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Monday, 8 December 2008

The Second Death of Stephane Dion and the paradox of Canadian politics today



Almost a week after delivering an address to the nation that looked like something hostage takers release to prove their victim is still alive, Stephane Dion has resigned as leader of the Liberal Party. Dion thus becomes the first party leader in living memory to resign from the same position twice in one year.


The Liberals are current wrangling over how to expedite its leadership election process so that the party will have a new chief in place by the time that Parliament resumes on January 26th. It now appears that with Dion having been unceremoniously pushed under a bus, Michael Ignatieff will be crowned Liberal leader by caucus on Wednesday with the blessing of Liberal Party riding presidents - party members will be allowed to send their post hoc congratulations sometime next year when, in the best traditions of Stalinist Russia, a party convention will be held to "affirm" the Great Man's leadership. This illigitmate process is being undertaken in order to confer onto the Liberal Party a leader who has more legitimacy than the electorally deficient Dion.


But you can't have party unanimity without a few victims - just ask Stalin's victims. In this case, the murder victim will not be Kirov but Bob Rae's political ambitions along with the "Coalition" that would have brought down Stephen Harper had it not been for the last minute deus ex machina intervention of the monarchy in the form of the Governor General who, like the professor presented with a forged sick note by a bad student desperately seeking a postponement of an exam he's otherwise doomed to fail, gave Harper an extra six weeks to cram. It remains to be seen whether in that time Harper will learn the difference between governing with a majority and governing with a minority. Ignatieff has clearly signalled that if the Tories make concessions - and this means adopted the Coalition's program (weak as it is) the Liberals will likely support the budget.


Few people noticed the election night split-screen interview CTV News did with Rae and Ignatieff. In both his victory speech and in the interview Rae anticipated the broad strokes of the current parliamentary crisis and stated that with a minority parliament Stephen Harper is not necessarily going to be able to stay in government as his Throne Speech needs to gain the consent of the Opposition in order to pass. Rae was intimating that if the Tory Throne Speech was defeated the Liberals would have the opportunity to form a government. Ignatieff haughtily dismissed this scenario as "political science fiction" - the look on Rae's face was priceless. A mere six weeks later, what Iggy had dismissed as fantasy threatened to become reality (over a Fiscal Statement rather than the Throne Speech) and Ignatieff reluctantly signed on and then went into hiding. On Sunday, Ignatieff all but declared his opposition to the coalition idea and went on CBC Sunday to paraphrase William Lyon Mackenzie King by saying "a coalition if necessary but not necessarily a coalition" and explaining that he saw the coalition as a tool to get concessions from the Tories and little else.


Bob Rae, conversely, has been selling the coalition as if it's the Second Coming. After spending an election campaign as the Stephane Dion's designated hitter against the NDP - bashing Layton and his social democratic party at every opportunity - and after years of denigrated his former party as not worthy of support, Rae now posits himself, unconvincingly, as the NDP's best friend in the Liberal Party trumpeting a Liberal-NDP coalition as good for the Liberals and good for the country (good for everyone but the NDP, it seems). How the NDP could be beneath contempt in Rae's eyes on October 13th but potential cabinet colleagues on December 1st remains unexplained. But the ironies don't end there for it is the dire threat posed to the Tories by the coalition that has made it a necessity for the Liberals to expedite their leadership election - an act which will not only sunder aside Bob Rae's leadership ambitions in order to crown Michael Ignatieff as leader. In other words, in order to be prepared for the possibility that the Coalition might bring down Harper and be asked to form a government the Liberals are pushing aside the pro-coalition candidate in favour of the candidate who sees the coalition as expendable.


And people say Canadian politics is boring.
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Sunday, 30 November 2008

Stephen Harper: The new Nixon?

According to CTV News, a Conservative "member" somehow received the dial in number and access code for an NDP caucus meeting on Saturday. The "shocking" fact that Jack Layton talked to the BQ ahead of time is being spun to ridiculous lengths by the Tories and the Conservative Television Network (CTV). So who is this Conservative member? Did he or she inform Harper ahead of time before he or she listened in on and taped the meeting? Did Harper approve of this conduct?
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Saturday, 29 November 2008

Stephen Harper: The Joe Clark of our times



Yesterday, Stephen Harper said the following:


While we have been working on the economy the opposition has been working on a backroom deal to overturn the results of the last election without seeking the consent of voters. They want to take power, not earn it...The opposition has every right to defeat the government, but Stephane Dion does not have the right to take power without an election. Canada's government should be decided by Canadians, not backroom deals.

The Prime Minister is, of course, showing a profound ignorance of how parliamentary democracy works. The government is formed by whoever is able to obtain the confidence of a majority of democratic representatives elected to the House of Commons. At present, it appears that Harper does not have that confidence and that will be determined whenever there is a vote of confidence. If it can be determined that someone else does have the confidence of the House to form a government than the Governor General is obliged to allow that person to try to form a government and meet the House of Commons and test it.
Stephen Harper speaks as if Canadians chose him and his party as the government on October 14th. They did not. Canadians chose 308 Members of Parliament and the composition of the government is determinded by those 308 representatives (hence the term "representative democracy). It is what a majority of those 308 MPs decide that is crucial.

Harper also speaks as if the democratic will of the people is that he be in power. This is despite the fact that his party only recieved 37% of the vote while the Liberals and NDP received 44% of the vote. He has forgotten that he leads only a minority government and it is this bit of political amnesia that has created the current crisis.

Like Joe Clark he tried to govern as if he had a majority. Like Joe Clark he ignored the need to receive the support of at least some Opposition MPs. Like Joe Clark he assumed that because the leader of the Liberal Party had resigned and because that party is in the middle of a leadership contest there is no way they would vote to topple his minority government. Like Joe Clark, Stephen Harper thinks he's a brilliant political tactician and is cleverer than everyone else. Like Joe Clark, he's not.

Unlike Joe Clark, Stephen Harper is a hypocrite since, when the situation was reversed, Harper had no problem with the notition that following a defeat on a motion of confidence the Official Opposition could attempt to form a government if they obtained the support of the House:

As leaders of the opposition parties, we are well aware that, given the Liberal minority government, you could be asked by the Prime Minister to dissolve the 38th Parliament at any time should the House of Commons fail to support some part of the government’s program. We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority. Your attention to this matter is appreciated.
From a letter to then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson signed by all three opposition leaders: Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton and Stephen Harper(September 9, 2004)
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Monday, 24 November 2008

They're all Keynesians now



After years of proclaiming the death of Keynesianism and the triumph of Friedmanomics it's fascinating to see how the market collapse has turned the most diehard opponents of government intervention in the economy and pump-priming turn into born again disciples of old John Maynard Keynes.

This is what Stephen Harper had to say this weekend:

“Let us remember what led to the Great Depression. It was not caused by a stock market crash. That was only the beginning,” he said. Governments of the time made a number of serious mistakes, including attempting to balance the books at all costs, he said, raising taxes and cutting spending at a time when a fiscal stimulus was “absolutely essential.”


Cutting spending is bad? Balancing budgets is a mistake during an economic downturn? Who knew? John Maynard Keynes did. Meanwhile, it appears that John Kenneth Galbraith, the great but long ignored Keynesian economist, is back in fashion with his seminal 1955 book The Great Crash: 1929 leaping off the shelves as people turn away from neo-classical economics. (So too rentals of the Depression-era classic, The Grapes of Wrath).

James Ga
lbraith, the son of JKG, points out that only a dozen of America's 15,000 economists predicted the current crisis. What does this mean for the "science" of economics? According to Galbraith: "It's an enormous blot on the reputation of the profession. There are thousands of economists. Most of them teach. And most of them teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless."


Back in 1994, when almost all economists were enthralled by Alan Greenspan along with the media and politicians, James Galbraith had the following to say of America's worship of the Federal Reserve and its chairman:

This is the Wizard of Oz theory, in which we pull away the curtain only to find an old man with a wrinkled face playing with lights and loud speakers.


As for Galbraith's prescription for the current crisis:
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Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Milliken wins

Peter Milliken was able to pull a rabbit out of his Speaker's robes and was re-elected yesterday though it took him five ballots. I was partly right, at least, since I thought that if Milliken faced a Tory on the last ballot he would win. I still think if he had faced another Opposition MP at the end he would have lost but what I overestimated was Tory craftiness since I thought enough Tory MPs would vote for Comartin for tactical reasons - reasoning that he'd be better placed to beat Milliken than one of their own. What seems to have happened though is that most of the 143 Tory MPs voted for one of their fellow Tories - so much so that Scheer and Tweed both received more votes than Comartin on the fourth ballot knocking him off and on the fifth ballot the Opposition MPs consolidated behind Milliken to keep a Tory out of the Speaker's Chair.
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Monday, 17 November 2008

Speaker's chair: Can Comartin beat Milliken?

The first order of business when the House of Commons meets tomorrow will be the election of a new Speaker.

Liberal MP Peter Milliken has sat in the Speaker's Chair for 7 years and is running again in hopes of breaking Lucien Lamoureaux's all time record of 8 years.

Three Tory MPs are also standing for the position as is NDP MP Joe Comartin (though more MPs may end up being on the ballot).

My prediction is that if Joe Comartin and Peter Milliken are on the final ballot then Comartin will win. This is for two reasons:

1) Milliken, though experienced, is perceived as a weak Speaker and has been blamed, in part, for the lack of decorum in the House in recent years.

2) The Tories are convinced that if Milliken is defeated he'll resign from the House of Commons before the next election opening up his Kingston seat which the Tories think they can win in a by-election.

With the opposition parties holding the majority of seats there's no desire by them to place a government MP in the Speaker's chair though Milliken himself managed to keep his position in the 2004 Liberal led minority parliament. This was largely because he was a known quantity in a then unfamiliar minority situation, was seen as suitably neutral and because with a razor's edge seat count keeping a Liberal in the Speaker's chair and thus denying him a vote in normal circumstances was seen as advantageous by the opposition parties.

The seat count in the current parliament does not lend itself to close votes so having one extra vote either way is less of an issue therefore there's no need for the opposition to tolerate a government MP as Speaker. Therefore, I don't see any of the three Tory candidates for the Speakership prevailing on the final ballot.

The only question is can Comartin make it on the final ballot or will one of the three Tory candidates outpoll him and knock him off before the final show. With three Tories in the running (at least) the Tory vote will be split making it easier for Comartin to see them off. This will particularly be the case if Comartin wins BQ support which is possible given Comartin's Franco-Ontarian roots and the fact that he is arguably more fluent in French than Milliken.

Moreover, the Tories are convinced that if Milliken loses the Speakership he'll quit Parliament and are also convinced that they can win his Kingston seat in a by-election so they are especially motivated to beat Milliken even if it means supporting an NDPer. Some of the more tactically minded Tories such as Tony Clement, John Baird and possibly Stephen Harper himself have probably already realized that Comartin has a better chance of beating Milliken then one of their fellow Tory MPs and will probably vote for Comartin from the outset and convince enough of their colleagues to do the same in order to ensure a Comartin-Milliken finale which Comartin will win and Milliken will be the first incumbent to lose a secret ballot for the Speakership since John Bosley lost the very first such election in 1986.
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Sunday, 16 November 2008

Rae's misstep

Bob Rae's decision to boycott today's Ontario's Liberal leadership debate is a serious tactical error which will only serve to alienate Ontario riding presidents - many of whom are already uneasy about the prospects of being led by a former NDP Premier.

Rae is right, of course, that the leadership forum should be a public event, open to the media and he was right to challenge Michael Ignatieff to agree to make the debate an open event and to rake him over the coals when he refused. However, by actually walking out Rae has gone beyond simply differentiating himself from his rival and has insulted the party officials he needs to win onside if he's to prevent what looks increasingly like an inevitable Ignatieff first ballot victory.

Even worse - by openly feuding with Ignatieff just days after all the contenders promised to bury the hatchet for the sake of public unity - Rae looks like a prima donna. Liberals are still sore from the self-inflicted wounds of the Chretien-Martin rivalry that almost destroyed the party so, while it is inevitable that Rae and Ignatieff will come to blows during the leadership campaign neither can be seen as the one who threw the first punch and neither can be seen as willing to put their own ambitions above the interests of the party. By bickering with Ignatieff as well as publicly embarrassing the Ontario Liberal executive Rae has crossed not one line in the sand but two and worse, he leaves the impression of someone who is dissing his party in order to pan to the hated media.

Advantage Iggy.
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Saturday, 8 November 2008

How Rush Limbaugh helped elect Barack Obama

Conservative radio buffoon Rush Limbaugh thinks of himself as an ace strategist and so he thought he was being extremely clever back in March when he launched "Operation Chaos" an effort to undermine frontrunner Barack Obama's chances in the fall election by prolonging the Democratic primary season and forcing Obama to deplete his resources early. Rushbo, accordingly, urged his conservative Republican listeners to take advantage of open primaries in many thats that allow non-Democrats to participate and vote for Hilary Clinton in order to drag the race out as long as possible. Brilliant eh? And how mischievous!

Unfortunately the Limbaugh his plan was too clever by half and has backfired.

DNC chair Howard Dean has talked about the importance of a "50 state strategy" for the past four years and Obama embraced the idea but it was the prolonged primary season that allowed Obama to implement it by virtue of necessity as the never ending race forced him to recruit ground organizers and campaign in red states that are usually flyover states for the Dems such as North Carolina and Indiana. When the fall campaign came around, polls showed Obama competitive in states that the Democrats had long written off as a result of his spring campaigning and allowed him to use ground organizations left over from the primary season in order to keeps those states competitive forcing McCain to campaign in states which should have been sure things for him. Moreover, Obama won North Carolina and Indiana and thereby assured himself the presidency thanks, in no small part, to Rush Limbaugh's efforts.
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Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Liberal leadership prospects narrow

John Manley announced today that he will not be a candidate for the Liberal leadership, surprising many pundits. The non-candidacies of Manley and former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna means that the support of the powerful Business Liberal faction of the Liberal Party will coalesce behind Michael Ignatieff. This sets the scene for a showdown with Bob Rae at next year's leadership convention with Rae arguing that the Liberals should lead a "unite the left" movement and Ignatieff calling for the Liberals to move "back" to the centre. Both these arguments are deeply flawed.

Bob Rae sees himself as a Canadian Obama but he's really the Great White North's answer to Joe Lieberman. He is, with good cause, viewed by New Democrats as a traitor for obvious reasons and a fraud who squandered the miraculous opportunity given the Ontario NDP in 1990 to permanently reshape politics in that province and the country thanks to his abandonment of public auto insurance and his betrayal of labour through the social contract. Rae can no more "unite the left" under his banner than Sarah Palin can unite feminists under hers. While Rae's ego and arrogance leads him to believe that NDP and Green voters would flock to him because of the force of his personality he is, in fact, not only loathed by NDP activists who would balk at any formal co-operation between the NDP and Rae's Liberals but he is deeply mistrusted by progressives, unionists and conscientious working class voters even if they are not NDP partisans. For the Liberals "uniting the left" may make sense as a strategy (though it makes no sense for the left to put their faith in the Liberals), Rae is just about the last person who can bring that concept to fruition.

Meanwhile, Ignatieff and other Business Liberals have argued since October 14th that the reason the Liberal Party lost the election is that they have strayed too far from the "centre" (meaning the centre-right). This is a fallacious argument based on the false premise that the Liberals moved to the left under Dion. In fact, Dion's prescriptions for the country were very much in the centre-right tradition of the Chretien-Martin years. The "carbon tax" which would have shifted taxation from progressive income and corporate taxes to a regressive consumption tax is an eco-capitalist, centre-right, prescription to the environmental crisis that sees the market mechanisms as the solution to global warming and has been embraced by centre right leaders such as BC's Gordon Campbell. Carbon tax aside, Dion has argued that the Harper government has not gone far enough to implement corporate tax cuts saying “A low corporate tax rate is not a right-wing policy or a left-wing policy. It is a sound policy” and, at least before the global economic crisis, he opposed any expansion of government's role in the economy and was open to the idea of private-public partnerships and other incursions by the private sector into public services. The Dion led Liberals showed no interest in tax fairness, in combatting corporate globalization, reversing cuts to EI or any other widespread restoration of social programs to their pre-Chretien state.

The Liberal Party's electoral success has always been based on running from the left - or more accurately fooling Canadians into thinking that a Liberal government would govern from the left while privately assuring corporate interests that promises such as the Chretien era pledges to scrap the GST, scrap NAFTA, implement a national housing strategy or child care would not be implemented in the end. "Campaign from the left and govern from the right" is the formula that has allowed the Liberals to win support from working class and lower and middle income stratas as well as from a healthy section of the business community. The proposition by business Liberals that the party lost the election because they were too left wing is based not on facts but is simply an attempt to rally opposition within the party against the more progressive wing of the party.
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Wondering who won the war of 1812?


A new monument to the War of 1812 designed by author Douglas Coupland and unveiled in Toronto makes it quite clear who won - and who lost - the conflict.
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