Saturday, March 22, 2008

What Would a Harper Majority Government Do?

(Inspiration for doing this post comes from my good friend Ish Theilheimer at If you’re not familiar with this excellent source of news and analysis, you should log on.)

Not that I enjoy thinking the unthinkable or that I believe that the Harper Conservatives are necessarily headed for a majority in the next election, but I do hold the view that it is salutary to face the worst so as to avoid it.

There are times in history when truly reactionary political formations come along. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is such a formation. While thankfully, it is not overtly racist in the manner of the far right parties in Europe, apart from that it shares all of the views and instincts of a far right party. Harper himself, as his speeches and writings reveal, would be very much at home in the Republican Party and in the American neo-conservative movement.

Unlike social democrats when they take office (as they have in four Canadian provinces over the decades), a Harper majority government would not hesitate to implement the full right-wing agenda for which the Conservative Party of Canada was created following a long period of struggle, and the elimination of the less rabid tendencies on the right, as Joe Clark, the last of the red tories, would ruefully agree. When social democrats tip toe into government, they appear apologetic and immediately try to assuage the worries of the business community.

The Harperites will not compromise on anything. They will put through their program, always with an eye to making it irreversible by any future government---just as Brian Mulroney did with free trade.

Certain to be included in a Harper majority government agenda:

• The privatization of CBC television.
• Amending the Canada Health Act to allow for a more varied set of arrangements among the provinces---in plain English massive privatization---a checkerboard health care system in Canada.

Expect the government to throw red meat to the Conservative backbenchers (who have suffered from the gags tied on them by the PMO during the minority) by having parliamentary committees (on which Harperites will be in the majority) study the following questions:

• Capital punishment.
• Banning late term abortions.
• Restrictions on immigration.
• Support for faith based initiatives.
• The winding down of federal support for the arts and research through the Canada Council and related programs by downloading these activities to the provinces.
• Private marketing of wheat and the termination of the Wheat Board.

A Harper majority government would act quickly to set up a sweeping study (perhaps royal commission) on the prospects for a much closer North American Union. Following the publication of the report, with much fanfare, the government would act quickly to open negotiations with Washington on:

• A single North American market, with a common external tariff.
• A single currency to be known as the U.S. dollar.
• A. tighter military alliance and a common foreign policy, in which Canada’s global policies are locked into those of Washington in essential respects.

This agenda, conferring all the advantages of the annexation of Canada on the U.S. without the bother of inviting Canadians to elect U.S. Senators would be an offer no president could refuse, and that includes Clinton, McCain or Obama (in alphabetical order).

During the coming wrenching recession, during which there will be a dramatic reordering of the position occupied by the U.S. in the global economy---the U.S. will play a smaller role in the world economy and will be restrained from living beyond its means as much as it has in the past---the Harper government would make the historic error of aligning Canada more closely with the United States.

The Harper majority government would bail out financial institutions on the principle that the rich are too important to be allowed to fail, and would not hesitate to impose a harsh regime on the unemployed, those on social assistance (through federal transfers to the provinces), recent immigrants, single parents, and native people.

All this can be avoided, of course, by not electing a majority Conservative government when the time comes.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Trouble with Sarkozy

Menton, France: Last spring, when he cruised to victory in the French presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy was being hailed as the Margaret Thatcher of France, the leader who would tame wage and salary earners. He would tempt them away from their preference for early retirement, the thirty-five hour work week, and strong job security.

He would bring “flexibility” to France, a term which means a more market-driven economy, with fewer safeguards for workers. France under Sarkozy would be en route to a more Anglo-American socio-economic system.

Ten months after his election, though, Sarkozy is in political hot water. In yesterday’s first-round voting in municipal elections across France, the left won a major victory against the President’s party, the Socialists and their allies receiving 47.5 per cent of the vote, and Sarkozy’s UMP and its allies, 40 per cent (the second round of voting is next Sunday). Those who were lauding Sarko’s political smarts---his ability to win over leftists such as the peripatetic Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (not much of a leftist, he supported the invasion of Iraq)---have had to think again. The hapless left, written off as headed for the trash can, is back and considerably stronger than a year ago.

What happened?

Both some silly and preventable pratfalls and some stubborn obstacles have combined to grease the skids for Sarko’s descent. The silliness, which has earned him the nickname President “bling” has arisen from Sarkozy’s tendency to show up everywhere, act like a spoiled kid, and fire off half-baked proposals that make everybody mad. From the moment he was sworn into office, Sarkozy took to offering advice to the French about how they should lead their lives. The French, who confound everyone by combining staunch individualism with collectivism hated the advice. Lectures from their president on how they ought to work harder did not go down well, especially against the backdrop of his marriage breakup followed by his whirlwind romance with, and marriage to, former model and singer Carla Bruni.

This is not because the French disapprove of a President who has a long-term relationship with someone other than his wife. Not at all. Francois Mitterrand had a well-known liaison with another woman while he was in office.

What annoyed the French was that at the same time as they were watching the cost of living rise, and were experiencing increasing uncertainty about the future, their President was showing up on television and in print arm in arm with Carla Bruni. It didn’t seem right, somehow. Why should we work harder, people grumbled, while he runs around.

The wedding’s aftermath didn’t help. Once they were married, Sarko and Bruni could travel together on state visits. But the sight of the two of them snickering in South Africa while they visited the cell in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years contributed to their image as spoiled Yuppies.

What kind of president was this?

In addition to looking like a juvenile in heat, Sarko kept turning up with ideas that had not been thought through. One day, he suddenly announced that public television channels in France would have to dispense with relying on advertising for much of their revenue. How would they make up the lost revenue, everyone asked? Was this a plot to sell off public television channels to the private sector, or to increase the advertising revenues for the private channels? No one, including members of the government, had any idea.

Then Sarko showed up at a school to announce that he believed that young students should study the Holocaust and the deportation of French Jews to Germany much more closely. In the process, they should put themselves in the place of one young person who was deported during the war to understand the enormity of what this involved. This would help, Sarkozy said, with their understanding of Judeo-Christian civilization.

This idea obviously had some merit. But to appear at a school and announce it without consulting with educators meant that it would be torn to shreds, as it was. Some complained that the idea would result in young students being traumatized, others were angry with Sarkozy’s characterization of the proposal in terms of Judeo-Christian tradition because this was a violation of the secular nature of French education. Not long afterward, the proposal was dropped.

Far from being an effective leader, Sarkozy has wasted his political energy on a myriad of minor initiatives. As a consequence, he has provoked anxiety instead of inspiring confidence, and that is reflected in his fall in public opinion polls in answer to the question---is the president doing a good job. Right-wing parties always try to sell themselves as competent, if not compassionate. A major casualty of his first ten months in office is that Sarkozy no longer exudes an air of competence.

Then there are the important obstacles in the path of Sarkozy’s program.

Sarkozy came to power promising a new social bargain: the French should work harder so they could make more money. He styled himself as “the purchasing power” President.

Over the last few months, though, the cost of living has jumped sharply in France, as seen in higher fuel prices and a notable increase in the price of food. On the news every night, there are stories about people saying their incomes are stretched tighter than ever to make ends meet. Much of the increase in food prices, of course, has to do with the higher price of energy, but some of it has shown up in the high profits of France’s major supermarket chains.

The French are angry that some people are profiting from the higher prices, while the majority are worse off. Sarkozy is associated in the public mind with the big interests who are reaping the high profits. Some of the President’s ministers tried pouring cold water on the extent of the price increases but that only made matters worse. French shoppers know the price of eggs, bread, milk, meat, and fruit and vegetables, and they don’t react well to a minister telling them that prices haven’t gone up as much as they think.

Adding to the general insecurity are the key elements of Sarkozy’s program---cutting taxes especially for the rich, sharply reducing the number of public sector employees, reopening pension arrangements that allow for early retirement and requiring employees to work more years, and making it less costly for employers to terminate their employees.

This program makes hundreds of thousands of people worry about their jobs and their lifetime plans. The response to its implementation has been frequent strikes and demonstrations involving rail workers, workers on the Paris metro, taxi drivers, teachers and others. Even those who support the broad aims of Sarkozy’s policies blame him to some extent for the disruptions that accompany his brave new world of the right.

A fundamental problem with Sarkozy’s plans for France centre on his negative attitude to immigration and the descendants of post-war immigrants, particularly those from North Africa. France, like most of Europe, has an aging population (despite early education and family allowance programs that have succeeded in raising the birth rate). High rates of economic growth are difficult to achieve in an aging society. If the French want rapid growth, the obvious solution is immigration.

During the post-war decades, high rates of immigration helped spark a rate of economic growth in the 1960s that exceeded those achieved in West Germany, the United States and Canada.

Over the last quarter century, however, the French have been fed a constant drip of anti-immigrant propaganda. The epicenter of the message of exclusionism was the Front National led by former paratrooper Jean-Marie Le Pen. Over the last few years, though, Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s top cop as Minister of the Interior under Jacques Chirac, cultivated a hostile attitude to immigrants and their children. To be sure, he did it with more finesse than the Front National.

His focus was on the so-called popular quartiers around Paris and other large cities, which housed large immigrant populations in substandard housing and among whom unemployment was high. Instead of concentrating on how to open France to bring the youths of these quartiers into the mainstream of national life through education and the creation of jobs, Sarkozy offered up a militaristic style of law and order. Sending in busloads of cops was his answer to problems. When things blew up in the troubled quartiers, Sarko’s line was that for France to be made secure, an unyielding law and order approach was the only way.

Honing the negative attitudes of the French toward immigrants was a key to Sarko’s victory last spring. He has made it even easier than it was before for the French to bash immigrants in the course of casual conversations.

Sarkozy’s approach to immigrant communities places a giant stumbling block in the path of the nation. These communities are crucial to France’s future, and France needs many more immigrants. The country is saddled, however, with a President whose program is headed nowhere and whose verbiage exceeds his judgment.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Obama and Clinton Have a Point: Let’s Take a Hard Look at NAFTA

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been squabbling over which of them is more serious about standing up to Canada on the shortcomings of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In her last ditch effort to seize victory from the jaws of defeat in Ohio (we’ll know the result tonight), Clinton has been accusing Obama of talking tough to hard hit workers while reassuring Ottawa that he’s only kidding.

Neither of these candidates is remotely pro-Canadian. As a border state senator, Hillary Clinton has been happy to bash Canada for its supposedly lax security whenever that suits her. Not that we should be surprised that the Democratic front runners could care less about Canada. That’s normal, despite the dewy-eyed proclivity of some Canadians to seek salvation from American politicians.

We ought to be thankful though to Obama and Clinton for insisting on the renegotiation of NAFTA if either of them reaches the White House.

Canadians have pressing reasons for taking a hard look at NAFTA.

NAFTA and its predecessor, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement were negotiated at a time when petroleum prices were much lower than today and the world was much less queasy about petroleum supply than it is now.

When the Mulroney Conservatives negotiated the free trade deals, one of their major objectives was to ensure that no Canadian government could ever again pursue a petroleum policy that did not suit the oil companies, the Conservative government in Alberta and the U.S. administration in Washington. And while they failed miserably at gaining secure access for Canadian exports to the U.S. (witness softwood lumber), they succeeded brilliantly in tying the hands of Ottawa on petroleum.

Under NAFTA, Canada is required to continue exporting petroleum to the United States at a level which must not fall below the average of the past three years. This remarkable commitment stands even should the regions of eastern Canada that rely on imported oil fall short as a consequence of a supply interruption. Not only does Canada have no strategic petroleum reserve---a point driven home by the recent work of the Parkland Institute in Alberta---under the terms of NAFTA Canada must make exports of petroleum to the U.S. a higher priority than meeting the energy needs of Canadians.

From the start, NAFTA has been an “unequal treaty” for Canadians. The Mexicans, also major oil suppliers to the United States, are saddled with no such outrageous commitment, for the simple reason that Mexicans would never have stood for it.

With petroleum shortages now a real threat in the world, Canada needs to renegotiate NAFTA, and if the United States is unwilling to reach a deal that removes the petroleum export commitments as they stand, Ottawa should give notice that Canada will withdraw from the trade deal.

Under the Harper Conservatives and the newly re-elected Stelmach government in Alberta, the highest priority of Canadian economic policy is to increase petroleum exports as rapidly as possible, despite the ruinous environmental consequences, and the disastrous effects of the policy for Canadian industry.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has gone to war with Ontario insisting that the province slash its corporate taxes. By promoting the rapid increase in petroleum exports, the Conservatives are directly responsible for driving up the value of the Canadian dollar so quickly that Canadian manufacturing has had no chance to adjust.

The Conservatives have skewed Canadian economic development to the long-run detriment of all Canadians, including Albertans who face the reduction of large regions of their province to a polluted moonscape.

Thanks Barack and Hillary, for putting NAFTA back on the agenda. In our own national election, which can’t come too soon, Canadians ought to put the issue front and centre.