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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The little blue fortress

It’s a funny way to run a campaign. Stephen Harper is talking up the need for his coveted majority, but his campaign approach – banning, and forcibly kicking out, undecided voters and non-partisan onlookers from his Conservative rallies – seems very strange. What are rallies for, if not to generate new party enthusiasm? And what use is any such enthusiasm if it doesn’t reach contagion in the wider world? Hard-core CPC cheerleaders won’t get to vote twice – how much more excitable do they need to be?

It seems like a dumb approach, but it’s of course a tactical decision. Harper wants his majority, not through bringing new votes onside, but through simply getting his entire existing base out to vote on 2 May. He wants to whip up all the sworn-allies into such a state of anti-Ignatieff frenzy that they’ll simply out-participate the majority of Canadians – you know, non-Conservatives – on election day.

Canny, if only the Canadian arithmetic worked in his favour. Regardless of whether 100% of Harper’s hard-base come to vote, it’s probably not enough. In Facebook speak, Stephen Harper simply doesn’t have enough friends.

This is not, of course, a new thing for the Cons – it’s at the heart of how they communicate and conduct themselves. Last summer, in effort to be a little better informed (about communication styles, if not about actual policy!) I thought I’d subscribe to all the federal parties’ online newsletters (except, to my shame, the Greens. Sorry Elizabeth!).

It’s a simple process – you visit the party website, you register the email address to which you prefer receiving what I call “useful spam,” and rub your eager hands in anticipation of lots of new political bumpf to fill your inbox.

And so it is that I get lots of emails from Michael Ignatieff and team – today, he says:

How Stephen Harper’s Conservatives decide to do a Facebook background check on everyone at their rallies, while ignoring the criminal past of a senior advisor like Bruce Carson is a mystery to me.

But I’ll tell you what. We’ve had thousands and thousands of Canadians show up at Liberal rallies from Vancouver to St. John’s. And all they hear at the door is “Come on in to the Big Red Tent.”

I also get messages from Jack Layton and team. Tons, in fact. Today, he says:

For years, your priorities have been pushed aside in Ottawa.

Your life is getting more expensive. Your health care services are being ignored. And the Liberal-style scandals are pushing your family’s priorities aside.

Ottawa is broken – and it’s time to fix it.

I have a team that’s ready to fight for you.

And yes, I get messages from Gilles Duceppe and company. The Bloc is apparently so excited to communicate with a voter registered at a B.C. postal code, that today, they even bothered to email me about their new campaign theme song:

Le Bloc Québécois a récemment dévoilé la ritournelle de sa campagne électorale. Écrite et interprétée par Jason Hudon, les arrangements musicaux sont l’œuvre de Mike Sawatzky, le guitariste principal du légendaire groupe québécois Les Colocs.

Anyone want to wager a guess how many messages I’ve received from Team Harper?

*crickets* *sagebrush drifting over the arid valley bed*

I always found this odd. Here I am, a Canadian voter, signing up to their website, asking them to spam me with all manner of propaganda, and they never so much as said hello. The only reason I could deduce, given that they cannot be accused of being relaxed and disorganised on the PR front, is that they inferred through running my email address against Facebook and what have you, that I was not a serious Conservative voter. I was an imposter. I might use their newsletters in dark socialist rituals of some kind. In short, they wrote me off.

In a manner, they were right. I am more likely to grow bat wings out of my shoulder blades than support a CPC candidate in the year 2011. But the fact they simply do not give a rat’s ass about seducing new, moderate, curious Canadians into their fold, speaks to me of a single-minded (and, frankly deluded) get-out-the-base strategy, and nothing more.

Have at it, I say. But, as David McGuinty told them so recently: too bad, so sad – you don’t got the numbers.

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

Battle Royale, Twitter style

I smile when people call this the Twitter Election. It has the air of revolution about it, doesn’t it? As though the normal political condition of the Canadian citizen is ashen-minded apathy – but now, with Twitter, we will magically become transformed into eager and fearless critics of an oppressive double-helix state-media establishment! Just like in Egypt!

Perhaps a blogger should watch his trap when it comes to balking at citizen-generated comment. But, at least for me, it seems difficult to use 140 characters to say anything more useful than “Here’s a link to something much longer and more interesting.”

I can’t guarantee this is more interesting, but it certainly is longer. I’ve decided to draw up a second instalment of an experiment last week, with 140-word reviews of each party’s performance to date. It’s like Twitter, but Mega.

Conservatives: I honestly wonder how often senior Conservatives look each other in the eye, shrug, laugh, and admit: “I have absolutely no idea how we’re staying ahead.” Indeed, enjoying a 14% lead, according to Nanos? It absolutely beggars belief. Harper does himself no favours. Antagonising the press with “five-questions-a-day” is needless and feeds into the control-freak narrative. Criminals in the employ of the PMO should be a scandal: that Harper shrugs it off is just a scandal further. They’ve been reactive and uninspired, trotting out old chestnuts on gun freedom, and dispensing with billions in dubious spending promises. Ontarians seem especially enthusiastic, which may be a consequence of the departure of Day and Strahl, and the pronounced Mike-Harrisification of Harper’s senior team? I’d like to threaten to leave the country if Harper wins a majority, but, dang it, I’m already gone.

Bloc: Duceppe’s biggest problem (if there is such a thing as a problem for the Bloc, who certainly enjoy milking our broken electoral system for every last drop) is deciding how to define the threshold of his outrage. He can turn red and scream bloody murder about Lower Churchill. He can rage that Ottawa is an anti-Quebec, imperialist, nefarious hell-spawned engine of neverending betrayal that shackles the potential of all Quebeckers. But he can not go so far as to get deep into sovereignty talk anymore. That just alienates his soft base. How do you escalate the outrage far enough to suck in wavering federalists, without scaring off wavering nationalists? He doesn’t really know. And maybe he doesn’t care. He could spend the whole campaign peeing in the road and shoplifting from corner shops, and still vacuum up 50-odd seats. Sigh.

Liberals: Still super impressed with the performance, but slightly anxious they’ve peaked too soon. Releasing the platform early is good, but it kind of gets lost in the noise of the fact they had a surprisingly solid week previous, and had introduced the heaviest-hitting policy points already. I’m sensing one of two things: either Canada is drunk, or pollsters are drunk. Why aren’t the Liberals winning? The LPC have reached dizzying highs of 32% but, as a natural consequence of their left-leaning strategy, none of this has hurt the Conservatives. There isn’t much more of the soft-left vote for them to poach, which is where LPC emphasising ethical scandal is important. They need to say “Fraud and contempt are not conservative values. Conservative voters, like all Canadians, need to punish Harper for abusing our trust and taking the country for granted.”

Greens: The biggest coverage the Greens have had so far has been through the Debate Debate, which, however bad the news is for them, it’s been an opportunity for them to feature in a fair amount of press. It’s a great shame that they’re excluded, and also that a broadcast consortium has such power to determine the format of the debate (not that any of the HoC leaders protested very hard). It’s an arbitrary logic – the GPC have no seats in the HoC, but then, the Bloc don’t have any candidates anywhere in the RoC, and have zero capacity to produce a new Prime Minister. The Greens have an opportunity to use this to their advantage. Turn the campaign into one of “the status quo,” implicating every other party as complicit in an Establishment Massive, versus the suppressed, undervalued, solitary change-makers.

NDP: I’m feeling for the NDP. Their policy points have underwhelmed, and it seems the Liberals’ collective verve has taken wind out of their sails. Jack Layton has responded as well as he could to a range of questions, but he’s stuck watching the perennial NDP nightmare unfold – Liberals campaigning like the NDP, but with the added barb of “No one can stop Conservatives but Liberals.” It happens every election, but as Harper is a particularly nasty form of Conservative, perhaps the ABC vote is a bigger factor than normal – and, in more cases, it’s gravitating to the Liberals. Ridings where NDP have been second to CPC, Layton’s employing Liberal approaches: “Only NDP can beat Harper here.” O.K. But it muddles their overall message of “strategic voting is for dupes. Vote with your heart for the Canada you want.” Oh dear.

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

It’s hard being a swinger

My girlfriend would insist that I elaborate on that.

Elections force decisions. For those in a “base” of any description, it’s not so much the case – and part of me envies it. Loyal partisans can dedicate their considerable energies to converting wavering voters to the cause, to plugging their predetermined messiahs, and they don’t have to spend quite as much time wondering to themselves who it is they want to vote for. It’s called loyalty for a reason.

I’m afraid I’m a fiercely disloyal, oscillating left-wing cruiser, who’s voted for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the UK, and for the NDP, Greens, and Liberals in Canada over a range of elections. It’s nice to come into a new campaign with fresh eyes. But there’s a struggle as well – perhaps I’m less disloyal, and more multiloyal. Every potential choice feels like a betrayal to the consequent non-choice. Hence a deep loathing for FPTP!

However addled I may be by indecision at this early stage, I thought I’d like to review the parties and leaders so far. Rather than Twitter’s 140 character shackles, let’s nonetheless be brief – 140 words per party! A few ruminations on how the campaign appears so far…

Greens: A funny place to start, since there’s nothing of import I’ve been able to glean about the Greens so far. Nor am I especially likely to vote for them. I feel for the party’s struggle to be heard on the national stage – a party that can command around 10% support deserves coverage. But, as they command around 0% of the seats, they just don’t get it. I fear for May’s prospects in Saanich – Gulf Islands. The hippyish Gulf Islands part I get, but Saanich? Wealthy retirees with monster homes do not strike me as fertile territory. It’s frankly a disaster of a riding for anyone. I do want to see May in the debates again, though; if she can’t demand the national stage normally, she can at least get the chance to hold her own in front of her rivals.

Liberals: I know I’m living abroad, but what I can tell, Ignatieff is actually doing brilliantly – as is the party write large. No gaffes yet. Quick, sharp rebuttals to dumb Harper policies like a “tax break for families, maybe, in five years.” He’s pouncing on Harper’s reference to “ethnics” as “you people.” He’s drumming away at key ethics slogans, and chipping away at the “prudent economic steward” garbage that Tories try to own. Liberals seem organised, serious, competitive, believeable, innovative and frank. The university grants scheme is smart. Would like to see it promote cross-provincial study, frankly. It blows my freaking mind that they aren’t yet 10 points ahead. Despair a bit at Ignatieff ruling out a coalition, but recognise his rationale. It’s just toxic in poor Canadia. If an election were held in five seconds, I’d vote for Iggy.

NDP: Layton’s the best leader of the lot, and the nicest, classiest, and most natural by far. I’m pleased he’s campaigning in Edmonton and Saskatchewan, and they need to keep it up. Would like to see other prominent NDPers taking up some campaign work too (are they?). Mulcair, Martin, Davies all out there, illustrating the “team” dynamic to contrast against Harper-authoritarianism. I feel “Jack Layton” branding on everything over-eggs his charm, and is slightly offensive to the depth/breadth of the party. Like many, I want NDP to grow, but not at expense of Liberals! Painful. Where’s it likely? Prairie urban centres, the Far North, much of B.C., and Quebec. I want them going whole hog in those areas. “CPC taking prairie voters for granted” is brilliant. Policy so far a bit middling. Credit card limits? What’s this about?

Conservatives: Regardless of Ibbitson’s praise, I honestly find the Harper campaign so far to be an embarrassment. I’m trying to see it from the perspective of loyal, or potential, CPC voters. Does yammering on about coalitions, like some sort of dysfunctional 1970s robot, when Ignatieff has gone so far as to rule it out explicitly, not reek of desperation? It’s not only dishonest, it’s pathetic. They seem to have no Plan B narrative to coalition-fear-mongering. “Ageist” and “you ethnic people” optics are nasty little bumps in the road for them. “Family tax breaks if you’re lucky in 2016” is a joke, and they know it. No convincing defense of their record so far – I thought CPC was a well-oiled machine? Doesn’t seem at ease, and will fail badly in debates, I reckon. What will “real Canadians” think, eh?

Bloc: Sigh. Ballsy and clever to trot out the 2004 coalition letter. Nice way to put Harper on the back foot. Otherwise, what can you say? No sovereigntist talk, just “Quebec is great” talk. Am frankly glad Parizeau emerged from sarcophagus to call for big separate Quebec state, as it flummoxes Duceppe plans to morph BQ into a fuzzy regionalist social democrat party without any serious separation leanings. I think he’s been a useful thorn in Harper’s Quebec ambitions, but that’s perhaps a bit of spiteful glee on my part. What I’d love to see is Duceppe campaigning cross-Canada trying to explain his vision of the universe and, specifically, the Canadian federation. Wouldn’t that be in Quebec’s interests too? To show the softer, gentler, cuddlier side of Quebec nationalism? Oh well, perhaps he is not ballsy after all. Ha ha.

O.K., the “ha ha” may not be the cleverest way to get to 140 words on the Bloc, but anyhoo, it’s no less clever than some of the analysis we’ve seen on the Globe and Mail so far.

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, , , , ,

Parliament of puppets

As I prepare for a month-long trip to South America this week, I thought I’d leave you with a little puppet show I put together last year to commemorate the prorogation of Parliament. Harper, Ignatieff, Layton and co. all have their chance to shine in what served as a little alternative House of Commons, established in a shoebox in my kitchen. Even better than the real thing 🙂 Enjoy!

I’ll try to update the blog with travel-related bits of interest while I’m away, but will probably leave any of the normal political bits and bobs until January, when the lure of mountain treks and dinners of steak and riojas have become but distant memories. Sniff.

Adios till then!

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

Canada’s Shoebox Parliament

Ah, memory lane. A lane of wonderful memories.

After a skinful of beers following the anti-proroguation demonstrations in London (UK) last January, I got the cockamamie idea to create my own puppet show of Canada’s Parliament. Bereft of a real working parliament in Ottawa, it seemed like the only way to get a solid fix of political titillation. That’s right, titillation.

Here in the dreary midsummer, impatient I suppose for Parliament to resume once more, I thought I’d share the video with you now. It’s nearly eight minutes long, but so, so worth it.

Enjoy!

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