31 October 2008

Harper improves approach ... but is it enough?

The new federal cabinet shows considerable improvement over the last. The number of women has increased from 23 per cent to 29 per cent. This should, one would hope, contribute to more humane governance. It still isn't close to the 50 per cent women deserve but it is, at least, a significant improvement. Women remain heavily disadvantaged in a macho political system designed by men for men, but that isn't Harper's fault.

It's always good to see an Aboriginal face at the highest levels of government, so appointing Nunavut's Leona Aqlukkaq as Minister of Health is a welcome move. An important portfolio at that and one she has experience in.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of the portfolio Minister of State for Democratic Reform. God knows we desperately need some democratic reform, starting with our electoral system. However, if the ministry is just a tool to implement an elected Senate, it will be largely a waste. Not that an elected Senate wouldn't be better than an unelected one, but reforming a redundant institution is hardly a priority. Must keep our fingers crossed here.

Appointing Jim Prentice Minister of the Environment indicates Harper is taking climate change a little more seriously. Not only was Prentice a star in the last cabinet, he's also a Calgarian. As such, he can tangle with the oil company chiefs without being considered an outsider, and that's of no small importance for an environment minister.

So the new government is not without its promise. However the big worry remains, and that of course is the environment. Global warming looms over us like the sword of Damocles, yet both Harper and Prentice still talk about "balancing" the environment and the economy, weasel talk that likely means they won't do what is necessary to adequately reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no room for balance here. The only sensible approach is to ensure a healthy environment and then design the economy to fit into it.

But perhaps I'm too skeptical. Perhaps that is what the Prime Minister does mean by balance. If so, then the new cabinet may be a success. If Harper is willing to slacken his iron grip and unleash his ministers to do their jobs, and if he is willing to work constructively with the opposition, this minority government could do some good work.

29 October 2008

Minority government: lucky for us, lucky for Stephen Harper

The failure of the neoconservative ideology in the United States, in affairs both domestic and foreign, represents the biggest collapse of a political and economic philosophy since the fall of Communism. The edifice lies in ruins. The collapse of the American financial system will harm us as well to some degree, of course, given our interdependency, but less than it will affect many other countries in the world simply because we better resisted the blandishments of the neocons.

At the core of the domestic failure in the U.S. was deregulation of their banking system. For years, the Americans, and the British, pressured us to follow their lead in deregulation. According to Paul Martin, when he was in office "You couldn't go to a G7 meeting or IMF meeting without it coming up. ... We were under tremendous pressure to 'loosen up Canada.'" Martin said no, and for that we owe him yet under debt of gratitude. Canada went its own way, actually tightening lending rules in some respects.

If Stephen Harper had won a majority in 2006, or even in 2004, it may have been a very different story. Harper is very much the neocon himself, a believer in small government. One suspects he wouldn't have resisted the pressure for deregulation, indeed would have been more likely to embrace it, and we could have been well on our way toward a U.S. style financial system and the consequent collapse.

We were fortunate the Conservatives, newly reinvented under Harper, lost in '04 and only got a minority in '06. And Harper may have inadvertently caught a break, too. If a majority had freed him to institute the failed policies of the U.S. and Britain, he would have had to take the fall for the results. As it happened, he never got more than a minority and was, therefore, confined to moderate measures that just may have saved him from facing a very angry electorate. Saved, you might say, from his own folly.

The collapse of neoconservatism, combined with minority government, should confine Prime Minister Harper to moderation for the next few years. A small blessing, at least, for those who do not look forward to Conservative government.

Is Howard Ruth reincarnated?

Watching the World Series and seeing the Phillie slugger and 2006 National League MVP Ryan Howard in action, something odd struck me. He's the spitting image of the great Babe Ruth! OK, he's black and Ruth was white but take a look at them. Check the facial features. Check the body. They're both superstar power hitters. Ruth held the Major League home run record for over 40 years and Ryan hit 100 home runs earlier in his career than any other player in Major League history. Is reincarnation alive and well in baseball?

22 October 2008

Why I am drifting away from the NDP

I confess. I voted Liberal on October 14th. As someone who has been a life-long member of the NDP, this is something I haven't do very often. It is, however, becoming easier. Not because my philosophy is shifting, but more rather because of specific issues.

I voted Liberal because I am a strong supporter of a carbon tax as a fundamental component of the struggle against global warming. I don't like single-issue voting normally, but as this issue overrides all others, it wasn't difficult to make an exception. In fact, although I say this with some reluctance, I would vote Liberal in the next B.C. election and for the same reason: the Liberal government brought in a carbon tax and the NDP oppose it. It wouldn't be easy voting for a party that often seems more conservative than liberal, but again, the issue involved is sufficiently important to overcome any reluctance.

A second issue is proportional representation (PR), another favourite of mine. I distinctly remember Jack Layton promising that the price of co-operation with Paul Martin's minority Liberal government would be a referendum on PR. Well, the NDP co-operated, at least for a while, but Jack apparently forgot all about PR. It wasn't breaking a promise that bothered me -- politicians have been known to do that on occasion -- it was the sheer stupidity of it. Nothing the NDP could do would boost their strength in the House of Commons more than bringing in PR. It would increase their number of seats by 50 per cent in one fell swoop. I began to wonder at the time whether I should be supporting a party that was too obtuse to see that. I've never quite gotten over it.

A third issue is the NDP's increasingly tiresome insistence on increasing taxes on corporations. This is a self-defeating policy if ever there was one. Who, after all, pays corporate taxes? The consumer does of course, just as we pay all the costs incurred by corporations when we buy their goods and services. All taxing corporations does is reduce their efficiency which in turn reduces their ability to create jobs, and it hardly makes sense for a "workers' party" to promote that. Politically, it taints the NDP with the musty odour of 19th century class war. The Swedes, despite having the highest income taxes in the world, have about the lowest corporate taxes and their economy prospers mightily (as do their corporations). This isn't a coincidence.

Taxation aside, capitalism remains a major problem for democracy. Seeking an alternative is an issue of the greatest importance for democrats and is therefore, deserving of serious discussion. If the NDP wants to join the discussion, and a social democratic party ought to be in the forefront, they could advocate policies that powerfully advantage co-operative enterprise over competitive capitalism. The co-op is an economic instrument that is not only thoroughly democratic but highly successful at the local, national and international levels. And it is perfectly compatible with social democratic ideals. The NDP could offer the mantra "We must co-operate in the global society" as a replacement for the tedious corporate mantra "We must compete in the global marketplace."

We have not reached the end of history. If the current economic crisis illustrates anything, it is that there is still lots of room for new approaches and fresh ideas in the world of economic policy. The left should be getting its dibs in. British Labour PM Gordon Brown certainly is. Jack Layton and the NDP, seemingly mired in old battles, are not. Being a member of the NDP used to offer a feeling of being at the forefront of progressive change. Now ... not so much.

21 October 2008

The collapse of neoconservatism

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Americans neoconservatives must have felt they had entered the Promised Land. Not only did they have a right-wing president, they had a weak president who had leaned on others all his life. He would be putty in their hands. And indeed he was, and they guided the poor, benighted man into the worst presidency in modern history. Everything for the United States, domestic and foreign, is worse, much worse, than it was eight years ago.

First was foreign policy and the neocon dream of thrashing Saddam Hussein as a way to impose American values and interests on the Middle East. If the 9/11 cloud had a silver lining, it was providing them with the national mood and justification for invading Iraq and they took full advantage, abandoning truth and sound advice as necessary. The result was one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy blunders in the country's history. Overnight the international sympathy and support for the United States generated by 9/11 was transformed into frustration and hostility. As Colin Powell, former Secretary of State in the Bush administration, recently stated, it will be up to the next president, “to fix the reputation that we’ve left with the rest of the world.” That will be a challenge indeed.

Then there is the economy. Years of dogma-driven deregulation, starting well before the Bush era but enthusiastically embraced by the president, have finally led to the inevitable misbehaviour of capitalists and the collapse of the U.S. financial system. American greed and recklessness has dragged the rest of the world's economies down as well and this, too, will require bridge-building with the international community.

So the neocons have had their star turn on the world's biggest stage and it has exposed their philosophy to be as destructive as it is self-righteous. It lies in ruins. Only moments it seems after the collapse of Communism, we see yet again the folly of allowing ideology to triumph over good sense.

20 October 2008

We are all socialists now

The British government is purchasing major stakes in Britain's banks at a of cost of four per cent of the annual economy, more than was spent nationalizing companies after World War II. Following Britain's example, George W. Bush's America, led by its most conservative president ever, is buying shares in American banks. The developed world as a whole is following Britain's lead. A Labour Party leader has become the guru of international finance.

This socialist surge is not into just any old industry; it goes to the heart of the economy -- the financial system. Actually it isn't so much socialism as it is a return to good sense, all too long neglected in favour of neo-con excess. For the past couple of years, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson has been running around the world telling the leaders of China, Russia, and anybody else who would listen, that the path to prosperity lay in adopting the American model for their financial systems. A money marketplace liberated from government regulation would lead to economic nirvana. Now the American financial system lies in ruins and poor old Henry is advising his president to buy shares in banks. He has been brought up short by reality.

That reality is that capitalists are like children. Children can be a joy when they are well-behaved, but they don't get that way automatically. Parents must impose a modicum of discipline, they must set limits. If they don't, the kids will wreck the house. Well. the financial capitalists have wrecked the house. We have been bad parents. To get the house back in order, we will have to set limits, we will have to regulate these over-sized kiddies into responsible behaviour. The Europeans are suggesting that nothing less than a whole new financial house will do. Having agreed to follow British P.M. Gordon Brown's plan for buying major shares in banks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have now concluded a new world financial system is required with an international watchdog to supervise the world's economies. A global parent, no less. Takes your breath away.

Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith spent a lifetime writing and lecturing about the dangers of capitalist excess and in recent times has been increasingly ignored. It turns out this common-sense Scot was right after all. As the world struggles to recover from the economic turmoil, we will hear more about yet another economist too often neglected of late, John Maynard Keynes. Close attention will be paid to his prescription for government behaviour in difficult economic times. Note for example that our own prime minister, Mr. Harper, is now hinting at deficits, supported by that sterling voice of business, The Globe and Mail. The Globe excoriated deficits for years but has now changed its tune and reluctantly admits they may be necessary.

There's really nothing here to have old Karl Marx chuckling in his grave; nonetheless, one suspects he might be smirking a little.

18 October 2008

Bill Ayers: sounds like my kind of guy

The Republicans have been making much of Barack Obama's association with former member of the Weathermen, William Ayers, who they delight in referring to as a terrorist. Obama and "the terrorist" once lived in the same neighbourhood in Chicago and their paths crossed from time to time. Both have worked on education reform and they served together on the board of the Woods fund of Chicago, a community anti-poverty group. Ayers has also contributed to Obama's political campaigns. The New York Times, however, has reported the relationship is not close.

Ayers was a founding member of the Weather Underground, a radical group that carried out bombings of public property during the Vietnam war. The Weathermen took great care to avoid harming people with their bombings, and they were successful. The only people they harmed were themselves when three of them died making a bomb. They were accused by detractors of a bombing in San Francisco that killed a policeman; however, they never claimed credit for it nor has any verifiable evidence connected them to it. They were generally quite specific about what they bombed and why. A Brinks robbery in New York in 1981 that resulted in the deaths of two policeman and a security guard is sometimes erroneously attributed to them. The attack was, however, carried out by another group which included three ex-members of the Weathermen (but not Ayers) well after the Weather Underground had disbanded.

As for Bill Ayers, he put all this behind him and went on to a highly successful and productive career. He is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois, an expert in elementary education and a winner of the City of Chicago Citizen of the year Award. That he rose above his youthful foolishness, became an exemplary citizen, and has contributed significantly to his community, makes him a man worthy of respect and admiration, a man I would be honoured to have as a friend.

17 October 2008

Will the political class get the message?

In 2004, Canadians elected a minority government. In 2006, we elected another one. A perceptive observer might conclude we were sending the political class a message. We didn't trust any of the parties to govern us alone; we wanted them to work together. The message was reinforced by poll after poll after poll. The politicians, particularly Prime Minister Harper who acted seemingly on a whim, did not give a damn what Canadians wanted and called yet another election. So we have had to send the message again. That's three times now, quite aside from the polls. Politicians are by and large intelligent people. Surely after being sent the same $300-million message in a row, it will sink in.

I know it won't be easy. Political parties are all about power and they hate sharing it. And the political class thrives on campaigning. But dammit, the people want them to co-operate and the whole point of democracy is serving the people ... isn't it?

It's not as if minority governments can't work. Lester Pearson never had a majority in his entire time as prime minister, yet he presided over the most productive parliaments we have ever had. They brought in Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, the Auto Pact and a new flag. They instituted the 40-hour work week, two weeks vacation time and a new minimum wage. Pearson established the world's first race-free immigration system. He set up royal commissions on the status of women and on bilingualism that contributed to legal equality for women and introduced official bilingualism (not bad for a unilingual prime minister). He also, no small matter, resisted American pressure to participate in the Vietnam War.

Pearson was a diplomat and diplomacy is exactly what's required to make a minority government work. Harper unfortunately is not, but, if as The Globe and Mail insists, he is growing into the job, then here is the challenge for further growth.

The beauty of a minority government is that it involves most Canadians in making their laws. This is a far more democratic beast than one in which only 40 per cent are involved, as is commonly the case in this country. At least Canadians seem to think so at this point in our history. The people have spoken (and spoken, and spoken) and should be heard. Will the politicians listen?

01 October 2008

The Globe goes gunning for Heather Mallick

Whoa! What's with The Globe and Mail's nasty little assault on their former columnist, Heather Mallick? Not only did they sic Margaret Wente on her but they added an indignant editorial for good measure. Mallick really seems to have gotten up their nose. The source of their ire is Mallick's recent article on the CBC website trashing Sarah Palin. Mallick did go over the top, as she tends to do, and it is to be expected that the raging right at the National Post and their execrable American companion Fox News might be furious, but why is The Globe getting its knickers in a twist? After all, the CBC withdrew the column and apologized (and that's yet another story), so relax, folks.

I don't much like writers as rude as Mallick tends to be, yet when her column was appearing in The Globe and Mail, I never missed it. She is just so damn funny. It's rather like watching South Park and its potty-mouthed little characters. You feel you really shouldn't be watching this stuff but you're laughing too hard to change channels. She is a guilty read, in other words. I wasn't surprised when she and The Globe parted ways. Her contempt for the American Empire didn't fit with the Globe's pro-Americanism, certainly not in the way Margaret Wente's snide anti-Canadianism does. Mallick now keeps better company, writing for the CBC and the Guardian.

The Globe editorial concludes with a cop-out, insisting the CBC must not run "biased commentary," but "privately-run newspapers or broadcasters are free to run whatever points of view they wish, with or without balance." Fair enough that the CBC should be balanced, but the rest of the mass media, all corporate controlled, should be free to monolithically indoctrinate us in their conservative agenda? How convenient for the right. And yet another reminder how badly we need a more varied and democratic media.