Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Background noise

There's a seriously mentally ill guy who occasionally walks up and down Edmonton's now-infamous Whyte Avenue yelling "Oh, my God!" at the top of his lungs. I live, shall we say, very very close to that particular street, and whenever I've got my bedroom window open, I can hear him. I'm used to it. By now, he's just part of the background noise that makes up city life.

This afternoon, I heard him again, and it occurred to me that it had been an awfully long time since he'd been a part of my Saturday background noise. At first I wondered if he'd maybe been in the hospital or something equally worrisome. Then it hit me: it's not him that changed; it's this city. We've traded in a certain manic euphoria for a much quieter dejection. And for short but intensely enjoyable while, Mr. "Oh, My God!" just blended right in.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The party of the mainstream CEOs

Guess how much it's going to cost, per delegate, to attend the Liberal leadership convention? $995. Yep, that's right, nine HUNDRED and ninety-five dollars.

I'm so shocked by this that I actually have little to say about it. I mean, I have a steady, decently paying job, and even I couldn't afford to shell out that much on top of an expensive flight, a hotel room, and meals. I was actually concerned about the fall NDP policy convention costing $95, because I thought it might be prohibitively expensive for a lot of would-be delegates. But the Liberals are charging more than TEN TIMES that amount, and it's not even going to be a policy convention.

The Liberal party in Germany, the Free Democratic Party, once came up with a disastrous campaign slogan that translated to "the party of those who earn more." It sounds like our own Liberals are following in their footsteps.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Party like it's 1984

Let's have a look at what some Conservative cabinet ministers have been saying about the environment these days:

Under the former Liberal government we could have seen up to $600 per Canadian family in taxpayer money shipped overseas to countries like Russia and China with no accountability to the environment here at home.
-- Rona Ambrose, Minister of the Environment, May 8th Question Period
The Liberals were going to buy billions of dollars in international credits from Russia and China when we have our own air and water pollution problems right here at home.
-- Rona Ambrose, Minister of the Environment, June 8th Question Period
Not only does the old Liberal Party want to spend billions of dollars buying hot air credits in Russia, to add insult to injury it wants to impose a new carbon tax on Canadians to pay for Russia's hot air.
-- Gary Lunn, Minister of Natural Resources, June 12th Question Period
First off, let's clear up one thing: this "shipping money overseas" thing that our esteemed ministers are so hot under the collar about is nothing more and nothing less than an acknowledgement that our environment doesn't stop at our national borders. Each country that signed the Kyoto agreement has promised to limit their country's emissions to the levels described in the protocol. Realizing that countries don't always manage to keep their promises, though, the agreement also has a provision for those countries, like Canada, who screw up: they can buy "credits" from countries that managed to keep their word. The Conservatives don't like this idea. They'd rather demarcate the air over our heads along our land borders and claim responsibility for keeping only that portion of the atmosphere clean. It's a good thing we've got border guards up in the sky, working hard at keeping the riff-raff pollution out.

Now, the text of these statements is merely a bit lacking in the logic department, but the subtext is downright retro. Most developed countries have managed to meet their Kyoto targets, so there are plenty of other places that could have been held up as examples of who could buy Canada's emissions credits. The United Kingdom, for example, has already surpassed its target by 12.5%. Germany and France have overshot their targets as well, as have Iceland and New Zealand. Sweden has not only easily met its targets, but has committed itself to being entirely free of fossil fuels by 2020. Poorer countries that have managed to meet their targets include Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the Ukraine.

Why not mention any one of those countries, instead of always demonizing China and Russia? Apparently the Conservatives not only want Canada to horde its own air, but they'd also like to take us back to the good old days of the Cold War.

IP on the Hotstove

I pinch-hitted for Sinister Greg on the Bloggers' Hotstove this week, and despite the lopsidedness of this particular week's panel (the fourth panelist, Stephen Taylor, couldn't get his microphone to work), it was a lot of fun. I'm afraid our host Greg Staples encouraged me way too much toward the end, though, when the discussion drifted toward my pet issue of proportional representation. Before they even think about having me back, they should probably make me promise to repent of my longwindedness!

For reference, here are some links to pieces that were brought up over the course of the podcast:

Also, if you had your curiosity piqued by the discussion at the end of the podcast about the arcane mechanics of a couple of different flavours of proportional representation, and would like to hear more, I've got a whole FAQ on the subject. (If, on the other hand, your reaction was more along the lines of: "I can't believe they let her pontificate about that for ten minutes," then for god's sake, steer clear of that link!)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Canada's left: a credo

Some things I believe:

1. Canada's left consists not of the NDP and no one else, as Jack Layton would have us believe, and not of the NDP, the Liberals, and the Greens, as Jason Townsend would have us believe, but of the NDP, a few Liberals, and some Greens. This complicates matters beyond the quick fix many leftists (of whatever stripe) are looking for.

2. The potential future in government of voices from Canada's left (as defined above) depends not on the NDP snuffing out the Liberals, as Pat Martin would have us believe, and not on the Liberals snuffing out the NDP, as Jason Cherniak would have us believe, and not on the NDP snuffing out the Greens, as Duncan Cameron would have us believe, but on learning how to find common ground within our political diversity. This complicates matters even further.

3. The best model for finding common ground isn't forming a "big tent" party, as John Ryan would have us believe, but allowing for diversity of opinion and separate political identities within temporary government coalitions. These temporary coalitions wouldn't look like the Liberal-NDP cooperation within 2005's Liberal minority government, but like coalition governments as they tend to exist in European parliaments such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. This model would require a change in our political culture to make it less antagonistic and more cooperative, and the surest and best way to precipitate this change would be the implementation of some form of proportional representation on the federal level.

4. The very best thing for Canada's left would be the election this fall of a Liberal leader who agrees with me about 1-3. That leader wouldn't even have to be a leftist himself, but someone who sees value in the left and is respectful of different political opinions. Unfortunately, there seems to be no one like that in the race. (For a short time I thought Gerard Kennedy might be that guy, but he isn't.)

5. Having leftist voices in government is a good goal, but having genuine leftist voices (rather than a whole slew of centrists in leftist clothing) on the federal scene at all is still more important in the long run. If--for whatever reason--this can't work out in the way I outline above, we can't let that failure lead us to succumb to the siren song of the big tent. Many laws and policies we take for granted today began as wild ideas from the left, and any big tent (whether it's called the Liberal Party of Canada, the New Democratic Party of Canada, or the Liberal Democrats of Canada) would lead to the marginalization and silencing of leftist voices. Without real leftists on the federal scene, no one would ever come to realize that many of those so-called wild ideas are actually practical and implementable. This, above all other reasons, is why I am a member of the NDP.

6. A lot of people of all political stripes think 1-5 contradict each other. These people are wrong.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Losing John

There's a guy I know named John--maybe you know him, too. Born an ordinary small-town Ontario kid, he moved into the big city for work and then ended up staying. A programmer by day, he's also a bit of a politics geek. He's never gone so far as to start his own blog, but every few days he drops by the Progressive Bloggers to see what like-minded people are saying about the state of Canada in the world. He's always voted Liberal. Okay, he was disgruntled enough with Paul Martin in 2006 that he thought about voting NDP, but at the last minute he got nervous about the Conservatives getting in and ended up giving the Liberals his X yet again. In the end his MP, Maria Minna, was reelected, and when it came right down to it, that was just fine with him.

On Saturday morning, John wakes up, makes himself a cup of coffee, and flips on his computer to skim the latest headlines from A few clicks, and he lands on some news that chills his blood: the previous night, while John was asleep, about a dozen Canadian men were arrested for plotting an attack somewhere in southern Ontario. Nobody knows what the target was, but the investigation is ongoing. He flicks back and forth between online news sources and both Canadian and American 24-hour news channels, but nobody's saying what the potential targets were. He clicks through to his trusty Progressive Bloggers, but finds nothing there, either. Frustrated, he turns to the Blogging Tories and hits paydirt. It's all speculation, of course, but to John it's better than no news at all. The bomb might have been intended for the subway (John takes the subway every day!), or maybe even some area oil refineries (what would that do to the economy?!).

In the afternoon, John calls his parents, just to check in. Shocked, he learns that they don't even know what's happened. His mom actually sounds more worried about him than she does about the terrorists, and John clenches a fist around the phone in frustration. She hasn't followed things through in her mind to their inevitable conclusion. Thousands of people could have died. Maybe people John knew. Maybe even John himself. No, we didn't actually have our own 9/11 here on Canadian soil, but at least when the Americans went through this, they all banded together and did something about the problem. Guys like the ones who almost did this--they don't stop at one foiled attempt. Maybe next time, they'll succeed. And next time could be tomorrow, or next week, or when we least expect it.

For Saturday dinner, John snacks on last week's cold pizza and the dregs of chips he found in the cupboard--somehow, he's just not hungry enough to make himself a meal--and just after midnight, he finally drops off to sleep. In the middle of the night, he wakes up from a dream, sweating and shivering. In his mind, a burning CN Tower topples onto the whole of downtown Toronto and sets it ablaze as he watches in abject horror. He can't shake the image. He can't fall back asleep. He gets up, flicks on his computer again, and glances at the latest from that Tory blogger he'd been reading earlier: he's speculating about a free vote on capital punishment. John catches himself thinking that might not be such a bad thing.

On Sunday, John steps outside for the first time since first hearing the news--he wants to make sure to pick up the weekend edition of the Toronto Star in case he's missed anything by sticking to television and online news sources. At the corner store, the conversation is about the weather, about the Stanley Cup finals, about anything but the fact that a bunch of people with names like Ahhmad and Jahmaal almost blew up John's city. John finds himself frustrated all over again--why are he and a handful of Tory bloggers the only ones who care about this? Over at his ordinarily likeminded Progressive Bloggers, some folks are referring to the people who are scared as hysterical, and in the comments section of that post, a well-known, well-respected blogger is even saying that it's people like John who are letting the terrorists win. Suddenly, John's not just frustrated; he's angry. He turns back to the Blogging Tories, who are talking about the size of the potential bomb. Information is good; it makes him feel calmer.

Sunday stretches on, and turns into Monday. John goes in to work, but he feels twitchy. He can't concentrate on coding, so he keeps sneaking peeks at the news online. The latest from the Progressive Bloggers is ridicule, but the Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno and the Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford resonate with him: The enemy within. The elephant in the room. The war on windows. Monday turns into Tuesday, and there's a bit on Warren Kinsella's blog that briefly gives John pause. Kinsella's suggesting that a bunch of people go to a Jays game--at the site of one of the potential targets--and "wave the flag, and wear a few T-shirts bearing a defiant message." John remembers his own admiration of the "we are not afraid" campaign after the London subway bombings, and he wants to join them. But the trouble is, John is afraid. And in a world of rhetoric that's been polarized into "now we Canadians finally recognize that we, too, are under siege" and "if you're scared, you're letting the terrorists win," John's finding himself increasingly aligned with the former group. He's honestly not sure whether that makes him crazy or if it makes him sane, but mostly, he doesn't care. His world has been turned upside down. He's too busy being scared.


I realize that we bloggers are better at sarcasm than we are at sympathy, better at fisking than we are at feeling--but without so much as a passing nod to John and his irrational yet entirely human fears, we lose him. Me, I'm not scared of the terrorists, and I'm not scared of the hard-right bloggers and columnists who are gleefully pulling out old Jack Layton quotes about security certificates, either. But the prospect of watching the Johns of this country slip further and further into the sort of reactionary thinking that's gripped my country of birth for nearly five years? That's what really scares me.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Harper's big gamble

The National Post is suggesting that Québec premier Jean Charest has turned against Harper, and has become engaged in a "your momma wears combat boots"-style war of rhetoric with the Bloc Québecois over which one of them is in bed with the Tories. On Wednesday, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe said this:

The Charest government has no backbone. Mr. Charest is making an error. He is hitching himself to Mr. Harper's wagon at any cost to the detriment of Quebec's interests.
and on Friday, Charest countered:
[Gilles Duceppe] represents Quebecers in the House of Commons. If he believes in what he is saying, unless it is empty rhetoric, well then he will vote against the budget in the House of Commons. So we'll see who has backbone.
It's pretty clear what Duceppe's aim is here: a Québec provincial election is likely by the end of next year, and he'd clearly like to see the Parti Québecois take the reins. Charest's aim, on the other hand, is slightly more murky. Until recently, after all, he seemed to be pretty tight with Harper. On the surface of things, the falling out appears to have happened toward the end of May, and over the Kyoto Accord. It's certainly true that Charest, a former federal environment minister under Brian Mulroney, has been feeling some pressure on that front. But my fellow oxymoron from Accidental Deliberations is left wondering whether Charest's sudden chill toward Harper is all just for show, and a prelude to forcing an election now for the ultimate benefit of the Conservatives.

It sounds like a tinfoil-hat notion, but I have to wonder, myself. When I met up with Conservative blogger Greg Staples at the multipartisan Waterloo Blogstravaganza, one of the few things we agreed on was that if we were in Stephen Harper's shoes, we would be looking for the government to fall now. By the fall, the Liberals will have a new leader and almost inevitably the new momentum that goes along with that, and at the moment, Harper's own party's polling numbers are quite strong. We also agreed, however, that Canadians are nowhere near ready for another election, and if the current government seemed to be orchestrating their own demise prematurely, they might come to regret that decision come election time. An obvious strategy to deal with this, we decided, would be to goad the opposition into voting against a confidence motion that was at least superficially bad for the Tories. The Liberals would then be forced to fight an election without a real leader, and a Tory majority could result.

In order for a play like that to work, the issue the government fell on would have to be one that most Canadians tended to like, but only in a superficial sort of way, as we all like the neighbour's new puppy until we start finding our petunias dug up and rubber chew toys in their place. Recent polling about the details of Kyoto suggests that it could well be that issue, since more than two-thirds of us know little to nothing about it. The pollsters who interpreted the numbers even suggested that "the knowledge level of what is in Kyoto is so small that this government, if it plays its cards right, will have some manoeuvrability." It would be a big gamble for the Tories, but they might well decide that it would be worth the potential prize of a majority government.

For all our sakes, I sure hope I'm wrong. But if I turn out to be right, I have to admit that there's a part of me that will almost admire such shrewd and highly complex political gamesmanship. It's often said that the left should underestimate Stephen Harper at its own peril--and he may well be on the brink of proving that right.