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

Steve and Laureen: Canada’s Coalition

Just thought I’d linger at the yawning jaws of Hades for a moment this afternoon (known quaintly as the Conservative party website), when I noticed a couple of interesting things.

One was seeing that Harper’s cringeworthy “I Get By with a Little Help From My Friends” (do you really?) piano recital is still front page news nearly a year later. “Look, he attempted charm, once!” It’s quite a testament to our significant political “fun deficit” that this should even be remembered, let alone lauded (as regards staged spontaneity, I have to confess to wishing we could get a PM with his own penchant for a Ray’s Hell Burger, but I digress).

Another feature I smiled at was the adolescent “Ignatieff Me!” mock site, which is also still front page news. Although there’s no mention anywhere of the biggest Conservative policy announcements of the past few months. No news about the jets? The census? The prisons? I guess it really is all about Ignatieff!

A third point of interest was seeing (the same photo of) Stockwell’s face gracing two separate articles. Desperate times when they not only decline to hide Stockwell Day, but double his exposure.

But my favourite part of the site was hovering over the “Leader” tab and seeing two figures listed: Stephen Harper, and then his wife Laureen.


Wow! That's why this government doesn't have a Deputy Prime Minister – it has a First Lady instead! So what are her leadership qualities?

– interested in Africa, and has visited 13 countries
– rides a motorbike and likes gardening
– volunteers for school bake sales

That is truly all fantastic stuff (riding a motorbike to a bake sale can’t go unnoticed), but as it doesn’t say anywhere that she’s run for office, been appointed to the Senate (yet), or that she holds a ministerial portfolio, why is she included as one of our leaders?

Is this Harperian coalition government at its finest?

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

War crimes and kangaroo courts

While Naomi Campbell complains about the colour of her blood diamonds at Charles Taylor’s UN SCSL war crimes tribunal, another farce of a trial is taking place elsewhere – and this farce could set horrendous international precedent as well.

In the first war crimes trial under President Obama‘s watch, a former child soldier is being tried by an American military court that hasn’t gained international legitimacy. Never mind the fact that Omar Khadr is Canadian, and the only western, and by far the youngest, tenant still resident at Guantanamo. That’s an embarrassment principally to Canadians, as our government denies any of the responsibility that other Western nations have taken in repatriating their citizens from a prison of felons without charges – indeed, our government helps people to stay in there. So much for protecting our citizens, or standing up for international law.

Where other western countries have successfully lobbied for the return of their nationals from Guantánamo, Canada has refused to intervene despite a recent court ruling that ordered it to remedy its failure to protect Khadr’s rights. The Guardian

The greater farce is that a boy of 15, without any real capacity to choose whether he’d be brought to Afghanistan or not, was incarcerated as a war criminal by sweeping U.S. forces in the earliest stages of the Afghan invasion, and is now being tried in a kangaroo court for crimes he may/may not have committed, using evidence that may/may not have been extracted under torturous duress, subject to a legal framework which isn’t internationally recognised, and which diminishes habeas corpus as well as the moral upper-hand in anything that the U.S. has been up to over the past 10 years in the Middle East.

Sucking up potential combatants and associates (including children) with a giant military vacuum cleaner, locking them up for a decade, and then deciding to press charges and try them in an illegitimate court is teeth-gnashingly wrongheaded for any democratic regime. To press ahead with this trial of a child soldier who’s spent over a quarter of his life in Guantanamo lays bare 1) Obama’s helplessness and 2) Obama’s carelessness. Of course, pressure from Ottawa could have helped, if only Harper would dare!

Charles Taylor’s UN-SCSL trial may have been temporarily dropped in tabloid muck thanks to Naomi Campbell’s airheaded testimony. But at least the United Nations acts as our singular, global agent for convening, designing and upholding international law, and it maintains a globally recognised convention of what a war crime is. The military tribunals for Guantanamo can’t even claim to have that legitimacy.

Filed under: International, Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,

Ignatieff: free advice!

It had to happen eventually, and now finally, EKOS is polling a dead heat between the Tories and Liberals. Crack open the champers!

Conservatives: 29.7%
Liberals: 28.5%
NDP: 17.4%
Green: 11.1%
Bloc: 10.4%
Other: 2.9%

Or….. maybe not yet.

Given how the past month has gone down, the Liberals can’t really party the night away on news that they’ve reached a mid-summer statistical tie with the Conservatives. Ignatieff has been on the bus, crossing the country, wearing ball caps, flipping burgers, drinking Molsons, and saying “darn” a lot. Harper, conversely, has been deep underground in his bat-filled lair, avoiding the press and the public, while his small cluster of trusted minions announce dreadfully unpopular measure after dreadfully unpopular measure.

With the stage set thus, most self-respecting Liberals should be at wit’s end that they aren’t at least five, six, seven points clear of the Tories. Liberals might take some comfort in the trend, of course. But whither the momentum of summer trends?

I do believe that Ignatieff’s “Liberal Express” tour (while boringly named) has been a necessary project and a good one, and it’s basically been a success in terms of what it set out to do. The hokey flannel shirts and folksy demeanour are going some way to naturalise him in the public’s company, and while I cringe at his forced “darn it to hecks” when we know he is actually kind of articulate, I can’t fault the effort to get his ear to the ground.

The thing is, it’s not enough. Mastering small-town Canada isn’t just about mimicking it. It’s about earning its respect by showing you can fight and win, not get bullied, and not appear to get out-smarted or out-muscled.

The Tories have inflicted upon themselves a perfect storm of cock-ups this summer, and it’s a chance that may not come again soon. Ignatieff needs to go for the jugular a bit. The EKOS poll reflects a real measure of disenchantment with Stephen Harper. But when Canadians feel that disenchantment, and they look to Ignatieff as a prospective alternative, it doesn’t do for him just to keep flipping those burgers.

While manning the BBQ, Ignatieff should also be confronting this summer’s events with some assertive, quoteworthy, concrete answers to what he’d do differently and better. It can be topical and still fit into the whole party vision thing. We should hear stuff like:

    The Census

The decision to axe the long-form census demonstrates Harper’s disregard for evidence-based decision-making, and his disinterest in preparing for how our country is changing. If we were in government, we’d re-implement the mandatory long-form while removing the jail threat for non-compliance. I think enough communities and organisations in Canada have made clear that’s in their interests.

    The Jets

No one goes and buys a car without first shopping around. Truth is that the untendered purchase of these F-35 is bad economics, and moreover, I don’t believe these jets are fit for purpose. Neither the Afghan mission nor Canada’s Arctic sovereignty will benefit by this. We’d equip our armed forces for what they need, not just what other countries need. And as always, we’d do it with a sound, prudent, Liberal approach to spending.

    The Economy

We’ve gone from surplus to record deficit in no time flat. A lot of this is down to the global economic crisis: but once in deficit, you don’t spend billions on new prisons when violent crime’s going down; billions on jet fighters that aren’t fit for purpose; millions more on a PMO communications budget when the simplest and cheapest way for the PM to communicate would be to go out in public and face the press. We’d end this reckless, spendthrift Conservative Party approach to the economy.

This would just be a start, but it’s a topical start. I think by hammering the Tories on their weak points, the Liberals will look not only folksy and friendly, but ready to govern. And by debunking the idea that the Tories are “good with money,” you remove the only leg they’re trying to stand on, no? It’s at least worth a shot, especially while Canadians are desperately grasping out for some good reason to vote Liberal again.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , , ,

Growing into the marriage

They’re beginning to get it.

The UK’s coalition government, while perfectly functional so far, has been beset by two main troubles:

1) party leaders who are each much more enthusiastic about coalition than their respective parties are. David Cameron loves it because he can use the Lib Dems as leverage against the Thatcherites on his far right, and Nick Clegg loves it because he gets to be called “Deputy Prime Minister” and feels as though this is the opportunity for his party to finally be viewed as a “party of government.” If only their parliamentary parties were as chuffed.

2) perceived, and real, sycophancy from Clegg towards Cameron. In effort to appear central to government decision-making, Nick Clegg has publicly agreed with all kinds of things his party blatantly does not agree with, and which contradict his own recent election campaign. This breeds resentment among Team Yellow, and has hurt Clegg (and thus the apparent durability of the coalition) relatively badly.

To address these challenges, I’ve thought that the Lib Dems (maybe counter-intuitively) need to disagree with the Tories more often, and more loudly. They need to be consistent in the message they made during the campaign – that they disagree with severe budget cuts, that they remain committed to creating equality of opportunity, that they ideally want a scrapping of tuition fees and a nuclear weapons programme, etc. – and stress that, as a junior partner in coalition, they won’t get their way every time. There are going to be some nasty policies which are all Cameron’s fault. Go on and say it guys – it won’t cause a divorce.

The Lib Dems deputy leader Simon Hughes has taken a step in the right direction over Cameron’s plans to end lifelong council housing tenancies. Hughes says:

“It’s a prime ministerial idea, it has no more validity yet, and I think our party would need a lot of persuading that it has merit or could work and that’s something clearly if he wants us to talk about we’re happy to talk about.”

That is, we didn’t dream this one up, we don’t much like it, and if the Tories want to pursue it, we’re going to need some give and take. That is much better for the Lib Dems’ integrity than pretending they really believed in curtailing housing benefits all along, which, while an attempt to seem supremely influential at government’s heart, just discredits the whole idea that the Lib Dems ever offered anything new.

So yes, good for Hughes – create respectful space. Defend your corner, and reach any compromise with dignity intact. I hope Clegg is listening.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , , ,

Can’t buy me truth

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything – sorry! If only I had a communications budget, I could satisfy myself with doing this full-time.

Why, coincidentally, a communications budget is just what this is about! Stephen Harper, despite a famous disdain and disregard for facing the press himself, puts a lot of stock in managing the message. He’s spent money designing websites which do nothing but crudely mock his opponents. He’s got spooks trawling newspaper comment boards, paid to post loyal partisan garbage and to cheerlead any and every boneheaded policy the Prime Minister’s introduced. All of that costs cash.

How much is it worth to our *throat clearing noise* fiscally conservative PM? Nearly $10 million. That’s a $1 million budget hike from the previous year.

What the media can’t be trusted to deduce on their own, they must be force-fed, I suppose is the Harperian logic here. That as well as the full knowledge that his party is really a sprawling motley crew of far-right Reformers who don’t believe in evolution, along with occasional red/centre Tories – with such profound potential for internal strife and contradiction, this PM has been very clear he’ll wield an iron-clad and incredibly well-resourced communications machine to present the Conservative Party as something unified, accountable, and moderate – and to do that primarily, of course, by obsessively demonising the Liberals.

Prime Minister’s Office communications budgets, though, are drawn from public funds. The PMO is not meant to be a giant clunking arm of the ruling party, with its associated propaganda. Drawing $10 million from public coffers for partisan purposes seems, to me, like something that ought to outrage actual fiscal conservatives out there, who supposedly supported Harper once upon a time because he seemed genuine in his small-state convictions and his accountability mantra. What conservative voters have got, though, is a spendthrift who’s plunged the Canadian economy from longstanding surplus to a $50 billion (and counting) deficit, and now spends even more to better manage the message.

But, oh, can we blame them. Brain transplants are expensive, and surely that’s going to be a line item in the new comms budget, what with Stockwell Day talking in public! According to Day, we need to build more prisons because, while violent crime rates are going down, 2004 StatsCan figures indicate that unreported crime (though non-violent) is going up. He also suggests that StatsCan data is unreliable and outdated, which is why they’re scrappnig the mandatory long form.

Having your cake and eating it too, are you? Or just smearing it all over your face?

The reporters at this press conference are brilliant. “You’re not making sense,” says one. Suppose there’s no clearer rationale for a $10 million communications budget than this.

But, back to a point raised earlier in the post. Harper’s monitoring of online chat and comment boards. It comes as little surprise to me, as someone who spends some time on the Globe and Mail boards – the excruciatingly high volume of redundant partisan noise coming from the Blue Tribe just doesn’t jive with the lacklustre 30% polling that the Tories manage nationwide.

If only the government could pay them to think, too. Unfortunately for them, hiring trolls to cheerlead Harper as “best PM ever!!!” and to parrot anti-Liberal talking points doesn’t really fool anyone. It only raises eyebrows and turns middle-of-the-road voters off from the barking nutbar crowd in Harper’s employ.

Oh well, what’s another bullet in the foot, eh Steve?

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , , ,


August 2010

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