Monday, March 31, 2014

All Is Not Well

Dimitri Soudas is gone. According to Paul Wells, it was not a graceful exit:

Tonight, Hand-Picked Dimitri has become Ass-Kicked Dimitri, having resigned (CP’s first version) or been fired (CTV’s version) or been told to resign so he wouldn’t be fired (the later CP version) from his job as dynamic and hand-picked Executive Director. And all with barely 70 days left to go in his urgent, pressing, critical, essential mission to save the Prime Minister and, with him (of course) everything Canadians cherish.

Wells reminds readers that, when it comes to executive directors, the Conservative Party has been playing musical chairs:

Recall (he said as if there was any chance you actually would recall) that Soudas was the Conservatives’ third executive director in six months, replacing Dave Forestell who replaced Dan Hilton who was left standing without a seat when the music stopped on what is known in Conservative circles as “the C-Vote mess.” That the PM’s communications director would take the pains to tweet Soudas’s arrival (the same comms guy made no such announcement about, say, the arrival of Joe Oliver as finance minister) is explained by the fact that Soudas’s return was intended to mark a return to skill and competence in the Conservatives’ management of their internal affairs, after the unfortunate business of a personal cheque, a PMO chief of staff, and a telegenic senator. There was, and still is, the small matter of a federal election to plan for. Another signal Soudas was meant to send was that it will be Harper’s election, not some successor Conservative leader’s, to win.

But it's all part of a larger pattern:

Lately when the PM sticks in his thumb he has not managed to handpick many plums: Mike Duffy, Nigel Wright, Marc Nadon, Soudas.

All is not well aboard the good ship Harper.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Next On His Hit List

Stephen Harper does not believe in creating a big tent. His political success has been based on wedges. He drives them between people and reassembles the pieces that fit his agenda. And so, Tasha Kheiriddin writes, he will use labour unions as a wedge in the next election:

Last fall, at its national convention, the federal Conservatives debated a slew of resolutions designed to curb union power, including that of federal public service unions. Six of the resolutions passed — including some supporting the government bringing public sector benefits “in line with those of the private sector” — and others on broader issues, such as ending mandatory union dues and membership.

Harper calculates that labour will swing behind the NDP and split the vote for the Liberals:

Riling the labour movement will help the Conservatives if unions step up support for their natural political ally: the NDP. Stopping the bleed of NDP votes to the Liberals would help deny the Liberals seats, particularly in Quebec, where the NDP gained the bulk of its caucus, and the 905, where vote splits helped several Conservative candidates sidle up the middle to victory.

But, Kheiriddin warns, the plan could backfire

if unions, particularly those representing the public sector, decide to help the Liberals on the assumption that they are more likely to be their new bosses in Ottawa. That relationship would require an expression interest on the part of the Liberal party, however, and there’s no major indication of that — yet.

With this prime minister, it's all politics all the time. And it's always about gaining the upper hand. You may have noticed that -- lately -- that strategy has been failing.

Nonetheless, unions are next on Harper's hit list.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Collective Psychosis

The Harper government, Andrew Coyne writes, is far from normal:

In normal times, under a normal government, the Fair Elections Act would have been withdrawn by now, or at least be in serious trouble. The past few weeks have seen the bill denounced as a threat to democracy by the chief electoral officer, the former chief electoral officer, several provincial elections officials, academic experts domestic and foreign, and newspaper editorials across the country.

Thursday they were joined by Harry Neufeld, the former chief electoral officer of British Columbia and the author of an inquiry into irregularities in the 2011 election. Mr. Neufeld’s report has been much quoted by the minister responsible, Pierre Poilievre, in particular to support his contention that the bill’s ban on “vouching” — allowing one voter to affirm another’s eligibility to vote in a riding, in cases where the usual documentation is lacking — was needed to prevent voter fraud.

When it comes to electoral reform, a government needs support from those who normally don't side with it. Instead, we are treated to Pierre Poilievre:

To the detailed objections of its critics, he offers nothing but the same, and I mean exactly the same, talking points, recited without evident effort to persuade but merely to impress upon his listeners how genuinely uninterested in their opinion he is. To [Harry] Neufeld’s complaints at having his report misrepresented, he responds that Mr. Neufeld does not understand his own report. The inaccurate and out-of-context passages he had cited from it were, he told Parliament, quoted “accurately and in context.” If Mr. Neufeld did not wish to use these words, he blithely told the CBC’s Evan Solomon, he should not have written them.

And why have things comes to this? Coyne pulls no punches. The government will pass this bill,

not in spite of the opposition it has aroused, but because of it: because it has convinced itself that all such opposition, from whatever source, proceeds from the same implacably partisan motives as its own.

We are witnessing an example of collective psychosis

Friday, March 28, 2014

Thursday, March 27, 2014

It's Madness

Andrew Nikiforuk writes that petropolitics are behind what is going on in Ukraine:

Russia, a true petro state, sits on one-fifth of the world's natural gas supply. About one-third of the natural gas burnt in Europe comes from Russia via Ukraine, which once housed the Russian capital centuries ago. In addition, Russia almost exports as much oil as Saudi Arabia.

Not surprisingly, Putin gets his political mojo from oil and gas revenues just as Margaret Thatcher once secured her power base on proceeds from the North Sea. Nearly 50 per cent of Russia's total budget depends on the sale of hydrocarbons.

It's a familiar story these days:

The story should be familiar to most North Americans. In U.S. political lingo, Ukraine is a blue state dependent on energy imports from Russia, the powerful red state next door. They share a tense master-slave relationship.

And, of course, our prime minister plays the same game, although he lectures Putin on his wrong headed approach to international relations. Those relations these days have become toxic -- because oil and gas corrupt petro states.

It's time, Nikiforuk writes, to recognize a few petro truths:

As long as energy prices remain high and fill government coffers, Putin will use energy to keep the former Soviet Union in his fold and to strut his stuff.
• It is unlikely that Ukraine will break free of its corrupt energy relationship with Russia anytime soon. Expect more oligarchs and instability.
• The West ignores its greatest vulnerability: unsustainable energy spending. Cheap energy created energy-intensive, capitalist, growth-oriented and market-driven systems, and expensive energy will unravel the miracle.
• Extreme and high-cost energy from unconventional resources, such as deep ocean oil and bitumen, with lower energy returns, has now constricted much of the industrial world and locked it in stagnation.
• Industrial nations are cannibalizing their economies to run faster on an energy treadmill. Strangely, they think Putin is mad.
• In this brave new world, energy exporters will behave like masters and energy importers will submit like slaves. And there will be more and more Ukraines.

It's poisonous politics. And it's madness.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Has The Revolt Begun?

It's beginning to look, Lawrence Martin writes, like the revolt has begun:

Last week, the Supreme Court offered a declaration of its independence, reminding the Prime Minister that its power is constitutionally entrenched, not subject to his whims or arrogance. In pushing a highly controversial choice on the court, the PM tried to retroactively rewrite the rules via one of his much-criticized omnibus bills. The court’s stinging rebuke was applauded by pundits and editorialists across the land.

Criticism of the Fair Elections Act has become international:

The so-called Fair Elections Act appears to be meeting a similar fate. Universal condemnation and ridicule has greeted it. Even Canada’s academic community, usually silent in respect to abuse of power in Ottawa, has gotten in on the act on this one. Last week, democracy experts from around the world joined in, saying the bill would cripple the autonomy of Elections Canada and send a bad example to budding democracies.

And the RCMP  -- which we assumed was under the Prime Minister's thumb -- keeps uncovering embarrassing revelations:

On the Senate expenses scandal, they were quick to come out with a report that revealed how the Prime Minister’s Office tried to shield the whole sordid affair. On this, there is still more fallout to come.

So to avoid the backlash, Mr. Harper has gone to the Ukraine to lecture Vladamir Putin on how his invasion of a foreign country generates international condemnation. This from the man who loudly supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.

Could this be the beginning of the end?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Harper's Empathy Deficit

It's no secret that Stephen Harper lacks people skills. What he really lacks, Tasha Kheiriddin writes, is empathy:

But Harper displays little understanding of human emotions. And that’s where his best-laid plans come crashing down.

He didn’t read the tea leaves on Senator Mike Duffy; stripping Duffy of his senatorship might have been the right thing to do, but wouldn’t it leave Duffy with a desperate need to defend his reputation? Harper didn’t realize that the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline might hinge on Canada’s environmental reputation; bashing the treehuggers might please the base at home, but why would President Barack Obama risk his green legacy on an environmental laggard? And Harper didn’t get that the Fair Elections Act would be perceived as unfair; Elections Canada’s get-out-the-vote campaigns are of limited effect, so why would people care if it could no longer run them?

It's remarkable that a man with so little understanding of people could succeed as a politician -- because, in the end, he screws up. His failure to appoint Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court is his latest debacle:

Harper assumed the law is the law, and there was no way the SCC could get around it. When the appointment was challenged, the prime minister decided to safeguard it by changing the rules and amended the Supreme Court Act in the House of Commons.

But judges are not robots on a bench. They are human beings, with egos and feelings. They are also members of a community that takes itself very, very seriously. They apply the law that governs all Canadians; they act as guardians of rights and freedoms; they keep overreaching governments in check. And above all, they are independent — and they must maintain that quality to preserve their reputation, and that of the legal system itself.

Which raises the question, how can such a man be elected in a democracy? The answer is hiding in plain sight: by subverting that democracy.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Whither The NDP?

Murray Dobbin writes that our political system is ill equipped to deal with crises:

Our political system's greatest flaw is not the first-past-the-post voting system. It is the fact that it is gravely ill-equipped to deal with crises with which it has no experience. We have muddled through for decades tinkering with the perversity of capitalism. But capitalism has long since entered the cancer stage, as Canadian philosopher John McMurtry so prophetically described in his 1999 book (now updated), The Cancer Stage of Capitalism. It is no longer capable of recognizing the crisis it faces and like a cancer attacks its own body.  

Crises must be met with big ideas. None of our political parties are generating them. The NDP used to do just that -- until it came close to power and dreamed of winning a majority:

The dramatic shift in strategy -- seriously going for a majority -- has been disastrous for the NDP. It led them to opportunistically defeat the Liberal government and give power to Stephen Harper. Inexorably, the NDP is becoming another liberal party in order to be competitive. Federally, they're badly trailing a Liberal Party with a pretty face and no policies. The tragic irony in this is, of course, that even if the NDP did win, it would have a mandate limited to liberal policies.

Social democracy in the developed world has already suffered the same fate -- as it has provincially in Canada. In Europe, New Zealand and Australia, it is virtually indistinguishable from neoliberal parties and is in decline. In Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and B.C., NDP caution has been rewarded by voter rejection.

Dobbin believes the NDP was a better -- and more effective party -- when it rejected the swan song of power. One wonders how many other Dippers agree with him.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Young Could Be Game Changers

The Canadian Press reports that pollster Nick Nanos and former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page are working on a project to increase youth turnout in the next election. Nanos has gone back and looked at the data he gathered during the last election. He's reached some startling conclusions:

Just over 60 per cent of eligible voters actually cast ballots in 2011. Among those under 30, fewer than 40 per cent bothered to vote.

Working with Kevin Page, the former parliamentary budget officer, on a project aimed at engaging youth in the political process, Nanos has mined data from his daily polling during the 2011 campaign as well as research done for the Institute for Research on Public Policy to answer the question: What if 60 per cent of young people had voted?

His answer: Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives likely wouldn't have won a majority.

But, besides affecting the outcome, Nanos believes that young voters would have influenced the debate:

More importantly, he says the political debate would have been more hopeful and would have revolved around a broader range of issues if young people had been more engaged in the process.
"What we find is that their concerns are much more diverse than older Canadians who are fixated on jobs and health care," Nanos said in an interview. "So if you're a younger Canadian, you're twice as likely to say that the environment is a top national issue of concern. You're twice as likely to say that education is a top national issue of concern."

His analysis also suggests older Canadians "are very cynical, they have less confidence in finding solutions" whereas younger people "are actually much more hopeful, have a higher level of confidence in finding solutions."

The Harperites must be looking at the same data. That's why they want to shut down Elections Canada's efforts to encourage voting.

The kids scare the Conservatives -- because they know they could be game changers.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

It Will Take a Revolt

Yesterday, Jeffrey Simpson writes, the Harper government got what it deserved:

The Harper government figured it would teach the Supreme Court justices a lesson by appointing Marc Nadon to their midst. Instead, the justices taught the Harper government a bunch of lessons.

Among the lessons: Don’t play politics with the judiciary. Don’t play fast and loose with the law. Pick the best-qualified, not the average. Understand the Constitution.

The Harperites came to Ottawa with one purpose -- to rig the system in their favour. The Court has sent a clear message. You can't rig the court -- although the government almost did just that:

They almost succeeded, which ought to produce a lot of soul-searching among those who care about the integrity of the courts. The country’s legal profession remained abjectly silent in the face of a less-than-satisfactory process that produced an obviously ideological appointment. The parliamentary committee barely studied the candidate, in fairness perhaps because MPs were given so little time to investigate a nominee about whom so little was known. Law professors, with a few exceptions, clammed up despite their beloved tenure. It took the Supreme Court, by a resounding 6-1 majority, to say “No.”

It was Toronto lawyer Rocco Galati who got the legal community to take notice.

The elites -- who the Harperites used rail against -- are on the government's side. It will take a revolt from ordinary Canadians to send them packing.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Curse Of The Honeypot

With the departure of Alison Redford, Andrew Nikiforuk writes, the honeypot has claimed another victim. Nikiforuk believes that petro states eventually become honeypots:

American political scientist Terry Lynn Karl, an expert on the politics of oil, once noted that "petroleum dependence turns oil states into 'honey pots' -- ones to be raided by all actors, foreign and domestic, regardless of the long-term consequences produced by this collective rent seeking."

People come to Alberta to make a killing in the oil fields, not a living. And that sense of entitlement pervades the province.

Redford's downfall was, in part, related to this entitlement. She regularly dipped into the honeypot to court rich pipeline supporters in the U.S., and then mourned the death of Nelson Mandela with an extravagant $45,000 public bill. Albertans were offended.

In the end, oil is a curse. It encourages bad behaviour and causes dysfunction:

Petro states, whether small or big, right or left, democratic or authoritarian, all behave badly to different degrees. And Alberta, just like Texas or Saudi Arabia, has often proven a self-serving plantation for the extraction of fossil fuels with temporary foreign workers for the benefit of a few.

By serving oil interests, petro states religiously court secrecy and shun transparency on money matters.

Thanks to the curse of oil, they can't diversify their economies or balance their budgets. They rack up poor social welfare scores and widen inequality. They appear large and powerful, but as Redford's departure illustrates, are truly hollowed out shells. Last but not least, they cultivate devastating environmental damage.

In the end, the leaders of petro states do their societies and themselves in. Stephen Harper has told us that his mission is to transform Canada into an energy superpower. Eventually, like Redford, his ambition will do him in.

But the bigger questions is, "Will he also do us in?"

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Full Blown Paranoia

Commentators are lining up to praise Jim Flaherty. Andrew Coyne is not among them. Under Flaherty, he writes, budgets ceased to have much meaning. They became masterpieces of obfuscation:

Under Flaherty, not only did budgets cease to be budgets — now they are Economic Action Plans — but they ceased to mean much of anything.

The budget and the estimates are not only expressed on different accounting systems, but parliamentarians are provided with no means of reconciling the two. Actual departmental spending, as recorded in the public accounts, routinely bears no resemblance to either.

More and more spending is now disguised as tax credits, materially understating both expenditures and revenues. Even the official spending figures have proved harder and harder to trust. Requests for details on spending cuts from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, which departments are statutorily obliged to provide, have been rebuffed. Sometimes, as in the case of the F-35 program, they’ve simply been false.

And, instead of budgets, we got omnibus bills -- all supposedly in support of the economy. Those bills hid a mountain of contradictions:

Should we remember the Flaherty who, against every axiom of economics, cut the GST rather than cutting income taxes, then larded up the tax code with all manner of special tax breaks for favoured political interests? Or should we remember him as the tax cutter who made deep reductions in corporate tax rates, the policy innovator who brought in the Tax-Free Savings Account and the Working Income Tax Benefit, the free trader who eliminated all tariffs on intermediate goods?

Of course he was both, but the confusion underscores how far afield the Tories have wandered in the last eight years. Even after the recent cuts, Flaherty leaves with spending higher than it was at the start of his tenure — after inflation, after population growth. It wasn’t the GST cuts that drove us into deficit: had Flaherty only left spending where he found it, revenues would have exceeded spending in every year but 2009-10, when with the help of the recession it might have hit $10-billion — versus the $56-billion actual figure.

Of course, the real finance minister has always been Stephen Harper. Those contradictions are his contradictions. They are what the prime minister wants to hide. That is why Joe Oliver's swearing in yesterday was done in secret. Harper's paranoia is now full blown.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Better To Reign In Hell

Jim Flaherty  jumped ship yesterday. It came as no surprise. When he questioned the wisdom of income splitting, he signalled that he was heading for dry land. He had the temerity to question the central tenet of Harperism. The surplus could not be used to pay down the national debt. And, more unacceptable still, it could not be invested in national priorities.  It had to be used for tax cuts.

Tax cuts don't serve the nation. They serve one purpose -- and one purpose only. They buy votes. And, therefore, they keep Stephen Harper in power. It was the equivalent of questioning the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. Flaherty had to be ex-communicated. For his part, he was quite willing to leave.

While he issued a statement touting what he feels are his accomplishments as finance minister, it would appear that Mr. Flaherty is content to live in his apostasy. Like Milton's Lucifer, he prefers to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Harper's Mephistopheles

Politics has always been a nasty profession. But Stephen Harper has brought a new viciousness to the way it is practiced in Canada.  That viciousness, Michael Harris writes, has been orchestrated by a merchant of venom -- Arthur Finkelstein:

Three U.S. Republican presidents, countless senators and other right-wing world leaders like Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu owe their success to Arthur J. Finkelstein’s brilliance as a communications mastermind.

Finkelstein bases his approach to politics on three axioms:

“Finkel-think” is an approach to new-age techno-politics based on three principles: 60 per cent of people don’t care about the news; perception, not content, is what matters in our dumbed-down age; and the right 15-second attack ad can separate a rival’s head from his shoulders in a heartbeat.

And he has left his mark:

Before Finkelstein, the word “liberal” was a descriptor with many positive connotations, including tolerance and even enlightenment. After him, “liberal” became the ultimate political pejorative. It was used to brand and dismiss progressives as left-wing loons with dubious values and a bad habit of raising taxes and spending the numbers off the credit card. Never mind that the truth was the exact opposite — Clinton/Bush-wise, that is. But perception, not reality, is what matters.

The key to success in political marketing, according to Finkelstein, is to find the magic switch that moves people from rational to emotional mode. No one understands the politics of personal destruction better than Stephen Harper. The wimpy-looking Stephane Dion was “Not a Leader”; the cosmopolitan Michael Ignatieff was “Just Visiting”; and now Justin Trudeau is “In Over his Head”. Not exactly deep stuff — but again, content doesn’t matter.

And that explains the political success of a hollow man like Stephen Harper. But that success has come at a price for the country and for Harper. The prime minister made a Faustian bargain when he hired his Mephistopheles.

It's worth remembering that Faustian bargains do not end well.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Press Gallery Takes A Stand

Last week the parliamentary press gallery passed the following motion:

"We as the Parliamentary Press Gallery reserve the right to ask questions in all photo-ops and availabilities with the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and all parliamentarians, to fulfill our function as journalists in a democratic society.”

The motion was passed in the face of the government's policy of not taking questions from reporters. James Baxter, the editor of ipolitics, writes:

The Parliamentary Press Gallery has rarely shown the guts and gumption of its Washington counterparts, but we lately have allowed ourselves to be cowed and co-opted by political parties — first the Martin Liberals and then the Harper Conservatives — and the bureaucracy to the point where we are guilty of too often just accepting what they feed us and pretending we’re grateful for the news McNuggets.

The Harper government came to power promising accountability. But, Baxter writes,

Accountability is in short supply within the 20 blocks that make up the Parliamentary precinct. It was bad enough when public servants began demanding they be referred to in media reports only as “officials” or “informed sources.” Now, at a recent budget lockup, journalists were told they couldn’t even say the background information  given had come from government officials at all.

We joke about the situation being borderline Soviet, but usually with a nervous laugh. Are we on a slippery slope to a place where everyone in the Parliamentary Press Gallery is working for some Canadian form of Pravda? 

Stephen Harper will go to the Ukraine, preaching the glory of democracy and  railing against Soviet style repression. But he obviously works from the Soviet playbook. The truth about democracy is that:

The people have to consent to be governed. That only works if they have — whether directly or through a proxy — a thorough understanding of what is being done in their names and by whom. It is unreasonable to expect any government — of the left or right — to give an honest accounting of its activities. This is the basic role of any political journalist in a Western democracy.

Everything the Harperites do is directed towards one objective -- making sure that the people don't understand what is going on. A supine press enables them to achieve that objective.

It's long past time the press gallery grew a backbone.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sabotaging Environment Canada

Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq recently released a report setting forth her ministry's priorities. They are: "conservation and restoration of landscapes, water and wildlife; information on changing weather patterns and minimizing threats from pollution." These priorities are supposedly part of an overall plan to provide "a clean, safe and sustainable environment while supporting economic prosperity."

But, Andrew Nikiforuk writes, funding for the ministry is being slashed. As usual, the Harper government's rhetoric doesn't match its deeds:

For priority one, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq promises in the report's introduction "to protect and conserve wildlife and habitat" by unveiling "a new National Conservation Plan to further increase protected areas, focusing on stronger marine and coastal conservation."

Yet the department will cut funds for wildlife and water programs by 19.2 per cent between now and 2016/17, including a 35 per cent reduction to biodiversity programs, and nearly 10 per cent reductions for water programs, ecosystem sustainability and enforcement.

The ministry's second priority is to improve information on changing weather patterns:

Yet Environment Canada's weather services will be cut by 17.6 per cent between now and 2016/17. Funding for timely weather forecasts and warnings, for example, will drop to $143 million from $166 million by 2017.

And, most laughable of all, the ministry promises to mitigate the effects of climate change. However:

Funding for climate change and clean air programs will fall to $55 million from $118 million, while the enforcement budget drops to $29 million from $41 million by 2017.

As a native Canadian, the minister should know that this government is full of empty rhetoric. That rhetoric masks its real objective, which is to destroy government institutions. She has been tasked with the job of sabotaging Environment Canada.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Rae On Péladeau

In this morning's Globe and Mail, Bob Rae writes that  -- as a general rule -- good businessmen don't make good politicians:

With the notable exception of Silvio Berlusconi, corporate divas don’t do well in politics. There is a reason for this. To be an effective politician is not as easy as it seems. It requires a sense of humour, a thick skin, patience and more than a touch of guile. To do it well – and democratically – needs great discipline, an ability to listen, and a willingness to accept a harness of public scrutiny and irreverence that is all-encompassing.

Whatever one thinks of Rae, his observation that being a good politician is harder than it looks is most certainly based on experience. And, therefore, his opinion of Pierre Karl Péladeau merits careful consideration:

He is decidedly on the right wing of the political spectrum, and his management of the Quebecor empire has been controversial. For a Quebec public servant or trade unionist to vote for Mr. Péladeau is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. He will brook neither criticism nor opposition to whatever direction he decides, on his own counsel, needs to be taken. He says he wants a country, presumably so he can run it. The people who are going to be run should take heed.

Peladeau sounds a lot like a man named Harper. Given the fact that Peladeau is the father of Sun News, that should come as no surprise. The fact that he says he is a committed separatist should. A vote for Marois will mean a vote for Péladeau.

Not exactly the Dynamic Duo.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Worst In History?

When historians eventually get around to rendering judgement on the Harper Government, they will point to many things. They will certainly cite the gutting of Statistics Canada. Jeffrey Simpson writes:

In the summer of 2010, more than 200 institutions and individuals asked Stephen Harper’s government not to eliminate the long-form census.

They represented a Who’s Who of experts in statistics. All sorts of groups, from B’nai Brith to business associations and trade unions, argued that the long-form census, which required some, but only some, citizens by law to answer questions for Statistics Canada, was essential for presenting the most accurate statistical profile of Canadians.

To no avail. The Prime Minister had made up his mind. His hapless minister, Tony Clement, had to toe the line. He did so in such a way as to misstate the true views of the head of Statistics Canada, who resigned in protest.

But perhaps, more than anything else, the judgement of history will hinge on the Fair Elections Act and how  -- once again -- the government paid no heed to its critics:

As Prof. Paul Thomas of the University of Manitoba (and a member of the Elections Canada advisory board) pointed out in a paper he wrote about the proposed changes, Britain’s electoral commission was extensively consulted before changes to the law. Here, Mr. Poilievre said he spent an hour with Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand before drafting the bill. Obviously, he did not highly value Mr. Mayrand’s analysis during their brief meeting, since the Chief Electoral Officer just dumped all over important parts of the bill before the parliamentary committee.  

Up to this point, there is no one piece of legislation which better defines the Harperites. And there is no better spokesman for them than Pierre Poilievre:

This is how the government is proceeding, led by Minister for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre, a young man who leaped into the cabinet principally for his leather-lunged abilities at partisan verbal jousting. Anyone who believes Mr. Poilievre can act on just about anything without the interests of the Conservative Party at heart has not been observing his career thus far. Unbridled partisanship has its place in politics, one supposes, but not for updating elections law.

The Harperites have never been concerned with governing. Their objective has always been to rig the system in their favour. And, when historians eventually take their measure, my bet is that the present government will be in the running for the worst government in Canadian history.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Leaving Them Behind

When Stephen Harper was the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Mitrovica writes, he sought out journalists:

He courted press coverage enthusiastically. (There’s a word commonly used in Ottawa to describe politicians who hunger for media attention as shamelessly as Harper once did; I’m guessing I can’t get away with using it here.) In any event, Harper’s political career was aided and abetted in some measure by his routine appearances on political chat shows that featured him as a sound-bite-happy right-wing pundit.

But after he became prime minister -- his objective achieved -- he neurotically avoided journalists:

This neurosis manifests itself in several familiar ways. This is a prime minister fond of playing hide-and-seek with reporters. He scurries furtively to his Centre Block office after question period like a truant schoolboy on his way to detention. He prefers to remain holed up in his private quarters in Canada’s modest version of Air Force One, rarely venturing out to be scrummed by the rabble occupying the less-comfortable seats in the plane’s rear. He has even largely abandoned those sonorous year-end interviews with network news anchors and bureau chiefs.

Now he simply refuses to answer questions.

Harper's relationship with the press fits a pattern. He uses people then disposes of them.  From Jim Hawkes, who he worked for, then ran against, to Preston Manning, to Tom Flanagan to Nigel Wright -- Harper's relationships are transactional.

Once he gets what he wants, he leaves people behind.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Living In The 19th Century

Yesterday, with great fanfare, Stephen Harper signed a free trade deal with South Korea. He claims that the deal signals prosperity for Canada. There will be winners. But, Tom Walkom writes, they won't include the auto industry:

Some Canadian high-tech firms, including those making aerospace equipment, hope to profit from the deal announced Monday in Seoul. And perhaps some will.

But the real Canadian winners will be beef and pork farmers, who will be able to sell their wares in South Korea duty-free. Meat products now account for roughly 4 per cent of Canadian exports to South Korea.

The biggest Canadian export to South Korea is coal. That’s unlikely to change.
Meanwhile, the losers will be auto workers displaced by cheaper, duty-free Korean cars. A study commissioned by Ottawa estimates that up to 1,150 Ontario jobs will be lost as a result of both this deal and an earlier one signed between Washington and Seoul. (That 2012 pact is expected to result in Korean imports displacing some autos manufactured in Canada for sale south of the border.)

So our environmental reputation will be reinforced by this deal. And one area of the country will benefit. According to The Canadian Press,

When it comes to job creation in Canada, there's Alberta and then there's everybody else.
The latest employment data for February showed the oil-rich western province created an impressive 18,800 jobs, largely in construction, mining and oil and gas, while in the rest of the country overall employment fell.

 As the Statistics Canada report issued Friday showed, Alberta is responsible for almost all the new net jobs generated in the past year — 82,300 of the 94,700 countrywide, or 87 per cent — as the province saw employment rise an impressive 3.8 per cent.

By comparison, provinces not called Alberta only gained about 12,000 which, for the purposes of the agency's survey, constitutes a rounding error.

You can bet that data will find its way into the Quebec election. We are sleepwalking into a constitutional crisis -- brought to you by a man who claims to be an economist.

The problem is that Harper's economics is straight out of the 19th century. Walkom writes:

Ottawa is retreating to the economy of a much earlier time, when Canada concentrated on selling raw materials abroad and then imported whatever manufactured goods were needed.

The prime minister enjoys living in the 19th century. His goal is to make the rest of us share his enjoyment.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Flim Flam Men

Listening to Pierre Poilievre defend the "Fair" Elections Act, you really have to ask yourself: Just who is this guy? He insists that voter fraud is a major problem. But Michael Harris writes that a report by Harry Neufeld concluded that voter fraud was virtually non existent in Canada. However,

in what will surely go down as one of the funniest spectacles in Canadian political history, Poilievre has been quoting from a report to defend Bill C-23 even after the author of the report said he has misread it. That said, Poilievre manfully insists that his interpretation of Neufeld’s report is correct; it’s the author who is wrong. Which leads to this fully-frontal absurdity: Pierre Poilievre, His Master’s Voice in this government, says that if Neufeld comes before the parliamentary committee studying Bill C-23, the minister will not be swayed by his testimony. But he will continue to cite the deluded man’s report to justify the government’s crackdown on non-existent voter fraud.

His position seems pretty clear. The truth is what I say it is. You cannot trust what other people say. You must trust me.

It's all of a piece for the man who Harris calls His Master's Voice. And it's all of a piece with the Orwellian title of the bill. Poilevre is a flim-flam man. The Harperites believe they make their own truth as they make their own reality.

They are all flim-flam men.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Price Of Conservatism

Robert Reich writes that, in the three decades after World War II, the United States created the largest middle class the world has ever seen:

During those years the earnings of the typical American worker doubled, just as the size of the American economy doubled. (Over the last thirty years, by contrast, the size of the economy doubled again but the earnings of the typical American went nowhere.)  

In that earlier period, more than a third of all workers belonged to a trade union — giving average workers the bargaining power necessary to get a large and growing share of the large and growing economic pie. (Now, fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.)

Then, CEO pay then averaged about 20 times the pay of their typical worker (now it’s over 200 times).
In those years, the richest 1 percent took home 9 to 10 percent of total income (today the top 1 percent gets more than 20 percent).

During that period, the national tax structure was radically different than the one Americans now live under:

Then, the tax rate on highest-income Americans never fell below 70 percent; under Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, it was 91 percent. (Today the top tax rate is 39.6 percent.)

Consider what those taxes bought:

In those decades, tax revenues from the wealthy and the growing middle class were used to build the largest infrastructure project in our history, the Interstate Highway system. And to build the world’s largest and best system of free public education, and dramatically expand public higher education.

Then came the Thatcher-Reagan Revolution and the Great U Turn. And now, citizens have forgotten their former prosperity. Reich pulls no punches:

The collective erasure of the memory of that prior system of broad-based prosperity is due partly to the failure of my generation to retain and pass on the values on which that system was based. It can also be understood as the greatest propaganda victory radical conservatism ever won.

Conservatism has triumphed. But the United States has paid a terrible price.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Economics Of Coercion

The British economic historian Avner Offer believes that the gap between our economic model and our economic reality is now similar to the gap between Karl Marx's Communism and Leonid Breshnev's Communism.  Chris Hedges reports:

Our current economic model, he said, will be of little use to us in an age of ecological deterioration and growing scarcities. Energy shortages, global warming, population increases and increasing scarcity of water and food create an urgent need for new models of distribution.

“The state of current political economy in the West is similar to the state of communism in the Soviet Union around 1970,” he went on. “It is studied widely in the university. Everyone knows the formula. Everyone mouths it in discourse. But no one believes it.” The gap between the model and reality is now vast. Those in power seek “to bring reality into alignment with the model, and that usually involves coercion.”
“The amount of violence that is inflicted is an indicator of how well the model is aligned with reality,” he said.

Offer points to the United States, the beacon of free market economics:

It is perhaps symptomatic that the USA, a society that elevates freedom to the highest position among its values, is also the one that has one of the very largest penal systems in the world relative to its population. It also inflicts violence all over the world. It tolerates a great deal of gun violence, and a health service that excludes large numbers of people.”

That model -- all of it -- has been imported into Canada by the Harper government. We should not be surprised that voting is suppressed, that our scientists are muzzled, and that criminals are punished rather than rehabilitated.

It's all part of the Economics of Coercion.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Alarm Bells Should Be Going Off

The Harperites didn't consult Marc Mayrand when they drew up their election "reforms." And there was a reason they did everything they could to prevent him from testifying before the parliamentary committee looking into those reforms.

But testify he did.  And, Andrew Coyne writes, he shredded the bill:

The chief electoral officer, in his quiet, workmanlike way, simply shredded it, almost line for line, proposing more than two dozen amendments that would effectively rewrite the bill.

The provision banning “vouching” came in for particularly heavy fire: while the government insists the practice, by which voters who lack proper identification can have another voter vouch for them, has given rise to widespread voter fraud, Mr. Mayrand observed there was no evidence for this. It did not help the government’s position that the authority it cited in response, Harry Neufeld, author of a report on electoral irregularities in the 2011 election, later backed up Mr. Mayrand’s stance. (“I never said there was voter fraud,” he told Canadian Press.)

As is the case with almost all Tory legislation, there is no evidence to support the changes they advocate. But putting Pierre Polievre in charge of the bill's passage is a clear signal:

Entrusting the matter to Pierre Poilievre, among the most ruthlessly partisan ministers in a government filled with ruthless partisans, was an early warning sign. Sure enough, not content with blindsiding the chief electoral officer, the minister — for Democratic Reform! — gave media and opposition members the merest sniff of the mammoth bill before thrusting it upon Parliament, where, after the usual curtailing of debate, it was packed off to committee, whose hearings will be likewise restricted (hence Mr. Christopherson’s filibuster). This is not how a government interested in fairness conducts itself.

And the changes to campaign contributions sends another clear signal:

The bill would raise the limits on both contributions and spending. All parties would benefit from this — needlessly: there’s never been so much money in our politics — but the Conservatives, as the most successful fundraisers, would plainly benefit most.

Coyne is right:

Perhaps each measure would not seem so troubling on its own; nor even would the whole if the government did not seem so intent on smuggling it into law. But as it is I think some alarm bells should really be going off.

Friday, March 07, 2014

What Leaders Read

Earlier this week, Angela Merkel worried that Vladimir Putin was living "in another world." Leonoid Bershidsky writes that Putin does indeed inhabit another world -- not because he's crazy, but because he has read different books than those we have read:

Maria Snegovaya, a graduate student at Columbia University, provides a useful analysis of the sources of Putin’s ideology, rooted in the writings of early 20th century messianic, nationalist philosophers Nikolai Berdyayev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin. To them, Russia had a mission to spread and maintain the Orthodox Christian faith on territories it controlled, and the West was the eternal enemy of that mission, perpetually trying to break up the Russian world. Snegovaya also recalls the 2006 book Third Empire: The Russia That Should Be, by Mikhail Yuriev, an entrepreneur and ideologue popular with Kremlin bureaucrats. In Yuryev’s utopia, Russia gathers up the lands of the old Russian empire, grabbing, among other areas, eastern Ukraine after a standoff with NATO. Two years before Russia’s small victorious war against Georgia, Third Empire described a Russian conquest of the disputed Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

His education has given him a world view which has little in common with our Western -- Renaissance inspired -- world view:

Putin’s world view is so different from that of Western politicians seeking to prevent a war that they are speaking different languages — not just in the linguistic sense. The only language they have in common is that of money, but it has little effect on Putin now.

In Putin’s world, the Russian civilization is clashing with the Western one. Money and the formalities of international law mean little in this existential struggle. Paradoxically, if the West is not willing to live by the harsh rules of this imagined world, it is going to watch Putin settle for less after threatening to take more. Specifically, Russia will keep formal or informal control of the Crimea, while the rest of Ukraine limps ahead on its nation-building path.

The disconnect with Russia mirrors our disconnect with the Islamic world. And -- for Canadians -- it raises the question, "What does Stephen Harper read?"

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Circular Course Of Things

Yesterday, Pauline Marois announced that Quebecers will be going to the polls on April 7th. She is prepared to defend her Charter of Values. But she has said nothing about holding a third referendum.

In 1980, my wife and I voted in the first referendum. But by 1995, like many of our generation, we had left Quebec -- not so much by choice but from necessity. I began my teaching career at a new high school in the Eastern Townships. The school's population was 1,100 students. By the time we left twelve years later -- because of Quebec's language law and a weak economy -- the school's enrolment was 300. We thought we better leave before they turned out the lights.

There are some who say that separatism is no longer an issue in Quebec. But, in the Toronto Star, Tom Walkom refers to Fredrick Nietzsche's definition of history. It was, said Nietzsche, “the unconditional and infinitely repeated circular course of all things.”

Walkom  then turns his attention to the subject of separation:

Certainly, separatism has been dismissed before. The PQ’s failure to win a referendum on sovereignty in 1980 was thought then to have put paid to the issue.

In 1989, with support for separatism hovering near 40 per cent, sovereignty was said to be dead and buried, The PQ’s then leader, Jacques Parizeau, was routinely dismissed as a fossil from another time.

Young people, we were told then, had abandoned sovereignty and become internationally minded.

But anyone who dismisses Quebec nationalism as a spent force doesn't understand Quebec. Certainly, Stephen Harper doesn't understand Quebec. In fact, his contempt for all the provinces gives sovereignists the best argument they have ever had for separation.

I make no predictions this morning about this election. But I do feel uncomfortable -- because we are again going to experience the circular course of things.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Manning Knows His Man

The report from Elections Canada on irregularities in the 2011 election is due at the end of the month. Lawrence Martin foresees three possible scenarios unfolding:

One is that Elections Canada finds that the dirty work was limited to just the riding of Guelph. In that case, no worries for Mr. Harper. We move on.

A second is that Elections Canada finds evidence of robocalls and other acts of subterfuge in many ridings, but leaves hanging the question of whether the Conservatives were the perpetrators. In this case, the party would likely assail Elections Canada as biased (“team jersey” wearers, as Mr. Poilievre recently hinted) and try to ride out the storm.

A third possibility is that Elections Canada comes forward with strong evidence that the party hierarchy was behind a concerted and widespread effort to subvert the voting system. This would be far bigger than the Senate expenses scandal – all hell would break loose. The Harper team’s fate would be sealed. Big-time Conservatives who spoke at the Manning conference could start revving up their leadership campaigns.

It's the third scenario that is causing the Harper Party to lose sleep. And that is the reason behind their insistence that the bill be passed quickly. Martin writes:

Some see the bill, with its downgrading of powers and many rule changes, as a bid to give the Conservatives an escape hatch from any culpatory findings by the agency’s investigation. James Sprague, a former Elections Canada lawyer, says the new act can be interpreted as forbidding the Elections Canada commissioner from disclosing any information that comes to the agency’s knowledge as a result of an investigation. Instead, it would be up to the director of public prosecutions to include the information in an annual report to the justice minister.

When Preston Manning suggested over the weekend that the bill was a barrier to democracy, he was not speaking theoretically. He knows his man.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Coming Implosion

Michael Harris writes that the Harper Party keeps moving closer to its own self destruction. Last weekend, the Manning Conference stripped Mr. Harper naked. He is no longer the leader of Canadian conservatives. Preston Manning himself -- in polite language -- called Harper a dictator:

The man who laid the foundations for Stephen Harper’s political career in 1987 has urged the prime minister to restore democracy. Yikes! The only place you need to restore democracy is somewhere that it doesn’t exist. Was it possibly the gentlest way of telling someone they were a dictator?

Harper's objective is not to establish a conservative hegemony. It's power -- pure and simple. And the so called "Fair Elections Act" is a plan to retain power. Manning saw through the facade:

The elder statesman of Reform/Conservative politics in Canada said out loud what a lot of Canadians have been thinking for some time: Time to restore democracy, Mr. Prime Minister, not subvert it.

Give Elections Canada the power it asked for, rather than diminishing the power the CPC wished EC didn’t have in the Robocalls investigation. How do you improve elections by reducing the powers of EC? How does it help an investigation to inform the target of the scrutiny — unless you’re in favour of evidence disappearing?

Mr. Harper has no clothes. And he has nowhere to hide. And -- just as he failed to foresee the Great Recession -- he doesn't foresee the coming implosion.

Monday, March 03, 2014

No Solutions

Jeffrey Simpson writes that, in what used to be called "The White Commonwealth," Margaret Thatcher's children are in charge:

Mrs. Thatcher’s children, intellectually speaking, are prime ministers in four countries: Tony Abbott in Australia, Stephen Harper in Canada, David Cameron in Britain and John Key in New Zealand.

They are obviously not carbon copies of the Iron Lady, as their respective countries’ different political and economic circumstances require different approaches. But these conservative prime ministers are Thatcherites at heart. They see the state more as an impediment to growth and social progress than an asset, they think tax rates are too high and they believe the private sector can run most things most efficiently.

None of these leaders are what we used to call "moderate conservatives:"

In Australia, if one goes back a few conservative leaders, one recalls Malcolm Fraser and Robert Menzies. Canada had Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. In the United States, there were the northeastern “Rockefeller” Republicans. And in Britain, there were Mrs. Thatcher’s “wets,” who she replaced, banished or marginalized – men such as Edward Heath, Michael Heseltine and Francis Pym.

Like the Iron Lady, they believe that "there is no such thing as society." And so, they don't look  to government to solve problems; nor do they have the vision to solve them.

With the future of the planet in the balance -- as Britain floods and Australia burns -- they have no solutions.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Under The Bus

Andrew Coyne writes that there is a distinct difference between conservatives and Conservatives. That difference was on display at this weekend's Manning Conference:

The Conservative party is supposed to be conservative. If the Manning conference has gotten more overtly partisan over the years, it may be because the party has gotten less overtly anything, other than unpleasant. Or rather, the leadership has. But looking at the contrast between this ostensibly non-partisan convention and its partisan predecessor, the thought occurs: this is the real Conservative convention. It is a gathering, if you like, of the Conservative party in exile.

The party that met in Calgary was not so much the Conservative party as the Harper party. It was run by and for Harper loyalists — think Pierre Poilievre — people who are happy to do whatever the leader wants done, say whatever the leader wants said, even if that means abandoning every core conviction the party has ever held. In its place is Harperism, less an ideology than a set of behaviours: the nastiness, the ruthlessness, the almost universal gracelessness, of which the decision to exclude the opposition parties from the mission to Ukraine was only the latest example.

The two types of conservatives -- small c and big C -- have decided to part company:

Nothing was said out loud, no knives were unsheathed, but this had the feel of a group of people preparing for a post-Harper party. From the title (“Next Steps”) to the speakers, a banquet of potential leadership contenders, the tone is of serious people who want to talk about serious ideas, stripped (mostly) of the hyper-partisan rhetoric and name-calling: the grown-ups, the good faith Conservatives.

The Manning attendees were told that their numbers are headed south. And Manning himself criticized Harperian election reforms, saying that the challenge was to increase election turnout. On the environment, he said that the Harper Party was "exasperating."

All of that was as it should be. Harper threw Manning under the bus. Manning was simply returning the favour.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Me And Thee

This week, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation handed out its Golden Pig Awards for profligate public spending. And -- world of  wonders -- Jason Kenney's ministry, Employment and Social Development Canada, copped a pig.

How was that possible? After all, Michael Harris writes, Stephen Harper has a long and distinguished record of railing against pigs at the public trough:

Don’t they know how much Steve hates pigs in public life? Back in 1997, when he was president of the National Citizen’s Coalition, Steve outed lots of pigs during the election campaign of that year. In fact, he actually put the heads of two Liberal MPs, Anne McLellan and Judy Bethel, on the bodies of pigs for a newspaper ad campaign against “pension porkers”. I ask you, would a man with swinish leanings do something like that?

And let’s not forget how he outed his own leader in 1994. Steve revealed that Preston Manning had a secret party slush fund of $31,000 that he used to enhance his appearance with a new hair-do and some decent suits. Steve knew that was unacceptable extravagance. Not having a bus in those days, he went public and threw his own leader to the media wolves. Doesn’t that tell you what kind of man he is?

And, to make matters worse, we also discovered that the PMO -- which keeps Mr. Harper in the dark -- put $66,000 in staff breakfasts on the public tab. However, Tony Clement -- that ever watchful guardian of the public purse -- said that the breakfasts were within government guidelines: 

The ever-reliable Tony Clement reminded everyone of the essential facts here: that there are no facts. The president of Treasury Board stated plainly and simply that the lunches fell within his department’s guidelines — end of story. It was Tony’s riff on the Nixonian tradition: If your Treasury Board president says it, it must be so, especially in the decree democracy of Steve.

And that's the point, isn't it? They get to say what is wasteful spending and what is not. There is one rule for thee and another rule for me.