Polygonic

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

With friends like these

When you end up applauded by the likes of Marine Le Pen (as well as the National Post!), perhaps you should take stock of where you stand on the old fascistometer.

When David Cameron said he wanted to see the end of “state multiculturalism” the media firestorm it provoked in the UK soon blew itself out – but it is a different story in other parts of the world.

The latest figure to wade into the row is Marine Le Pen, the new leader of France’s far right Front National, who has congratulated Mr Cameron for what she claimed was his endorsement of her party’s position.

She told the Financial Times: “It is exactly the type of statement that has barred us from public life for 30 years.”

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Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , ,

What transparency looks like

It’s easy being left-of-centre in Britain until you start comparing David Cameron with Stephen Harper. Suddenly, you find yourself saying strange things like “Wow, thank god we’ve got Cameron!”

Case in point: transparency. While Harper’s entire political career has been built on the campaign rhetoric of “accountable government,” he nevertheless roosts in the PMO as among the most opaque, secretive, and undemocratic Prime Ministers the country’s ever been afflicted with. He’s Nixon with a migraine.

Cameron’s liberal strand of Toryism may be anti-state, but his professed faith in public self-organisation has translated into some evidence of actual accountability. Departments and ministries are now compelled to release virtually every significant expenditure to a public gasping for knowledge about what’s happening to our finances.

The result, as David Eaves writes so brilliantly in the G&M today, is the manifestation of an actual accountable government.

“Spending data for every British ministry on anything over £25,000 (about $40,000) [will] be available for anyone in the world to download. The initial release of information revealed thousands and thousands of lines of data and almost £80-billion (about $129.75-billion) in spending. And starting in January, every ministry must update the data once a month.”

For Canadians, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is but a distant example of a world that a truly transparent government could – and should – create. In contrast, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives seem stuck in a trap described by Mr. Maude in his opening sentences: “Opposition parties are always remarkably keen on greater government transparency, but this enthusiasm mysteriously tends to diminish once they actually gain power.” Canada’s Conservatives have been shy about sharing any information with anyone. Afghan detainee files aren’t shared with Parliament; stimulus package accounts were not emailed to the Parliamentary Budget Office, but uselessly handed over in 4,476 printed pages. Even the Auditor-General is denied MP expense data. All this as access-to-information wait times exceed critical levels and Canada, unlike the United States, Britain , Australia and New Zealand, languishes with no open-data policy.

Couple this with some of the more compelling initiatives in the British media itself to aggregate and measure spending plans, campaign promises, and delivery timetables. The Guardian today released its mammoth Pledge Tracker, a downloadable and perusable spreadsheet that takes coalition government pledges and tracks their progress, whether they’ve been dumped, delayed, who in cabinet has said what about them, and how to track them down.

So, in the UK, there’s a chicken-and-egg question regarding government accountability. Britain’s media culture nurtures relentlessly investigative journalism – to the point of harassment as regards celebrity, but also to the point of a carnivorous criticism of bad government, and that’s extremely healthy for the state of British democracy. Would Cameron have unleashed so much data if he felt confident no major newspaper would ever seriously chase him up on his warm promises of yesteryear?

Almost certainly he wouldn’t. Indeed, critics of Cameronian transparency say he’s only staging gargantuan, barely-manageable data-dumps that are very difficult to grasp and scrutinise. The task of sifting through and understanding the hundreds of thousands of line items is left to independent think tanks and newspapers in the confidence that the very act of transparency may make the political point, and that few will bother to craft criticisms of what they discover in there.

Either way, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of what the Reformers could conceive of back home.

You can say a lot of things about David Cameron. He’s slick and insincere. He’s shallow, big-headed, and fundamentally out to lunch regarding how to address inequality, poverty, opportunity, Britain’s place in the world, and the British public’s place in its own country. What you can’t say, though, is that he’s an obsessive partisan consumed with nothing more than winning the petty feuds inside the bubble of government.

On balance, I’m slightly nauseous but secure in saying that, compared with Harper, Cameron is a treat and a half.

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

I’ll show you happy

The UK’s coalition government plans to introduce a Gross National Happiness index to better understand how public policy interacts with the social soul. British public opinion so far seems to range from the confused to the outright skeptical. “How much is this nonsense going to cost?” is one of the refrains.

I’m amused in a way (though I don’t know how measurably) that the initiative should raise so many eyebrows. Many have long argued that GDP measurements only tell one particular kind of tale, and that they don’t tell a particularly convincing story of how well off people really feel. Singapore, for example, may have one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs, but few would argue they enjoy one of the world’s highest or healthiest standards of living.

Bhutan, on the other hand, the nominally impoverished Himalayan kingdom that invites the pity and probably misplaced goodwill of materialist Western aid workers, is actually already one of the happiest places on Earth.

The Bhutanese themselves famously pioneered the measurement of national happiness to bolster their own case that the country is a great success story in terms of enabling people to lead enjoyable lives, which is the best thing any set of state institutions can ever really aspire to do. The Gross National Happiness index aggregates social and economic indicators across a range of areas, including psychological well-being, use of time, community vitality, health, governance, and environmental sustainability, among others.

The Guardian, ironically, decides instead to give some credit to the UK’s decision to Canadian pioneering in the area of happiness measurement.

Canadian statisticians and researchers also poll subjective wellbeing across the country, but the data have thus far not attracted much policy attention.

Indeed. In fact, the entire prospect of data gathering has not attracted much policy attention in Harperian Ottawa. Sigh.

But I’m happy with the UK’s effort to get to grips with this. All the happier if I get surveyed myself, which will suit their purposes quite well. So, yes – if there are ulterior political purposes underlining it, though, they’ll want to try to avoid sending out the happiness questionnaires during Tube strikes, rainy days, or after any English sporting devastation on the world stage. Which doesn’t leave a lot of time.

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

Love and money

And, the social engineering begins.

For all David Cameron’s liberal maquillage, the UK’s governing party (despite its coalition partner) are forging ahead with a series of tax carrots and sticks that appear principally designed to encourage the development of very conservative families indeed: there’s been no better time to be part of a married, single-income family household since the 1950s.

The tax initiatives are simple. Remove the child tax credit for parents who earn over £44,000 per year. That’s axing a benefit for individuals, not for households: so a single-income household where the breadwinner takes £45,000/annum will lose the child tax credit, while dual-income households on, say, £80,000 will be able to retain it.

Critics immediately pointed out that this is a bit unfair, and will push both parents into work. The government claims it’s just too complimicated to work out dual-income household tax regimes.

Sadly, duh, that isn’t the real answer. Enter the tax break for married couples. Cutting the child tax credit is designed to appear like a Robin Hoodish act, removing social support for high earners to allow for greater flexibility to spend on the vulnerable. But the marriage tax break betrays another dimension – if you are part of a single-income parenting couple, then your choice for tax relief is to 1) get both parents into work, or 2) get married.

Instead of “benefit skivers” of a Labour hue, will we now have “marriage skivers,” entering into loveless matrimony as the preferred option against daycare costs?

I have a hard time imagining the married couple whose love is lost, who contribute no moral or emotional support to each other, but stay married for the sake of the tax credit. What message are the Conservatives trying to send? Basically, that straight marriages are literally worth more than common law relationships, than single-parent households, and than gay partnerships?

Doubtless this is part of their worldview, but I think the most deliberate message the Tories are giving is “stay-at-home wife-mums are preferable to single mums, and are preferable to working wife-mums putting the kids into daycare.” No surprise that’s a Tory logic. But the tax approach could be considered quaint, if only it weren’t so dangerously ideological and poorly-thought through.

Whether their plan contributes to a statistical decline in divorce rates and a rise in new weddings is fairly irrelevant to any new, positive indicators of stable, supportive working families.

Where will Clegg stand on this?

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , ,

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