Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, December 18, 2006

We interrupt your regularly scheduled longwinded blog to bring you this bit of silliness

Everybody remember U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown? The guy who was chastised by...oh, just about everyone...for his handling of Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005? Well, according to Senate testimony that he gave earlier this year, the reason for his gross incompetence turns out to be that he was, erm, otherwise occupied during the crisis. With his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Admiral Allen was then given the wherewithal to leave, to go do things, to go -- if he needed to be in New Orleans, to go to New Orleans, to be able to go to Jackson, Mississippi, to be able to go wherever he needed to go. I was literally constrained by Secretary Chertoff and told to stay in Baton Rouge after my first trip to Jackson, Mississippi. My hands were tied by him.
A few days later, he also elaborated on these twisted and prurient sources of his negligence in a CNN interview (you might want to cover the kids' eyes for this one):
It was balls to the wall. I was literally constrained by Secretary Chertoff. And I was certainly screaming and cussing at people.
While I does occur to me to wonder why the man would voluntarily make such *cough* private matters so very public, I nevertheless commend him for finally explaining the reasons behind his tragic mishandling of the situation.

(Ahem. All of which is to say that IP is--for the next two weeks or so, at least--on holiday. Every junkie needs to detox occasionally, and that goes for us political ones, too. See you in January.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Dual citizenship: "loyalty," "convenience," or an acknowledgement of facts?

You may not have noticed if you're not an immigrant yourself, but the big national discussion about dual citizenship that has culminated with Stéphane Dion has actually been going on for over a year now. It began with Michaëlle Jean's appointment to Governor-General, continued with the evacuation of Lebanese Canadians from Lebanon over the summer, and raised its ugly head once again this fall when Stephen Harper's Tories floated the idea of doing away with it. In each of those discussions, people who are uncomfortable with dual citizenship have brought up two words that have puzzled and frustrated me: loyalty and convenience. But it wasn't until this week that it gelled for me why those sentiments feel like such a betrayal of Canadian values.

See, for me--and, I suspect, for many other immigrant Canadians--citizenship is neither a matter of loyalty nor a matter of convenience. My Canadian citizenship is an acknowledgement both of the steps I've taken to become a part of this culture and the way that culture has rubbed off on me and gotten under my skin. My American citizenship is an acknowledgement that because I was born and raised in the United States, the idealistic pragmatist you see before you today spent most of her formative years being influenced by that culture. And while it may be true that those citizenships come with certain rights and certain responsibilities, those rights and responsibilities are not what citizenship is. Citizenship is no more and no less than an acknowledgement of the fact that one is an X.

What makes a rejection of dual citizenship so offensive to me, then, is that it tells me that I can't be both X and Y--I have to choose. But this is not a simple matter, because the fact is, I am both. In every sense of the word, I am Canadian and American. Giving up my dual citizenship wouldn't change that; it would only force me to pretend it wasn't the case for the sake of appearances. And that forced pretense would go against everything Canada claims to stand for as a multicultural country.

For years, Canadians have been telling me, proudly, that while the U.S. is a "melting pot," Canada is a "cultural mosaic"--a patchwork of cultures that all work together to form a cohesive whole. But how on earth does that ideology stand up when the supposed "melting pot" thinks dual citizenships are just fine, and the supposed "cultural mosaic" is telling immigrants that they have to pretend they're nothing but Canadian or else be branded as disloyal? It doesn't--it collapses like a house of cards. And if this country is going to start telling people they have to choose between being an X and a Y in order to be truly Canadian, we're going to have to accept the consequences of that line of reasoning and be willing to change our policies and our ideologies to go along with it.

As for loyalty, well, that’s a far more complicated matter that--at least for me--has little to nothing to do with which country's or countries' passport(s) I hold. I am fully loyal to Canadian ideals--that's why I came here in the first place. I am thrilled to have an opportunity to help realize them more fully. But here's the rub: if those ideals changed--if Canada rejected the things that brought me here and became someplace I didn't want to live--I would want to leave Canada just as I left the United States. My loyalty isn't to the passports I hold, and it's not to the land mass encompassed by the political boundaries of the place I live, either. It's to the things this country--this place that I chose--says it wants to be. And quite frankly, this big national discussion about dual citizenship has been the first thing since I came here almost ten years ago that's shaken my faith in that.

The local and the not-so-local

Two political things that are making me happy this week:

1. Edmonton-Strathcona environmental lawyer Linda Duncan has decided that she's going to throw her hat into the ring for a second time and run again for the NDP. Remember Duncan, the star candidate who even the national media took note of in the last election? Some people laugh off the thought of an NDP MP in Alberta, but with Duncan running it could actually happen--not only has the NDP shown remarkable growth over the past three or four elections, but Duncan took 33% of the vote last time. It wasn't quite enough to overcome the riding's notorious vote-splitting, but that 33% presents Edmonton-Strathcona's left-wing majority with a clear choice for the first time since...well, certainly since before I came to Canada. Especially with Duncan's new name recognition and celebrity status. And on the hipster cred front, local bloggers were invited to her announcement as members of the "citizen media." How cool is that?

2. More and more bloggers are starting to talk about the possibility of coalition governments for Canada. (In fact, it's become enough of a buzzword that I'm wishing I'd given the explanation for how coalitions work in a separate post rather than embedding it in a post about proportional representation that's harder to point back to.) Come on, mainstream media--first one out of the gate on that story gets a big smooch from me. After all, even with that very tidy little post-convention bounce that the Liberals can be very pleased with (with only two percentage points of their seven-point surge coming from the NDP and a full five percent coming from the Tories, delightfully enough), they're still not anywhere near majority government territory. And while proportional representation would be the one thing that would make coalitions inevitable, you can certainly have them without it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A response to Terry Glavin

Over at The Tyee, Terry Glavin has written an editorial asking for reasons to vote NDP in the next election. After all, he says, if the Stéphane Dion Liberals' policies are at least fairly decent, and they're still more likely than the NDP to form the next government, why should anyone vote NDP?

Of course, "why should anyone vote NDP" doesn't quite cut it as a realistic question. There is, after all, a large chunk of NDP voters who cast their votes based solely on
...gasp! affinity for the NDP's policy proposals. For these people, the Liberals are simply never going to be an option, just as there is a large chunk of the Liberal Party who would never vote NDP even if someone held a gun to their heads. Instead, Glavin's real question is about why Liberal-NDP swing voters wouldn't want to flock to the Liberals in droves in order to defeat Harper. And rephrased as such, it's a provocative, pragmatic question, and it deserves an equally provocative and pragmatic response.

Let me give it a shot:

When Liberals get majority governments, they don't keep their promises.

You've all heard New Democrats saying that Liberals "run from the left and govern from the right," but this is more than just partisan spin; it's demonstrably true. When the Chrétien Liberals had a majority, they promised to implement a national child care program, but didn't actually take action until years later when Martin had a minority and it looked like their government was about to fall. They promised to protect public health care, but weren't willing to put the brakes on privatization. They promised to reform our electoral system, but refused to take action on the issue when the NDP came knocking on their door with a proposal. They promised student tuition relief, but didn't act on that until the NDP forced them to do so as part of the 2005 minority parliament budget deal.

Do the Liberals keep doing this because being a big fat liar is a requirement to join their party? Of course not--they do it because they're susceptible to the pressures of governing. An elected Liberal caucus is made up of centrists, and when centrists are given a nice, safe majority, they're free to give in to the pressures from large corporations. This is why Liberal majority governments have consistently been centre-right, not centre-left, governments. And for all of you swing voters who are so convinced that a Dion-led Liberal majority would be different on this front, there's actually not a whole lot of evidence for that. When he was Canada's environment minister, after all, the policies he proposed were very different from the ones he's proposing now, when he's looking to win your votes.

The fact is, if you're a Liberal-NDP swing voter who likes the Dion Liberals' policies and wants them to be implemented, you don't actually want a Liberal majority government. What you want is a Liberal minority government with the NDP holding the balance of power--or, if you're as sick of minority governments as I am and crave some more stability, an actual government coalition. In a coalition, government policy is a synthesis of the policies of the larger party and the smaller party--a little of this, a little of that, a handful of cabinet ministers for the NDP and many more for the winning Liberals. Try to tell me that's not precisely the ideal outcome for the swing voters we're talking about.

The partisan Liberals reading this, of course, will say that they actually wouldn't be satisfied if they won a minority with the NDP holding the balance of power--they want a majority government of their very own. But wishing it doesn't make it so. Even with their rather sizeable post-convention bounce, the Liberals still fall well short of majority government territory. And those who are thinking that the bounce is only the beginning and the Liberals have nowhere to go but up are deluding themselves--parties always come down from post-convention bounces. The fact is, the NDP and the Bloc are entrenched enough by now that no matter how much the Liberals would like to claim we have a two-party system, we just don't. And with the Greens bursting onto the scene, there's even less of a chance of a majority...for any party.

So let's have a little more of that much-lauded pragmatism from the Liberals, shall we? Of course they will try for a majority--they have to--but they will fail. Realistically, unless two of the parties get it together and manage to form a long-term, stable majority coalition after the next election, the next Canadian government will be another minority. The only open question is what colour it's going to be. Which is where my next point comes in.

When centre-left progressives indiscriminately vote Liberal "strategically," they elect Tories.

There's a fascinating and maddening thing that happens again and again in Canada, partway through every federal election: Liberal-NDP swing voters who have decided to vote NDP look at the nationwide polls, see that there's a threat that the Tories could win, and decide to vote Liberal instead. The problem with this, of course, is that those nationwide percentages have precisely diddlysquat to do with who can win in each individual swing voter's riding. (That's what we call proportional representation, after all, and while it would be awfully nice if it worked that way, wishing doesn't make it so for me, either.) People like to refer to this practice as "strategic voting," but since real strategic voting would require some actual, you know, strategy, it makes a lot more sense to call it "stupid voting."

Let's take British Columbia as an example. In the middle of the 2004 federal election, the B.C. riding of New Westminster-Coquitlam was a three-way race with the NDP in front, the Conservatives nipping at their heels, and the Liberals also within striking distance. But then Prime Minister Paul Martin campaigned in the riding, waving the national polling numbers and telling voters that they needed to vote Liberal to stop Harper. The result? The NDP vote collapsed, and the Conservative candidate won by only a few votes, with the Liberals well behind.
In 2006, however, Liberal-NDP swing voters across the province learned their lesson and managed to go from stupid voting to strategic voting in a single bound. The percentage of the vote didn't change much at all--the Conservatives increased by 1%, the NDP increased by 2%, and the Liberals fell by just under 1%. But real riding-by-riding strategic voting among swing voters gained seats for not only the NDP, but also for the Liberals. Only the Tories lost seats.

So to answer Glavin's question about why Liberal-NDP swing voters should vote NDP in the next election, my provocative answer that will piss everybody off boils down to this: maybe they should, and maybe they shouldn't. Since the outcome that these voters really want is one where the Liberals win but are forced to actually keep their promises, whether or not they should vote NDP depends on the makeup of their specific ridings. If they live in ridings where the NDP candidate can beat the Tory, they should vote NDP, and if they live in ridings where the Liberal candidate can beat the Tory, they should vote Liberal.

If the swing voters we're talking about manage to use informed, riding-specific strategy next time around, they have an excellent shot at getting exactly the outcome they want--a government that will actually implement the progressive policies that they like. If, however, they instead just vote indiscriminately Liberal out of fear--even in ridings where the Liberal has little chance--then they will hurt the NDP, fail to give the Liberals all the votes they need where they really need them, and probably elect another Tory minority government in the process. It's that simple.

[Update: I'm not sure Québec-based blogger Michel Fortin is a Liberal-NDP swing voter as described in this post--given where he lives, I'd guess not--but he sure sounds like he wants the same things they want. En français.]

[Upperdate: Terry Glavin responds...and agrees. Score! *grin*]

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


When I interviewed Stéphane Dion back in September, he had this to say about whipping the vote on Harper's renewal of the Afghanistan mission:

One mistake we made was to be divided about the shameful motion that Mr. Harper decided to have about the two-years' extension to the motion in Afghanistan. We should have had a whipped vote for everyone to vote against this motion. [...] We should have voted against that as a party and as the official opposition. I'm very disappointed that this was not done.
Dion clearly believes in whipping the vote when it's necessary--i.e., when it's important to show party unity so that your opponents can't use your party's dividedness against you in a leadership race. When that leadership race is over, though, and minority rights may be riding on whether or not the same-sex marriage issue gets reopened, apparently it's not nearly so important.

Free advice for the NDP's Ottawa set

This hasn't been the federal NDP's best week. I'm hardly the sort to tell the NDP to give the Liberals a free ride when they really deserve a good slap upside the head, but right now it's the NDP strategists I want to slap. In the hopes for a change in course, then, here's some free advice for any of that group who happen to be reading:

  • Yes, the Liberals got a post-convention bounce. So what? Did you really think that wouldn't happen? Just remember that all bounces are fleeting, take it in stride, and keep doing what you've been doing all along, hammering away at Harper and the Conservatives. You were doing such a good job, and it's not as if they haven't given you any fodder lately.

  • By all means, hammer away at the Liberals, too, when they do something arrogant or misguided. But why not wait until there's actually something to criticize before you join the Conservatives in their Dion-bashing? Trust me, there will be plenty of opportunities--Dion will have a tough time selling himself as the custodian of the environment when his record as environment minister was nothing to write home about. But kicking the guy when he first steps up to the plate just makes you look power-hungry and mean. Stick with "I am looking forward to debating with him and getting to work on the issues that are important to today’s families" until Dion gives you something concrete to work with.

  • Speaking of power-hungry and mean, what was with that insane email about Dion that the backroom strategists sent to NDP members shortly after he was made leader? Referring to him as an "out-of-touch academic" without telling us a thing about the ways in which he's supposedly out-of-touch is nothing but anti-intellectual crap. Am I "out of touch" because I have a Ph.D.? Is Dr. Jack Layton? Not to mention that it's hardly credible for the backroom people to try to malign Dion in this way when Layton himself has praised him.

  • Finally, Pat Martin questioning Dion's loyalty to Canada because of his dual citizenship doesn't exactly make him look like a defender of multiculturalism. As an immigrant Canadian who holds dual citizenship with my country of origin, I am appalled by the precedent this sets. People with dual citizenships aren't any less Canadian than those of you without any direct immigrant taint, and if somebody like me decided to run for the leader of a major party, my dual citizenship wouldn't make me any less deserving.
You're not just losing the soft NDP support with this strategy, you've got party members pissed off, too. We know you've got a great alternative vision, but right now we can't wait until you go back to presenting it so that we can stop cringing. You look like you're flailing. Quit it already.

[Update: My fellow oxymoron from Accidental Deliberations is much more measured, but no less right.]

Monday, December 04, 2006

What is with our party leaders and their asses?

When I heard about Layton's Question Period slip of the tongue today--described rather succinctly over at CBC online as "The House of Commons broke into cheers and laughter Monday after NDP Leader Jack Layton dropped the first letter from the word gas"--I had to laugh and laugh. I admit it, I've got exactly the juvenile sort of humour that finds this sort of thing freaking hilarious.

What made it all the funnier, though, is the fact that during the 2006 election, Harper had his own 'ass' slip. It went largely unnoticed other than in the (now sadly defunct) CTV election blog because so much else was going on at the time, but the text of the post has been preserved over here:

The howler of the campaign so far came tonight in St. Catharines where more than 1,200 people (that's right -- 1,200 in St. Catharines!) heard Harper lead off a section of his standard stump speech with this line ...

"As you listen to the misquotes and misinformation that will spew out of Mr. Martin's office and out of his ass ..."

Or at least that's what everyone heard. It brought the house down. Even Harper's wife Laureen, standing on stage beside him, started giggling.

Now if you listen closely to the tape, he actually said:

"As you listen to the misquotes and misinformation that will spew out of Mr. Martin's offce and out of his ads."

He seemed, though, to drop the 'd' in "ads" and it came out "ats."

Harper himself didn't seem to realize what he almost said and after a brief pause where he seemed a little confused at the reaction the line got, continued on hammering away at Paul Martin -- and his ads.
The post came complete with an .mp3, which seems to have disappeared along with the post, but your trusty neighbourhood idealistic pragmatist saved a copy and has put it up for download here. It's highly recommended for the crowd reaction alone!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

How does Dion stack up?

I haven't been blogging about my preferences in the Liberal leadership race, but that doesn't mean I haven't had them. The main problem has been that my preferences were really too complicated to turn them into a nice tidy little post. Yes, I'm a partisan New Democrat, but I'm also a concerned Canadian who wants what's best for the country, and a strong believer in a diverse spectrum of partisan choices led by public servants who care about more than just their own careers. So this has meant balancing three major factors, in the following order:

What's best for the country. Like it or not, choosing a Liberal leader is about choosing somebody who has a pretty good chance of becoming the next prime minister. This means that someone whose favoured policies aren't appalling would certainly be a plus, as would someone who's more interested in serving the country than in personal gain.

What's best for the NDP. The ideal scenario would, of course, be a Liberal leader who could take a whole slew of votes away from the Conservatives without taking any from the NDP. I don't think that candidate existed--at least not in this race--but someone who had a good shot at eating into soft Conservative support and who at least wouldn't seriously damage the NDP would also be acceptable.

What's best for the Liberals. It sounds strange coming from a partisan New Democrat, but I really do care about the renewal of the Liberal party. I believe in true voter choice above all else, and the "ill health" of one of the three major parties has seriously limited voter choice for those on the centre of the spectrum, sending an awful lot of them into Stephen Harper's waiting arms. Also, if the Liberals don't fix some of the things that ail them, and they get into power anyway, that's not good for any of us.

So now that we know it's going to be Dion going up against Harper and Layton in the next election, I'd like to evaluate how he stacks up on those three factors.

Dion's strengths:

I have thought for some time that, of all the major Liberal leadership candidates, Dion would be the clear choice in terms of what was best for Canada. He has enough integrity that Harper was comfortable consulting with him before bringing forward his Quebec as a nation motion, and Layton, too, referred to him as "a man of principle and conviction" in the middle of a partisan convention. His policy preferences, as well, while not ideal, would be a welcome change from the direction Harper is taking us in.

In terms of what was best for the NDP, Dion wouldn't have been the top pick (that would have been Ignatieff), but I've long suspected that he would pose more of a threat to Harper and Duceppe than to Layton, and this poll seems to suggest that as well.

Finally, there are also at least a few advantages to Dion in terms of repairing the damage to a rather broken Liberal party. He's someone who served in both the Chrétien and Martin cabinets, and there was certainly plenty of evidence at the convention today that he can start to smooth over the rifts from their feud.

Dion's weaknesses:

After I interviewed Dion back in September, I expressed a number of concerns about him. The most damning of these was about his inability to account for either the broken Liberal policy promises or the ubiquitous sense of Liberal entitlement:

Given the undeniable fact of the booming oil and gas industry, though, it's all the more essential that we get someone into the prime minister's office who's willing to follow through not just on voluntary targets, but on tough regulation. Dion's proposed plan would go a long way toward that, but all we know is that the last time he had the chance to regulate, he didn't go nearly far enough. What I needed to hear from him during this interview was an acknowledgement that previous Liberal governments should have done things that they didn't do, some explanation for why they didn't do those things, and an outline of why a Dion-led government would be different. His answers fell short on all of those points. [...]

Certainly recovery from the Chrétien-Martin civil war and presenting a positive vision for the future would be two huge steps toward repairing the damage to his party. But I think most of us on the left would tend to agree that it doesn't get at the things that concern us most about the Liberals. The new Liberal leader, whoever he ends up being, is also going to have a tough job repairing the public trust. This violated trust comes not just the sponsorship scandal, but also from the broken promises I addressed in my last point, and perhaps most importantly, from a governing style that made them appear arrogant, complacent, and like they thought they were entitled to a majority government with no real effort. I tried to give Dion every opportunity to address these issues, but he didn't.
My concerns about these issues have only grown since that interview. While he was vaguely cagey and defensive with me in September, at the leadership debate in Montreal a month later, he positioned himself outright as the defender of the Liberal record. If you wanted renewal of the Liberal party--REAL renewal, with all the soul-searching and accounting for mistakes and reforms that would come with that--Dion was never going to be your man. And relatedly, while Ignatieff was willing to step in during that debate and admit that the Liberals "didn't get it done" on the environment, Dion's response was to get visibly angry and counter that Ignatieff "didn't know what he spoke about." This leaves me with little evidence that, when push comes to shove, Dion will actually be willing to implement the policies he's laid out so nicely for us.

My fondest, pie-in-the-sky wishes:

I'll end, though, on a positive, even optimistic note. I have made no secret of the fact that I think coalition governments are Canada's future. In the long run, they're really the only way out of the minority government muddle--they would work in Canada in the same way that they work in most of the world's democracies, providing stability without forcing a diverse political spectrum into two imperfect choices. And being the idealistic pragmatist I am, I have also made no secret of the fact that my preferred coalition government would consist of the NDP and a genuinely renewed Liberal party. While I realize how unlikely this is, given the animosity between the two parties and their extremely varied traditions, I think having Dion as the Liberal leader may well represent the only opportunity to realize that possibility in the near future.

Yes, Layton and Dion have very, very different ideas on policy, but they're also both pragmatic thinkers, and they may well be able to work together well enough to compromise in the case of a Liberal (or for that matter, NDP) minority win in the next election. Layton's official response to Dion's win was to congratulate him and to say that he "looks forward to debating with him and getting to work on the issues that are important to today’s families." That's about as positive a message as he's had for any member of another political party since, well...since he called Dion a "man of principle and conviction." I certainly don't expect either Layton or Dion to pull any punches during the next campaign, and that's as it should be. But when the votes are all counted, it is my great hope they'll be able to put aside their differences and do what's truly best for this country. Our antagonistic political culture may make it unlikely, but it could still happen if the voters and these two leaders wanted to make it happen.

All in all, Canada, the NDP, and the Liberals could all definitely have done a lot worse today. Let me echo Layton's congratulations to Dion, then. It was a fine race, well fought, and while I still hope he will manage to address some of the concerns I have over the coming months, I sincerely wish him well.

All together, now: "stupid oil boom!"

Things that have happened this week:

  • Two friends and I ordered a pizza that took almost three hours to arrive, cold, at its destination.

  • A major department store finally delivered the washer and dryer of two other friends, after they had waited 3 months for it. Those three months had consisted of five failed delivery attempts, including the store arranging for one of them to come home early from work, and then not showing up.

  • My friends and I finally learned how to game the restaurant system: one person has to get there at 5:00 or before, that person has to order as soon as they arrive (i.e., before sitting down), and they have to bring a book to read while they wait for everybody else to arrive at a saner time, because the group's meal is still going to take more than an hour to arrive. (But hey, we got fed!)

  • The city let us know that there's simply no way to clear the unexpected dumps of snow we've been getting, and we just have to live with them.

  • A whole slew of postal workers quit their jobs to pursue more lucrative careers, leaving suburban Edmonton residents without any mail delivery.

  • I realized that what irritates me even more than all these little annoyances is this: I love this city in a way I've loved no other place I've lived, and yet it's now--when living here kind of sucks--that everybody and their brother is moving here. They must hate it so much, and that makes me sad, sad, sad.
Verdict: I am so very ready for my city to start working right again.