Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Self Immolation is Not Limited to American Right-Wingers

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage.)

One Republican Congressman who voted against the Bush administration’s bailout package yesterday said it was a choice between freedom and material comfort. He chose freedom. Others warned that what had been averted when the plan failed in the House of Representatives was no less than the onset of socialism. Lou Dobbs, who hosts a show on CNN that is largely devoted to bashing Mexican immigrants, hailed the defeat of the plan as though the date of the rejection of the bailout will be celebrated as a second Fourth of July.

Today’s Republican Party is inhabited by people who genuinely believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a traitor, not only to his class, but to the American way of life. In truth, FDR was the saviour of American capitalism. Liberals and social democrats have often been called upon to save capitalism from its excesses, to mop up the mess made by the wild-eyed lunatics. Increasingly Barack Obama is settling into the role of a second FDR, reassuring Americans about their jobs and their savings. We have nothing to fear but the crazies themselves, I can hear him saying at his inauguration on January 20, 2009.

Since he took over the Conservative ship, Stephen Harper has been well aware that if the beliefs of the Canadian right, including his own beliefs, were actually presented to Canadians, his party wouldn’t stand a chance. Harper’s ideology is remarkably similar to that of the House Republicans who voted No yesterday. That is eminently clear when we peruse his career in the Reform Party and as the head of the National Citizens Coalition.

Every now and then, the craziness slips out of the mouths of even Harper’s most trusted lieutenants as when finance minister Jim Flaherty said: “If you’re going to make a new business investment in Canada, and you’re concerned about taxes, the last place you will go is the province of Ontario.

The Conservatives are trying to make it to October 14 without anyone calling them on the wackiness of their ideas. Don’t let them.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Why Ontario Can't Afford Harper

(A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Toronto Star last week.)

During the last few days, Stephen Harper has been trying to reassure Canadians that he is the steady pilot to see the nation through stormy economic seas.

Since Harper was sworn into office in February 2006, however, his government's economic policies have delivered a series of deadly blows to the Ontario economy.

Harper and his finance minister Jim Flaherty have bet the future of the economy on two major assumptions: first, that the United States will remain the great engine of economic demand on which Canada can depend; and second, that the petroleum sector will drive the national economy forward as have other staples sectors, such as fish, furs, timber and wheat, in the past. Theirs is a “back to the future” gamble on staples and raw materials, the strategy on which our economy was built in the distant past.

Harper has tried to sell the idea to Americans and Canadians that Canada is becoming an energy “superpower”, and that the rapid development of the oil sands will provide the U.S. with a secure source of energy in a troubled world.

The initial impact of the energy superpower strategy was to sharply drive up the value of the Canadian dollar, continuing an earlier trend, whose consequence was to severely undercut the competitiveness of Ontario's manufacturing. (Now as the U.S. economy languishes our dollar has fallen back below par from a high of $1.10.) As tens of thousands of jobs were lost in the auto industry and in other manufacturing industries, the Conservatives, chief among Flaherty airily dismissed the problems. The finance minister famously remarked six months ago that “if you’re going to make a new business investment in Canada, and you’re concerned about taxes, the last place you will go is the province of Ontario.”

Now the Americans have landed themselves in the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. It extends far beyond the bursting of the housing bubble. The world's major central banks have come to the rescue, pumping about four hundred billion dollars into the world's fast deflating credit system. And the Chinese and Japanese continue to hold trillions of dollars worth of American government paper, on which the return is close to zero. In Washington, extraordinary meetings have brought the top Democrats and Republicans in Congress together with the Secretary of the Treasury, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. They are planning no less than the nationalization of the bad debts of the U.S. financial sector.

The bailouts may work more or less, if they finally get passed by the U.S. Congress. But the United States is submerged in so much debt that the recovery will be wrenching at best. In this crisis and in future crises, the tectonic plates are shifting. The role of the U.S. in the global system is being downsized. At issue is the very position the United States occupies in the global economy. The Americans, who produced fifty per cent of the world’s goods and services in 1945, produce only twenty per cent of global output today and that is predicted to fall to fifteen per cent over the next few years. The U.S. is being forced to occupy a more modest place in the world economy. As a consequence, the American people are going to be forced to pay, not only for the disastrous Iraq War, but the price tag for the bailouts and the global indebtedness of the United States.

All of this has vast implications for us. Who should Ontarians prefer to have at the helm during the coming period of economic transition?

Frankly, none of the leaders has said much that is cogent or reassuring about the global financial crisis and the future of the Canadian economy. But the Harper Conservatives are the ones who would likely do us the most damage.

The Conservatives are committed to contradictory goals: tax cuts; increased military spending; and the avoidance at all cost of a deficit. Having pursued the first two goals, Harper now finds himself on the knife edge of a deficit. In the coming economic slowdown, he will choose putting the knife to non-military spending to avoid a deficit, and under no circumstances will he resort to increasing the taxes of the rich.

For Ontario, a government whose instinct is to avoid planning and whose first preference is to reinforce the strength of the oil sector is contrary to our interests.

The Ontario manufacturing sector needs to be rethought, retooled and re-launched for the future. This amounts to much more than throwing money at particular firms that are in crisis. A strategy is necessary. That will mean bringing together all levels of government, the private sector, the unions, and the best planning brains in the country to figure out where our strengths lie and what portions of domestic and global markets we can carve out for our manufacturers.

It is no slur on Harper and his government to say that they don’t favour this sort of thing. Indeed, in principle they don’t believe in the enormous effort the U.S. government is now making to bail out the financial sector to staunch the wounds caused by de-regulation. Harper and Flaherty are firm believers in de-regulation.

Ontario’s economy, which rests heavily on manufacturing, is far too complex to be well served by a federal government that is bent on taking us back to the days when this country was a “hewer of wood and a drawer of water.”

Dion Sneers at the NDP

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage.)

During this campaign, Stephane Dion has been giving lessons on how to play a bad hand badly.

Last week Jack Layton hinted (it was a very mild hint) that he might be willing to consider forming a coalition government with the Liberals. The suggestion was that even if the Conservatives ranked first in seats, provided that the NDP and the Liberals had more seats between them they could defeat the Harper government in the Commons and then form a coalition ministry. The Liberals and the NDP combined to do exactly that in the Ontario Legislature in 1985. Although they did not establish a formal coalition, they did work out a common agenda, a progressive one at that.

Dion quickly slammed the idea of a coalition government with the NDP on the ground that the NDP seeks to increase corporate taxes.

“We cannot have a coalition with a party that has a platform that would be damaging for the economy. Period,” Dion said. A few months after becoming Liberal leader, Dion proclaimed that he wanted to push corporate taxes even lower than would the Conservatives. Yesterday, when Layton launched the NDP platform which includes a plan to reverse Stephen Harper’s $50 billion corporate tax cut, Dion dismissed this as old fashioned socialism. This sort of thing is just not done in the world these days, he sniffed. Dion needs to re-examine his neo-liberal orthodoxy, whose precepts underlay the widening gap between the rich and the rest during the Chretien-Martin years.

Against the backdrop of the stinking mess on Wall Street, Dion’s corporate tax plans do not go down well with most voters. While attacking the NDP, the Liberals have adopted the Harper corporate tax cuts as they’re own and they want to go even further.

This week the Liberals are getting feisty. But they’re charging off in all directions, proclaiming themselves the true progressives while rallying to the defence of the corporations.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Godfather of the Conservative Party of Canada (part 2)

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage).

Here was the truth about the world as William Aberhart learned it from social credit founder Major Douglas: In the modern age, technology has created the potential for an era of prosperity for all. What prevents this from happening are the operations of banks and other financial institutions which continually take money out of the system. This denies to the people the purchasing power they need to purchase the goods they produce. To eradicate this problem, the solution is “social credit”, the provision by the government of monthly dividends to be paid to each “bona fide” citizen (Aberhart’s term) so that the people can make up the shortfall in purchasing power.

Aberhart took these insights back to Calgary and began inserting them into his Back to the Bible broadcasts. In the midst of the privation of the depression, Albertans learned about social credit as nothing less than revealed religious truth. From town to town across the province, Aberhart took his message, illustrating the validity of social credit on the blackboard where he displayed the A + B Theorem (write me and I'll explain this theorem which all economists from Marxists to Monetarists agree is bogus.)

The preacher created a political movement (he wouldn't call it a party), garbed in the style of western populism. It sounded very democratic, except that Aberhart reserved the right to dismiss any candidate for office he didn't like.

In 1935, Social Credit swept to power in Alberta, and while Aberhart experimented with a few social credit measures, he ruled according to the maxims of orthodox economics. After Aberhart's death during the Second World War, Ernest Manning, the boy from the bible class, took the reigns as premier and held the office longer than any other leader.

His son Preston, not so enamored with A + B, but imbued with the idea that Canada needed a right wing makeover, thought long and hard about the politics of a new beginning for the country that would be rooted in the market system, the limited state, individualism, evangelicalism, pro-Americanism, and the rejection of multiculturalism.

From his fertile brain and the thought of those who followed came the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance and the Conservative Party of Canada with its odd political culture, combining populism and authoritarianism.

If Harper wins a majority, forget about Sir John A., but keep William Aberhart in the back of your mind.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Godfather of the Conservative Party of Canada (Part 1)

Stephen Harper's Conservative Party of Canada is a hybrid of two parties, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party. The two merged, or more realistically, the Canadian Alliance acquired the PCs in December 1993.

In its traditions, the Conservative Party does not trace its origins back to the Liberal-Conservative Party (known as the Conservative Party at the time) of John A. Macdonald.

The roots of Harper's party are in Calgary, where the Conservative leader has his own seat.

It all began in the early 1920s, when an evangelical Christian by the name of William Aberhart left his native Ontario for Calgary. There he became a high school principal, but unable to find a church that suited him, he founded the Prophetic Bible Institute on 8th Avenue in downtown Calgary. He set up a course of study whose target audience was serious young Christians. The first person to sign up for Aberhart's most rigorous course was a farm boy from Saskatchewan who was still in his teens. His name was Ernest Manning and he would be heard from again.

A few years after the Institute was established a local radio station asked Aberhart if he would like to broadcast his sermons. Aberhart took up the challenge and soon developed a mass audience for his religious message across southern Alberta and northern Montana.

In 1929 and in the early 1930s, the Great Depression struck the prairies harder than any other Canadian region. Businesses went broke. Farmers couldn't sell their wheat and faced foreclosure and the loss of their land. In the summer of 1932 when Aberhart was in Edmonton grading senior matriculation exams, someone shoved a pamphlet under his door. He read it through the night and when the sun rose he had been converted to social credit, the brainchild of a Scottish engineer by the name of Major Douglas.

(Tune in tomorrow for the stunning conclusion of The Godfather.)

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Bailout and the Bubble

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage.)

North of the border, Stephen Harper progresses toward election day, inside a protective bubble that keeps out the general public, protestors and media who want to talk to his candidates while he is on the set. And so far a metaphorical bubble has protected him from having to deal with the fact that south of the border, his ideology is going up in flames.

The bailout battle in Washington is about Democrats, who are prepared to do their duty to safeguard global capitalism and the American Empire, lining up alongside the detested Bush administration, now ruled by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, to do so. Republicans, however, prodded by their increasingly wacky presidential candidate John McCain, who has come to town in the guise of Jimmy Stewart, are trying to save, not only Wall Street, but their sacred beliefs. The limited state, free enterprise, anti-regulation, individualist faith is being exposed for the tawdry joke that it is---a cover for predatory capitalism. Republican Congressmen, under assault from their constituents, are hiding from their own party leadership in their petulant fury.

So far our politicians are behaving as though the American financial crisis does not affect us. Not only will we be taxed indirectly but assuredly by the inflation that will be generated by the bailout, we have already been taxed by the role the Bank of Canada is playing in the crisis, as it joins other central banks in helping re-float the American economy. And the crisis will hit us directly in the form of a prolonged period of economic slowdown and painful restructuring.

Stephen Harper is a true believer in the nostrums that are on the funeral pyre in Washington. The NDP, Liberals, Greens and Bloc need to pierce his bubble and bring these realities home to Canadians.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Conversation Over Dinner

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage.)

Three women I know had dinner in Toronto a couple of nights ago and they talked about the election campaign. In their early fifties, they’re all on the left, with a range of attitudes that we can call socialist, social democrat, pro union, anti capitalist.

One of them told me about the conversation.

They’re alienated from the Liberals because they see them as too pro business and lacking in principle.

They’re suspicious of the NDP. They think the way Jack Layton helped bring down the Martin government to trigger the 2006 election opened the door to Harper. Instead of childcare and Kelowna, we got Harper, they insist, and Layton did nothing to warn Canadians about the Conservatives.

Now they think that we’re heading for a Conservative government, either minority or majority.

They’re not very interested in the details of the day to day maneuvers of the parties on the campaign trail.

They’re split on whether they think Obama will win in the U.S.

Wouldn’t it be great, one of them said to me with savage irony, if the Americans got Obama and we got Harper.

If we do get Harper on October 14, my three friends are not going to be just alienated. They’re going to be mad as hell.

People like my three friends are going to give the professional politicians, New Democrat and Liberal alike, the shock of their lives. Next time the game is going to be played under different rules.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

For Stephen Harper, Crime is a Cultural Issue

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

While members of the cultural community are fighting to reverse cuts to budgets that are crucial to their ability to function, Stephen Harper is involved in his own cultural crusade, the fight against crime. He won’t ban hand guns, won’t administer the gun registry, which is the law of the land, and he only pays lip service to the idea of social policies that deal with the root causes of crime. But once a crime has been committed, he’s Clint Eastwood.

Criminologists know that locking up fourteen year olds for life and publicizing their names will not cause youthful violent offenders and gang members to curb their offences. That’s not the point. For Harper, this is pure theatre, his version of the Stratford Festival. The Conservative leader loves to deliver soliloquies on behalf of crime victims.

But one crime victim he didn’t want to hear about was eighteen-year-old Hayder Kadhim, who received two bullet wounds in the head, during the Dawson College shooting in Montreal in 2006. The young man challenged the prime minister to a debate on the issue of gun control, something “Make-My-Day” Harper would not do.

The Conservative government’s $45 million cuts to cultural outlays amounts to a cut of one fifth of one per cent of the federal government’s budget. It’s a sum of money that would run the federal government for about two hours.

He didn’t make the cuts to trim government spending. He did it to poke the artistic community in the eye. This week he’s showing his target voters that he has no use for criminologists in ivory towers---he called them that yesterday---and he’d rather stigmatize artists as latte drinkers than recognize them as vital members of society who happen to contribute considerably to the GDP.

As Harper might have said: "False face must hide what false heart doth know."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Liberal Party Isn’t Very Hearty

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

There was a time when being named leader of the federal Liberal Party was a virtual guarantee that a politician was going to become Prime Minister of Canada. Edward Blake was the only Liberal leader who never made it. John Turner, of course, was PM for only three months and failed to win an election. Since 1867, Liberal leaders, not counting Stephane Dion, have served as Prime Minister for an average of eight years each. Collectively they have governed the country for eighty of the one hundred and forty-one years since Confederation.

The glory days of the Liberal Party began in 1896 with the election of Wilfrid Laurier as Prime Minister. Seventy-five of their eighty years in power have been since then. A key to victory for the Liberals was their lock on the majority of seats in Quebec in every election they won from 1896 to 1984. They failed to win a majority of seats in Quebec in the three successive majority wins of Jean Chretien (although they did succeed in holding a majority of Quebec seats as a result of by-election wins following the 2000 election). Chretien’s easy victories relied on massive majorities in Ontario. The Liberal house came tumbling down as a consequence of the acquisition by the Canadian Alliance of the Progressive Conservative Party in December 2003 and the Sponsorship Scandal.

The demise of a Liberal Quebec spells the end of the Grits as Canada’s natural rulers. With a united right, the multi-party splits outside Quebec don’t work any more to favour the Liberals and they’re not likely to in the future. This does not mean the Conservatives have become the natural governors. The fact that one third of Canadians now plan to vote for the NDP, the Bloc or the Greens means that we are en route to a new set of governing arrangements.

Monday, September 22, 2008

To the Liars go the Spoils

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

On both sides of the border, the political right is telling bald-faced lies to obliterate their opponents.

Despite Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that he would cut taxes for 97 per cent of income earners and would raises taxes only for the top 3 per cent, John McCain and Sarah Palin reiterate the charge that the Democrat plans to increase the taxes of average Americans.

On right-wing talk radio, broadcasters continue to tell millions of people that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and this is now believed to be true by about a quarter of the U.S. population. These are same people who recycled the falsehood, believed by 50 per cent of Americans, that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the September 11 attacks.

In Canada, the whale of a lie of the campaign is that the Liberal carbon tax would raise the taxes paid by ordinary Canadians. No matter how many times Stephane Dion explains that his plan is revenue neutral, that he would lower income taxes by the amount he would additionally tax industries that pollute, the Conservatives repeat the lie. A large proportion of the population has been convinced by ads that repeat the falsehood and by the repetition of the lie on the hustings that a Dion government would raise their taxes.

One reason the repeated lies work is that the mainstream media are not prepared to call the perpetrators on their behaviour in a serious way. Oh, there’s the occasional slap on the wrist, delivered by political “analysts” who regard lying as just another tactic. And there’s the mainstream media tendency to reduce the whole thing to a difference of opinion between the two sides. In this approach, the Conservative lie about Dion’s platform is as valid as a truthful statement about what’s in the platform.

When John McCain appeared on The View, he was effectively called on his lies by Joy Behar.

Don’t expect our gatekeepers, Peter Mansbridge, the At Issue Panel, Rex Murphy and Don Newman, to do much outing of the liars.

It’ll take the concerted anger of a politically literate public to counter the liars and the lies they tell.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Pseudo Conservative Party

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

Stephen Harper’s party is grotesquely mislabeled. If conservatism connotes a desire to conserve then his is no conservative party.

Rather it is a party whose mantra is romantic individualism. The party is fuelled by a gas bag of cranky resentfulness against the complex character of the contemporary world. These “conservatives” are not at home in multi-racial, multi-cultural settings. They resent political literacy, are suspicious of culture and can’t stand the thought of state support for the romantic comedy “Young People Fucking.” They are unmanned by women who want to remake the world so that their needs and aspirations are legitimated.

These conservatives long for a simpler past that never was, a society in which individuals relate to each other in ways no one ever did.

The Conservatives, of course, can depend on business and the rich to support them for reasons of pure self interest. But we fail to understand this party if we think in material terms only. This is a party for the rich that is led by the cranky.

The odd feature of the denizens of the resentful right is that although their policies are fine-tuned to suit the wealthy and the powerful, they imagine themselves to be on the outside, bravely struggling against long established elites, perhaps the CBC or the Bare Naked Ladies.

Big business has an interest in keeping these conservatives on a leash to prevent them from harming the return on investment. But business greed and neo-con stupidity have combined south of the border to imperil the system itself. That’s why last week the grown ups had to call in George W. Bush to explain the facts of life to him.

It’s the same here. Cranky conservatives can do a great deal of damage especially during a time of difficult economic transition. And it would be foolish for us to count on wise elders to come to the rescue. The better option is to keep the pseudo-Conservatives out of office.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fear and Loathing

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

The politicians have largely abandoned issues in favour of assaulting opponents with buckets of fear and loathing.

The local Conservative candidate has knocked on our door twice. The first time I told him politely, but firmly that I would never vote for his party or for him. Two nights later he was back to chat with my spouse. He asked her whether it was the Conservative Party she disliked or its leader. Both, she replied. Unfazed, the candidate went on to ask if she thought the party had a “secret agenda”. Yes, she replied. He tried to reassure her that the Conservatives would only win a minority victory.

The Conservatives have essentially succeeded in making Dion look like a hapless little man who should stay in the classroom (as a teacher I object to the denigration of the professoriate.) In response the Liberals have largely dropped the Green Shift---“You have said it was [the centerpiece of the Liberal platform], never me,” Dion said to reporters. They’re back to firebombing Harper.

In this First World War style battle of attrition, two issues are slipping from view: the environment and the war.

Most voters don’t understand either the carbon tax or cap ‘n trade and the Liberals and NDP have mainly given up trying to explain them. That matters, because after voting day the accepted wisdom in the mainstream media will be that Canadians showed no appetite for serious action on the environment and that the issue can remain unaddressed.

Same with the war. Jack Layton was good on the issue when questioned by Peter Mansbridge, but the NDP has made no effort to make it an issue. Despite the fact that most Canadians want the military mission to end now, the talking heads on Don Newman will agree after October 14 that the voters didn’t care much about it.

Those who are concerned about these issues need to make a fuss now.

The Campaign: A Cosmic Farce

(Written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

Last night, the top Democrats and Republicans in both Houses of Congress, the Treasury Secretary, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission met in Washington D.C. to plan the nationalization of a trillion dollars worth of bad debts held by U.S. financial institutions. What do you call such a group? The executive committee of the ruling class, you nincompoop, Marx would have said.

The idea of the executive committee (Excom) is to shift the bad debts of the avaricious and the greedy onto the shoulders of the people, in a bailout that will cost about as much as the Iraq War, maybe more. The meeting of the Excom was respectful, somber and courteous---no accusations of elitism in this crowd.

Against the backdrop of the biggest global financial crisis since the Great Depression, our leaders continue racing from region to region (with the exceptions of “One Time Zone Gilles” and “Via Rail May”) to get their images on the six o’clock news. By now the media team following them looks distinctly unwell, low on deodorant, high on cholesterol. A health care announcement here, a get-tough on crime announcement there.

Not one of the leaders has said anything insightful about the financial crisis. Harper says he’ll keep us out of deficit; Dion says Harper has squandered the surplus; and Layton says he ready for the top job.

Meanwhile, on the great issue, that will shape our lives for years to come they display no wisdom, no clarity.

If human life is a cosmic joke, against the backdrop of the great meltdown, our election campaign has become a cosmic farce.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Banning Hand Guns

(written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

Everyone who has thought about the issue knows that a complete ban on hand guns will not end gang violence in Toronto and in other large Canadian cities.

But it’s an essential step to take.

Both Toronto Mayor David Miller and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty are calling for such a ban. They have the support of NDP leader Jack Layton who wants the cities to have the power to enact such a ban.

Access to legal hand guns is already tightly controlled in Canada and such weapons must be registered. Most of the hand guns used on the streets of Toronto enter the country illegally from south of the border. Others, however, are stolen or acquired from legal gun owners.

A hand gun ban would send a strong signal that such weapons will not be tolerated and have no place in our cities. Who, apart from the police, has any conceivable legitimate need for such weapons?

For some unaccountable reason, Stephane Dion does not support a ban on hand guns, saying that his priority is to outlaw assault weapons.

The man in the way on this is Stephen Harper whose party panders to the gun lobby. His government decided it would no longer enforce the long gun registry even though it was the law of the land. Harper believes he has the right to pick and choose which laws need to be enforced.

His line is that we should increase the criminal sentences for those who wield guns, and he insists that the other parties are soft on criminals.

After a gun has been fired, he’s a tough guy. When it comes to keeping guns off the street and addressing the social ills that contribute to gang violence he’s AWOL.

(Despite the recent spate of daylight shootings, the number of homicides in Toronto is lower this year than it was up to this point last year.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Unscripted Election

(written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

Shock, surprise and the unanticipated have been facts of life during this election campaign, leaving the supposed geniuses in the campaign war rooms looking all too mortal.

That’s good.

There’ve even been a few moments when democracy and socio-economic reality have broken through the hermetically sealed bubbles in which the leaders travel.

The Harper-Layton caper to deep six May was foiled by an angry public.

Harper’s glide toward a majority for a few days last week encountered turbulence when the oil companies engineered a 13 cent a liter increase in the price of gasoline across Canada before Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast. It harshly reminded people that we have a prime minister who first and foremost represents Big Oil and never saw a price gouge he would intervene to check.

This week the towers of capitalism have been swaying south of the border, calling into question the judgment of the corporate hominids who are Stephen Harper’s role models. Do we really want to entrust Harper with the management of our economy during the turbulent months and years to come?

The Nanos poll, the only one I have any faith in (Harris/Decima always gets it wrong), today shows: Conservatives, 38; Liberals, 31; NDP, 17; Greens, 8; and Bloc, 6.

The Conservatives are flirting with a minority and are facing head winds in swing ridings in Ontario, although they could still make big gains in Quebec if the Bloc continues to decline.

Harper knows he’s in some trouble. He’s acting tetchy, sounding shrill about the plans of his opponents during difficult economic times. In the face of gun violence in Toronto, his refusal even to consider a ban on hand guns reminds city dwellers that Harper is an ideological clone of the National Rifle Association.

When’s somebody going to challenge him on the war? Jack….

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Black Monday

(written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

Irrational exuberance and the terrible hangover. Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch both bit the dust yesterday, the worst day for the U.S. financial sector since the Great Depression. In the wake of Washington’s takeover of Freddie and Fannie and the collapse of Bear Stearns, the towers of finance capital are more than a little shaky.

Black Monday showed, for those who needed the lesson, that the kind of people Stephen Harper thinks are so good at running the world are not only greedy, they’re world class incompetents.

Harper and his pals, south and north of the border, believe in the wondrous power of de-regulated capitalism to make the economy soar by getting stale, old government out of the way. That is, of course, until the new financial instruments they invent, designed to turn billions of sow’s ears into silk purses, land them in big trouble. Then they scurry to government, quaking with fear, begging for the handouts their friends in office are only too happy to provide. Harper will use the financial crisis to reward his corporate friends and punish the rest of us.

We saw some cracks in the structures of capitalism yesterday. The shafts of daylight that came through teach people that there’s nothing wondrous or all-powerful about the system. Now’s the time to get out radical ideas about how to restructure our economy in the interests of wage and salary earners and how to take control of our petroleum industry out of the hands of Big Oil.

That needs to be the subject until election day.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Out with the Old and in with the New

(written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

Unable to contain his cat with the cream grin, Stephen Harper gave us a glimpse of our future as he sees it when he was in Fredericton a couple of days ago. “I think the Canadian public has grown more conservative,” he declared.

He went on to observe that pride has revived in ideas and organizations that conservatives have backed traditionally, and not just the policies and organizations that the Liberals and New Democrats claim define Canada.

The old and the new are clear in Harper’s mind. Under a Harper majority, the Old Canada of medicare and the CBC will be on its way out and the New Canada of the military and the tighter alliance with the U.S. will be in.

Harper and his soul mates in the “Calgary School” such as Tom Flanagan, who believe Canada should blend seamlessly with the United States plan a root and branch transformation of the country. They are disciples of Leo Strauss, the intellectual guru of neo-conservatism who taught that his followers needed to be secretive because the ordinary people are not strong enough to bear the truth. They’ll get used to it later.

Those on the right who know Harper best are fully aware that this man doesn’t have a centrist bone in his body.

Ted Byfield, the godfather of Western Regionalism has said “If Harper gets elected, he’ll make a helluva change in this country.”

Newfoundland’s Conservative Premier Danny Williams put it plainly: “What in heaven’s name will happen if he wins a majority? Stop, think and decide if that is what this country deserves.”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Perplexed Voters And The Mules Who Purport To Lead Them

(written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

The difference between American and Canadian voters is that in a one on one contest, Americans just might choose the rickety-reactionary McCain-Palin jalopy. There’s no way in a one on one contest that Stephen Harper would win.

Most Canadians don’t want a hard right government. But the configuration of our politics means they’re likely to get one.

Although there’s plenty to go around, the major share of the blame for this goes to the Liberals. They still believe that they are the titans of Canadian politics, the natural governing party, sure to return to the helm, if not this time under Stephane Dion, then next time under another leader.

Novice Liberal Bob Rae made this clear when he wrote in his blog that Jack Layton was the Ralph Nader of this campaign, not the Barack Obama. In Rae’s mind, Layton and the NDP are just spoilers who are blocking the migration of progressives to the Liberals who are the only ones who can defeat Stephen Harper.

Sorry Bob, if Layton is not Obama, Dion is not Mackenzie King or Pierre Trudeau. And you remind me more of Hazen Argue (older readers will get this) than of Sir Lancelot.

Yes, if Harper wins a majority---and he still can be stopped---it is a virtual certainty that the next election will be fought on different terms. Angry Canadians who will not be able to stomach one more minute of neo-con rule will force the other parties (not including the Bloc) to forge a one-time electoral alliance to get the Conservatives out. With the Conservatives then defeated, the new government will---fingers crossed---enact a system of proportional representation which will end the problem of vote splitting once and for all.

The too haughty Liberals still delude themselves that all this trouble could be avoided if social democrats would fold their tents and make for the Grit castle.

We’re not going to do it Bob. The last time social democrats voted en masse for the Liberals in 1993, the Chretien-Martin government endorsed NAFTA and gutted social programs.

Yes, a one time deal to bring in PR could be in the cards after four years of a Harper electoral dictatorship. But the Liberals will have to accept that New Democrats are a major political force that’s not going away.

Canadians don’t deserve what they’re likely to get this time. But our politicians are more like mules that visionaries.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Taking Control of Our Oil Industry

(written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

Big Oil gouged Canadians with those 13 cent a liter increases at the gas pumps yesterday. The spokespersons for the petroleum companies excused the sudden, concerted price jump as the consequence of the threat of Hurricane Ike to the refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast.

Call it a crock, or a lie if you like, because that is what it was.

First, the gasoline we consume in Canada does not come from Texas refineries and second, there is a time lag between refining and selling gas at the pumps. The gas that you’re buying for $1.36 a liter or more was in the pipeline well before Ike was a puff of wind off the African coast.

Jack Layton was right to say that we need a gasoline price ombudsman to blow the whistle on petroleum company price collusion. Collusion in this oligopoly has been the norm for more than a century.

We need to go well beyond putting a referee in place, though.

The privatization of Petro-Canada, begun by the Conservatives in 1991 and completed by the Liberals in 2004, ripped Canadians off to the tune of many billions of dollars. The Canadian public, through their tax dollars, took the risks, put up the capital and created Petro-Canada. In the last five years alone, Petro-Canada made a net profit of $9.2 billion. (Last year the Canadian oil patch made a total net profit of $26 billion.)

Had the company remained publicly owned, its earnings could have been used for future investments, not only in the petroleum sector but in the green energy projects on which our future depends. As well, Petro-Canada could have served as a sentinel in the industry, committed to an anti-price gouging policy. That alone would deter the other majors from playing the game they’re playing this week.

Jack Layton should propose the joint takeover of the major oil companies by a consortium to include the petroleum producing provinces, the federal government, municipalities and the pension funds of Canadian wage and salary earners.

That kind of model has worked well in many countries, as it once did, in part, in Canada in the days when Petro-Canada was owned by the federal government.

Friday, September 12, 2008

While Our Politicians Fiddle, The War is Widening

(written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

The journalists on the leaders' tours seem to agree that Stephen Harper's commitment to bring our troops home---IN THREE YEARS—has taken the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan off the table for the duration of the election campaign.

The leaders need to think again, because this war is widening.

Under the direct orders of President George W. Bush, according to a story in the New York Times, U.S. commandos are carrying out cross border incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistan to go after the Taliban. Admiral Mike Mullen, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff signaled yesterday that Washington was adopting “a more comprehensive strategy” to combat the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The government of Pakistan sharply responded to the new U.S. strategy in a statement that insisted that “no external force is allowed to conduct operations...inside Pakistan.” In addition, to commandos, the U.S. has begun deploying pilotless drones inside Pakistan. The timing is instructive. Just days ago, Pakistan's new President, Asif Ali Zardari, was sworn into office, a further step in the return to civilian rule. Washington is now pushing Zardari around, an exceptionally dangerous tactic in this volatile country and one calculated to undermine the forces of democracy.

A year ago, Barack Obama was foolish enough to say that he would favour U.S. incursions into Pakistani border regions to go after Al Qaeda leaders with or without the authorization of the government of Pakistan.

The Canadian units in Kandahar are in the middle of all this, continually being hit by Taliban fighters entering Afghanistan from Pakistani territory. The solution for us, though, is to end a mission whose purposes and trajectory Canadians do not support.

Widening the war is appallingly dangerous, with potential consequences far greater than those in the Afghan conflict.

Canada's political leaders need to speak.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Who’s Going to Challenge Harper on the War?

(written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

Yesterday morning, over breakfast with the members of the media who are traveling with his campaign, Stephen Harper announced that the Canadian military mission in Kandahar would end in 2011.

That’s the date the Conservatives and the Liberals agreed on in the parliamentary resolution both parties supported in the House in March. Now Harper’s using that pullout date as his way of responding to the rejection of this mission by the Canadian people. He’s making it sound as though he’s sensitive to public opinion and will be pulling Canadian troops out.

The journalists were so charmed at actually breaking bread with the great man that they reported the story at face value. A pullout of troops three years from now? Canadians want the troops out now. Not in three years, after dozens, perhaps hundreds, more Canadian soldiers have died.

Stephane Dion isn’t going to say anything about this. He made his deal with the devil (that’s an expression, not to be interpreted literally) in March.

Where are the other leaders on this? Jack, Gilles, Elizabeth, somebody….speak up.

On a day, when we will hear many genuine expressions of sorrow about the tragic events of September 11, 2001 along with the words of those who use that day as a pedestal to preach war, let’s spare a thought for those who will die in this dirty conflict over the next three years.

Only 32 days left to debate the war until Canadians vote.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Beyond the Puffin Poop: What is the Harper Agenda?

(written for rabble.ca's election coverage)

On Sunday, Stephen Harper described the Conservative Party of Canada as “centrist.” For a man who ran the National Citizens Coalition, and energized the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance, this is a curious label to pin on the party he now leads. Harper has devoted his entire political life to the honing of a disciplined political instrument that will drive Canada to the hard right. Unlike George W. Bush, who is a frat boy, Stephen Harper is a true ideologue. His goal, which extends far beyond holding office for its own sake, is to transform Canada from a country he can’t stand to a lean satrap of America. He won’t be ready to hang up his skates until the word “Canada” has acquired a muscular meaning around the world. He won’t be content until this country’s tolerant, fuzzy, secular humanism has been expunged.

This is not a hidden agenda. But in the mainstream media, it’s regarded as bad form to talk about anything Harper said, did, or wrote before he took up residence at 24 Sussex Drive.

Harper’s waiting for a majority he would use to:

· Negotiate a much closer economic, national security and military union with the United States.
· Decimate the Canadian social state, with medicare shredded by the emergence of a patchwork system that varies from province to province with a growing role everywhere for the private sector.
· Cut taxes for the rich.
· Open the doors to a much larger role for “faith based” initiatives and the assault on secular values.
· Push ahead with oil sands development, condemning Canada to the role of the first world’s greatest per capita polluter.
· Privatize the CBC.
· Complete the militarization of Canada.

Under a Harper majority, the role of the opposition would be worth about as much as a warm pitcher of spit.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Leaving Elizabeth May Out of the Debates is Outrageous

(This post was written for rabble.ca's election coverage.)

The quality of Canadian democracy took it on the chin yesterday when the Conservatives, the NDP and the Bloc took the position that the leader of the Green Party should be excluded from the TV debates.

A Bloc spokesperson later said Duceppe would have participated in the debates whether or not May was included. That left Harper and Layton insisting that they would not show up for debates in which the Green leader was present.

That Harper would do this is no surprise. He hopes that after October 14, he won’t have to pay attention to anyone.

But the NDP.

NDP campaign official Brad Lavigne explained that Layton would withdraw from debates including May on the grounds “that it would be patently unfair to have two people advocating for Mr. Dion to be prime minister in the debate.”


Lavigne is entitled to think that the Greens are too close to the Liberals. I’m entitled to believe, as I do, that the Greens are a sentiment in search of a party. But the fact is that a sizeable number of Canadians voted for the Greens last time. They are a federally funded party. They now have an MP, a former Liberal, who joined them. People can think what they like about this MP. But let’s shake ourselves awake. The Greens are awfully similar, in size and shape, to the Bloc and the Reform Party when they were included in the debates in 1993.

Jack Layton should be prepared to face Elizabeth May head on in the debates where he can make the case that a vote for the Greens is a vote for a party that is unclear on a host of issues, and not all that good on the environment. He could use the debates to say that this country desperately needs proportional representation.

This week at York, I’m going to get an earful about this from my students. They’re not old enough to remember the glory days of Tommy Douglas when the NDP was a fighting party. They’re already inclined to see the NDP as an old-line party and this is not going to help.

Monday, September 08, 2008

We Need a Debate on the War

(written for rabble.ca's coverage of the election.)

The days between the dropping of the writ and the election are precious. This is the only time the politicians pay serious attention to what Canadians think.

The great issue on which Canada’s famous “elite consensus” has shut out debate has been the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan. The mainstream media provide few opportunities to those who believe the mission should be ended. In Parliament, the Conservatives and the Liberals made an unsavoury deal to extend the mission to 2011. Only the NDP, as it resolved at its 2006 national convention, has said clearly that Canada should bring the troops home from Kandahar.

Jack Layton showed courage on the issue and took a lot of abuse for it. Remember “Taliban Jack.”

In recent months, Canadians have moved en masse on the issue---over fifty-five per cent want the troops brought home and two thirds believe the mission has failed. The people have rejected the elite consensus on Afghanistan. Now they need leadership. Jack Layton made the point when he launched his campaign that he intends to offer Canadians fundamental change to open their eyes to the benefits of an NDP government. To make this real, he needs to go where none of the other leaders is prepared to go on Afghanistan. He should say that an NDP government will bring the troops home. He should say that he will raise the issue of the war every day from now to October 14.

Ninety-six Canadian soldiers have died in this dirty war, proportionally the highest toll for any NATO country. Canadians have figured out that this war is not about human rights and the installation of democracy and the rule of law in Afghanistan. They know that in its treatment of prisoners of war, its links to the heroin trade, and its ties with warlords, the regime in Kabul is not worth the life of one more young Canadian.

This can be Layton’s hour. The war can be his defining issue.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

And they're off

(From now until election day, I'll be making posts on the campaign on rabble.ca and will also post them here. Here's the first post.)

As recession closes in on the country, Stephen Harper is sprinting for a majority. By next spring, most Canadians who live outside the oil kingdom that is the Harper heartland will have had enough of an economic strategy that favours Big Oil and lets the manufacturing sector and the sectors that rely on it crumble.
Speaking outside Rideau Hall, Stephen Harper shrugged off the idea that he was running to win a majority. But the Big Bad Wolf about to swallow Little Red Riding Hood kept flashing into view despite all his best efforts. Harper’s strategy: go for a majority while never claiming that’s what he’s doing. His tactic: let the other four leaders tangle each other up so that with about 37 per cent of the vote, he can squeak to the narrowest of majorities.
Stephane Dion, surpassing low expectations, seemed serene if a little diffident and unapproachable. How he will play in Quebec where few people like him and in the rest of the country where few people know him remains to be seen. As is customary for a Liberal leader Dion made his appeal to progressives. His pitch throughout will be to try to pull social democrats and greens to his banner.
Gilles Duceppe opened strongly. This guy, who is usually ignored in English Canada, is one of the country’s most seasoned politicians. He warned Quebeckers that the Bloc is the only party that can stop the Conservatives from winning a majority across Canada. Good ploy.
Jack Layton spoke forcefully on behalf of those (the majority) who are being left behind. It’s smart for him to portray himself as running for the job of prime minister, and smarter for him to ignore the Liberals. Why didn’t he call for the troops to be brought home from Afghanistan?
Elizabeth May had passion and was the most human of the leaders. Her warning that people need to regain control of their politics will resonate, especially with the young.
Final note: is the CBC going to go with right of centre analysts from now to election day?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The American Election Campaign: Soap Operas Obscure the Underlying Debate

“We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire.”--President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, January 20, 2004.

“America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world and to all the inhabitants thereof.”—President George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005.

“It is an empire [the American Empire]….without consciousness of itself as such. But that does not make it any less of an empire, that is, an attempt to permanently order the world of states and markets according to its national interests.”—Michael Ignatieff, former professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“The Republicans took the most ascendant nation since ancient Rome and drove it into the ditch.”--James Carville, CNN interview, Denver, August 26, 2008:

“America should never undertake a war unless we're prepared to do everything necessary to succeed.”--John McCain, announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, April 25, 2007.

Churning out high drama and heart wrenching personal stories, more suited to day-time soap operas than an election campaign, the Democrats and Republicans are conducting politics as only Americans can. Watching the party conventions, one is wise to keep a box of tissues at hand to wipe away the tears. Everyone was born in a log cabin or the urban equivalent. Such sacrifices, such impeccable role models for fellow citizens. Such republican virtue---I use the term in reference to the American Republic, not the party of George W. Bush. Have Hillary and Bill reconciled, and can both of them work for Barack? Will the young man from Alaska marry the Governor’s daughter? Will everyone have to take time out from the furious name calling to put on American hats and travel to Georgia (not Central Asian Georgia) to sandbag the coast when Hanna comes ashore?

When you put aside the tissues and turn off the nightly packaged human stories, you can dig down deep to unearth the underlying narrative in this election campaign. And it is historic.

The seminal debate is about the position of the United States in the world. Embroiled in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, with no end in sight in either war, facing regional and global challenges from Iran, from militarily resurgent Russia, and from China with its appetite for global influence, the United States is over-extended. Without being consciously aware of it, Americans are up against challenges that are remarkably similar to those that confronted the great empires of the past. The military entanglements of the United States, and the related indebtedness of the country, have brewed an economic cocktail that is much more potent than the hangover from a run of the mill recession.

A few of the ingredients in this brew:

A federal government debt that spirals toward ten trillion dollars, with neither the Republicans or the Democrats proposing policies to bring it under control. Americans pay over four hundred billion dollars to fund the interest payments on the debt.

A military budget of over 500 billion dollars annually.

Oil imports that hit Americans in the pocketbook to the tune of 500 billion dollars a year.

U.S. trade and current account deficits running over 800 billion dollars and 700 billion dollars respectively this year.

The dollar has lost ground in recent years against other major currencies such as the Euro that imperil the dollar's position as the reserve currency of the world.

The volunteer armed forces of the United States are stressed and stretched. Fighting men and women have been ground down by repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recruitment is down. The military is ill-equipped to respond to new threats.

The United States has lost respect and sympathy almost everywhere in the world.

As they face declining incomes, the credit crunch, and the skyrocketing price of energy, Americans are experiencing the costs of an American global strategy that has gone awry.

All of this adds up to imperial overstretch, a condition faced by empires over the course of history. And it doesn't help that America's political culture makes its unthinkable for American political leaders to acknowledge that the United States has constructed a worldwide empire.

In the United States, the debate about empire is blurred by the unwillingness of political leaders to acknowledge the reality of empire. Along with the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence lies at the heart of the American civic religion of national values. To state that the United States has established an empire is to blaspheme against the Declaration. But a close examination of the facts shows that creating an empire is exactly what Americans have done.

While America has often been compared to ancient Rome, in important ways its empire more closely resembles that of the ancient Athenians. The Athenians, in a perverse way, which is highly reminiscent of the practice of the United States, imposed their own model constitution on city-states they forced into their empire.

A nation that will not admit that it is an empire is not well suited to rule other peoples over the long term. This is especially true of the nation's elite, those who must insist on the martial discipline, the self-sacrifice, and the willingness to shoulder the human and financial burdens of empire during difficult times. No elite in history has been more resistant to paying higher taxes than the American elite, a political reality that makes bearing the burdens of empire much more difficult. The failure of the Roman and French upper classes to pay higher taxes played a major role in the demise of their empires.

Through a glass darkly, past all the personal dramas and the endless spinning of the party doctors, there is a tale that will be apparent to future generations if not our own.