Polygonic

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

Enough Harper video

A clever new one from the Enough Harper people. Peter Donolo needs to subscribe to these folks asap!

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Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

Election time: a right and a wrong

Jeffrey Simpson can get it very right, and very wrong, depending on the day of the week and the subject he’s writing about. Today, he’s done both.

Very right:

Here’s one suggestion for a red-blooded leftist party. The NDP wants to cushion people from rising home heating bills? Pay for the cushion with an excess profits tax on the oil industry because when international oil prices rise above, say, $90 (U.S.) a barrel, their profits are going to soar. The NDP, after all, has only one seat in Alberta and isn’t going to win another one. Moreover, bashing rich oil companies while consumers feel the pinch isn’t bad populist politics.

It’s more than good advice for the NDP, it’s good advice for Liberals, too. Tangible, costed, bold policies. We have this problem whereby Jack Layton speaks rather vaguely of “expanding” the Canada Pension Plan, while Ignatieff talks equally vaguely about “health care when you need it.” Until these warm fuzzies lock into “actionable” policies, Harper isn’t going to come down to earth.

There are hints of boldness in the NDP’s wider position – the proposed referendum on Senate abolition, for example. It’s good to be provocative with a vision, as opposed to withering timidly before the prospect of constitutional reform, as Rob Silver prefers. But grand, visionary concepts too often founder on the details. Both the left and the centrist parties need to back up broad visions with step-by-step, costed, failsafe plans.

Very wrong:

It would appear the New Democrats will have the most to say about whether Canadians will experience another election.

“Experience another election!” He makes it sound as though it’s a flood, or a plague. Passing a bladder stone. I thought the masses were generally supposed to be excited by the chance to activate our common democratic power. But, no, there is no love for experiencing democracy at the moment, apparently.

Hence the mutual distancing from responsibility that we see across Parliament. It’s a common thing to cast the blame for causing the tumult of an election on the intransigence of our enemies. Liberals will blame the NDP, the Tories will blame the Liberals, and the NDP the Tories.

Hung parliaments don’t lend themselves to such easy characterisations, however. A majority decision on anything right now is, by its very nature, a cross-party decision. It has to be when no one’s got a majority.

If any single party could be pinned with “causing” an election, though, then it would have to be the odd one out. If 3/4 of the parties say salt, and 1/4 say pepper, and pepper is what we get, then it’s fair to say it’s the fault of the 1/4. As regards confidence measures, this puts all responsibility on the party of government. Not any one of the opposition parties. You can “blame” the NDP for bailing the Tories out, if they do indeed buckle on the budget vote. But no single party in Opposition can force an election. The only single party that can is, by coincidence, the most single-minded of them all – Team Harper. So if they do it, on balance, it’s because they want it.

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

King George V steps down

We saw it in Nepal. We saw it in Bhutan. And now, ladies and gents, out of the Himalayas and into the Pacific, we’re seeing it in Tonga!

In each country, in just the past three years, monarchs have bowed out, giving way to democratic assemblies. And while the Nepalese experience was a mite bloodier and, partly as a consequence, life isn’t yet peaches and cream under the shadow of Sagarmatha, both the Bhutanese in 2008 and now the Tongans in July 2010 have experienced a largely peaceful transition (though not without the sometimes violent protest, which historians so often lionise) from politics by noble decree to imperfect-yet-hopefully-if-all-goes-to-plan-accountable democracy.

This (courtesy of the Pacific Islands News Association, whose URLs don’t always work) about the Tongan king, George V, who’ll remain a ceremonial monarch in the new constitutional system:

Tonga’s King George Tupou V is preparing to relinquish power as the country gears up for its first democratic elections, ending hundreds of years of feudal rule.

The government has published a new electoral roll and has called on the Pacific nation’s 101,900 citizens to add their names to the document so they can take part in the vote, which is due to be held on 25 November .

For the first time in the island’s history, most MPs will be elected by the people.

The Tongan parliament is stacked with nobles, chiefs and supporters of the royal family, most of whom have been directly appointed by the eccentric monarch.

It will mean the Oxford-educated king, known for his love of travel and playboy lifestyle, will remain head of state but will lose his executive powers, including the ability to appoint the prime minister and ministers.

A bachelor, the 62-year-old king is widely believed to be looking forward to stepping out of the limelight so he can concentrate on his hobbies, which include sailing model boats on his swimming pool, dressing up in military uniform and playing computer games.

The king has never married and is often seen travelling around Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, in his London cab, dressed in a Savile Row suit despite the tropical weather.

The election is part of Tonga’s transition from being one of the world’s last remaining sovereign monarchies, where the king almost single-handedly runs the daily business of government, to a constitutional monarchy.

In late 2006, anti-government riots in the capital, Nuku’alofa, left eight people dead and large parts of the town burnt to the ground.

The unrest forced the king’s coronation to be delayed by two years, but even before he was crowned in a lavish ceremony in 2008, he had realised the tide of public opinion had turned against the monarchy and pledged to give up his family’s constitutional right to rule.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister of Tonga, Dr Feleti a Sevele, said: “For us, it’s an evolutionary process of democracy.”.

Evolutionary – sometimes the most revolutionary route! Best of luck.

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

Of Liberals and Labour

Canada and the UK share quite a bit – a Queen, a language, and an unhealthy love of chips. But they also share a common soap opera – that of their long-ruling, defeated, and now struggling, centre-left big-tent political parties.

Since its all-defining double-helix leadership was vanquished in May this year, the UK’s Labour Party appears to be at real risk of tearing itself apart with self-doubt, identity crises, and factional malice. Kiss-and-tell autobiographies by party elders betray an utter lack of concern for the party’s respectability, and add fuel to the disorienting fire of a come-one-come-all leadership contest. What’s the party about? A hard question.

The parallel saga of Canada’s Liberal Party can be instructive to Britain’s Labourites. Indeed, the two sagas appear to be differentiated mainly by a time delay of about four years. So, for any Labourites looking for an oracle as to what the mid-term future may bring them, and what post-defeat missteps to avoid, it may be helpful to take a gander across the big salty pond.

A quick review of the two stories: Tony Blair’s Labour did in 1997 what Jean Chrétien’s Liberals did four years earlier, in 1993 – unseat a dreadfully unpopular Conservative government and render it practically unelectable. The Liberals did rather a better job of it – smashing Canada’s Tories to a laughable two seats in Parliament (helped, of course, by the fact that the Tories also splintered apart into factional and regional parties: the populist, right-wing, western Reform Party, and the anti-federalist, socially liberal Bloc Québécois).

After these landslide successes, Liberal and Labour fortunes would come to resemble each other in character – both ended up more fiscally conservative than supporters had idealised, and both enjoyed success through a powerful political fusion of internal party factions. Canada had Chrétien and his finance minister Paul Martin, and the UK had Blair and his finance minister Gordon Brown. In each case, the budget men brought their wing of the party into a unified fold, both men were (rightly or wrongly) regarded as economic geniuses, but both men also coveted the job of Prime Minister – a ruinous, volcanic desire that would ultimately destroy the factional unity that was so necessary in a big-tent centrist party such as each of these.

The Liberals, with their four-year headstart on Labour, suffered from this earlier as well. By 2000, the Chrétien/Martin rivalry had become a soap operatic nightmare, and the defining feature of the party itself. That, coupled with the perceived unelectability of the hated Tories, contributed to Liberal policy drift. If you barely need to try anymore, where are the ideas coming from? Competition, that fount of political creativity, was not directed against other, apparently moribund parties – it was directed within.

This of course also described the Blair/Brown rivalry in its own time. When Chrétien won his third term, he promised to serve it in full, but was soon ousted by a frothing and impatient Martin wing. Blair equally promised to fulfil the whole of his third term, but was just as unceremoniously rent from his position by a frothing and impatient Brown. Neither Martin nor Brown acceded to the job of PM through a scrutinising leadership contest, but, in essence, by coronation.

Financial scandal had beset both parties (though the Liberals more so) – the sponsorship scandal for the Liberals, and cash-for-peerages which affected Labour. But the electoral challenges were bigger than these scandals. Neither Martin nor Brown had a watt of the ruthless charisma of their vanquished heroes, and though both lusted for the absolute power of the top job, neither seemed able to know what to do with it once they got it. Such tour-de-forces in cabinet, Martin ended up nicknamed “Mr. Dithers,” and Brown went from “Stalin to Mr. Bean.” Mean epithets both, but ones that stuck.

One big difference between the sagas emerges in the third term: Martin did call an election relatively early in his tenure, whereas Brown famously bottled it after the party convention. Had Brown gone ahead with a general election in November 2008, many analysts foresaw a slim victory or hung parliament as the result. That’s indeed the result that Martin got, and he led a minority government for scarcely two years before its collapse. In the end, though, both Martin and Brown had brief Prime Ministerial careers, distinguished by policy drift and nervous surprise at their own communication and decision-making incompetencies – both the Liberals and Labour fell from office leaderless, directionless, shocked and discouraged.

That is the Labour Party of 2010, and it was the Liberal Party of 2006. So what happened afterwards in Canada?

The Chrétien/Martin duopoly had totally defined what power and party identity were. Everyone was either a Chrétienite or a Martinite. They may have hated each other in the end, but neither side genuinely foresaw any scenario in which neither force would hold sway. And then suddenly – they were both gone.

The leadership contest which followed was filled with recrimination against the party’s own recent past. Every candidate (all twelve of them!) promised big change. No one took the party’s record as a trophy and championed it. All were determined to define themselves as something wholly other.

Uncertainty in Liberal ranks was inevitable. The leadership contest featured lots of philosophy surrounding the merits of rewarding old guards vs. the merits of rewarding new blood. It also featured, as is natural in any big-tent party, big questions about whether to carve a distinct identity on the left/centre-left, or to fight the resurgent Tories in the centre/centre-right. In this, there were leadership favourites: would it be the left’s Bob Rae, the right’s Michael Ignatieff, or the uncertain charms of Gerard Kennedy?

Labour, watch out: neither left, nor right, nor charming won out in the intricate latticework of compromise that emerged from the convention. Unheralded, well-meaning, but unelectable Stéphane Dion took the cake. Dion, who might be said to have had Andy Burnham’s chances, but coupled with Alastair Darling’s personality. And now he was leader.

The party was still angry with losing power, and still directionless without its goliaths at the helm. For all Dion’s clever ideas, he had no capacity to forge new unity in this vast, wounded party – indeed, disunity became worse than ever. Compromise, shame, and uncertainty in the party was, unfortunately, perfectly reflected in its leader.

Though Dion is now gone and Ignatieff has led the Liberals for a year and a half, their fortunes are barely any better. Canadian pundits have blamed Martin, Dion, and now Ignatieff in succession, for poor leadership and diffidence. Not unfair claims, entirely – but they’re symptoms, not causes, of identity anguish that plagues the party from root to tip. That is one of the sad legacies of the old power duopoly – it consumed the identity of the party, and then evaporated, leaving too much disorientation and angst. It’s still unclear what it means to be a Liberal in Canada today.

While Labour’s Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, and soon Tony Blair himself, all offer their post-mortems in best-selling hardcovers, this old guard disrespects contemporary Labour as much as contemporary Labour disrespects them. This struggle to disassociate denies an opportunity to trumpet some of the real progressive successes the party achieved over the years. It creates a political vacuum – where once the centre-left was the self-assured and natural occupant of the electoral mainstream, now cunning and well-financed Conservative forces can stake their claim as the safe option – the one where voters know what they’re getting, the one that quickly comes to appear more mature and prepared for all the trials and tribulations of government.

Make no mistake – Canada’s Tories are anything but “mature.” They are an anti-democratic, anti-parliamentarian force, swathed in deceit, secrecy, and thoroughly right-wing ideas masked in Bush-Junior style “common sense.” The fact that the Canadian centre-left still can’t mount an effective challenge against such easy targets gives testament to the severity of gangland rivalries and relative anarchy within the partisan centre-left itself.

The cases are obviously not really perfectly parallel. Labour’s leadership vote is a month-long ballot involving union, lay members, and the Parliamentary party, unlike the long, single night of horse-trading and automatic run-off balloteering that the Liberals’ used. Canada’s Tories are a genuine neanderthal party, whereas the UK’s Tories have a small, relatively liberal wing in the very person of David Cameron. The standard of debate is different, the media culture is different, and the way in which the public engages with politics is different. The agenda is just not set in the same way.

But Labour faces similar dangers to Canada’s Liberals, and must avoid them – while there’s time!
– Take solace in (and advantage of) a public that is still uncomfortable calling itself broadly “conservative,” and don’t present a shamed and apologetic face about the past. There have been triumphs that are as important today and tomorrow as they were during the campaign.
– Trumpet the economic and social advances made in the previous era, as the public has faith in these advances – what they’ve lost faith in is your ability to manage. Tribal infighting and self-destructive gossip don’t inspire new confidence.
– Pick a real potential winner as your leader right off the bat. And once you pick that winner, give them the party unity and the durable support that’s required to help shape a badly-needed identity before the next election – appearing unconvinced in your leader, shaky on their ideas, always ready for yet another putsch, will reinforce the public’s perception that “these guys couldn’t run a hot dog stand, let alone a country.”
– And don’t spend the next four years navel-gazing – be bold and committed, and fast, as it’s only going to get tougher.


CORRECTION: Apologies for the repeated paragraph earlier – this has been amended

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

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