Monday, December 31, 2012

Perspectives for 2013, Part One: Some Under-Reported, Inconvenient and Impolitic Truths

The purpose of this web log  is to put some perspectives forward that I feel are neglected or under-developed in the public square.  For convenience, I'll divide them into Local/Provincial, National, and International categories:

I.  Neglected Provincial  Truths

a) ALBERTA:  Conservatives' Disdain for Peter Lougheed (and, by extension, Alison Redford) 

           People outside of Alberta are generally unaware of the depth of the schism that has long divided "conservatives" in this province, a division obscured by what until recently was virtually a one-party state.  What has become apparent to me over the past five years is that Reform Party and its successors federally(the Alliance and the Conservative Party)  and its provincial progeny, the Wildrose Alliance, are as much a reaction against Peter Lougheed  as against Mulroney or Trudeau. Lougheed's sensible advice to Alberta's citizens--"think like an owner" of the natural resources; replenish the Heritage trust fund and rely less upon oil revenue to subsidize current consumption; adopt a balanced and measured approach to oil sands and pipeline development--these are all anathema to the Ezra Levants, Danielle Smiths, Tom Flanagans, Stephen Harpers and Preston Mannings of this world. In the recent provincial election, Smith explicitly referred to Preston's father, Ernest Manning , as Alberta's greatest premier, and frequently referred to the wisdom of Ralph Klein--anything to minimize the legacy and accomplishments of Lougheed.  (Alison Redford, who is in outlook, professional training  and background clearly closer to Lougheed than any other of his other successors,  echoed his approach, and received his explicit endorsement, during last spring's campaign. Meanwhile, Thomas Flanagan  felt strongly enough about who the true conservatives are to have been Smith's Wildrose general campaign manager!)  If they could barely stand Lougheed's  well-heeled background and  his blue-ribbon education, his moderate "progressive" conservatism and its concomitant tolerance for at least some liberal and social democratic policies was beyond the pale.

While Rex Murphy eloquently eulogized Peter Lougheed as quite simply "the greatest premier this country has ever seen",  the province's right-wing media bit its collective tongue. Conspicuous in this respect during the days following Lougheed's passing was popular right-wing Sun columnist Lorne Gunter, who was forced to break his silence a week later:

 I've been slow to comment on the passing of Peter Lougheed because ever since his death last week I have wrestled with my largely negative impression of Alberta's 10th premier. And it's my belief that on a person's death, criticism is unseemly. So as the old movie line goes, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. But it has been churlish of me not to give Lougheed his due. For all the things he did with which I disagreed, he was more responsible than anyone for the modern status of Alberta, the Alberta I love and he did, too.
{But] there is one image of Lougheed that is forever seared in my memory and that will forever colour my recollection of him and his legacy. It's a photograph taken in 1981 of the Alberta leader clinking champagne glasses with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau to toast a federal-provincial energy deal that I and many other Albertans viewed as a capitulation to Trudeau's disastrous National Energy Program.
Churlish, indeed. Look at how much pressure had to be applied in order to extract even this small drip of grudging admiration. But what can you expect from somebody who regards Alison Redford's protection of health and education and her criticism of  previous Klein infrastructure deficits as the rantings of a "nanny state" liberal?

If anybody doubts just how right wing these people are, examine closely their attitude toward Peter Lougheed and their distance from his policies.

b) BRITISH COLUMBIA:  The Downsides of Adrian Dix.

A seldom commented fact about political leaders in British Columbia is that, as of January 2013,  Christy Clark has only spent about one-half as much time in the premier's Office as  Adrian Dix has. That is,  she has been there about 1/1/2 years since being sworn in in early 2011, while Dix as Glen Clark's principal secretary was there from June 1996 until being blown out in disgrace in 1999. This longer tenure during the most formative stage of Dix's career turns out to be very significant. It largely explains both his capabilities and his liabilities. For, unlike Dave Barrett in 1972 or Mike Harcourt in 1991, his is an insider's perspective.

In all the discussion eagerly anticipating the change of government due in May, another thing has gone almost entirely without comment: that for the first time ever, the NDP will come to power after more than a decade in Opposition and that fact will not  be accompanied by a great leap forward of the transparency and accountability agenda.  Such advances are best served by outsiders, with oppositionist perspectives, heady idealism, and a touch of naivete. Even journalists have neglected this truth, perhaps because they assume that our institutions are now mature enough not to require another Question Period, another Auditor General, another Freedom of Information Act, or another Lobbyists Registration Act.  If so, I think they are wrong. Not only do I think that these institutions need to be much better funded, they also need to be re-tooled for the internet age and designed for a more pro-active citizenry.  And, since not putting things in writing and delaying FOI requests are favourite evasive tactics that Dix helped to pioneer in the 1990s, how about requiring that some things be put in writing, that there be a log of participants for all formal meetings, and a requirement for quicker turnaround on FOI requests? This is not a very high priority for Dix, whose perspective was built up over many years as a political insider, and in its most crucial and formative phase, as Glen Clark's closest advisor. He knows what he can get away with,  and he wants to keep it that way.

A good example, admittedly semi-hypothetical. illustrates this point perfectly. Imagine if a top-flight lawyer who had success in a career outside of politics, like David Vickers or Tom Berger, were Leader of the Opposition. Like Dix,  they too would likely have done a great job of smoking out the government on the Children and Families file. (Remember how Bob Plecas and Joy McPhail gushed about what a great job Dix was doing, as he analysed and anticipated the government's every evasive manouevre?)  The problem is, Berger or Vickers would have carried with that critique every expectation and every ability to transform government business into a more transparent and accountable legal regime upon taking office. With Dix--whose ability to anticipate and criticize the government's games came directly from having played those same games himself--all we can expect him to do after getting back into the Premier's Office is to trade his new white hat in for his old black one.

In 'promising less and delivering more' Dix is honestly expressing a sensible and mature approach to governing that builds on these past experiences. This also suits his cohort of spin doctors and professional pols who came to Victoria with him in 1991,who don't have the same patience that they once had for leaders, like Carole James, who are relative novices, and who could blow it. But there is an unspoken third rail of government strategy as well : Control and Spin More.  Add to this structural changes in the NDP's base of support: on the one hand the shrinking of the private sector union base in favour of the public sector and the Dix-led boring from within,  and on the other hand the aging of the baby-boom retirees and soon-to-be-retirees who will look more kindly on social spending as more of it goes to them.  The net result is that the NDP may well have a longer tenure in power than ever before.

In sum, the  next NDP government will benefit from its leader's experience and knowledge, but that will prove to be a double-edged sword for the public. He may well turn out to be the Stephen Harper of the Left.

II. Neglected National  Truths-- {to be added shortly}

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