Tuesday, October 23, 2007

In Bishop’s Robes, Jim Flaherty Meets the Retailers

At a highly publicized meeting on Parliament Hill today, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will exhort the nation’s retailers to bring prices into line with the stronger value of the Canadian dollar. The gathering bears a strong resemblance to a conclave of medieval warlords with the local bishop. From time to time the bishop would meet with knights, lords, knaves and other grandees to urge a little Christian charity on them.

Keep the pillaging, looting, mayhem, and theft from the local peasants to a minimum he would urge. Not only would this win points for them with the Almighty, it would do much to prevent the peasants from revolting. And the peasants are always revolting, he might add.

Naturally those present at the gathering understood that the bishop would take no earthly action to ensure compliance with his stated wishes. Moral suasion was the name of the game.

When Jim Flaherty meets with the Retail Council, Walmart and all the other marts, he is there to urge them to do the right thing. They should give Canadian consumers true value for their puissant loonies.

Like the medieval bishop, Flaherty is a man a principle, of fixed principles. He believes in the celestial workings of the unregulated market. Let the forces of supply and demand, of wages and profits operate like a finely tuned timepiece and all will be well. There will be no legislation to require retailers to treat Canadians fairly when they purchase automobiles, books, household appliances and clothing, the finance minister has already said.

Why bother to hold the meeting at all if Flaherty plans to take no action to ensure that Canadians get fairness?

As a man of his creed, the finance minister believes that words from the pulpit can have an effect. For their part, the retailers are grumbling. They don’t want to be seen at a confessional where they are cast in the role of the sinners. The price gap between Canada and the U.S. is someone else’s fault, they insist. Blame the manufacturers, the distributors, labour and the geography of Canada, just don’t blame them.

At the conclave, Flaherty will be sure to explain to the retailers that spending an hour or two wearing a hair shirt in a his presence and perhaps conceding a few alms to consumers is better than the alternative: a meeting at a future date with a political leader who might actually do something.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Modest Proposal Addressed to the Harper Government on How to Snare Stephane Dion

With more than a little interest, I've watched your recent efforts to snare Stephane Dion in a trap that will not allow him any choice but to bring down the government and get the election campaign going.

Allowing the cameras into the caucus meeting was a deft touch. The lusty bellowing, while down the hall the Liberals were attired in sack cloth and ashes, drove the point home that you’re ready and they’re not. (I will admit that seeing the Conservative caucus members on their feet did have the feel of a convention of used car salesmen about it, but don’t be deterred. The energy came through. I’m sure that a lot of Canadians are anticipating the day when you elect even more members of this sort, and won’t have to listen to the opposition at all. Hell, your caucus will be the House.)

The Speech from the Throne was a beauty. On climate change, you made it clear that you’re not going to be dictated to by so-called experts who are exaggerating the whole warming thing. (That was a great editorial in the Globe and Mail last week, showing how Nobel Prize winner Al Gore was blowing the issue out of proportion. If Rona Ambrose hadn’t been shifted out of the environment portfolio, I’m sure she would have been up for some kind of award herself. Not that I have anything against John Baird, who oozes sincerity on matters ecological.)

The real crisis is not the environment, as you subtly showed in the speech. It’s crime. You told it like I’m sure you think it is on the unprecedented crime wave that is sweeping the country. (Where did Stats Canada get those numbers about the falling murder rate last year? That’s not the stuff I see on the nightly news.)

Good idea to put all the crime bills into one big omnibus and to warn the Liberals that if they try to shift a comma, we’re into an election. Don’t let yourselves be distracted by the opposition idea that dealing with the bills one at a time could speed up the process and get them into law more quickly. They actually have the nerve to say they support most of this stuff. The point is that where crime is concerned, you need the omnibus to scare the criminal classes. Criminals don’t read the back pages of the paper to find out if this or that bill has passed. But the omnibus is different. They’ll see that on the front page of the Sun, and they’ll take notice.

The vexing trouble is that the Liberals are going to slither and slide and wriggle to do everything they can to avoid their appointment with the voters. This is not the time to grow faint-hearted and to worry too much about the fact that two-thirds of the voters supported other parties in the last election, and that they might think you should pay some attention to the opinions of the members they elected. That’s backwards thinking. This is the moment to get those voters who weren’t on board last time, and to snuff out the Grits for good.

With all the money in the bank, that big communications centre in Ottawa ready, the candidates salivating, the buses idling, and the pack media cheering you on, there is not a moment to be lost.

I’m worried that Stephane Dion is not man enough to take the bait and vote out the government. Maybe the attacks on him have not been personal enough, although the television ads did help. (Dion probably doesn’t watch television.)

Have you considered adding to the omnibus bill a provision that would make it a criminal offence for the Leader of the Opposition to wear those wire glasses Dion affects and to name his dog Kyoto?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dion Needs to Play Fabius Maximus to Harper’s Hannibal

Later today when the Governor General reads the Speech from the Throne, Stephane Dion and the Liberals should take their cues from a wily Roman general who was in a desperate war with the Carthaginians in 217 B.C. Stephane Dion needs to play Fabius Maximus to Stephen Harper’s Hannibal (the Carthaginian general who led his troops into Italy.)

Hannibal wanted to fight a war of annihilation against the Romans. He planned to lure them out onto the field of battle where he could finish off their armies and occupy Rome itself. And when he got the chance, he decimated Roman armies at Lake Trasimene and Cannae.

But the wily Fabius Maximus decided to fight a war of attrition against the invaders. He shadowed Hannibal’s army, but refused to engage him in a pitched battle. He deployed what have been called “Fabian Tactics” ever since.

Naturally the impatient critics of Fabius (Layton and Duceppe) heaped scorn upon him and dubbed him “Hannibal’s lackey.” The poet Ennius was closer to the truth when he immortalized Fabius as “the man who singly saved the state by patience.”

Hannibal wandered around Italy, thumping his chest, but eventually he ran out of supplies and had to take his armies home, where he was defeated by the Romans.

It’s not easy to be a Fabian. In the Canadian Parliament, you’ll be howled down by what passes for manliness in that chamber of horrors. But Stephane Dion needs to remember two things. A war of attrition may not seem heroic but it works exceptionally well against an opponent who needs to fight right now, but whose staying power is not as great as yours. The Liberals, when fully mobilized and fighting on ground of their own choosing can defeat the Conservatives whose appeal is limited to a distinct minority of Canadians. Second, the public (as opposed to the Ottawa media) is much more interested in what the government does than in the trials and tribulations of the opposition. The story will quickly shift from Liberal humiliation for not voting out the government to the real problems the government is getting itself into---in Afghanistan, in the failure to fight greenhouse gas emissions, and in the emerging crisis in Canada’s manufacturing sector.

In the next few days, during all the sound and fury, Stephane Dion should adhere to the wise approach of a Roman general whose name became a watchword for the tactics of patience.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Harper’s Afghanistan Panel: Let’s Save Them the Bother of Visiting the Tim Hortons in Kandahar and Ghost Write their Report Now

It’s an old con in Canadian politics. The prime minister names a royal commission, inquiry or panel to write a report on a controversial public question. Then he picks a chair for the panel who agrees with him on the subject, along with panel members who are also on side.

That’s what Stephen Harper did last week when he announced the formation of a five-member panel to recommend a future role for Canada in Afghanistan at the expiration of the current military commitment which is due to expire in February 2009. Chosen to head the panel was Liberal John Manley, a former deputy prime minister. The naming of Manley gave the appearance of non-partisanship. But Manley’s stoutly hawkish views and his active promotion of the deep integration of Canada into an all encompassing North American Union made him a ludicrous choice to head any panel whose views could not be predicted in advance. Manley was co-chair of the Independent Task Force on the Future of North America, a big business lobby effort to bind Canada to the U.S. economically, militarily, and in a joint security agenda. If Manley was any more pro-American he’d be an out and out annexationist. The other members named by Harper to the panel were: Derek Burney, former Canadian ambassador in Washington; broadcaster Pamela Wallin, who served as consul-general in New York; Paul Tellier, former clerk of the Privy Council; and Jake Epp, a former cabinet minister in the government of Brian Mulroney. (Wallin is the one member of this panel who is an independent thinker and may not go along with the others.) None of the members of the panel is an expert on Afghanistan, although Manley has visited the country twice.

We know what’s in store for the panel members. They’ll travel to Kabul, where they’ll stay in the Afghan capital’s more informal version of Baghdad’s Green Zone. They’ll be surrounded by soldiers and private security guards, and they’ll meet with members of the Karzai government. (Who knows the Karzai government members may even get briefing notes in advance from Ottawa!) If they want to, the panelists could actually chat with the Taliban’s unofficial representative in Kabul who has the run of the town, and who could let them in on how negotiations are going between the Karzai government and the insurgents. But they’re not likely to do that. They could also speak with university students in the capital who don’t share the misogynist and theocratic views of the Taliban, but who don’t want the West in their country either. I doubt if that will be on their agenda.

Then the panelists will fly to Kandahar, where they’ll watch a little ball hockey, and head over to Tim Hortons for a double-double. If they visit the bazaar in Kandahar, they will find a lot of people who insist that Hamid Karzai’s brother is a kingpin in the opium trade. They could, but are not likely to, chat with him about the problems of one of the world’s leading narco-states.

Then the panelists, in flack jackets, will likely travel to the countryside to see, first hand, evidence of Canadian aid to a local school or some other project. If they could get away from their handlers, they might talk to people in rural Afghanistan about how their quality of life has not been helped much by western aid, a lot of which flows into private pockets, in a country where the corruption involves Afghan authorities, and private western companies. Don’t count on that being in the itinerary.

After the tour, the panelists will come back home and will write their report.

We could save them the bother and ghost-write it for them now. It’s not much of a stretch to figure out what it’s going to say.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Stephane Dion: Champion of Corporate Tax Cuts

Since the recent by-elections in Quebec, Liberal leader Stephane Dion has been looking alarmingly unsteady. In an effort to reconnect with terra firma on Friday, Dion told a business audience at the Economic Club of Toronto that he wanted to push the corporate tax rate well below that in the United States.

He charged that the Harper government hasn’t done enough to reduce the corporate tax rate. He said that the former Liberal government had been on track to lower the rate from 28 per cent to 19 per cent. (The current corporate tax rate is 21 per cent.) The Tories, he charged, plan to reduce the rate to 18.5 per cent by 2011.

Dion told the applauding corporate crowd that he could do better. Why wouldn’t they applaud? Nothing makes the heart of corporate Canada beat faster that the sight of the two largest political parties vying to see which one can cut corporate tax rates more deeply.

“A low corporate tax rate is not a right-wing policy or a left-wing policy. It is a sound policy,” Dion told his delighted listeners.

That’s wrong, Mr. Dion. It is a right wing policy, culled straight from the playbook of trickle down economics. And Dion is also wrong to claim that reducing the corporate tax rate will induce corporations to spend more on capital equipment. What induces increased capital spending is increased economic demand, not supply-side tax cuts for the rich. The notorious and failed experiments in various kinds of tax cuts for the wealthy in Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s administrations, and in Mike Harris’ Ontario, demonstrate irrefutably that all you get from such tax cuts is more money in the pockets of the rich and less revenue for governments to spend on infrastructure, job training, and social programs----and the latter, by the way, do increase demand and prompt businesses to invest more. Tax cuts for the rich plunged the U.S. and Ontario into increased government deficits, creating a golden opportunity for wealthy bond holders to make money on the public debt. Tax cuts for the rich reduce economic demand and slow economic growth.

Dion also claimed that corporate tax cuts would strengthen Canadian companies against foreign takeovers. What the cuts actually do is to make them more attractive takeover targets.

In the next few weeks, Stephane Dion may find himself fighting a federal election. During the campaign, his only hope of winning will be to position himself as the leader of a broad coalition of progressive Canadians who are determined to stop Stephen Harper.

At a time when the gap between the rich and the rest is yawning ever wider, progressive Canadians will be appalled by Dion’s emergence as a tax-cutting pal of big business. Quite apart from the merits of corporate tax issue, where does Dion think he’ll find the votes he needs to win?

They’re not on the right, Mr. Dion. You’re not going to pry any votes away from Stephen Harper’s hammer lock on the one third of electors who form his base. The votes you need are in the centre and on the left. In addition to those who want to vote Liberal are many NDP, Green and Bloc voters who might be recruited by a progressive crusade against the Harper government.

One the eve of the Speech from the Throne, Stephane Dion has inflicted a new wound on himself.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Uh….what is the Logic behind Canada’s Military Mission in Afghanistan? Please, Run that Past Me Again

The members of the Harper government have argued that Canada needs to fight in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and to sustain the government of Hamid Karzai. While the Karzai government upholds the rule of law, is committed to democracy and the rights of women, the Taliban is the implacable enemy of civilization, on these and a host of other matters, according to the Harper government.

Recently, the Karzai government has been negotiating with elements of the Taliban, and Hamid Karzai has said he wants to bring Taliban leaders into his administration.

What the hell is going on?

The head of the government we are fighting for, the man who is supposed to symbolize all that is decent in Afghanistan, wants members of the terrorist insurgency to join with him in ruling the country. Representatives of the Harper government have made it clear that Canada does not approve of negotiations with the Taliban, but that it’s up to the Karzai government to decide on its own policies. (Having dispatched troops to help Afghans uphold the government they really want, we could hardly try to dictate to the government in Kabul, could we?)

So, what are we doing in Afghanistan? Hamid Karzai does not seem to regard the members of the Taliban as beyond the pale of civilization the way Stephen Harper does.

Are our troops fighting and dying to improve the bargaining power of Hamid Karzai in restructuring his government with members of the Taliban in it? How is this conflict worth the life of even one more Canadian soldier?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Why Howard Hampton and the NDP Deserve Your Support on Wednesday

Now that the irksome issue of public funding for faith based schools is off the table and Conservative leader John Tory is suffering from a self-inflicted wound on that score, it is time for progressive voters to decide whom to support. The big, bad wolf of a return to Mike Harris’ party, even in the form of John Tory’s Little Red Riding Hood, is not at the door. No one needs to vote Liberal to keep the beast at bay.

Does Dalton McGuinty deserve the votes of progressive Ontarians?

I think not. Under Liberal rule, Ontario has continued to veer in the direction of a society that is ever more divided between the rich and the rest. While McGuinty can claim to have slowed the Common Sense Revolution launched by Mike Harris, he has not halted and reversed it. The Liberals have talked a good line about education, health care, the environment and the cities and have delivered little. Class sizes are too large, the erosion of public health care continues in the form of new private hospitals, no serious environmental plan has been implemented, and our cities are falling into disrepair and are in desperate new of a reformed tax system. It is all well and good for Dalton McGuinty to point toward major public transit schemes for the future. But he has wasted the past four years.

While the Liberals slowed the march toward higher tuition fees, the reprieve is over, and fees are going up again. Many of my students cannot afford to attend university full-time. We are tilting back toward the days when universities were preserves of the well-to-do.

Ontario needs a truly progressive government.

Howard Hampton is the leader to deliver it. He combines sanity with dogged determination and the NDP has its programmatic priorities right. When Hampton says that no one in Ontario should be expected to work for less than $10 an hour, who can disagree? It is a disgrace that McGuinty is prepared to wait three more years to raise the minimum wage to that level. How can anyone take seriously the wailing business interests, their pockets bulging with profits, who claim they will be grievously wounded by an immediate rise in the minimum wage? Only the most supine of governments would buy into this theory that Ontario’s problem is that the poor have too much money and the rich don’t have enough.

On the environment, Hampton has unveiled a plan that emphasizes conservation and renewable energy. The alternative to it is huge new investments in nuclear power, the route both the Liberals and the Conservatives would be bound to take.

On education, Hampton alone is committed to saving the public school system which is presently suffering a slow death because of inadequate funding. And he alone understands that the next few years will determine whether post-secondary education is to be open to everyone or simply the privileged.

Hampton has also looked into the future, beyond the economic sheen of the moment and understands the grave threat to Ontario’s manufacturing sector. The province is losing tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. The centre of heavy manufacturing is being dangerously hollowed out. To those, such as McGuinty and Tory, who believe that the market is always right, there is no real concern about this. A job lost in one sector will be replaced in another they think. When the debt-ridden US economy is forced to go through a period of purging---and that time is not far off---Ontario is going to be hit with an economic sledge hammer. We need political leaders who know that only foolish people let their basic industries collapse. A stronger NDP after election day will give our industrial cities and workers a much needed voice.

The NDP leader was right the other day to challenge the jaded media of the province for failing to think about the problems of the people who are not having it so good. Seniors in shabby retirement homes and children living below the poverty line in immigrant families don’t get a lot of attention from newspapers and broadcasters who have moved so far to the right that they have little in common with the concerns and thinking of most Ontarians.

Howard Hampton brings the debate back to the realities of the lives of the majority of the population. He deserves to be premier after October 10. Failing that, we need him in place heading up a powerful caucus that could force a minority Liberal government to match its rhetoric with deeds.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Harper’s Forty Per Cent Wager

The unveiling of the Conservative get-tough-on-drugs initiative is the first salvo in the Harper government’s fall offensive whose strategic goal is to secure an electoral majority by Christmas.

The law and order approach mostly directed at soft-drug users is red meat being heaped on a platter for Harper’s core constituency---older white men in suburbs and small towns who resent just about everybody else.

The reason the former head of the National Citizens’ Coalition is dancing a jig these days is that he thinks that in a quick election he can win the 40 per cent of votes he needs to cobble together a thin majority government. He doesn’t have the 40 per cent yet, but with his party’s coffers bursting and his opponents in disarray, he believes he can do it.

Meanwhile, each of Harper’s foes lives in his or her delusional nether-world:

• Worst off is Stephane Dion who party has fallen prey to struggles over who is to succeed the leader of the moment when he expires on the field of battle. Dion, a fundamentally decent man, who would be a moderately progressive prime minister, has been a dud as leader, a flop in English Canada and even worse in Quebec.
• Gilles Duceppe, who feels support for the Bloc ebbing away, wants an election as soon as possible so he can hang onto enough seats to retire with dignity.
• Jack Layton, fresh from the NDP’s stunning by-election victory in Outremont, and now with an impressive Francophone lieutenant in Thomas Mulcair at his side, thinks this is his chance to challenge the Liberals for the lion’s share of the centre-left vote.
• Elizabeth May is riding the Green Machine. The Greens are more a sentiment than a party.

Particularly in English Canada, Harper’s opponents are bent on slaying one another, leaving him free---he anticipates---to win the big prize. At the moment, well over 60 per cent of Canadian voters don’t want Stephen Harper. But that won’t stop the opposition leaders from acting out the last scene of Hamlet and inflicting grievous wounds on one another.

Only if the wider public takes ownership of the upcoming election, the most consequential since the free trade election of 1988, is there any hope of forcing the opposition parties to focus on stopping Harper. The need to stop Harper becomes glaringly apparent when we contemplate a few of the consequences of handing him complete power for five years:

• On Afghanistan, Harper has backed away from his previous pledge to base any post February 2009 role for Canada on a “consensus” among the federal parties. At his press conference in Ottawa this week, Harper said he will rely on the support of a parliamentary majority. After he wins his election, the “consensus” will be reduced to his party alone, and in this top-down government, that means Harper alone.
• Five years with Harper in control means that during the crucial struggle to grapple with greenhouse gas emissions, Canada will be on the side of the US in promoting so-called voluntary emission standards. Production in the oil sands will expand, and northern Alberta will spew ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The oil patch will make a ton of money and Calgary’s favourite son will preside over a nation with its dollar above par, and a shrinking manufacturing base in central Canada.
• With a majority under his belt, Harper can afford to pander to his growing Christian fundamentalist base. Unlike Mike Harris in Ontario who limited himself to helping the rich at the expense of the poor, Harper will not hesitate to saddle social policy with faith-based initiatives borrowed from south of the border.
• Half a decade of Harper in complete control will propel this country down the road to much deeper integration with the US. The plans are in place, the corporate sector is on board. Two decades ago, “free trade” robbed Canada of control of its petroleum industry, and ended the idea of a Canadian industrial strategy. The next step will reduce this country to a series of weakly linked resource producing regions on the northern edge of Manifest Destiny.
• The central goal of Harper’s social policy will be to cut taxes so as to limit Ottawa’s capacity to spend effectively on health care, childcare, higher education and the quest to raise the quality of life of aboriginal communities. The Canada that is spoken of as one of the last bastions of a civilization in which the rich have not run away with everything will be no more.
• And just for a chaser, Harper will privatize CBC television.

The majority of Canadians don’t want this agenda, and will not want it while it’s being inflicted on them. And the opposition politicians in Ottawa can be expected to rise in Question Period and denounce it all as it unfolds. They’ll have their seats. But what the Hell will the rest of us have?