Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

What feminism has done for me

Jason Cherniak tagged me with the "What Feminism Has Done For Me" meme. I didn't have time to get to it right away, but I figure it's better late than never.

1. Because of the work of feminists in generations before, I was able to choose a career other than maid, elementary school teacher, or nurse (all of which are jobs I would entirely suck at).

2. Feminism made it possible for me to choose not to have a husband or to be a mother.

3. Feminism made it possible for me to travel the world and live in several different countries as a young woman, despite the fact that I often had no chaperones and took care of my own affairs.

4. Because of feminism, medical research and medical professionals take women's bodies much more seriously than they used to. This means that if I were to go to the doctor with a brain tumour, I would be much less likely to be told that it was just menopause and be given a prescription for heavy duty tranquilizers.

5. Feminism has changed society enough that if I chose to write my blog under my own name, most people would still take my opinions seriously.

I loathe the practice of tagging, but I've been told that it's mandatory. So how about taking this as a list of people I'd most like to hear responses from, but without peer pressure:

1. Rivka from Respectful of Otters
2. Kevin G. from Odd Thoughts
3. Radical Centrist from Vues d'ici
4. Matthew Hayday from Pample the Moose
5. La Québécoise ambulante

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Afghanistan questions

Work is eating my life right now, including all my blogging time. But that's okay, 'cause Mike of Rational Reasons is asking the questions that need to be asked about Afghanistan, and so you should all be over there instead anyway. The first two are taken word-for-word from Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor back when he was the Conservatives' defence critic, and the rest are Mike's:

What are the goals and objectives of the mission and how do they meet our foreign-policy objectives?

What is the mandate, what is the defined concept of operations, what is the effective command and control structure, what are the rules of engagement?

To what extent have we been able to meet our non-military, PRT objectives in the South?

Are we still fighting the 'Taliban' or have other groups - heroin traffickers, disaffected warlords, honestly disgruntled peasants - entered the fray, complicating this matter?

How succesful have we been in bringing the Afghan police and army up to speed to help with security?

How have the recent actions of Pakistan - either in 'makng peace' with its tribal regions or in actively supporting the Taliban - changed the scope and complexity of the mission? Under these new circumstances, does our current plan and tactics make sense?

What kinds of non-combat operations are we doing that indeed help women protect their rights or help farmers get off of growing poppies?
Come to think of it, I'm turning comments off on this one so that the discussion can all gather over at his pad. I look forward to reading it.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Clearing a few things up

Some myths about me:

I came to Canada because I became disgusted with the U.S. after Bush was elected in 2000. (I've actually been here since 1997, back when Clinton was still President. The Democrats always pushed me toward leaving a lot harder than the Republicans, ironically enough.)

My blog's name is Ideal Pragmatist...or Idealist Pragmatist, or Ideal Pragmatic. (it's idealistic: adjective meaning "believing practices should be based on principles"; pragmatist: noun meaning "one who believes practices should be based on practical outcomes".)

I am a male-type-blogger-person. (*looks down*--whew, the breasts are still there.)

When titles go very, very wrong

That new book by U.S. Liberal Oasis founder Bill Scher, called Wait! Don't Move To Canada! : A Stay-and-Fight Strategy to Win Back America, is out now. Unsurprisingly, it's been discussed a great deal in blogs.

Unfortunately for Scher, though, many of the comments sections of the blogs that have discussed it haven't focused on the content of his book, but have devolved (evolved?) into discussions about the pros and cons of...emigrating to Canada. Oops.

The NDP's real position on Afghanistan

At the end of my enormous post-convention post, I wrote about how odd it was for me to come out of the convention bubble and see how the NDP's official position on Afghanistan had been portrayed in the media. In particular, I was surprised by how the situation was being portrayed as the party's leftmost wing forcing the NDP to adopt a hard-left stance. There certainly are hard-left elements within the party, and they certainly do exert plenty of pressure on the party leadership--but the problem with that line of reasoning was that the official position as worded hardly amounted to a hard-left one. So I chalked this discrepancy up to media sensationalism and thought nothing more of it.

Then came the bloggers, who were worse. They've called Layton "Taliban Jack" ad nauseum and accused defence critic Dawn Black of wanting "to return to the days where Afghan women were brought to the centre of sports stadiums built by the UN, and stoned to death" and thinking "kids shouldn't be able to go to school." On the September 17th Bloggers' Hotstove podcast, Conservative blogger Stephen Taylor presented a caricature of the NDP's position that had only the fleetingest flirtation with reality, and he sounded so much like one of those spinning Tory talking heads on CPAC that I almost turned it off in disgust. But I chalked all this up to typical blogger polemicism and dirty-tricks partisanship and thought nothing more of it.

Imagine my surprise last night, then, to find that Conservative bloggers had started claiming that Layton was "reversing his party's Afghanistan position" to...what it's been all along. (My first thought upon reading this was that you really can't win as a politician: when the inevitable simplistic portrayals of your position start appearing, you get painted as a radical, but when they realize that you're actually saying something rather pedestrian, you get painted as a flip-flopper.) But all right, I'm going to be charitable and assume that the kind of distortion of the NDP's position that I've been seeing for the past month hasn't, in fact, been deliberate, but attributable to an ordinary human misunderstanding. And I'm going to try to clear it up.

To do that, we have to be able to address two issues: what, exactly, the NDP is calling for, and why they are calling for it. And for that, we have to go straight to the original source--to the party's actual official statements on the matter. First, what they're calling for, from the August 31st statement:

That's why I'm announcing that as a first step, New Democrats are calling for the withdrawal of Canadian troops from the combat mission in southern Afghanistan. Withdrawal should begin as soon as possible - working with our international partners to ensure a safe and smooth transition - but with a view to having it complete by February 2007. Canada can then focus on building a made-in-Canada foreign policy that moves us toward reclaiming Canada's place in the world. One that is clear, comprehensive, and balanced.
In point form, then (and rephrased from politician-speak into plain language), the NDP is calling for Canada to:
  • take troops out of their combat role in southern Afghanistan
  • work with other countries to make sure this withdrawal can proceed safely
  • complete this withdrawal by February 2007, and
  • come up with a new foreign policy that's a little more independent from the United States.
In light of the misunderstandings that have occurred, it's also important to look at what this statement doesn't say, namely:
  • we should pull every Canadian soldier out of Afghanistan, including the ones working on humanitarian aid projects
  • Canada's military can serve the country better sitting on their duffs and twiddling their thumbs, and
  • Afghanistan would be better off with the Taliban in charge.
So that's the what; now let's look at the why. Again, from the same August 31st statement:
By participating in this aggressive counterinsurgency war, Liberals and Conservatives claim to be making Canada safer. But Canadians are asking themselves whether Canada’s role in this war is actually making our country less secure. These are valid questions. Our efforts in the region are overwhelmingly focussed on military force--spending defence dollars on counter-insurgency. Prime Minister Harper need only look at the experience in Iraq to conclude that ill-conceived and unbalanced missions do not create the conditions for long-term peace. Why are we blindly following the defence policy prescriptions of the Bush administration? This is not the right mission for Canada. There is no balance--in particular it lacks a comprehensive rebuilding plan and commensurate development assistance. [...]

Naturally, we must continue to work multilaterally to get tough on terrorism. But, we also understand that making the world a safer place requires us to go much further. Issues like international development assistance to combat global poverty, reforming international institutions, peace building and securing human rights are all part of the solution. So is the strategic use of our highly-skilled and well-respected Canadian armed forces. Canada has a long history of stepping into the breach when called upon by our international allies.

Unfortunately, the number of conflicts around the world today, including deepening tensions in the Middle East, mean that we must carefully choose where we can make the greatest difference. New Democrats understand the need to send troops into combat and the risks involved. We support and have supported appropriate missions. Our duty is to ensure that Canada participates in missions where the objectives and mandate are clear and where there are clear criteria for success.
And then later, and somewhat more pithily, in Jack Layton's September 10th keynote address at the convention:
That mission is the wrong mission for Canada. There is no plan for victory. There is no exit strategy. There is no sign that it is making the Taliban weaker or the world safer. And there is no hope of changing the realities on the ground in Afghanistan--with the forces we have or can commit.
So again, in point form and rephrased into plain language, the reasons for the NDP's official stance on Afghanistan are as follows:
  • like the war in Iraq, the Afghanistan war is poorly planned
  • also like the war in Iraq, too much money and effort is being poured into combat while the humanitarian side is being neglected
  • we're following the U.S.'s lead in a mission that's supposed to be Canada's
  • it's impossible to win a war when we don't have a clear statement of what winning would entail, and
  • as things now stand, we're not doing any long-term good over there.
And again, what the official position doesn't name as reasons for withdrawal:
  • Afghanis have the right to govern themselves without any interference from us
  • War Iz Baddd, and
  • Canadian troops are no better than imperialist invaders, and the Liberals and Conservatives are complicit in that invasion for sending them there in the first place.
Now, no matter how you feel about the NDP's hard-left element, you have to admit that this simply isn't a hard-left position. What this actually is, is a pessimistic position. Yes, that's right: where the Conservatives are adopting the positively Pollyanna-ish stance of what amounts to "if we just stick around for another two to five years, we can defeat Afghani society's rogue elements and then go back to building hospitals and schools for children," the NDP is saying what can be boiled down to "we're just spinning our wheels in combat in Afghanistan, and since what we're doing isn't going to work anyway, we should pull our troops out of a futile combat role and put them into a role where they can do some good." The irony is delicious, isn't it?

Now, there's certainly plenty to criticize about that stance. As a militant agnostic on Afghanistan ("I don't know, and you don't either"), I don't agree with it myself. But if you're going to criticize it, criticize it for what it actually is. Call it too short-sighted, too ad-hoc, or, yes, too defeatist. Point out what this commenter at bound by gravity says: that ceding Kandahar to the people we've been fighting could move the warfronts to parts of the country that are currently relatively peaceful. Point out the fact that calling for withdrawal from the combat mission without a serious, thorough debate in Parliament is no better than extending the mission without the same. Say what my friend Jo Cook said at the convention: "We need more information, more consultation, more thought. I believe we need a coherent foreign policy framework for military and international affairs which this party has never developed." But--and this goes for both the traditional media and the bloggers--argue with the NDP's real official position, not with what the stereotyped mental image of the NDP in your head has come up with.

To do that, of course, people have to listen, watch, and analyze, instead of knee-jerking and name-calling. But you can call me a Pollyanna if you want, but I actually don't think that's too much to ask.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Ah, democracy!

A new "majority government" for New Brunswick...awarded to the party finishing in second place. Canadian democracy in action!

It should give the New Brunswick electoral reformers a nice shot in the arm, anyway. Not to mention some ammunition behind the argument that a new voting system wouldn't just be about favouring the left.

[Update: More on New Brunswick electoral reform from Fruits and Votes. He's also got a good post debunking the tail wags the dog argument about coalition governments. Aww, hell, just go read his whole blog.]

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A lefty's interview with Stéphane Dion

It was early August when I was first approached by Stéphane Dion's leadership campaign and asked whether I would be interested in doing an interview with him. It was early September (the night before I left for the NDP convention, in fact) when we finally managed to find a date and time that worked for us both. The scheduling difficulties were frustrating on both sides, but they also gave me a lot of time to think about how I wanted to approach the interview, as both a blogger and as a Blogging Dipper. These kinds of interviews are usually done by political journalists who gather information and then offer up relatively dispassionate analyses of it. What we bloggers tend to be, though, is editorialists: we take facts as presented by others, and re-analyze them in light of our own interpretations. Any candidate willing to do interviews with bloggers knows this, and is in fact looking for precisely that kind of editorial interpretation of the answers he gives. So an approach in which I pretended to be completely free of ideological taint was right out.

In the end, though, I decided it would be best not to approach the interview not as a partisan New Democrat, but as a member of Canada's left. There were two main reasons for this: one, because I wanted my conversation with Dion to be cordial rather than antagonistic; and two, because I was apparently hand-picked for this interview because of the perception that I'm a fair-minded partisan, and I wanted to assure his campaign that their trust in me hadn't been misplaced. As such, I viewed my main objective not as tripping Dion up, but as giving him the opportunity to answer the hard questions lefty Canadians might want to ask a Liberal leader in general and him in particular, and seeing to what extent he was able to answer them. My open letter to the Liberals had already outlined the things I think lefty Canadians will need to hear from Liberals if they want to gain support from enough of us to win the next election, so I took that as a basis for my questions, which centred around a search for:

1. A positive statement of what he stands for that involves good, progressive ideas (as opposed to simply repeating over and over again how scary Stephen Harper is).

2. Reason to trust that he would actually implement those good, progressive ideas. Given the Liberals' track record on keeping their promises, this would be an issue with any of the candidates, but unfortunately for Dion, it goes double for someone who was actually part of the last government, and triple for someone who had primary responsibility for the (arguably sorely lacking) environmental record of that government.

3. An acknowledgement that the pickle their party is in right now is of their own making (rather than scapegoating the NDP or someone else), but then moving beyond unproductive self-flagellation to some clear statement of what that pickle currently consists of, and some ideas about how they plan to get out of it.

4. A glimmer of an interest in reforming not just his own party, but also the broader political scene. Democratic and electoral reform would be an excellent start to this, but I was also hoping for some recognition that our toxic political culture needs an overhaul if we really are going to accomplish some of the incredibly difficult things we need to do over the next few decades. Political parties need to be looking out for Canada, not just their own selfish interests, and a Liberal leader who realizes this would be a great thing.
The final verdict, post-interview: decidedly mixed.

Starting with the positive, he gets full marks on the first point: good, progressive ideas, phrased positively, instead of just trying to convince me I should be scared of Stephen Harper. The environment, or "the reconciliation between the people and the planet," is clearly the chief plank of his platform, and he considers accomplishing this task "the problem of the century." He hopes to do this by "bringing together the capacity to help the planet and to help your wallet."

But these aren't just vague pretty words; he's also got details to back up the plan, which consists of tenets like granting an accelerated capital cost allowance to industry when they use less water and less fuel (and not when they don't), regulating the oil and gas industry to decrease their emissions by 11% between now and 2012, offsetting the damage they do by requiring them to invest in environmentally beneficial projects outside their own production, regulating against pollution with the aim of eventually bringing standards up to those of the European countries, and giving tax breaks to consumers for home and car purchases that are more energy-efficient. While some Conservatives have slammed him for nabbing a lot of his ideas from the David Suzuki Foundation, I don't quite see what the fuss is about. Personally, I wish a lot more politicians were willing to "steal" their environmental ideas from the David Suzuki Foundation (and so, it seems, does the David Suzuki Foundation).

As for the "Stephen Harper is scary" meme, it didn't come up once. Dion did criticize Harper's ideology (he has "narrow and selfish ideas" that "look at the past and not at the future") and his specific policies (cancelling the previous government's plans that attempted to meet our Kyoto targets was "shameful" because it amounted to "wasting one year" at a particularly crucial time for the environment, and moving the two-years' extension to the Afghanistan mission without sufficient discussion or information was equally awful, especially in light of the fact that he "blackmailed the House with the promise of an election" to convince people to vote in favour of the extension). But Dion is clearly running much more on his own vision of Canada than he is against Harper's, and that's a refreshing change from the Liberals' last campaign.

When it comes to the second point, however--that of giving me reason to trust that he would actually implement his ideas if he were prime minister--I was far less convinced. It's true that Dion is in a disadvantage over the other leadership candidates in this respect, because he doesn't get to emerge as a fresh, new face that's going to wipe the slate clean. As such, he's pretty much forced into running on his government's record, and that's tough. But if he's going to convince people that he's got not only the best vision for Canada, but also the cojones to actually put it into place, he's going to have to come up with a way of explaining why his party's government (in which he was a longtime member of Cabinet) didn't implement his current ideas during the twelve years they were in power. When asked directly about this, Dion tried to push the blame onto the current government for cancelling the plan he himself introduced in April of 2005. I certainly agree with him that they shouldn't have done that, but the question remains why a) that plan wasn't as tough as what he is now proposing (an internal examination of Liberal climate-change spending obtained by the Globe and Mail in 2005 admitted that their focus on encouraging voluntary action by industry had produced "extremely disappointing results"), and b) why they waited until the final year of their government to make even tentative efforts on climate change.

To be fair, he didn't just blame Harper, but also addressed the fact that Canada has a more difficult task than most countries do in terms of lowering greenhouse gas emissions:
[Canada has] a booming economy, especially in oil and gas where emissions are going up. In 1990 oil and gas was almost not existing as an industry, and now it is a milk cow of the country. We have no other countries in the Kyoto world that are in the same situation. Oil and gas industries in other countries are flat or decreasing, and in Canada ours is booming. It's why we have a lot of difficulty to limit our emissions and to keep them under control.
Given this 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.

The questions surrounding the third thing I was looking for--a willingness to address the problems in the Liberal party--also produced mixed results. To his credit, when I asked him why he thought the Liberals lost the last election, he had a fairly sound analysis of the situation that didn't attempt to shove the blame off onto Jack Layton:
I think after twelve, thirteen years in power, you are very vulnerable to any things you have done. Even though you have done good things as a government, if you have made some mistakes, well, people feel they have a chance to change them. And despite the fact that we built a strong economy, we put the nation at work, we did great things, we also made mistakes, and people thought that they had seen enough of us. Mr. Harper came with a good campaign with very simplistic ideas, easy to understand. He got some more seats than us--not a lot, but it was enough to give him a minority government.
He doesn't quite acknowledge the role of the Liberals' out-of-touch campaign during the last election, nor does he spell out what mistakes he thought his government had made, both of which would have gone a long way toward making him sound more credible. But it was a straight answer to my question that didn't try to mince words--something I know many real journalists have had a hard time getting out of other politicians.

The real problem with not acknowledging the details of the mistakes he thought his government made, though, is that it made his thoughts on how he expects the Liberals to bounce back sound rather simplistic:
What we need to do now to start to come back is two things. First, to protect the unity of our party. The race up to now has been very respectful, and I want that to continue that way. I am confident that I will win, but at the same time I have a lot of respect for the others. The second point is to choose a good vision for the country. A good action plan. I will do my best to convince my fellow Liberals that the best plan is the one that I am proposing, to make Canada part of the solution and to reconcile the people with the planet.
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. When I asked him about entitlement, he got defensive about accusations of corruption, and when I clarified that I wasn't asking about the sponsorship scandal, he talked about the fact that most of his fellow public servants are honest, hardworking people and members of the public shouldn't be so cynical about them. He was preaching to the choir on that last point, so I certainly don't disagree with him--but I was asking about entitlement, not corruption or cynicism, and he never did address what I was actually trying to get him to answer. Whether this means that he wasn't willing to talk about his concerns about Liberal entitlement in an interview with a blogger (disappointing, but understandable), or that he doesn't recognize it as a problem (a real cause for concern), I don't know.

When asked about how he feels the Liberals have done in opposition so far, though, he was much more direct:
Oh, I think we need to learn the job. We spent so much time in government, and being in opposition is not easy. There are reflections of this, despite the good work that our interim leader is doing. I think we have improved over the weeks, and the end of the parliamentary session was better than at the beginning. 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, while at the same time suggesting to the House to have a parliamentary review of the file in order to have a vote in October or November on the merit of a extension of two years of our mission. We should have voted against that as a party and as the official opposition. I'm very disappointed that this was not done. We are also up against two parties that are so professional about being the opposition, the NDP and the Bloc, at the same time that we are in a race. We have ten candidates, and many of them are MPs, and many MPs are working hard in our own team. And when they are working on the race, they're not working as hard for the leader and for our work in the House. It's a long race--my suggestion had been to have the convention in September, but they compromised with the suggestion of March and set it for December. It's almost a year now. So this is an additional difficulty for the party, having a race at the same time as being an effective official opposition.
This was probably the answer that came closest to giving me all of what I was searching for. I actually don't agree with everything he says here, but that matters less than the fact that he was willing to be self-critical and say, unprompted, what specific things he thinks his party could have done better. That takes a great deal of integrity, not to mention a willingness to stand up to any repercussions there might be within some quarters of his party as a result of saying things like this. I respect him immensely for that. And I have to give him credit for the rather clever backhanded compliment about the NDP and the Bloc's roles as "professional opposition," too--touché!

I'll come around now to the fourth and final thing I was looking for: an interest both in democratic and electoral reform and in moving beyond that to changing Canada's toxic political culture. I had read previously in Miles Lunn's blog that Dion had been positive about the German Mixed-Member Proportional voting system (which combines our current system with compensatory seats that would come from some sort of party list, making the result proportional), so I began there. He confirmed that yes, he is personally in favour of a reform toward a system that would involve two-thirds of the seats being elected as they are now and a further one-third through "compensatory proportional representation," adding that he would want a "five percent threshhold in every province" (meaning that a party would have to attain at least 5% of the vote in any given province in order to gain seats there). In fact, he says that he once wrote a book chapter with University of Saskatchewan professor and electoral systems expert John Courtney, outlining the details of the proposal he favoured. All this was delightful to hear, especially after my disappointing encounter with Gerard Kennedy, who didn't even seem to know what proportional representation was. Also, the reason Dion gave for his support for this reform is one of my own main reasons for favouring proportional representation: he wants to "guarantee that each region of our country is not marginalized," i.e., to make it possible for, say, a Liberal government to have MPs elected in areas where they tend to be weaker, so that one region of a country doesn't dominate another.

For all this positive talk about electoral reform, though, he's clearly not willing to push it himself. "That is a debate that I cannot impose as a candidate in this race," he said, because "it's something that we will need to have a parliamentary review to look at." All he is willing to commit to as prime minister is "an open debate with the people discussing it and coming with their solutions and their suggestions and we'll see if a consensus may come from it." This is similar to what Paul Martin promised but didn't deliver on, and it falls far short of a real federal-level citizens' assembly on electoral reform similar to the ones they had in B.C. and currently have in Ontario, followed by a cross-country referendum. To me, this suggests that Dion wouldn't be willing to give the voters the power to make real decisions on their electoral system, which worries me.

Much more of a concern, though, is the fact that he doesn't seem to have thought beyond the theoretical details of his favoured reform to the changes that it would necessarily make in our political culture. When asked about what he would do if his party attained a minority of seats under his leadership, he said "I'm confident that we can win a majority" in three different ways. In fact, he regards the fact that a his favoured system would produce few, if any, single-party majority governments as "a problem of the reform." When asked directly about his openness to forming a coalition with another party, he ignored the question entirely, and when I later pointed out that the electoral system he favours has almost always tended to produce coalitions in other countries, he said that "Canada is not accustomed to having coalitions, and I'm not sure that Canadians are ready for that." This is precisely the kind of thing that gave me pause about my own party's adversarial rhetoric surrounding their new aim of forming a government--if you're in favour of some form of proportional representation, you can't at the same time be against government coalitions. This is a simple fact, because any form of proportional representation would make it very difficult for any one party to attain a majority in Canada, and going on forever with the current status quo of single-party minority governments is entirely untenable. Rather than viewing the end of phony single-party majority governments as a downside, why not see it as an opportunity to transform our political culture into one where there would be true cooperation between parties in government? It works in Europe, so why not here? I continue to find it incredibly disappointing that no politicians in Canada are talking about this aspect of electoral reform, even those who supposedly favour it.

In addition to the questions I was most interested in hearing the answers to, I also asked Dion about several things that have come up elsewhere, including David Orchard's endorsement of him and the high cost of the Liberal leadership convention. He seems to think that Orchard will help him both in the West and in rural areas, not only because it will increase direct delegate support, but because "it shows that western Canada can choose a Liberal from Quebec as their leader." Further, he's unconcerned about the differences between Orchard's positions and his own, because he has "no secret deals, no obligations," and people who vote for him for Liberal leadership are "voting for a free man." On the high cost of his party's convention, he seemed torn: on the one hand acknowledging that $995 really is a rather exhorbitant delegate fee, but on the other hand saying that "this party needs money" because they "need to learn that with the new rules, you cannot go to big CEOs and then have the money to run a race." He mused that perhaps "next time [the vote] should be by the mail," but also spoke of the disadvantages of this: there would be "no convention with all the excitement you have on the floor," and there would be few incentives to campaign in the north of Alberta or rural parts of Québec when you could just stay in Montreal and convince a few more people to vote for you there.

Finally, as a linguist (yes, 'tis my day job), I'd like to make a few remarks about his English. While the test given to all the candidates pegged him as a fluent bilingual, others have said his English is a liability, mainly because of his accent. I'd actually say that both of those things are true. While he makes many small grammatical errors, those are easy to overlook, and he never struggles to express himself in English, which gives him a huge advantage over many of the anglophone leadership candidates in French. He is, however, somewhat harder to understand than, say, Jean Chrétien was, which may well be a problem in terms of getting his message out to monolingual anglophones. I don't think this is enough of a reason for the Liberals not to choose him as leader, but (and I say this cringingly, because given how much of our identity we carry in the way we speak, "accent reduction training" fairly horrifies me) it may be something he might want to work on.

In sum, I have to say that my one-on-one conversation with Stéphane Dion epitomized how I tend to feel about the "good" Liberals out there: very, very mixed. At my own party's convention, Jack Layton made a sharp contrast in his speech between his unadulterated criticism of the other top leadership candidates and his almost complimentary words about Dion, describing him as "a man who is, if I may say so across the partisan divide, distinct from his principal opponents in being a committed Canadian and a man of principle and conviction." I did see those qualities in him in the interview: he's remarkably willing to speak his mind much of the time, and he clearly has a positive vision for how he wants to lead both his party and his country. He also seems at least somewhat open-minded about controversial things like electoral reform and changing how his party chooses its leaders. But in the absence of some serious reflection on what went wrong in the past and why, exactly, we should believe that future Liberal-led governments would be any different, I remain skeptical that his vision of the future would actually come to fruition if his party were to make him leader. This isn't something to focus on for now, of course--at the moment he has to be more concerned with speaking to people who are already convinced of the Liberal Party's superiority. But he will definitely have to address it much more thoroughly if he wins.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Visitors from Texas Christian University

Over the last few days, my blog has been getting dozens of hits from what seems to be an English course taught at Texas Christian University, a small educational institution in Fort Worth, Texas that's affiliated with the Disciples of Christ church. The hits are all going to this old post about the art and science of journalistic narrative, and the referring link points back here--a page that unfortunately seems to be unavailable to inquisitive outsiders.

If anybody who's clicking through to my blog from that link happens to venture a bit further to the main page, though, and wouldn't mind answering a couple of questions, I'm just dying to know the following:

1) What on earth are people in an English class at Texas Christian University saying about my post?

2) When I talk about the "no-confidence motion against the current Canadian government" and "explosive testimony at the Gomery inquiry" in that post, are my TCU readers not entirely confused?

3) Isn't the university administration a bit concerned about all these impressionable young students reading the heathen thoughts of a queer lefty U.S. immigrant to Canada?

Just wondering!

Party dividedness again

That weird Canadian "your party is divided, ha ha" argument is raising its ugly head again, this time with respect to the NDP. Yes, MPs Peter Stouffer and Pat Martin take positions rather different from the party line (and, it should be said, different from each other) on Afghanistan. I'll ask the same question I asked when this came up about the Liberals: why, exactly, is this supposed to be a problem? What I see in the NDP is a party that demands unanimity when it comes to an actual vote on a matter of Charter rights, but doesn't do so when it comes to a foreign policy issue that's still being hotly debated. This is a positive thing, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Judging from some of the defensive comments over at A BCer in Toronto's post, though, I may be in the minority in looking at it this way. "If you still support the NDP," one commenter says, "you should be clear on this issue, and don't give the Liberals ammunition." Why should admitting the existence of caucus members that dissent from the majority once in a while be seen as a weakness? I'm sorry, but that's just plain silly. Party caucuses consist of people from extremely varying backgrounds who all live and breathe politics. It would be ridiculous to expect them to agree about everything all the time.

I'm afraid this may be an aspect of Canadian political culture I'll never quite understand.

What Ignatieff's "Martian outsiderness" really means

In a post disagreeing with Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff over reopening the constitution (for more on that, by the way, read Calgary Grit's fascinating post on the subject), Greg Staples puts his finger on my own concerns about the fact that he lived outside of Canada for thirty years:

If Mr. Ignatieff had lived in Canada and/or had the scars of Meech and Charlottetown he would know that there is no desire to go through this again. Do the Liberals really want a leader who will march directly into the constitutional quagmire?
Now, many of us amateur pundits--and even some professional ones--have tried to make Ignatieff's long residence outside of Canada about insufficient loyalty to this country. This is off the mark enough (it is quite possible to have multiple loyalties, thank you very much) that it's allowed Ignatieff's defenders to combat that criticism simply by saying that his experience abroad is an asset, not a weakness. I agree with that positive assessment of time spent in other places, and this is why the problem with that time isn't that Ignatieff was somewhere else, it's that he wasn't here. It's about what Greg alludes to in his post: Canada has changed an awful lot in thirty years, and no matter how Canadian Ignatieff remained throughout his time abroad, he simply wasn't here to experience various culture-altering events for himself. He may have watched them intently, but he wasn't a part of them.

Keep in mind that I know what I'm talking about, here. Just as Ignatieff was always "the weird Canadian" when he lived in other countries, I've always been and always will be "the weird American" here. I have cultural assumptions my friends don't have, and bits and pieces of my personality clearly stem from having grown up in that country to the south of us. And yet when I visit the U.S., there are so many ways in which I'm now a foreigner. This isn't because living in Canada has somehow purged the Americanness out of me, but simply because I've been gone ten years, and in that time the U.S. and its culture has moved on without me. The top stories on the news each day are different ones for me than for my fellow Americans, the water-cooler conversations are about subtly different celebrities, and most importantly, I completely missed out on 9/11 and its cultural aftermath. Even in an ever-shrinking world such as this one, where an emigré can read online versions of familiar newspapers and talk to her friends from "back home" every day via cheap cell phone plans or instant messenger, there are some things you just can't pick up on that way. And a few visits a year just don't cut it.

Now, Canada may not have suffered a major terrorist attack that dramatically altered the national psyche, but as Greg suggests, it went through a period that was equally reality-altering. Ignatieff was in England for Meech Lake, the Charlottetown Accord, and the 1995 referendum. And perhaps just as importantly for someone who wants to lead the Liberal party, he was in the United States for the Chrétien-Martin civil war, the sponsorship scandal, and the Gomery inquiry, which are all key to understanding (and fixing) the problems in that party today. Even if he knows and can rattle off every minuscule fact about these events--which I'm sure he can--he simply isn't aware of all the insidious ways they have seeped into the pores of Canadian culture. There's no way he could be.

In fact, as an intelligent, self-reflective sort, Ignatieff even seems to recognize this in himself. This is how I read that much-quoted bit from the preface to his 2000 book Rights Revolution in which he acknowledged being "a Martian outsider" who had not resided here "since 1969." The people who have used this quote to malign his Canadianness are quite misguided; being that sort of "Martian outsider" doesn't make him any less Canadian than someone who's never left Canada. In fact, this dual role as stranger and native son probably gave him precisely the right mixture of understanding and detachment to write a book like that one. But leading a country requires subtler types of knowledge that Ignatieff simply cannot possibly have at this point. And he shouldn't pretend to be able to fill that role as well as someone who's steeped in Canadian culture for thirty very important years.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Other first-hand takes on the convention

In case you didn't get enough of the NDP convention from my own crazy-long post, here are a couple of links to other people's takes:

Worthwhile Canadian Initiative did some liveblogging from the convention itself.

Joshua Kubinec gives us his own chronological rundown of events. [Update: He also has a review of the youth convention and of Friday and a bunch of pictures.]

Dinner Table Donts has a short summary post and a later post on Shirley Douglas and public health care. [Update: I had missed his earlier post on Thursday's youth convention.]

Kenn Chaplin also writes a brief 'I'm back' post and then follows it up with some criticism of the procedural difficulties of getting resolutions to the floor and his take on the LGBT caucus meeting. [Update: He's also added a post about the Malalai Joya keynote, including some choice quotes.]

Put a Candle In the Window has some praise and some criticism.

[Update: Stephen from the Hive also has some praise and some criticism.

Jean-François from From the Mind of a Netjin is angry.]

[Update: Northern B.C. Dipper describes the youth convention, talks about the convention's core message, describes the process for voting on resolutions, and analyzes what the Sherbrooke Declaration really means.]

And finally, there were the three official NDP bloggers: Tiffany, Charlie, and Mathieu.

Monday, September 11, 2006

NDP policy convention redux

Intense. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Frustrating. Brilliant. That was the NDP policy convention in Québec City, in a nutshell. Oh, and did I mention intense?

I'm getting ahead of myself, so I'll back up. Be forewarned, though, that this may well be the longest blog post ever written, so you might want to fix yourself something nice to eat before you dive in.

The convention didn't officially begin until Friday, but really it started Thursday evening in Montreal, what with a whopping seven hundred and fifty delegates (just under half of the total number of around 1600) scheduled to take the free NDP express train from there to Quebec City. An old friend and I sat down to have something to eat at the "reception"--which actually seemed to be more about herding cats into one place than it was about anything I'd have termed a reception--and our table was promptly joined by Jack Layton and Olivia Chow. This meant that we ended up being visited by a whole bunch of people in rapid succession, which was great fun. Considering that this was my first federal convention, it also ended up being pretty useful, since it meant I got a chance to meet all sorts of old hands right off the bat. I admit that I find the whole cult of personality surrounding Jack (or for that matter any Canadian party leader) to be pretty off-putting, but he really does take well to the rock-star role. Just watching him is exhausting for this introvert!

Boarding the train went off without a hitch, which was a bit shocking given that the station doesn't seem to be designed to deal well with large crowds. As we got rolling, then, the train divided up neatly into "quiet cars" where people were having low-key conversations about the upcoming weekend, and "party cars" that were much more, shall we say, well-lubricated. Either way, it was three hours of a really crazy idea that was surprisingly well-executed before we finally arrived at around 11PM. There was a long, frustrating fifteen minutes or so where we were at the station but they wouldn't let us out because they had to split the train in two, but then we managed to pile into shuttle buses and head for our various hotels.

Friday morning, then, I braved the convention floor for the first time. I found myself overwhelmed pretty quickly by the sheer hugeness of everything from the facility itself to the orange banners hanging everywhere, so I took a while to find my feet and left voting on various constitutional amendments to the old-timers. The weird and unfamiliar bits included all the incredibly annoying, formal rules governing everything that happened on the convention floor (I'm an informal sort of person at the best of times). On the other hand, the cool and impressive bits included simultaneous translation devices (French to English and vice versa) provided free of charge to anyone who wanted them, and the fact that everything that happened on the floor was also translated into ASL and projected onto a huge screen. By noon, I'd pretty much decided I approved.

Friday's lunch break was taken up by the meeting of the LGBT caucus, the purpose of which was to elect two new co-chairs and discuss the statutes of the LGBT committee. When hordes of people started pouring into the tiny room, though, the chairs quickly started to realize that there was no way we were going to get to everything with so many people, so we decided to focus on the elections. Four candidates were nominated, including one of our local Edmonton crew, an incredibly impressive young anglophone Quebecer named Matthew McLauchlin, and a francophone transgendered woman named Micheline Montreuil. When Libby Davies nominated Svend Robinson, though, it was pretty clear who was going to be the first pick. In the end, the choices ended up being Svend and Micheline, which is just fine with me. One of the old-timers remarked, sort of shaking his head, that he could remember when they used to have to twist people's arms into doing this, which felt really good.

After lunch were the resolution prioritization panels, which consisted of a long block of time set aside for focus on prioritizing the order of resolutions in a particular focus area, as well as debating and amending the content of those resolutions. I attended the panel on "Building an Inclusive Canada," mainly because both electoral reform and LGBT issues were included there, but there were also panels on international affairs, the environment, and the NDP itself, among others. The main contentious issue in the panel I chose was the age of consent. The original impetus for the resolutions were the fact that in the last session of parliament, the NDP supported the Conservatives' efforts to raise the age of consent from fourteen to sixteen (with a "close-in-age exemption" added by the NDP in an effort not to criminalize sexual behaviour between youth). The NDP youth caucus was incensed by this, and came up with several resolutions that amounted to an effort to get federal caucus to back out on that support. Their reasoning seemed to boil down to two arguments: youth should be allowed to take charge of their own sexual behaviour, and the difference in the rules for anal sex and other forms of sex are homophobic (this latter issue was addressed through an amendment). The debate was very heated and intense, and in the end the panel voted to refer the matter to federal council, in a vote that ended with only twelve more on the "refer it" side than in the "let it go to the floor" side. The youth were very angry about the whole ordeal, and cries of "shame!" rang out from the back of the room. I have to admit that while I was willing to allow my mind to be changed, I had come into the discussion with the opinion that (given the fact that the close-in-age exemption allowed youth to have sex with each other) there was nothing wrong with the NDP support for the proposed Conservative law. I heard nothing in the debate to change that impression, so I sided with those who voted to refer. It was definitely a time when it felt awkward voting in a very public forum with bright orange cards, though, especially given that I'd just spent the lunch hour hanging out with the LGBT caucus, many of whom were profoundly in favour of the resolutions.

For me, though, the main excitement of the afternoon centred around the proposed Fair Vote Canada amendment, adding both a Citizens' Assembly and a nationwide referendum to an otherwise underwhelming resolution on federal electoral reform (it essentially reaffirmed the party's support for proportional representation, while enshrining in law its preference for the Mixed-Member-Proportional flavour of it). Several people spoke against the amendment, arguing that referenda have been "unsuccessful in other countries" (if anyone out there knows what might have been meant by this, please speak up--I'm only aware of New Zealand's use of referenda for this purpose, which were ultimately successful), which in turn prompted me to speak in favour of it. In the end, the citizens' assembly made it through the process unscathed, but not the referendum. But while the ultimate resolution was suboptimal in several ways (including its strong advocacy for one and only one possible flavour of proportional representation--which I'm not happy about because that's part of what undermined the referendum in B.C.), the addition of a citizens' assembly is a real win. My reading of the resolution as it emerged from the panel is that the NDP will advocate for MMP, but the non-partisan citizens' assembly would still have the right to recommend whatever electoral system it deems appropriate. I can live with that, and even be happy about it.

I heard some horror stories about some of the other panels--in one, most of the time apparently got eaten up by debating the order of the resolutions and almost no time was dedicated to the resolutions themselves, while in another, the socialist caucus apparently effectively held the proceedings hostage and kept any amendments from passing that made the resolutions' wording sound less strident--but judging from the one I was in, I really liked the process. When various Tory blogs poked fun at the leaked resolutions a few weeks ago, I had to cringe--quite frankly, some of them were pretty ridiculous as proposed. But the prioritization system meant that the delegates as a whole got to pick which ones would make it to the floor and which ones would end up getting referred to federal council, and the opportunity to propose amendments meant that some of the crazier ones were decidedly less crazy once people were done with them. Out here in the blog world we like to hold up the fringe of any given party as an example of the whole, but my experience at this panel confirmed my already strong impression that there are in fact a lot of smart, sensible people in this party. And at least when it came to debating the "Building An Inclusive Canada"-centred resolutions, they vastly, vastly outnumbered the flakes.

The rest of Friday started with a speech by Manitoba premier Gary Doer on the environment, which was terrific and incredibly inspiring. I had to wonder if he's seeing himself as Jack's eventual (after a long, long time, of course!) successor, because he sure sounded like someone running for leader! A friend even remarked that she remembered "when he used to be boring." But as far as I'm concerned, it was Friday evening--as a whole--that was the highlight of the convention. First came the "Building a Better World" showcase, starring 27-year-old Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya and Stephen Lewis, former Ontario NDP leader and current UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Both speeches were just plain phenomenal. Joya was sombre as she said things like "they may kill me, but they cannot silence my voice," and there wasn't a person in the room who wasn't in awe of this courageous woman. As a sharp contrast, Lewis, while talking about the equally serious subject of HIV/AIDS in Africa, actually managed to be incredibly funny. Part of it was his wonderful use of language--one quote I jotted down was: "these are not my figures, hatched in the feckless mind of an ambulatory subversive." I was right in the very front, which probably added to the magic of it all, and it was definitely something I won't ever forget.

After a late night, I found myself waking up with some difficulty and scrambling to make it to the convention floor in time for the first resolution debate of the convention: on Canada's mission in Afghanistan. The resolution on the table was strongly worded and in no uncertain terms called for an immediate withdrawal. MP Dawn Black spoke in favour of it, but the lineups at the "con mikes" were almost as long as the lineups at the "pro mikes." Also, in a twist that made things somewhat more complicated, the "con" side was led by Nova Scotia MP Peter Stouffer, who had already voiced his dissenting opinion with the NDP party line on Afghanistan. Stouffer spoke eloquently not in favour of defeating the resolution, but instead of referring it to federal council. He also urged that in the meantime, there should be a broad consultation process with Canadians across the country before official party policy on the matter would be made.

The problem for Stouffer was that because his suggestion of a referral had been preceded by a speech, the chair didn't accept it as an official motion. Worse yet, the rules of the convention stated that each delegate could only speak once to any particular resolution, which tied his hands. Enter my old friend Joanne Cook, who'd already been lining up at one of the "con" microphones, and who took her turn to speak to officially move a referral to the resolutions committee. She stated that the decision should be made only after "a cross-Canada consultation of NDP members and the public at large," with the aim of developing "a coherent policy on Afghanistan and more broadly on military affairs and international relations." And then she went on to say the following, completely off the top of her head (I have the full text because I captured the moment on video):

I'm a lifelong member of the voice of women, and I don't believe our troops have any business in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, I believe that we need more information, more consultation, more thought. I believe we need a coherent foreign policy framework for military and international affairs which this party has never developed. And I'm asking the delegates to think seriously--yes, we all support our troops. I believe that the majority of people in this room do not support the Afghanistan mission on which a government foolhardedly sent them. But to develop policy on an ad-hoc, as-needed basis without a coherent framework is a recipe for bad policy. [...] I don't want to see our men and women die there. I don't want to see Afghanis die, either. We need a decent policy, and we need coherent thought about what Canada's position should be in the world. But I don't think we can do that in a few hours on the convention floor any more than I think the government of Canada could do it in a six-hour evening debate.
I was moved, but even more than that, her suggestion seemed like the best way forward. See, the resolution didn't speak to my concerns with the Afghanistan mission, but defeating it then and there wouldn't have done so, either. This is mainly because those concerns are pragmatic rather than ideological, i.e., more about "can this work well enough to make it worth the cost" than about "Canada's place in the world." Yes, I admit to having a knee-jerk, anti-military attitude that probably comes from having grown up in the United States, but I've poked at that attitude for weeks now, and I'm quite certain now that my concerns about the mission aren't coming from that part of my brain. What my position comes down to is this: if Canada can't provide any concrete, long-term help, we should clearly pull the troops; and if we can, then we should at least consider staying in (while at the same time thinking hard about what staying means for Canadian traditions). I should say that I'm sympathetic to the position that Odd Thoughts' Kevin G. took in the Afghanistan discussion on my blog: that if the mission is failing, then the time to reevaluate that is after our two-year commitment is over and not right away. This is because "doing what you said you were going to do" is a value I hold strongly, whether it comes to individuals or to nations. But in the end I can't wholeheartedly endorse that way of looking at it because it would mean putting a nation's commitment ahead of young Canadians' lives--lives that would be taken in vain if Canada really can't do any long-term good over there. And I frankly don't think we--at least not we of the public--know enough right now to make that call one way or the other. Referring the making of official party policy pending the gathering of more information seemed like the best way to proceed.

So I listened closely to the debate, which was of an extraordinarly high quality on both sides. Then, after thinking about it as carefully and as thoroughly as I could, I voted in favour of Joanne's referral to the resolutions committee, and abstained on the main motion. In the end they didn't listen to me--the referral was defeated, and the resolution passed by a wide margin--but since I was going have misgivings about the whole decision either way, I can live with that. Mostly, though, I have to say that the whole experience made me feel proud of being a member of a party in which difficult issues like this one can be discussed at great length and with great intelligence, entrenched positions can be revealed in a very public forum, lots of shouting can occur at the microphones--and then after all is said and done, people of quite different shades of opinion can all go out to lunch together and have a terrific time. That's a very different picture from the seemingly hard-line, "it's our way or the highway" NDP we often see through the lens of the mainstream media, but it's what I've known from my experience working with the local party here, and it's what I saw with my own eyes at the convention.

Next came the "spotlight on Québec," led by Pierre Ducasse and the entire a portion of the Québec delegation, followed quickly by the "spotlight on the environment." In addition to a speech on climate change by the head of Greenpeace Québec and another by Australian environmental scientist Tim Flannery (author of The Weather Makers), we also got former Québec environment minister Thomas Mulcair--a Liberal--who spoke about his province's approach to environmental policy. He mostly spoke in French, but his best quote was in English: "Although it's true that the current government was dealt a bad hand by the last government, this isn't an excuse for inaction. It's very un-Canadian not to try." It was a little odd to have a Liberal speaking at an NDP convention--and a Québec Liberal at that, who tend to be more centre-right than centre-left--and I have to wonder if the lukewarm response he got from the floor had to do with people not being sure what to make of him. Flannery was probably the best of the lot; in addition to starting off by telling us rather wistfully how lucky we are "to have an NDP to vote for," he spoke quite authoritatively and convincingly about the science behind climate change. Afterward, emcee (and MP) Nathan Cullen told the crowd about how Jack Layton had given Harper a copy of Flannery's book and asked him to read it as a personal favour. I think we can all be pretty sure it hasn't been read yet.

Then it was back to debating the resolutions, all of which seemed incredibly easy and almost boring after the controversy over the Afghanistan one. The resolution on security certificates passed near-unanimously, as did the feared-controversial "Sherbrooke Declaration," which among other things officially recognized the "national character" of the province of Québec (after which the Québec delegation led the room in a rousing chanting of "N-P-D, N-P-D," which I have to admit freaked me out a bit, since in my mind the "NPD" is first and foremost the far-right party in Germany!). Even less controversial were the disabilities resolution and the one on aboriginal Canadians. The amended electoral reform one was up next, and while there was a small amount of debate (during which MP Joe Comartin lovingly called the resolution "plagiarized" from Ed Broadbent, and Wilf Day argued for the citizens' assembly on the basis of the electoral system belonging "not to the politicians, but to the voters"), it passed with no difficulty.

The planned bloggers' lunch was scheduled for the lunch break, but it required a 400-metre walk in the rain to a restaurant, and so most people (understandably) opted not to join us. Three brave souls did show up, though: myself, Northern B.C. Dipper, and Ian Gillespie of Canuckistan, and we salvaged the situation by merging with the gathering at the next table for the Mouseland mailing list. This gave us a total of ten net-savvy Dippers and some really terrific conversations about everything from the role of blogs to fixed election dates. Unfortunately, I also heard about Paul Summerville's defection to the Liberals at the same lunch, which brought me down a bit from my "high." My take: I've never been one to object to others making different political decisions from the one I've made, and so I won't say "good riddance." I really respect him, though, and I'm incredibly sad that he's decided the NDP isn't right for him. Like the Jurist, I think he's wrong (and I also think he might have realized that for himself if he'd actually come to the convention as originally planned), but I wish him well.

By this point, I was really feeling the lack of sleep from the night before. While I went back to the convention floor and fought to stay alert through the showcase of the provincial NDP leaders, more uncontroversial resolution debates, the "spotlight on culture," and then more debates, I desperately needed a break. Unfortunately, the tipping point came just before Shirley Douglas' speech, which I ended up missing in favour of a good long nap. I regret that, because everybody said she was just terrific, but I suppose you have to pick and choose at these things. To console myself, I had a wonderful dinner at the Bistro Moss. The food was amazing, and staff were just great--including but not limited to the host who asked us as we were leaving (with a big smile and a hand on my arm) whether we were from the NDP convention. His attitude toward us reminded me a little of something Québécoise ambulante had said to me shortly after arriving in Alberta: she said that she'd been told about this very nice little party that existed out west, which made her happy because it meant that she wasn't stuck with just the Liberals and the Tories. Apparently, Jean Average Quebecer thinks of us as sort of the Yorkshire terrier of Canadian politics: cute and unthreatening and perhaps a bit yappy. Which is a bit frustrating and even embarrassing, but also--despite everything--terribly amusing.

On Sunday there were more resolution debates, most of which continued to be pretty uncontroversial. The exceptions were the resolution asking the party to do a study on the possibility of decoupling the provincial parties from the federal one (which got very contentious and was eventually defeated), and the emergency resolution denouncing the war between Israel and Lebanon. For a while the latter seemed destined to turn into another Afghanistan debate, what with MP Judy Wacylycia-Leis opposing her fellow caucus members Dawn Black and Alexa McDonough, but eventually it became clear that it wasn't the "be it resolved" part that was at issue, but the rather strident "whereas" clauses. Wacylycia-Leis argued that the whereas clauses mattered because they would be debated and published in the media, and some other delegates even argued that the chosen wording should prevent the resolution from going forward, but in the end it passed. The only other debate was over the softwood lumber resolution that opposed the Tories' deal with the Americans, with Peter Stouffer rising yet again to go up to the con mike and argue that while they might not like this deal in Québec and B.C., they think it's just fine in Atlantic Canada because their issues are totally different. That resolution passed with no difficulty. There was other business, as well, such as electing a new party president (Ann McGrath) and voting on whether to hold a leadership contest (with 92% supporting Jack's continued leadership, that would be a resounding no), but the debates were more fun.

The most interesting thing about Sunday, though, was watching the talk of the prospect of an NDP-led government--which for the rest of the weekend had been bubbling under the surface--come out full force. One delegate, in debating one of the "building the party" resolutions, even slammed Jack for his "lend us your votes" rhetoric from the last election, saying that the NDP should instead start talking seriously about leading. I have to admit that I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, if the NDP wants to be taken seriously as a major force in Canadian politics, they have to instill confidence that they're ready to lead. To do this they need not just the right rhetoric, but also a serious effort to truly build the policies that would enable them to take the reins. I support this part of it wholeheartedly.

But at the same time, the NDP is supposed to be the only major party that completely supports an electoral reform in the direction of proportional representation. I know how PR elections are fought from my time living in Germany, and the people who fight them don't make statements like: "we want to form a government [implied: on our own]." They certainly don't say things like: "If we're ever going to form a government, it's going to be because we can beat the Liberals and the Tories at their own game." The fact is that PR makes single-party majority (or even minority) governments vanishingly rare, and majority coalitions--a form of government that's commonplace in most of the world but not currently a part of Canadian political culture--utterly normal. I brought that fact up with another delegate at the convention, and his argument was that the NDP needs to get elected before they can make the shift to PR, after which the necessary changes to the political culture can happen. I think this is the wrong tack to take, for two reasons. First, I agree as strongly as humanly possible with Wilf Day's statement that the voting system belongs not to the politicians, but to the voters, and that electoral reform needs to come from the people and not from their government. But much more disturbingly, it suggests to me that the NDP may not have thought about what PR would really look like once implemented. It suggests to me that the NDP may not want PR because it's the best thing for Canada, but because it's the best thing for the NDP right now, and they might well change their tune if the voters were to grant them their coveted chance to lead.

Finally, I'd just reiterate my misgivings about the strategy of replacing the Liberals as Canada's big-party alternative to the Conservatives, which, if successful, would almost certainly wreck the multipartisan nature of Canada's political scene and be devastating to the political left. With the mealy-mouthed messages coming from most Liberals these days, I don't think they're ready to govern again, and I certainly don't want the Conservatives back next time. I do think the NDP is the clear choice. But as much as I believe in this party, I'm first and foremost an electoral reformer. This kind of rhetoric is probably unavoidable given the realities of Canadian political culture, but aren't we supposed to be against those exact same realities? On balance, I do think that this shift in rhetorical and electoral strategy will be good for the party, and so I support it, but I still have several serious reservations. And I'll definitely be returning to this topic in the months to come.

Forming a government was the major thrust of the leader's speech that concluded the convention, which came off just wonderfully. I have no idea how it reads to people who weren't there, but the mood on the convention floor was completely electric. Jack put the NDP's opposition to the Conservatives first, but then hit the Liberals hard as well, and then finally the Bloc for propping up the Tories when they're clearly doing the wrong thing on so many issues that Bloquistes tend to care about. It was the best I've heard him speak in a long, long time, and a terrific way to close a tremendous convention.

Getting back and reading the media coverage has been interesting. I find the whole "oh no, the party faithful are forcing them to take a hard-left position on Afghanistan" thing quite puzzling, because I guarantee you that the socialist caucus wasn't terribly thrilled to hear Jack saying things like: "There is a time and a place for answering the call. Canadians are prepared to fight wars that are right for our country. We've done so proudly." If you're in favour of the mission, you can legitimately argue that it lacks nuance to say that we have to withdraw our troops immediately because the mission is failing--but that's not because it's anywhere near a hard-left position. I also find it rather strange that there's been little to nothing said about the things that felt most important to those of us on the convention floor, such as the controversy over the Afghanistan resolution (rather than just the ultimate position, which is being reported everywhere), or the messages in the Stephen Lewis and Malalai Joya speeches. It's an interesting lesson in the fact that even the best reporting is about telling one tiny fraction of the story rather than giving a broad picture. It also goes to show how that story is nearly always skewed toward what the public is already paying attention to.

My whole collection of photos is here. And now I will go rest my fingers!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Taking on the Laxer machine

Remember James Laxer's long piece about the NDP in The Walrus, and the follow-up in his blog? You know, "Jack Layton betrayed progressives in running against the Liberals, yadda yadda, Liberal talking points."

Well, Dymaxion World has an antidote: James Laxer is old, cranky, and is bothering me. I've said some of
these things before, but not nearly so well. Go read.

Harper needs to "change the channel"

Via Buckdog comes this fascinating Greg Weston editorial from--of all places--the Calgary Sun. It's based around a SES Research poll suggesting that Canadians feel Harper's government is "too close to the U.S."--adding some context to other recent polling numbers that suggest the Conservatives, while still in the lead, haven't made any real gains since the election. This leaves the Conservatives' coveted majority far, far out of reach.

Even more interesting than the numbers themselves, though, are Weston's thoughts on how Harper might respond to these numbers in the fall:

He will be in a lot fewer photo-ops with Bush, and in lot more waving the flag in the far North where our sovereignty is somehow threatened by the Yanks (who, for the record, say they aren't the least bit interested). But more than anything, Nanos says, the Harper government desperately needs to "change the channel to domestic issues that do not involve the U.S." That means moving public attention away from issues such as softwood lumber, border security, the environment and Kyoto accord, and away from conflicts in the Mideast and Afghanistan.

None of which will be easy: The lumber deal has yet to be finalized; new passport rules for entering the U.S. start to kick in next year; the Conservatives are presenting their alternative to Kyoto this fall; and Afghanistan will continue to be a killing field for Canadian troops. At the same time, the Conservatives' much-touted "five priorities" barely registered with voters' likes and dislikes in the SES-Sun polls. Nanos says if the Conservatives are smart, they'll latch on to their promised health-care guarantee, an issue that is certainly Canadian and equally un-American.
Harper's close relationship with the Bush administration is his Achilles heel. Weston suggests that Harper is beginning to realize this, and will respond in the fall not by changing his policies to distinguish himself more from Bush, but by sweeping under the rug any issue that might paint him as a Bush clone. If this turns out to be the case, then the opposition parties need to spend the fall keeping those issues front and centre. Not just because it's politically expedient, but because the issues Harper is likely to try and ignore are so crucial.

This post contains no opinions

Bloggers tend to be opinionated people, and I'm certainly no exception. But one of the advantages of having an "occasional lengthy opinion piece" blog instead of a "daily news" blog is that I don't feel forced to come up with an opinion on something I'm just not sure about. Sometimes I simply don't know enough about a subject to really grapple with all the information--and other people's opinions--that I'm subjected to. Sometimes I feel conflicted about an issue and can't reach a pat conclusion. And sometimes the issue in question falls into one of the areas where I know I have a tendency to knee-jerk into opinions that have more to do with me and my background than they do with the issue at hand. In all of those cases, I simply shut up. My blog's readership doesn't need to be subjected to my half-baked ideas when there are plenty of people around who actually have smart things to say.

Canada's mission in Afghanistan--i.e. whether or not our military should be there at all, and if not, whether we should withdraw troops soon or at some later point--falls into all three of those categories for me.

In an effort to dig through all the baggage and figure out what I really think, I've listened to opinion after opinion on the subject. By doing that, I've learned two things. One is that no matter how much the ideologues want to make this a clear-cut situation, it's pretty clear that there are smart people on both sides of the debate. The Liberals don't agree on the issue, and even in the NDP--the party that its detractors would like to paint as being more about knee-jerk outrage than about well-thought-through positions--there's plenty of room for disagreement. The other thing I've learned is that most people--from bloggers to politicians, and regardless of which side of the issue they come down on--tend to simply state their opinion without voicing a concrete argument or explaining how they reached those conclusions. Oh, sure, there are plenty of empty statements: everything from "help spread democracy" to "support the troops" on the one hand, and "wrong mission for Canada" and "blindly following the U.S." on the other. But there's appallingly little substance, and few concrete facts that might help people figure out what they think when they're not quite sure. The incredibly disappointing "debate" on this issue in Parliament epitomized this.

One of the few exceptions has been Kuri from Thought, Interrupted. She agrees with Layton's statement, but her words actually speak to me far more than his did:

This was a lesson we all should have learned in Somalia. You don’t use military tactics to get non-military results (e.g. “spreading democracy”) and you don’t go in without a goal that’s realistically achievable by military means, at least not without some kind of a strategy to “cut and run,” as they now say in propaganda-speak. That used to be called an “exit strategy” and it used to considered reasonable.
That...makes an incredible amount of sense to me. It's short, but it's not pat: it contains a clear statement of what exactly she believes is wrong with the Afghanistan mission, and why. I can sink my teeth into that. But is it my own knee-jerk discomfort with military operations that's behind wanting to agree with her? I'm honestly not sure.

I know there are a lot of people who read this blog who disagree with Kuri about this. So tell me why she's wrong.

[Update: Kuri expands upon her position in this post. Whether you agree with her, disagree with her, or remain unsure, it's pretty clear that she's damn good at this blogging thing we do.]