Monday, March 31, 2014

What War Means


When I worked as a university instructor in Kiev in the academic year of 1994-95, my students were mostly young adults in their late teens or early twenties,  who  were already  bracing themselves for the second great public trauma of their young lives.  The first had come suddenly in the spring of 1986 when as young children many of them had been rounded up with little or no warning and whisked away to the south, preferably to the countryside or to some city on the north coast of the Black Sea such as Sebastopol or Yalta.  Many were fortunate enough  to escape  levels of radiation from the Chernobyl catastrophe that would cause cancer, limit their longevity, or stunt their growth.   Others were not so lucky. 

The second crisis came  not as a result of a sudden accidental explosion, but rather as a surfacing of tensions with deep historical roots—specifically, a structural conflict between the twin forces of Ukrainian and Russian nationalism, exacerbated by divergent economic prospects and regional power struggles. I recall visiting a student’s home in Lviv in western Ukraine during the  Christmas holidays in 1994. She confided to me her family’s worry that her brother might have to be conscripted to fight the Russians in Crimea or in the East, where secessionist sentiments were brewing thanks to a lower-than-Russian average  wage in Ukraine and a raging inflation that was quickly making the Ukrainian currency next-to-worthless in world markets. 

Today’s crisis is a continuation of this ongoing conflict, but one sharpened by several changed conditions on the ground. One is the poisoning of relations between pro-Russian and pro-Western factions in the country’s Parliament (I am not just using the wording “poison” metaphorically—recall the attempted assassination of  the increasingly popular Viktor Yuschenko by dioxin poisoning  in 2004, which left him permanently disfigured, and which helped to precipitate the “Orange  Revolution” later that year).  Since then, the question of how best to balance the need for good relations with Ukraine’s major creditor and supplier of energy, Russia, with the growing desire for gaining membership in the European Union became increasingly difficult: the attempted impeachment of  Victor Yanukovych (and the release of his opponent from prison) show that like other fledgling democracies, Ukraine has not yet learned how to share power.

Meanwhile, another one of my students from 20 years ago reports  that “the number of victims of police and snipers in Kyiv is growing every day (people are dying in the hospitals) and is already 100 … My family is OK. I just need to explain to my nearly 6 year old girl why people are flying to the sky forever and what ‘war’ means.”

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Audacity of Audacity




When Stephen Harper writes his memoir, I suggest that he call it The Audacity of Audacity. ( I was originally going to suggest that title  for Christy Clark, but maybe it suits Stephen Harper better. )

The root cause of Conservative audacity and smugness is their knowledge that they need only approximately 38% (plus or minus one or two percent) of the vote to get another majority government. In addition to being indifferent to the views of the progressive majority , they are able to essentially write off the province of Quebec--currently governed by a minority PQ government and a ticking time bomb if there ever was one. Liberals, who benefitted from this system of dis-unity for many decades , should have known that one day the shoe would be on the other foot. That day has come, with deleterious, if not perilous, consequences.


When Lac Megantic followed deliberate deregulation of the railways and a quadrupling of oil being transported thereupon, Harper blamed MM&A Railway for a predictable disaster. When he appointed two high-powered media celebs to the Senate, they were expected to do aggressive campaigning and fund-raising in addition to their regular duties; he expressed anger at their expense accounts. When he appointed Gerry Schwartz's right hand man from the Onex Corporation to head his PMO, to bring his private sector-style "fixing" skills to the public sector , he expressed bewilderment and betrayal when the Boy Wonder actual used those skills. Now, when the Chief Electoral Officer threatens to actually do something about illicit Robocalls in 246 (mostly Conservative) ridings, and to do something to promote higher voter turnout, the Government accuses "the referee of wearing a team jersey" and rolls back his powers. Clearly, there is a pattern here:  Harper keeps creating the conditions that are more conducive to bad things happening, and when those bad things happen, Harper keeps shaking his head and expressing disappointment at how  Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, the Chief Electoral Officer, the private railway companies, keep letting him down.  But here is the critical point: the prime minister may have just created the conditions for these failures, but creating conditions is what governments do.  It is therefore perfectly reasonable to hold the prime minister responsible for the conditions he creates.

Polls show a clear majority of Canadians dislike the selfish waste of money and unprecedentedly partisan nature of the "Economic Action Plan" propaganda. Even the Calgary Sun--arguably the most pro-Conservative newspaper in the country--has pleaded with them to stop. No dice. Why? Because they don't care what the majority thinks--they don't need that majority to form a  government, they only need that majority  to continue to split its vote between three opposition parties. It's the Conservative plurality in a majority of ridings that the Conservatives care about, and very deeply at that.

Where does all this audacity come from? A devilishly simple place: the pure and simple knowledge that it only takes 37%-38% of the vote to get a parliamentary majority in this country, as long as the opposition vote is split, turnout is relatively low, and the Chief Electoral Officer is suitably muzzled. Here's why: this government deserves to be hated by the majority of Canadians, and the strange ironic truth is that it is.  But the government doesn't care, because it  knows that everything about the system as it is currently configured works in their favour anyways.

There you have it: Democracy, Conservative-style.

Three New Thoughts du Jour

Thoughts du jour:

1) Provincial Parti Quebecois and federal Conservatives seem to both be cruising toward majority governments. Harper makes the perfect foil for Quebec separatists, given his low popularity in that province. He contributes to their "winning conditions".

2) "It is essential to understand that the main challenge for our electoral democracy is not voter fraud  but voter participation" --Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.

3) If Russia successfully annexes Crimea and succeeds in violating international law and international treaties, three groups of actors will be encouraged and emboldened:

 First, China and Russia and some American conservatives will be encouraged to continue their traditional  "spheres of influence" thinking.

Second, Iran, North Korea and all rogue regimes will be encouraged to obtain and keep nuclear weapons, and not to foolishly surrender them as Ukraine did under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Treaty, to which Russia was a signatory.

Third, both prospective separatists in Quebec and actual occupiers in Israel will be encouraged by the trumping of international law by "facts on the ground".

Sunday, January 26, 2014

B.C. Needs a More Centrist NDP


“B.C. doesn’t need two Liberal parties.” With those words,  B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix  made the announcement last September 23 that he was going to hold the reins of the party leadership until a leadership vote could be taken “by mid-2014 at the latest.” This was in stark contrast to the calls by Ian Waddell, Bill Tieleman, Michael Byers and others for a much longer and more wide–open contest that would  stimulate party renewal and give every competent candidate a fair shot.   Dix’s initial insistence on a shorter time frame, with himself in control in the meantime, along with a thinly veiled swipe at the more centrist and business friendly candidates (Gregor Robertson?) invited some observers –myself included—to speculate that Dix  was perhaps allowing his own biases to influence the process too much. It was difficult to resist such speculation as long as his longtime friend and colleague John Horgan was the frontrunner to replace him.           

I am happy to report that the situation has changed somewhat. Last month the date for the leadership vote was set for September, which will mean that nearly a full year will have been allowed for the leadership race  to unfold.  Mr. Horgan decided not to run, saying more fresh blood was needed (evidently not an endorsement of Mike Farnworth). Mr. Dix still points to members of his caucus as the best people to replace him, but to be fair,  several are strong candidates and they do represent  a fairly wide range of backgrounds and viewpoints. The new schedule  is still awkward for the federal MPs (who must choose whether to fight the 2015 election) and the mayors of Vancouver and Victoria( who need to complete their terms of office) but is more reasonable than it first appeared.  It also gives us more time to reflect on Dix’s comment that “B.C. doesn’t need two Liberal parties.”

The statement assumes, first of all, that the B.C. Liberal Party is a liberal party.  Is it a liberal party in the same sense that Gordon Gibson and David Anderson used to imply that it was—a distinctly centrist alternative to either the NDP on the left or the Socreds/Conservatives on the right? Remember that until the early 1990s Gordon Campbell was clearly grooming himself to be a future Social Credit premier. With the sudden collapse of  Social Credit in the 1991 election, Campbell turned his attention to a takeover of the Liberal Party, openly saying that labels didn’t matter very much, openly speaking of Bill Bennett as one of his role models. He succeeded in taking over the party in 1993, bringing many former Socred supporters on board with him. Swingeing 20% across-the-board tax cuts, and attempts to shift revenue from progressive taxation onto carbon and sales taxes, were hallmarks of his time in office, even if he did change direction on environmental and First Nations policies when he needed to. The current premier ran the last provincial election with none other than Brad Bennett at her side as  a special advisor, running a classic Socred-style campaign that preyed on the economic fears of marginal voters. When she lost her seat in Point Grey, she was welcomed with open arms  by the Bennetts in their traditional Social Credit  Kelowna stronghold. She hopes Liquid Natural Gas will help her to avoid difficult decisions, and help to obscure her bad ones, while trying to frighten voters away from " the socialists". Is that what a Liberal is?

In two –party systems everywhere, both parties compete for the centre vote; those that do so from the left typically have a distinctly different set of priorities and base of support from those that do so from the right. For the NDP to  concede the centre  to the Liberals is to consign itself to Opposition most of the time, and to rely only on split votes and occasional government collapse in order to win by default.  And with the decline of the blue collar constituency as a proportion of the electorate, New Democrats cannot assume that history is on their side, as they often did in the mid-twentieth century. In this century, at least, it is in the interest of both the NDP and the public as a whole that it strive to represent a true majority of the electorate.  That means bridging urban and rural, business and labour, green as well “development” oriented voters —better than the Liberals have.  If that means "moving to the centre,"  then so be it--especially if  B.C. 's so-called Liberal Party continues to leave the NDP so much room to manoeuvre in the middle of the political spectrum.

How Good Have the Conservatives Actually Been for Canadian Consumers?


While the Harper government's degradation of Canadian democracy has been scary, I find its economic policies to be by far the most disappointing aspect of its record. This fact was underscored for me last fall when I attended a conference of academics in Banff, Alberta. I happened to be seated at the same table as an economist from the University of  Calgary, and we got into a discussion of the so-called "Economic Action Plan". (The economist in question mentioned that Stephen Harper had been one of his students and that he had even been one of Harper's examiners for his Master's Thesis. While Harper succeeded in demonstrating the basic competence needed for the degree, it was plain that this was the work of a future politician, not a future economist. )  Even at the university with the reputation of being the most conservative in Canada, and Harper’s alma mater to boot, there was little to cheer about.

A major point of  conversation was the government’s belated discovery of “consumer interest” after some political polling revealed a warm voter response to  Communications Minister James Moore’s plan to have “more competition” in the telecom industry by allowing American corporate giant Verizon into Canada.  There are, it was pointed out to me, a couple of big problems with this. First, I was referred to a study by another economist  named Jeff Church at Calgary’s Institute of Public Policy, which indicated that lack of competition was not a problem , that three is the standard number of  local wireless providers  and the rate of return in the Canadian industry is actually fairly normal.  In fact, allowing Verizon in could conceivably threaten the competitiveness of the industry in the long run.  Second, if the government wished to have a genuine “Consumers First” orientation, it would have to not rush into trade policies that will have the effect of increasing the cost of clothing and sporting goods coming from 72 Less Developed Countries. It also would also have to not rush into the  Canada-EU trade deal, which will have the effect of raising drug prices by at least $1 billion per year. 

Of course, economists are also keenly aware that the biggest single source of  Canada’s relatively healthy performance during and after the financial crisis  was not any conservative policy since 2006, but rather our avoidance of conservative policies before 2006. In the first Conservative budget in May of that year, Jim Flaherty tipped his hand: "These changes [i.e. sub prime and 40-year mortgages] will result in greater choice and innovation in the market for mortgage insurance, benefiting consumers and promoting home ownership," Mr. Flaherty said. Luckily, he only got us ankle-deep in financial deregulation by the time the crisis hit, and the looser mortgage rules were subsequently reversed. But, we may well ask, how deeply in trouble would we have been if the Conservatives had been enjoying a majority government since, say, 2004? Canada's consumers should be grateful that we never had to learn the answer to that question.

Monday, January 13, 2014

History Lessons - The Commonwealth Fund


The Following link provides a pertinent perspective on Obamacare and the ridiculous treatment it has been receiving from right-wing media in the United States (and, I am sorry to say, in Canada as well).

History Lessons - The Commonwealth Fund

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Top 5 MPs of 2013

{Below is a version of column I submitted to several B.C. Interior newspapers in late December 2013.--MC}

Allow me to start the New Year  on a positive note by presenting my choices for the Top Five MPs thus far in Canada’s 41st Parliament. If  a majority of MPs were anything like these people, our democracy would be experiencing a renaissance.

1.      Michael Chong (Conservative – Wellington Halton Hills). Mr. Chong is not your typical Conservative backbencher.  In November, 2006 he resigned from the Harper Cabinet on a matter of principle—to  protest Prime minister Harper’s motion recognizing Quebec as a nation within Canada. He sensibly supported  the Kyoto Protocol in 2004.  Since then, Chong has also been one of this country’s leading advocates of parliamentary reform: his Private Member’s Bill, entitled The Reform Act, 2013, would restore the historic role of MPs and bring Canada more into line with other parliamentary democracies   by enabling party caucuses  to trigger leadership reviews, make decisions about membership in caucus,   and choose the chairs of party caucuses. The bill would also take away the prime minister’s power to veto riding nominations. 


2.     Thomas Mulcair (NDP—Leader of the Opposition). As a McLean’s Magazine cover story once declared,  “ Stephen Harper has Met his Match”.  When Mulcair demanded answers about the de-regulatory and de-funding decisions taken by the federal government that led up to the Lac Megantic tragedy, the only people who complained were Liberal and Conservative politicians.  But it was his skillful skewering of the prime minister over the Senate Scandal that was his finest hour. According to  CBC’s At Issue panelist Bruce Anderson, “Tom Mulcair has owned Question Period”. Rex Murphy adds that compared to Justin Trudeau, “Mulcair looks like a man ready for a step up.”  I agree.


3.     Elizabeth May ( Leader—Green Party of Canada).  Ms. May has until recently had the  luxury of leading a caucus of one (herself), but she has long tried to facilitate cooperative behavior across party lines, for the sake not only of the environment and climate change, but for the sake of democratic reform as well.  Her MP newsletter makes good reading, because it is not simply toeing a party line or trashing opponents.  Mclean’s Magazine—which asks every MP to vote for their top picks—named her Parliamentarian of the Year in 2012, and Hardest Working MP in 2013. The Hill Times, which uses a survey of political pundits to pick its winners, recently named her runner –up as most Valuable MP.


4.     Craig Scott (NDP—Official Opposition Critic for Democratic and Party Reform).  I knew Mr. Scott when we were both Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University in the mid-1980s.  Since then I have watched him become one of the leading experts of  International Law in Canada, a professor at Osgoode Hall, and then step into Jack Layton’s shoes in Toronto-Danforth. He has been the perfect person to carry the file on parliamentary and electoral reform, which has become an urgent priority because of  the way that our current government has made evasive prorogations, omnibus budgets, suppression of science and taxpayer-funded propaganda all-too routine. 

5.     Stephane Dion (Liberal-St. Laurent Cartierville).  Respect for the Constitution and respect for the Environment  have been the twin hallmarks of Mr. Dion’s parliamentary career.  Like Michael  Chong, he has been a strong opponent of appeasing Quebec separatism, and like Mr. Chong, he has been working hard recently to make up for the democratic shortcomings of his leader. After  Justin Trudeau announced  that he favoured  an electoral reform that would do little to make everyone’s vote count and little to help national unity, Dion went to work behind the scenes to promote a more genuinely democratic alternative.