Saturday, November 24, 2007

Stephen Harper’s Environmental Bridge to Nowhere

It is not often that an emperor’s clothes are torn from him in full public view, but that is precisely what happened to Stephen Harper at the Commonwealth summit in Kampala.

On the crucial issue of climate change, Harper had one ally when he arrived in Uganda, the right-wing government of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Alone among the fifty-three countries at the conclave, Canada and Australia opposed the inclusion of binding greenhouse gas reduction targets in a Commonwealth statement.

The problem for Harper is that midway through the meeting, the Australian people threw John Howard’s government out of office and resoundingly chose the Labour Party, which plans to sign on to the Kyoto Accord, to govern the country.

That left Harper all by himself in Kampala. After long negotiations between the Harper contingent and the rest of the Commonwealth, a “compromise” statement on climate change was agreed to, a statement which drops mandatory targets in favour of “aspirational” goals.

Aspirational targets are the Alberta’s oil patch’s synonym for hot air. Having had his robes stripped off in Kampala, Harper still is outfitted with his fig leaf. We can expect that leaf to be front and centre on his persona when he returns to parliament. Harper will insist that while the Commonwealth’s eventual statement dispensed with hard emission targets for developed countries, it declared that developing as well as developed nations should “aspire” to greenhouse gas emission reductions. Or, as a Calgary oilman might say, hot air for everyone, hard targets for no one.

Last week, Environment Minister John Baird claimed on CBC television that Canada was on the same page as Europe on climate change, but that Canada has set out to construct a bridge to nations such as the U.S. on the issue at the global climate change conference in Indonesia next month. He insisted that Canada has a special talent for bringing people together.

His bridge building metaphor implies an effort to find common ground on which two groups of countries with different approaches can stand. But at Kampala, it was all the other countries that had to build a bridge to Canada. The result was a statement on climate change that had been modified due to Canada’s efforts from serious to frivolous.

The Harperites will no doubt point to the Commonwealth statement as evidence of Canada’s growing influence in the world. But now that Australia has gone over to the European side on climate change, to whose shores can Harper and Baird construct their bridge.

The obvious answer is the United States. The trouble, though, is that even the Americans are not standing still on the issue of climate change. Most Americans now revile George W. Bush who is Harper’s only remaining foreign ally on the issue. Next fall the United States will elect a new president who will be almost certain to take a tougher line on global warming than the Harper Conservatives.

The Harper Bridge is a bridge to nowhere. The sad fact is that as long as Canadians have this government at the helm, we will be bringing up the rear on the greatest global question of our time. Or to keep up the metaphor, we will be sitting on a shoal, connected to the rest of the world by the Harper government’s pontoon.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ontario is Harper’s Whipping Boy

The evidence mounts that the Harper government’s political strategy is to turn Ontario into the whipping boy of Confederation.

On a host of issues, the government is steering a course that blatantly negates the interests of Ontario. The most obvious case in point is the government’s bill to add twenty-two additional seats to the House of Commons after the 2011 census. The Harperites would give Alberta five extra seats, B.C. would get seven more and Ontario would have an additional ten. The change, to reflect population growth, sounds fine except that if the goal is rep by pop Ontario should get twenty additional seats, not ten.

Once the change is made, the Western Provinces, Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces will not be under-represented in the Commons, but Ontario will be. Why not give Ontario the twenty extra seats the province is due according to population? Government House Leader Peter Van Loan explained on CBC television that there would be a problem squeezing that many more seats onto the floor of the House. (Even my three-year-old granddaughter could come up with a better one that that.) His solution: just give Ontario ten fewer seats. His rationale: ten seats are a lot. Thanks Peter, but for people whose early education included arithmetic, it’s transparently unfair.

With the government’s bill, Canada is back to old-time election rigging. Alberta and B.C. are more likely to vote Conservative than Ontario, so give them the seats they are due while short changing Ontario.

The government’s anti-Ontario stance does not stop there.

It extends with a vengeance to manufacturing and the cities.

Without serious attention behind paid to this crucial matter, because of our strong commodity exports, Canada’s industrial sector is being ripped to shreds. Disproportionately, that affects Ontario where the majority of industrial jobs are located. Tens of thousands of jobs are being lost in manufacturing. The crisis, which is of historic proportions, could lead to the permanent destruction of the country’s industrial base. At risk are operations in the auto, steel, chemical, rubber, and other industrial categories.

The long-term consequence of NAFTA, high petroleum prices and the mad dash to develop the oil sands in Alberta (green house gases be damned) has been to return Canada’s economic strategy to the export of resources, resources and more resources. In recent times, economists and political scientists have regarded the staples theory of Harold Innis---the idea that Canada’s economy turns on the exploitation of resources for export---as outmoded.

Look again. The staples economy is back with a vengeance, with all its attendant risks of boom and bust.

The hyper-exploitation of the oil sands is chiefly responsible for the soaring Canadian dollar. When the American economy slows appreciably over the next year, the Canadian dollar will fall, but by then the damage to the battered manufacturing sector may be irreversible. Expecting the sector to rebound in a recessionary environment nourished by a lower dollar alone is too much to ask.

Closely linked to the manufacturing crisis is the nation’s urban malaise. That too, while not limited to Ontario, is centred in the Greater Toronto Area with its six million inhabitants.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that with their 19th century classical liberal (aka neo-conservative) ideology, the Harperites don’t think it matters that our cities are shackled to a 19th century constitutional order. More cynically, since the nation’s major cities, with the exception of Calgary and Edmonton, don’t figure in the Conservatives’ target ridings, their plight is of no consequence.

The GTA and other major Canadian metropolises are being allowed to lapse into shabbiness and inefficiency as infrastructure is not renewed. Public transit---essential in larger cities and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions---is surviving on crumbs.

Canada desperately needs a constitutional order in which municipalities are brought out from under the shadow of provincial jurisdiction and are outfitted with the fiscal means to thrive. In the absence of constitutional change, the federal government, with its surpluses, needs to transfer GST and other tax revenues to the cities, from which those taxes were generated in the first place.

With his forty per cent strategy---aimed at winning enough votes in the right places to win a majority of seats in the next election---Stephen Harper couldn’t care less about the fact that vibrant cities are the key to the nation’s development in the 21st century.

The Conservative government’s guiding principle is that what’s good for the oil patch is good for Canada. That view of things alone is enough to foster an outlook that is systematically anti-Ontario.

Long used to being the cream-fed pet of Confederation, and resented for it, it’s difficult for Ontarians to wake up to the urgent fact that with Stephen Harper at the helm, they’re getting their asses kicked.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Oh Canada: Scandal and Farce

If hockey is our national sport, political scandal is Canada’s national art form.

The Mulroney-Schreiber affair---the coming judicial inquiry and the afternoon delights of foam-flecked exchanges during Question Period---promises much titillation. Like the Sponsorship Scandal, ample rhetoric will be invested in making it seem that this was one of the darkest affairs in the sordid history of humankind.

The beauty of a full-blown Canadian scandal is that almost no effort is ever made to put it into perspective. How much did the scandal cost taxpayers? To what extent did it change the course of public policy?

The answer to both questions is almost always: not much.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no fan of kickbacks and brown envelopes stuffed with cash. Wrong-doers should be forced to pay for their evil deeds.

It is the art form I enjoy. Jabobean drama, the running of the bulls at Pamplona, and Sumo wrestling cannot compare to the stately procession of a Canadian scandal.

Picture it. What did you know and when did you know it?

The sight of Jack Layton surrounded by the eager faces of NDP caucus members, his face flushed with sweat forming on his ample forehead telling the house that this is no laughing matter. Canadians have had too much scandal, on this side of the house and on that. This must not be treated lightly. Jack has a way of banning the right to laugh or smile that brings on fits of the giggles, in the manner of an overwrought funeral.

Then come the Liberals, their lips pinched and their eyes narrowed to slits. It’s payback time. You besmirched us and now it’s our turn to get you. When did the cover up and the stonewalling begin, they want to know? Does this affair stretch back to Preston Manning’s childhood or the first time John A. Macdonald drank scotch? What was the colour of the envelopes used to deliver the cash? Was it the same colour as the envelopes Liberals favour?

Gilles Duceppe is rejuvenated. His blue eyes are more piercingly hawk-like than they have been since the loss of a seat in a by-election to the Conservatives a couple of months ago. There’s life in the old Bloc yet. A party with no rationale for existing has received the gift of life from yet another scandal.

Stephen Harper stands in his place trying to look as though he was only nine years old when Martin Brian Mulroney, the eighteenth prime minister of Canada, was in office. Inside, he seethes at the thought that he has been side swiped by something that has nothing to do with him. He’s a collateral victim just as Paul Martin was when he was roasted by Adscam, and Ralph Goodale was when he was barbequed by Judy Wasylycia-Leis and the Mounties. Later Goodale was cleared when the election was over and lost, but that’s how the game is played.

Does it occur to Harper, who ran a smear-soaked campaign in 2006, that there’s poetic justice in this swing of the pendulum?

The main event is to be savoured most of all. Brian Mulroney, with his Elvis style white mane, rippling in the wind, as he is conveyed to the inquiry on a tumbrel has vowed to “to fight and win again.” There’s an air of grace about the old prize fighter who belatedly declared the cash payments as income.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Jean Chretien brought golf balls with monographs on them when he went to see Justice John Gomery. Martin Brian has more at stake. This will be his judgment day, the last chance to salvage the name his father gave him. Last chance to close some of the yawning gap between himself and Pierre Trudeau, the prime minister Canadians chose to love.