29 October 2015

The NDP—back to social democracy

Rather like the British Labour Party under Tony Blair, the NDP made a play for the political centre. The Liberals, led by the dangerous to underestimate Justin Trudeau, have now writ fini to that ambition.The thing for the NDP to do now, in the heart and mind of this member of the party at least, is to return to social democracy.

Not that the NDP hasn't occupied centre-left of the political spectrum successfully. They have filled that space in all the Western provinces and currently hold power with that mandate in Alberta and Manitoba. Federally it's a different matter. There it has traditionally been a Liberal fief, and although the NDP managed to usurp the role in 2011, the Liberals have reclaimed it in no uncertain terms.

The need for a party of the left, a social democratic party, arose from the inequalities of power and wealth that derive from capitalism. As those inequalities declined in the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War with the rise of the welfare state, the need for such a party was believed by many to have faded.

However, in recent years, the need is back, and in some ways is more urgent than ever. For example, with globalization we have seen a steady growth of corporate power. "Trade" agreements have been as much about advancing the rights of investors over governments as about trade. We see democracy steadily undermined in favour of plutocracy. Liberals, who have generally been supportive of "trade" agreements, cannot be counted on to assume the responsibility of democratic champion. Only social democracy can reliably fill that role.

Further to this question is whether capitalism, a system based on accumulation, is appropriate for a future where growth must eventually end if we are to avoid exhausting the Earth's resources. Social democrats have always offered the perfect alternative to capitalism—the co-operative. Co-operatives are thoroughly democratic, economically successful locally, nationally and globally, and emphasize co-operation over competition, essential in a world of shrinking resources. Incredibly, although co-ops were once at the heart of NDP (or at least CCF) philosophy, there is no mention of them in the NDP election platform. Here is an opportunity for a political party to proclaim the mantra "we must co-operate in a global society" over the soul-destroying "we must compete in the global marketplace."

Globalization has also undermined the power of workers. With entire sectors of the economy not unionized, other sectors experiencing decline in unionization, the use of temporary foreign workers, the replacement of people with robots, etc., working people face a host of challenges. They need a political voice committed to their interests, and the NDP has traditionally been that voice. It might start by insisting that worker protection at least match investor protection in international trade agreements.

Regarding foreign affairs, Canada needs a political party to speak out for the vulnerable—the downtrodden and the dispossessed. This is a fundamental role for a social democratic party. For example, we might start with the Palestinians, a people terribly ill-served by our recent government, and not much better served by the NDP who cravenly submitted to political correctness during the recent campaign and shushed candidates that spoke out for these beleaguered people. Serving the interests of the less fortunate is a fundamental role for a social democratic party even at the expense of popularity.

There is a lot of work to do from a left perspective. I submit that the NDP's future should lie in taking on that job.

21 October 2015

Sunny ways and other thoughts on the election

The Dark Age is over. The wicked witch of Calgary is gone. And Justin Trudeau has promised he will lead according to Sir Wilfred Laurier's "sunny way." Guided by the PM-elect's "positive, optimistic, hopeful vision" rather than by Harper's paranoia, the country will be a much happier place to inhabit.

I had hoped for a minority government; however, all in all I can live with a Liberal majority. And the icing on that cake is that my local Liberal candidate, Kent Hehr (you may hear more of him), won, and that's something in Calgary.

The Liberals received about the same per cent of the vote as the Conservatives did in 2011, so we remain ruled by a government elected by a minority of voters. We can, however, expect a broader range of representation than we had under Harper. The Harper government was just that—a Harper government, a one-man rule. He saw little need to consult outside of his own mind and if you weren't on his side, you were the enemy. The NDP and Green Party policies are generally closer to those of the new government, and the new government has promised to be a listener, so our governance should be much more inclusive.

Furthermore, Trudeau has promised to include the views of ordinary Canadians in his policy-making (now there's an idea for a democracy—listen to the people). What a change to have policies driven by people power rather than by dogma. That, of course, is exactly what we should expect from Liberals. The Prime Minister-elect has also promised electoral reform and we should keep his feet to the fire on that promise.

One of the refreshing aspects of the campaign was Trudeau's declaration he would take the high road and he stuck to it—no attack ads, no wedge issues. Nice to see positive politics work, a healthy sign for the future.

As for the NDP, my party, it tried the political centre approach and it didn't work. The Liberals have made it clear that's their territory and they intend to keep it. Time to get back to democratic socialism.

17 October 2015

We're on the international stage—for our bigotry

The latest issue of Press Progress includes an article commenting on the attention the Prime Minister's divisive anti-Muslim politicking is getting around the globe.

For instance, The Economist carries the headline "Muslim-bashing is an effective campaign tactic" and goes on to say, "The fuss is a godsend for Stephen Harper, who hopes voters will re-elect him for a fourth term as prime minister—despite their fatigue with his ten-year rule and a weak economy."

A Guardian article headlines "It's not just America: Canadian politicians use Islamophobia to make gains in polls," and comments, "Canadian political and thought leaders, including both politicians and media, seem to be fixated more on the dress of a handful of Muslim women than the tragic loss of over 1000 Aboriginal women." It adds, "This is an issue that was previously irrelevant, especially since reciting the oath is mostly symbolic. In Canada, women in face-covering veils have sworn oaths at their weddings for centuries."

The Washington Post, under the headline "How a Muslim veil is dominating Canada’s election race," states, "There are lots of important issues at stake, including Canada's flagging economy, its role in counterterrorism operations overseas, and the looming specter of climate change. But, of late, something far more insignificant has begun to dominate the conversation: whether Muslim women can wear the niqab, a type of full-face veil, during Canadian citizenship ceremonies."

Esquire headlines an article "What the F*ck Is Going on up in Canada?" with the subhead "Stephen Harper has designs on being a Christian oil sheikh." It goes on to observe, "Harper, of course, having learned all the wrong lessons from the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton years, has been going to Trump University this time around."

British daily the Independent comments, "Faithful ally of Britain in two world wars, peacekeeper to the world, Nato but neutral across the globe, it’s difficult to believe that Canada’s democracy might have come adrift. But the last weeks of election campaigning by Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative party—with its dark, racist overtones and anti-Muslim rhetoric—suggests that something has gone profoundly wrong with the nation which Winston Churchill once called 'the linchpin of the English-speaking peoples.'"

Considering that we once had a reputation for being a progressive, tolerant sort of place, it is not happy-making to have us discussed in the world's leading newspapers and magazines as a land of bigots. Thank you very much, Mr. Harper.

16 October 2015

A minority progressive government would be the best result of the election

I wouldn't dare to be so bold as to play the prophet and predict the shape of the government that will result from Monday's federal election. Polls and electorates are much too fickle. I can only observe that if the polls are accurate and the electorate doesn't suddenly change its collective mind, after the Governor General has been duly consulted and all the other dust has settled the best bet is a Liberal minority government.

I would prefer an NDP minority, but regardless of whether it's Liberal or NDP what's important is that it be a minority. We don't need another dictator for the next four years, and that's what we tend to get under our current system. Our prime ministers have the power of presidents, but unlike presidents they aren't elected by the people—I won't see the names Harper, Trudeau or Mulcair on my ballot.

Stephen Harper has been more of a one-man government than we have ever had, but both Mulcair and Trudeau are playing too much of the same tune. Trudeau constantly refers to "my plan" and Mulcair tells us "I will do this and I will do that." And the parties seem to have no objection to their leaders assuming royal postures.

And a minority government will mean more than imposing a much-needed constraint on the prime minister. It will also mean, if the polls hold up, 60 per cent, a solid majority, of Canadians will be represented in their parliament, just the opposite of the last four years, in which 60 per cent have not been represented. The result will be a reasonable facsimile of proportional representation.

The question of the effectiveness of minority governments has long been settled. Lester Pearson led a minority for five years in the sixties and it was one of the most productive governments we've ever had. Among its achievements were Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, our flag, the Auto Pact, the Order of Canada, a 40-hour work week, the de facto abolishment of capital punishment, and the initiation of two Royal Commissions that contributed to legal equality for women and official bilingualism. Compare this to the sterile years of Harper's majority.

Neither the Liberals nor the NDP would like to head a minority government because with political parties it's all about power. But from the citizens' perspective, a leashed prime minister and a majority of our MPs forced to co-operate for the good of the country would be a very good thing indeed.

14 October 2015

Americans support Keystone, Canadians not so much

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline revealed some intriguing, and perhaps counterintuitive, results. According to the survey a majority of Americans solidly support Keystone, with almost twice as many supporting as opposing, while a majority of Canadians are against it. Only 42 per cent of Canadians are in favour of building the pipeline while almost half (48 per cent) are not. Keystone is, of course, intended to carry tar sands oil south to American refineries.

Our federal government has claimed Canadians want this pipeline, practically suggesting at times that opposing Keystone is tantamount to a lack of patriotism, if not outright treason. Mind you, according to the Pew survey, some Canadians do want it, specifically three-quarters of Conservatives and two-thirds of Albertans, but for most of us, it's no thanks.

The government, in other words, hasn't been accurately representing Canadians. But then it hasn't represented most of us much of the time—a governing party that has never been able to obtain the electoral support of even 40 per cent of the people isn't exactly the voice of the people. Some governments have been representative even though they only obtained minority electoral support simply by listening to a broad range voices, but this government has not been a listener.

In any case, if the Americans fail to approve Keystone, despite the Prime Minister insisting it's inevitable, they will simply be doing what most Canadians want. Odd, though, that we would have to rely on the U.S. government rather than our own to reflect our wishes.

11 October 2015

What are Canadian values, of what value are they, and who decides?

Prime Minister Harper, the "old stock" Canadian, recently made the odd remark, "I will never tell my young daughter that a woman should cover her face because she is a woman. That's not our Canada." Why such a notion should ever present itself to Mr. Harper is a mystery, but the part that caught my eye was, "That's not our Canada."

"Our" Canada? Stephen Harper's Canada is not my Canada. Can a man who once mocked Canadian values to an American audience, a man who wanted to build a firewall around Alberta to keep out Canadian values, a man who has disrespected Canadian courts and Canadian democracy, speak for Canadian values? This fellow is no fit arbiter of "our Canada."

But who is? Who can speak for Canadian values? There are many sets of values floating about the country: conservative, liberal, socialist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim ... the list is long and the spokespeople varied. And of course values constantly change. Gay marriage was, only a very short time ago, alien to Canadians; today it is widely accepted and approved of.

And how does a value become Canadian? When a majority accepts it? So are values held by minorities un-Canadian? How can that be when, as we often insist, tolerance is in itself a Canadian value?

And is the Canadian way necessarily the right way? At one time, "our Canada" denied women the vote, excluded Chinese and Aboriginals from citizenship, took Indian children away from their parents, and persecuted gays.

Some values are so widely supported and deeply ingrained, they might fit the bill as "our Canada." Those ensconced in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms come to mind. But many others are arbitrary and transient, and progress commonly involves challenging and overcoming accepted values.

Morally, issues should be judged on their individual merits, by appealing to principle and logic, not to the easy emotions engendered by slogans such as "our Canada," "the Canadian way" or "Canadian values." These are best left to the demagogues.

Telling your daughter that women should cover their faces because they are women isn't wrong because it isn't "our Canada." It's wrong because it denies women equality, including the right to make their own choices. The oppression is in the coercion. Oppressing women is the sin, not wearing a niqab, not being "unCanadian."

07 October 2015

Albertans support stronger climate change policies

A recent survey by EKOS Research Associates commissioned by the Pembina Institute reveals that Albertans' attitudes about energy and climate change are more progressive than many think.

For example, 50 per cent of Albertans support a carbon tax that applies to all polluters, both companies and individuals (38 per cent oppose the tax). Support rises when the revenue is used for projects that help reduce emissions, such as public transit, energy-efficient buildings and reducing emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Two-thirds of Albertans believe the government should prioritize diversifying the economy over improving the efficiency of the oil and gas industry.

A solid majority (70 per cent) support investment in renewables to reduce coal use, and 86 per cent believe the province should do more to support the development of clean energy.

As for further development of the tar sands, Albertans are split: 48 per cent think production should stay the same or be reduced while 43 per cent believe production should be larger. Seventy per cent believe the province should be stricter in enforcing tar sands environmental rules and safeguards.

Support for tar sands production remains higher than a realistic view of climate change can tolerate, nonetheless overall the attitudes are encouraging. There is grist here for the new government's mill for aggressive environmental action.

05 October 2015

Niqab nonsense—much ado about nothing

I am no fan of the niqab. Hell, I'm no fan of religion. But if a Moslem woman wants to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony for religious reasons, I can't think of a single reason why I, or the state on my behalf, should prevent her. As long, that is, as she is prepared to unveil privately to establish her identity.

And that, Zunera Ishaq the young mother who took the government's ban to court and won, was prepared to do. In fact, up until 2011 that's exactly what niqab-wearers were doing. There was no problem. Everything went smoothly. In accordance with the law of the day, the women revealed their faces privately to prove their identity and then were allowed to wear their face covering for the purely symbolic, public oath-taking ceremony. This is what we call in a civilized country a reasonable compromise. We Canadians are very good at it; it's why we are a peaceable kingdom.

And then the federal government decided to make trouble. Rejecting the advice of their own legal advisers, they passed legislation banning the niqab at the citizenship ceremony. Ms. Ishaq challenged the law in court and won. The government appealed and lost. Now it wants to appeal to the Supreme Court. All of this legal mischief will of course be at the taxpayer's expense.

This is not a new struggle for Ms. Ishaq. She chose to wear the niqab as a teenager in her native Pakistan, somewhat to the surprise of her liberal family and to the discomfort of her college teachers. She has never had a problem with revealing her face in private, as for example when she passes through airport security or when she obtained her driver's license. She is simply balking at exposing her face to a roomful of male strangers when there is no practical reason to do so.

One objection to the niqab is the notion that it represents male domination of women. I believe it does, but if a woman freely chooses to wear it, as Zunera Ishaq clearly does, that complaint is irrelevant. Indeed, there is no little hypocrisy in all this. For example, many of those Canadians objecting to wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies are members of the Catholic Church, Canada's largest religion. This institution, ruled entirely by men, dictates that women abstain from abortion and birth control. Men dictating women's intimate sexual practices is hardly less misogynous than requiring women to wear veils.

As for the government, Stephen Harper and his colleagues seem obsessed with Muslim practices. As The Independent commented, the niqab affair "smells like another attempt to mould the word 'security' around the religion of Islam." Do we see the evangelical Christian peeking out from behind the Prime Minister's skirts?

03 October 2015

Stephen Harper's sad little world of fear

I have tended to think of Stephen Harper's efforts to instill fear in Canadians as largely demagoguery. Governments creating a climate of fear to rally their people around them when they are in trouble is one of the oldest political gimmicks in the book. However, the more I observe Harper, the more I come to believe that he is truly a frightened man.

In an interview with Calgary Metro, he "warned of international financial crises, pandemics, terrorists and explained ... why Canadians can't have the kinder, gentler country the other leaders have been promising." "Fear," the interviewer concluded, "is a guiding factor for this leader."

I agree with the interviewer. Our prime minister is a man guided by fear. Unfortunately, his fear is irrational. We do, in today's world, have financial crises, pandemics and terrorists, but then we always have. The reality is that never in all history have ordinary people been more prosperous—or more secure—than we are in Canada today. If Mr. Harper knew his history, he would understand that. There is, in fact, no better time for a "kinder, gentler country."

If Harper was just an ordinary guy, I would feel sorry for him. It can't be pleasant living in a world of fear. But he isn't just an ordinary guy, he's our prime minister and he's trying to impose his angst on the rest of us. And a fearful society is not a healthy one. Fearful people are suspicious people who tend to isolate themselves from others, other societies, even from their neighbours when they are of a different race, religion or life style. It definitely does not lead to a kinder, gentler country.

If we believe in that kind of country, a country of open, confident and generous people, we have the unfortunate burden of countering Mr. Harper's insidious fearfulness. Or of electing a new prime minister.

02 October 2015

NDP attacks Trudeau—Harper grins

As I was about to mail another donation to the NDP earlier this week, I encountered the following headline on the CBC website: "NDP sets sights on Trudeau in bid to recapture momentum." No doubt the headline put a large grin on Stephen Harper's face. It put a large frown on mine. Wonderful, I thought, my party is now collaborating with the Conservatives to undermine their fellow progressives.

This is one of the most important elections in our history and from a progressive standpoint it has one overriding objective—rid the country of Stephen Harper. I was, therefore, in light of this new NDP campaign, wondering if my party had lost sight of the goal.

I recognize that as the campaign has progressed, Trudeau has improved his image, Mulcair not so much. No doubt the NDP wants to ensure that, regardless of the outcome, they don't end up playing second fiddle to the Liberals. I understand that but first things first. First defeat Harper, then quarrel over the spoils. If the Dippers feel a need to improve the image of their leader, they should work on that, not on undermining an ally in the greater cause.

In the end I did mail my donation but not, I admit, without being tempted to redirect it to the Liberals.