Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

1+1<2?

Andrew Steele has come out firmly against the idea of a Liberal-NDP merger with the logic that most Liberal voters actually don’t prefer the NDP as their second choice, nor do most NDP voters automatically default to the Liberals for their second choice – at least, so says this March EKOS poll. So, a Canadian “Lib Dem” party would be an example of 1+1=less than 2.

Though not famed for my math skills, I agree with the above – though for me, it’s only half the argument. I’m a big supporter of coalition talks and party cooperation – but merger talk is a non-starter. Not only because 1+1 equal less than 2, as Steele argues, but it’s also clear that one of the Liberals’ biggest problems is internal disunity. Martin, Dion, and Ignatieff aren’t in themselves the “problem” – what leader could possibly hope to unite the disparate factions from the party’s left, its right, its Chretienite, etc.? (The only thing that can really unify Liberals, it seems to me, is the immediate prospect of electoral success – a collective “don’t cock this up” mentality takes over, and the internal rivalries subside).

Complicating the left by trying to create a big-top circus-tent “progressive” party would exacerbate these problems – we’d end up with a big broad party which is more internally factionalised, vaster-and-vaguer with lowest-common-denominator policies, and less able to define itself through an “elevator pitch” than today’s Liberal Party. (Plus, I could never advocate reducing the number of options on our ballot papers!)

Better than this merger talk would be the Liberals accepting the NDP position that we need electoral reform, which could lead to progressive votes, from Green to Liberal to NDP, going further and being accurately reflected in the House – plus we’d be protecting a vibrant multiparty democracy, rather than slipping towards bland, bipartisan centrism.

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Filed under: Canada, Politics, , ,

Legacy of kitsch

When Jean Chrétien was asked last week what he thought of a Liberal-NDP full-blown party merger, he now-famously replied “If it’s doable, let’s do it.”

Lots of ink has been spilled as to how and why the former PM could be so seemingly cavalier about the prospect of dissolving his party fully into an elephantine Canadian version of the Liberal Democrats. Maybe it’s his frustration with Ignatieff’s lacklustre leadership. Maybe it’s his realisation that the Liberal Decade of the 1990s, under his watch, was so secure mainly because the Bloc had emerged to swallow Québec anti-federalist votes, and the right-wing was not only split, but still genuinely loathed.

I happen to wonder whether Chrétien was just trying to deflect attention away from his official portrait, unveiled last week. The Little Guy always had been quite brazenly concerned about the kind of legacy he would leave once out of office – this portrait indicates that he still ought to be concerned.

A wonderfully nutty compilation of equally-disturbing and hilarious official portraits can be found here, which should be official viewing for anyone getting ready for a close-up in oils.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , ,

Basically, they’re from Tooting

Marcel Theroux on divided loyalties in the World Cup:

“It has always seemed obvious to me that nationality is a fiction, anyway. The nation state is a bogus construct: our real ties are with families and neighbourhoods. My children are Anglo-Welsh-Americans of French-Canadian and Italian extraction. But, basically, they’re from Tooting.”

Brilliant article – and, whatever home is, this hits close to it.

Read the full thing here.

Filed under: Uncategorized, , ,

Lesotho: State of Mind

There are few terms more evocative in describing a place than “Mountain Kingdom.” I mean, really! Two words is all it takes to conjure enigmatic visions of canyons shaded by endless rows of razor-sharp peaks, fortifying an ancient culture against the relentless globalising whitewash that surrounds. I am a rock – I am an island – I am the Mountain Kingdom.

Yet news comes of rising sentiment within Africa’s tiny Mountain Kingdom, Lesotho, that it should forego its independence and merge into South Africa.

Amazing stuff – our first reaction may be damp-squibbism. Why would any nation of people choose to submerge themselves into the gargantuan state of their neighbours? Why this opposite approach to the romantic militarism of liberation struggles worldwide?

I love Lesotho, and love it more for the complex discussion they’re embarking on: this disentanglement of the hyphen in “nation-state,” unravelling the term into two distinct things. So comes the question: what is it that a nation needs to survive?

Bit of background
Lesotho is a small, landlocked country, completely surrounded by regional giant South Africa, yet utterly distinct, and not through accident. The late 19th C saw widespread scattering of Southern African peoples during what was called the Difaqane – something of a multi-front, multi-participant tumbling-domino-trail of invasion and counter-invasion – resulting in part from the exploits of an expansionist, maize-fuelled, water-needy Zulu army.

The Basotho, once plain-dwelling herders, retreated into a patch of the Maluti Mountains under the leadership of clan chief, and eventual king, Moshoeshoe, and from this forbidding mountain fortress, successfully fended off the Zulu and other competing nations from getting at them. The British helped too by giving the Basotho special protectorate status as Basutholand, which would become the independent state of Lesotho in 1966.

A century spent together in the mountains, surrounded by an apartheid South African regime, bred unique cross-community distinctions in Lesotho. They developed a national dress: peaked wicker hats with broad, sun-shading brims, and colourful blankets bound with a sash. They developed a national folklore around the heroic exploits of Moshoeshoe. They developed national dishes from what they could prepare in the dry valley beds: maize porridge and corn meal at the heart of it.

So what came first – the nation or the state? Political autonomy secured the Basotho people during a time of widespread unrest, and allowed them to forge a common identity and develop a lasting sense of nationhood which isn’t going away. But today, is the state required, or instead could it be actually detrimental, in helping this nation to survive?

Lesotho suffers from the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world, where one in three people live with the disease. This has led to huge numbers of AIDS orphans – as it is, 75% of Basotho people are either under 15 years old or over 65. Waged labour is out of sight, and opportunities to work in South African mines have dwindled since the 1990s. A Guardian article featuring Lesotho notes that:

Valleys have been flooded to produce dams to feed Johannesburg, 250 miles away, with water. Yet a third of the country’s wells are dry. Its highly mechanised new diamond plant has failed to absorb tens of thousands of labourers laid off by South African mines. Even its textile industry – which at its height employed 50,000 people – has collapsed. Salaries are low. A factory worker in Bloemfontein earns around 2,400 rands (£213) a month against 700 maloti (£63) in the constantly retrenching Chinese–owned textile plants of Lesotho. The impact of Aids – brought in by the migrant workforce – has ruined the economy. Uniquely in the developing world, Lesotho’s deaths are close to outnumbering its births. A third of the population is HIV positive.

The greatest threat to nationhood isn’t the absence of a state, I’d argue: much worse is death, more death, and diaspora, which is what the Lesotho people face in great number now. This is what threatens to dissolve the bonds of nationhood that have been forged through so much struggle. A hull of a state, as invigourating as its anthem may be, can’t turn this tide around alone.

It seems important to “unpack” (sorry) terms like freedom and independence if they’re going to be actually achieved. Surely real freedom for a people has to be the freedom to live and work together and live the way they aspire to live. Liberty’s in the living…..

An impoverished statelet is hardly the surest route to providing a nation with that liberty – now less so than ever, as global forces conspire in all kinds of ways. Too often, statelets are only ceremonially independent: they rely on bigger neighbours who place demands on trade conditions; they rely on transnational firms with their own prescription for your labour policy; they rely on donor agencies with their own five-year plans to save your souls…. and none of those powers are democratically accountable to the nation.

This de jure sovereignty in the face of de facto dependence is a tricky and uncomfortable question, I suspect, for those who’ve struggled to defend their nation against a neighbouring oppressor. But what do you do when protecting the nation isn’t best done through building archaic state institutions in a world that’s got different kinds of oppressors? I can’t help but think that, if the neighbouring environment has stopped being hostile, then joining up with a boring old broad-based, civic-minded, democratic federation that can support itself might do more in the aim of nation-building than any flag-raising ceremony.

Filed under: Africa, International, Politics, , ,

Winning, losing, and that other thing

"You mean you've got TWO parties in your government?"

My second post – it’s a warm feeling! Even if the post is in response to Norman Spector of the Globe, and Stephen Harper.

The running commentary in Canada since the UK election has of course been a real coming-of-age. While the term “coalition” has been utterly toxic in Canada since the ill-fated attempt by the Liberals and NDP in December 2008, now the Canadian media has a golden example of harmonious partisan inter-mingling to gaze upon: Britain.

Sure, Germany, Japan, India, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Israel, and 10 of the world’s 16 triple-A economies are all run by coalition governments – but now that the UK has joined the club, this just resonates in Canada differently. There’s no denying that the colonial mother figure still holds a lot of sway! Now, in the eyes of the press and it seems the public arena writ large, coalition is moving from the realm of barely legal to outright legitimate.

This has focused Canadian minds on what the aftermath of our next election will be. With no party polling over 35%, and a hung parliament as likely as its been for the past six years, no longer can formal bipartisan government be spun as some kind of unholy betrayal. And, it seems, no longer is it the default option for Canadians to accept unitary government from a party that only secured a third of the votes in the country.

And so it is that Stephen Harper would like to refine his old message: standing alongside David Cameron last week, Harper was forced to confess that there is indeed legitimacy to coalition government – but only when the largest party is involved. “Losers don’t get to form coalitions,” Harper declared, referring to the second- and fourth-place finishes of the Liberals and NDP in their 2008 dalliance.

And the Globe’s Norman Spector has run with this particular ball, insisting that “coalitions of losers” are fundamentally different from coalitions involving the first place party.

Spector and Harper are either missing the point completely, or they are deliberately obfuscating it. Two reasons:

1) if no party has secured 50% of the seats, then I’d deem them all “losers.” David Cameron has said so himself, as the leader of the UK’s largest party.

2) a democratically accountable government (“simple concept, really”) should represent the majority of popular opinion as expressed in an election – period. If it takes two parties to do that, then I agree it would be nice if the largest party were a part of that, but it’s by no means essential. As everybody knows, Israel is governed today by a rainbow coalition of four parties, none of which came in first in the election. And Harper is a friend of Israel, no? It’s also happening in the Czech Republic right now, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t – better, always, that a government represents the majority, not just a large plurality.

The Conservatives in Canada keep trying to spin the whole concept of coalition out of the ballpark of public opinion, using a whole range of different rationales. One day it’s because of distaste for the Bloc, the next day coalitions are fundamentally undemocratic, and the next day they’re acceptable so long as parties at a certain threshold of seats in the House are involved. It’s a lot of flipping and flopping for someone of Harper’s stoic demeanour, when the core reason for his frustration with coalition is plain as day – he’s not a “partnership” kind of person.

Filed under: Canada, Politics,

Some of my best friends are bloggers

Late as always, I’ve decided in the middle of the year 2010 to set up, and hopefully keep up, a weblog for the very first time. Having so far successfully stayed out of the twittosphere, I just could not resist the magnetic pull of this other sphere – the blogosphere – any longer.

Why?

I don’t know.

But here’s a little about what this blog thingy is for – for the most part, I envisage this as being like an all-healing oasis in a desert of broken glass. A whirlpool of glorious light, warm on the skin, spiraling ever-closer from the depths of a once-dark sky.

Either that, or it is a political blog.

I’m a Canadian in the UK with a huge appetite for Canadian and British political to-ings and fro-ings, with a special interest in issues of foreign policy, electoral and constitutional reform, political communication – I’m also quite into international affairs, especially within the Asia-Pacific, Central Asia, and the EU.

I’m not really a one-eyed partisan or a fierce patriot (I’ve got nothing against face-paint during the World Cup though). I prefer the global to the nationalistic, and as for where I sit on the political spectrum, it’s somewhere beneath the right part of the left wing. I call it “the armpit.”

My life isn’t totally focused around this armchair-politico malarkey – there are dinners to cook, music to play, and stories to write! But while I have outlets for those other things, my only outlet for political musings has been on the Globe and Mail comment boards where I go by the name PolyGon. I enjoy the discussions and the occasional sparring match on there, and while running the risk of sounding immodest, I think I’m approximately 100% right 100% of the time.

So here’s the new permanent home of PolyGon, and if it ever feels relevant, I may repost Globe comments here to save me doing a lot of retyping – but fear not if you are already bored to tears by the thought of reading this thing – to spice up this blogging life, I’ll post random bits and bobs of interest, and I do promise to once in a while do something crazy, i.e. post a photo of my dinner, if I think it looks tasty.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, ,

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