Polygonic

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

Who owns socialism?

With a shrug and a sigh, the NDP have delayed a decision on whether they are socialist, or social democratic. I shrugged and sighed too – this decision was to be a fascinating moment, and they kind of let that pass.

Sure, it’s only language, and a single word-change at that. But the biggest question seemed to me to be, who was motivating this change? Who do the NDP believe owns the word socialist? Is it them, and so what they do with it is very much their own decision? Or is it the Conservatives, who have appropriated it like a weapon with which to beat Layton up over the next four years?

I remember the 2004 U.S. election particularly well, not only for its result (I’m reminded of Dubya’s victory in the face of total incompetence whenever I contemplate Harper’s new majority), but also for one of the more effective political grenades the Republicans were able to lob – the word liberal. Every chance George W. Bush got to call John Kerry a liberal, he would. He’d sneer it. Liberal. Nothin’ but a fancy-pants liberal.

Now, any dictionary definition of liberalism will correspond pretty well to the philosophies at the heart of every Western democracy, with fuzzy margins, but that simply doesn’t matter in electoral campaigns that are more blunt bludgery than nuanced debate. By taking the word liberal and infusing it with satanic undertones, proud patriotic American liberals were left reeling. Their identity had become illegitimate. They scrambled for words like progressive to try and claim territory that wasn’t tainted, and that mad scramble suited (and suits) the American right just fine.

I always found that a uniquely American problem, but clearly it’s North American all told. We heard Dimitri Soudas bleating End-Is-Nigh-style “socialists and separatists” warnings for the best part of two years as Harperian Ottawa set about its root-to-tip demonisation of all opposition. And so, it’s understandable that the New Democrats may want to adjust to the new reality: the word socialist is passé, problematic, and out of their control any longer. The word belongs to Harper, so just let him have it.

In defense of socialism, though, look to Europe. Socialism isn’t just a single word buried in left-wing party constitutions, it is a word worn proudly, out in front, on campaign buttons and ballot papers. The main French Opposition is the Socialist Party. The Germans pre-Merkel were governed by the Socialist Party. Spain is governed by the Socialist Party, as is Greece and, till lately, lately Portugal. The second largest bloc of European MEPs in Brussels is the Socialist bloc. Even Tony Blair called himself a socialist, and he wasn’t an angstrom further to the left of Michael Bloomin’ Ignatieff.

The right may point to Europe’s woes as the product of all this damn socialism, which is mostly wrong and also besides the point. Modern European “socialism” is really no more radical than anything advocated by Canada’s Liberal Party, or Obamaesque wings of the American Democratic Party. The word doesn’t need cotton padding, because Europeans aren’t cowed by dark nightmares of Young Pioneers, or snooping Stasi, or state management of love lives and sugar intake, every time a socialist takes to the stump. The scare-mongering doesn’t work as well, perhaps because Europeans know what actual authoritarianism looks like – and Ségolène Royal ain’t it.

North America’s left has a greater challenge to manage its identity in the face of a more broadly suspicious media and a more brutalist political class. That’s a reality, and it leaves me torn on the NDP’s big question. I am all for New Democrats doing what they can to get MPs in seats and to encourage steady fundraising, and cleaning up their constitution can be a part of that.

But they must be careful to ensure it is they who define those changes, and they who define their language. Reclaiming language from those who use it negatively may demonstrate greater confidence than reaching for the Thesaurus of Friendly Words. It’s sensible to do what you can to beat back a Right which will inevitably come snarling with accusations of radicalism. But perhaps a reclamation of socialist virtue is still a way to do that.“Socialists? Maybe we are. And here’s what it means.”

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

What’s so wrong with the rough and tumble?

From Canada’s blushing outrage at Brigette DePape’s stop sign, to the House of Commons’ brand-new heckle-bans, it seems there’s little more important these days than the skin of respectful politesse. Any concern, though, for the health of the deeper corpus?

The British House of Commons, for example, is not a place characterised by decorum, but most would say it works well. It is indeed a raucous chamber of loud hoots and heckles, brazen browbeatings, laddish one-liners, and disparaging quips. Teasing “yeas!” and “whoas!” are bellowed from the backbenches, in support or in attack, of leaders’ proclamations. Each session of Prime Minister’s Questions truly feels like trial by drunken fraternity, and both Labour Leader Ed Miliband and PM David Cameron dish out, and receive, the kinds of bruising blows that would absolutely liquify Stephen Harper et al.

Watch yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions for a sample.

But what’s telling, and it came up in yesterday’s session, is that, in both the Canadian and British Parliaments, one thing you cannot do is accuse another member of lying. Because that’s impolite. Cameron made the mistake of accusing Miliband of “misleading the House,” which led the Speaker to demand a retraction.

Cameron said median (hospital) waiting times had gone down and claimed Miliband had misled the house about the issue two weeks ago, prompting an intervention from the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, who urged him to withdraw the remark in line with protocol.

Cameron said: “What I meant, of course … he gave an interesting use of facts in terms of waiting times, which are down in the NHS (National Health Service).”

Miliband responded: “The whole house will notice he didn’t withdraw that, and obviously he is rattled about the health service.”

“After a year, he’s proved the oldest truth in politics – you can’t trust the Tories on the NHS.”

Such protocol is one component of a broad effort to maintain a some semblance of dignified decorum in the House, and fine. But I do find it a cruel irony that, while a Parliamentarian can be admonished by the Speaker for accusing another of lying, they are not similarly admonished for doing the actual lying.

John Baird earlier this year claimed, in the House of Commons, that allowing Emirates Airlines three more landing slots at Canadian airports would cost “tens of thousands” of Canadian jobs. Remember that? Tens of thousands! Jeez Louise, John. There really aren’t more than 90,000 Canadians employed in the Canadian aviation industry all told, so far as I can figure, so any labourers counted in the plural units of 10,000 implies up to a quarter of the sector. They were all at risk of unemployment? Because of Emirates? Three landing spaces? If our aviation industry is so imperilled, then let’s get talking about that!

Decorum, deschmorum, Baird deserved a routing for peddling patently vacuous lies in the House of Commons, but even in the 40th Parliament, for all it’s “roughness,” he didn’t get one. He should have been mocked and hollered at, torn a new one, politically discredited and accused – indeed – of lying. Because that’s what he did, and that ought to be considered the greatest affront to good government.

The self-policed Parliamentary politesse that everyone seems interested in is a skin-deep solution that does not cure the rot in politics. It’s never been the roughhousing that turn citizens off politics – we’re hockey fans, remember? No, it’s the lies. Brazen dishonesty, without reprimand or consequence, is the real sin that’s ailing our politics.

Civility is nice, and there is nothing to admire in personal attacks or irrelevant insults. But the tone of Parliamentary debate is a secondary concern to the substance of it. The real game misconducts should be reserved for outright lies.

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

Libya exists. Is that our policy?

I’ve been very keen to see how John Baird handles his massive new brief (I did not say massive briefs) and, with the 41st Parliament’s first Question Period now behind us, I’ve already got a question. Enter this short exchange:


Hon. Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, France and Italy have recognized the Libyan National Council as that country’s legitimate government. Can the Minister of Foreign Affairs clarify Canada’s position on this?

Hon. John Baird (Minister of Foreign Affairs, CPC): Mr. Speaker, in Canada we recognize states, not particular governments.



Uhhhhh….. I may not have ascended to Bairdist thinking on the concept of sovereignty, but I worry that he’s talking borderline impossible here. It’s akin to saying “In Canada, we recognize marriage, not husbands or wives.” Sorry, but unless you recognise the role of husband or the wife, then where in the world is the marriage?

When Canada refused to recognise the presidency of Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast, after challenger Alassane Ouattara had won the election, we were taking a position on legitimacy. It wasn’t saying “We think the Ivory Coast exists.” It was saying “We think the responsibility for running this territory falls to Government X.” Making those decisions and determinations is at the heart of what Foreign Policy is.

It’s not easy. States are not like the Canadian Shield, or the Moon, which exist whether you like them or not, and which exist outside human institutions and imagination. States explicitly require government, and this means the entire establishment of governance. The civil service, the armed forces, the whole elaborate apparatus of collective control. When two separate sets of this apparatus vye for overall control of a recognised territory, it does not do for us to suggest that we “recognise Libya to exist.” Eh? So what?

States require governance, and legitimate statehood requires both the consent of the governed, and the assent of other, peer governments, such as our own. Sometimes the balance there isn’t fair – often it’s not realistic. But that’s the big question Dominic LeBlanc was asking, and Baird fluffed it.

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

Blasphemy, paper tigers, and the Senate

Traditions of civil disobedience are responsible for democracy’s every last advance. This isn’t to overblow the consequence of Brigette DePape’s Senate protest, but it is to congratulate it. Canada’s going nowhere without the kind of gutsiness and strength-in-conviction she showed by stepping out like that.

I’ve been a bit amazed by some of the discourse I’ve read about it, leading me to realise that Sarah Palin and I agree profoundly on at least two things: 1) the mainstream media is, well, lame, and 2) it’s fun to ride in helicopters. Though I’ve never shot anything from one before.

Evan Solomon got the chance to interview Brigette DePape, and I found him extraordinarily defensive of the inviolable holiness of Senate and of Parliament. Democracy, that most ethereal and ungraspable of human endeavours, made real in towers of Parliamentary stone! Do not sully its grandeur with petty pranks, little Brigette! How dare you blaspheme in the very crucible of our sovereign liberty! Horrible girl!

Indeed, yes, quite. I’m less concerned about Senate having been violated by a 21-year old page with a paper stop sign, and rather more concerned about the abuses to our democratic institutions meted out by the Prime Minister himself. To use the Red Chamber, as he does, as a personal Infantry of Losers, failed MPs, sycophant journalists and barons of friendly enterprise, is to truly piss on the rug of our democracy. To politicise independent commissions, to rubbish their findings, to fire the civil servants who head them because they do not conform to the political agenda of the government – that is the proverbial Bird-Flipping in the face of institutional democracy that worries me more.

Even Elizabeth May tutted DePape, saying it was a protest in the wrong place and time. This is Elizabeth May we’re talking about, whose Green Party only ever achieved anything like mainstream status by standing on the shoulders of unpopular and untactful movements that came before it, which helped to slowly raise and then normalise public discussion around the environment, which slowly led to where they are today. Ordinary people, no matter how subservient they “ought” to be, speaking truth to power, fully cognizant of the personal sacrifice that involves. And the Green Party is tutting?

Anyone tutting and complaining that DePape showed a tactless contempt for Senate should slap themselves (with my eager assistance) until they sort out the none-too-subtle difference between contempt, and CONTEMPT.

Tragedy being, while she got fired for her “contemptuous” display, Harper got an expanded mandate and more power over our democratic institutions after his.

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

Arithmetic shocker: Majority oppose Conservatives

Smack my gob. A revealing CBC investigation has exposed an electoral arithmetical travesty, hitherto unseen. Apparently, only two-fifths of Canadians support key CPC policies, whilst a clear majority of people oppose them and don’t want them implemented.

Key Conservative policies lack clear support

A majority of Canadians don’t support corporate tax cuts and are opposed to buying the F-35 fighter jets, two major pieces of the Conservative government’s plan for the country, a new poll suggests.

In a new poll conducted for CBC News following the May 2 federal election, 53 per cent of people surveyed said they were opposed to dropping the corporate tax rate from 16.5 per cent to 15 per cent. About two-fifths — 39 per cent — agreed with the cut and eight per cent weren’t sure.

Just more than half — 52 per cent — said Canada should not go ahead with the purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets, while 37 per cent polled said the government should buy the planes. Twelve per cent said they didn’t know.

So, roughly the same number of people who voted Conservative support Conservative policies. While roughly the same number of people who didn’t vote Conservative don’t support Conservative policies.

The mystery clearly doesn’t lie here. Indeed, there’s a weird relief in seeing that, in the absence of a sitting parliament, voters’ views haven’t done a lot of capricious shifting.

No, the mystery is why we tolerate a voting system that generates majority governments with less than 2/5 popular support.

I’d like to “blame Canada” and say, well, you got what you voted for. But you didn’t, did you?

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

Media malaise? It’s a Canuck thing

I’m going verbatim copy-and-paste here (pretending I’m Jane Taber with a CPC memo to members, of course) and reproducing the comment I placed on the murky swamp of the Globe and Mail’s comment boards beneath Lawrence Martin’s article: Has the fourth estate lost its tenacity?

I refrained from replying to the argument with the a single word – "duh!" – and thought instead I'd beat a drum I often beat. Sorry if it comes off as too familiar…

THANK YOU for this critique. As you must know, Lawrence, the Globe is among the worst offenders in the Canadian media universe. The Globe seems to run more copy on Ruth-Ellen Brosseau than it does on Kevin Page. It’s pathetic with a capital P.

You say: “The stories (or contempt, corruption etc) don’t stick, it is said. The reason may well be, to cite Mr. Thomson’s cautionary words, because we in the media don’t stick to them. It’s episodic journalism. We report one story, then move on. We don’t probe deeply. If a Watergate was happening, the public would never know it.”

It is worth remembering, I think, that this is not a global problem. We can’t only blame the “24-hour news cycle” and the pressures of online publishing. It’s a particularly Canadian problem – the Canadian media, bar a couple of exceptions, is uncritical, unimaginative, and doesn’t investigate. It’s a lukewarm media culture where, bizarrely, no one’s speaking truth to power.

Compare Britain. The British media are relentlessly investigative; more diverse, with at least nine national dailies; each of them are openly subjective, and they engage in debate from clear positions; and, crucially, British journos do *not* suffer fools. I’ve said many times, as a Canadian in the UK: if Stephen Harper were a politician in Britain, he would have long ago been eaten *alive*

I’m imagining David Cameron redacting the budget for a crime bill. Or stacking the House of Lords with defeated MP candidates, and delivering the news through a memo, and not through a live press conference. I’m imagining him limiting reporters’ questions to five-a-day during an election campaign. I guarantee you he’d be toast – absolute dead meat. The British media demand accountability, whereas too much Canadian media simply parrot government talking points.

It’s awful news for Canada that the media culture is so tepid, shallow, and almost disinterested in fostering public debate. Too many journos appear happy to just eat what they’re fed by the PMO.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , ,

Some summit perspective

G8 times are here again! And France gets its day in the sun as host, which clearly heralds the ascent of a new French Order in Europe and the world. It will inevitably send their newspapers and TV chat hosts into a month-long tizzy of neurotic self-congratulation and overblown patriotism. Nicolas Sarkozy will almost certainly cite this as evidence that France has matured into a really, really respected power – respected, and loved, and more than capable of organising big dinner parties. Right? Right??

Or is that kind of parochial identity anguish a particularly Canadian phenomenon? Sigh.

We remember it well. Last year, the Canadian media universe (i.e. the Globe and Mail), and the Harper Government together, each treated our hosting of the G8 as though it was the victory in a highly competitive popularity contest. It was the culmination of years of leadership on the world stage. That ill-founded conceit was hyped not only directly from the PMO, but also in copy-and-paste form in the columns of that critical eye, that investigative journalistic powerhouse, Jane Taber. Canada had suddenly become a strong, bold, respected international player, because, well, it was our turn to host a big dinner party. One which happens every year, somewhere in the world.

Harper is still talking about it as though it’s some kind of lasting evidence of his global leadership. Let’s compare world leaders on this – does anyone think Nicolas Sarkozy (and Le Monde) are so insecure about France’s accomplishments in the world that they’ll weep tears of joy this week because they’re in the international news? Equally, will the world look to France as being somehow “bolder” because they’re hosting the thing?

If the answer is “no” there, then sadly, it was always “no” here too.

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

A future Liberal Party may want to consider…

There’s a lot of personal tragedy in elections, and it couldn’t get any worse for Michael Ignatieff. He’s finally succumbed to wounds meted out by the most vile, relentless attack ad machinery Canada’s ever seen. Shamefully, a huge hunk of the electorate swallowed it all hook, line and sinker – so much for our compassionate discourse. Turns out Canada is more Zdeno Chara than Wayne Gretzky after all.

Ignatieff will be wondering why he ever bothered, and the scale of this defeat will haunt him forever and ever, though in most respects, he doesn’t deserve that kind of torturous retirement from politics.

After all, he did resist the Big Blue Sauronic Machine more effectively than Stephane Dion ever did, at least personally. The problems in the recent couple of years were that slowness and confusion in Liberal responses to CPC tactics, or to policy generally, were rooted in a broad lack of clarity across Liberal High Command.

The vagueness of today’s Liberal identity isn’t Ignatieff’s fault, nor was it Dion’s, or Martin’s – it’s perhaps a consequence of a phenomenon known as toomanycooksism. Everyone’s got a bright idea about how the LPC should have created itself in the aftermath of the Martin Meltdown in 2006. The problem has been, maybe, that a thousand flowers blooming inside the Big Red Tent did nothing to carve a clear direction. It mitigated directly against it.

And, take heart, Ignatieff – it doesn’t seem, broadly speaking, that Canadians like ousting incumbent governments very much, whatever they do. Trudeau’s Liberals governed for nigh on 16 years. Mulroney had 9. The Chretien-Martin team had 13. We generally tut when we read about African sham democracies that tolerate strongmen at the helm for a decade and more, but in Canada, hell, it’s the pattern.

Harper’s had five years, and sure, he’ll get his nine. It’s been five abysmal years, yes (and Canadians will one day beg the gods for forgiveness that they did not react against it sooner), but the Liberals, as logic would then dictate, have only been out of power for five years – perhaps it’s not been long enough, or easy enough in minority circumstances, to rebuild as they need to.

How might a future Liberal Party manifest itself? Rather soon to say, I guess. But one thought occurs to me – perhaps all this time trying to imitate the NDP platform has led them (ironically?) into a deeper state of empathy with the erstwhile minor party, at least as regards particular electoral injustices.

For example, in “vote-rich Ontario” this election, the NDP only secured 16,000 more votes than the Liberals, across the province. That’s a close race, really. It meant, however, 22 NDP seats and 11 Liberal seats. Amazing! Traditionally, it’s the NDP (and Greens) on the losing end of such cruel electoral arithmetic.

The potential upshot of this? One hopes (and one is very, very patient) that a serious interest in pursuing electoral reform, once the pet project of the so-called fringe parties, might now take root in some part of the current Liberal necropolis. When the Big Red Phoenix rises in the future, will it do so through having advocated for democratic reforms towards a better system?

They have to start thinking big. Perhaps a silver lining for the party is that they’ve found the time to do it.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

Québec’s NDP revolution: the new normal, or a BQ holiday?

Québec doesn’t do things by halves, does it? Some of us have begged and implored the NDP to focus its energies on Québec: to play to its social democratic credentials, and to take the Bloc to task as arrogant, single-minded, comfortable and lazy, and prone to taking its voters for granted.

The idea being that this could kickstart a nice slow burn towards NDP relevance in the province. Win a couple of seats in Montréal in 2011, and a couple more the time after, maybe in the Gatineau region or the Townships. This was meant to be a process!

But no – when something catches in La Belle Province, it really catches – there are few things more stunning to me than to look at the Québec electoral map this morning, and to revel in its orangocity. This is not a handful of ridings – the province is basically a solid orange mass, ridings upon ridings upon ridings, from the U.S. border to the shores of Ungava Bay. It’s nothing short of breathtaking.

I’m thrilled about it, but one must keep one’s powder dry in moments like this, mustn’t one? It suits us on the left to be excited, but the right was just as excited when the ADQ leapfrogged the Parti Québécois two provincial elections ago, to form the Official Opposition in the National Assembly in Québec City. The Adéquiste surge surprised everyone at the time – this was, too, a radical redrawing of the political map, and many suspected that it could indeed be a permanent new order. It, too, was the bloodiest of noses for the cause of separatism. It led to a Péquiste crisis of revolving leaders, deep questions about the viability of their project, and an assumption that Mario Dumont’s team was perhaps just one election win away from taking power.

But, we remember: it fell apart. Dumont’s tsunami was not so much due to pure enchantment with his policies or his verve on the campaign trail. It was largely the result of a Québec electorate that is remarkably capable of turning the world on its head and tripping up the conventional establishment, almost for kicks, only to revert to type in future elections once the “changemaker” has both become a “new establishment,” and has also exposed certain incompetencies along the way. Dumont today is gone, and his party is tiny – Québec’s found other interesting new players to consider on the provincial scene. Québec Solidaire, and even the ethereal concept of a new party called Force Québec – a new conservative option that doesn’t even exist, yet has polled well.

Could the Bloc resurge in 2015, wiping out NDP gains? Almost certainly. Not only because Quebecers are comfortable to swing wildly from election to election, but also because the NDP tide in Québec was based on a clear premise, and a premise I’ve always supported: change things around. The Bloc are little more than symbolic in Ottawa, and they do nothing to moderate the Conservative government. Elect a social democratic party in huge numbers, and watch them use our minority parliament as a force for good.

It was the right approach, clearly! Trouble is, Quebecers are waking up, like the rest of us, to a Conservative majority. Many will feel their NDP vote would have, could have, might have worked to shackle a CPC minority, but with the Opposition hereby muted for the next four years, it’s going to cause real angst as to whether this was the right Opposition to elect. More so in Québec than anywhere else, if for nothing else but the scale of what’s happened.

I sound down, but it’s all got to be a central part of how the New Democrats plan to entrench themselves in Québec from here on in. With half their caucus coming from Québec, it’s going to compel a complete reorientation of the party to advocate for an asymmetrical federalism that is more clearly pro-Québec than either the CPC or LPC would dare. And that’s a real revolution.

It’s extraordinary and it’s uplifting to see that Québec has found an anti-establishment voice through the vehicle of a federalist party. The very hard work, though, begins now.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

If this isn’t bittersweet…

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – welcome to Dickensian Canada.

The best of times, in some ways – a social democratic party’s never had a bigger share of the Parliamentary pie. And Quebec sovereigntists have never had less.

The worst of times, clearly, in that years of fear-mongering and negativist spin has converted more Canadians to Harperian Conservatism than ever before. Opacity and contempt haven’t offended us. Historic debt is of trivial interest. Government disdain for media has been swallowed by the selfsame media. Dubya-esque megaprojects have received a Canadian stamp of approval, years after the crash-landing of Dubya-ism in the United States itself.

A CPC majority was not only the worst-case scenario, it increasingly seemed one of the least likely. But, here we are, all the same. Lots of ways to think about what’s happened, and what happens next – rather than write one megapost, I think I’ll post a few things today. Once I emerge from the hour-long freezing shower I need to take… who knows, perhaps this is, in fact, a strange dream?

In the meantime, I’m a big fan of the CBC’s (ahem – now mortally endangered, I suppose) interactive electoral maps. They go back three elections. Contrast and compare – we’ve been on quite a ride after all.

The 2006 election

Then the 2008 election

And then the 2011 election

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

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