals with cyber-bullying. Most of the bill is devoted to expanding police powers to search and seize personal Internet data. 

Bill C-13 is the successor to Bill C-30, which the Conservatives said was aimed at child pornographers:

The main criticism of Bill-30 related to the expansion of warrantless search powers for Internet data that would allow the police to build a detailed profile of a person and their history through their digital footprint. C-13 would allow police to do the same thing, with the same type of data.

Many experts have commented on the serious privacy implications of collecting and disclosing such information. It was in response to these privacy concerns that then-Justice minister Rob Nicholson announced that the government would not be proceeding with C-30.

But a careful reading of C-13 makes clear that what the government couldn't accomplish with C-30 it is trying to accomplish with C-13. And, even though the Harperites now say they favour warrants before searches are approved, the standard to obtain those warrants is "reasonable suspicion."

The Supreme Court has already ruled on that standard:

In most cases, the state’s interest in detecting and preventing crime begins to prevail over the individual’s interest in being left alone at the point where credibly-based probability replaces suspicion.

This balancing of interests can justify searches on a lower standard where privacy interests are reduced, or where state objectives of public importance are predominant.

In other words, the Supreme Court has already rejected the standard the bill imposes. Never ones to pay attention to legalities, the Harperites are charging full speed ahead, wilfully ignorant as usual. That is the standard they live by.

Their aim is to establish a surveillance state.