Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Farewell @bobraemp

It's a sad day, Bob Rae is going away. Sure he said never say never to a return when asked about his future. This seems to be it though. It's a loss for all of us that Bob will not grace the stage of elected life again. Particularly at this moment where the issue of integrity in politics from top to bottom looms large. Maybe that's why, although this is not unexpected, it still stings a little more than expected. We need more "Bob" in our politics, not less.

I'll remember one thing in particular about his time as interim leader. How he reminded people of the  essence of being a Liberal, that the heart is part of the political program in addition to the rational policy driven by the head. He emphasized issues like a national suicide prevention strategy. He talked openly about his own experience with depression. He was a leader on aboriginal affairs. When he spoke in the House of Commons to his October 22, 2012 motion on replacing the Indian Act and engaging with aboriginal peoples on a new nation-to-nation basis, there was this jarring moment:
Just last week I was in a northern community in Nunavik in northern Quebec. There is a housing shortage of as many as a thousand units in one community in Kuujjuaq. We see this situation every day. The most touching situation we have seen is that in that very same community three kids committed suicide in the space of a week, and on the wall in the school was a big agreement signed by the students saying, “I promise to live”. They all signed it because they wanted to make that commitment.

I wonder if internationally we can really hold our heads up high when we recognize the discrepancy between the conditions that exist for the majority of Canadians and the conditions that exist for those who are first nations and aboriginal people. I do not think we can. Therefore, how do we deal with this?
Bob wore his heart on his sleeve in a classy way and combined it with a clear focus on the fixing.

His humour and sense of fun humanized his approach to politics too. This tribute to his exit as interim leader was fitting:

I remember voting for Bob in 1990 in that momentous provincial election. I went back to law school for my second year immediately following that vote. I remember a dinner where my friends were sharing that they had voted for Bob too. We were all expressing a feeling of hope and having done the right thing with our vote. A magic political moment it was. And then he went onwards from there.

He may not have become PM, the timing didn't work for him. But can we say that he didn't become one of the great Canadian political statespersons of our time? Surpassing many of this era who did go on to become PM? No, he was and will continue to be.

Thanks, Bob!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Harper to the UK Parliament

What to make of the PM's speech to the UK Parliament yesterday? When a leader is accorded that type of honour, surely they've got to come up with something worthwhile. And this did seem to be an effort to make a type of legacy statement on Harper's part.

What was his touchstone in the speech? The economy, of course, what else could it possibly be from Harper. And he seemed to be doing two things in his speech with that focus in mind.

First, he explained Canada's domestic economic success in a distinctly conservative way. There were at least four references to low taxes. The trade agenda, government efficiencies. Which all seemed to be wrapped in an effort to portray this as some type of value statement, about what economic values Canada possesses. Here is some of it: 
“So, friends, knowing these things, in Canada, when times were good, we ran surpluses, and we used them.
“Not to expand the state, but to pay down debt and to lower taxes.
“As a result, since our Government came to office, the average Canadian family now pays about $3,300 (about 2,200 pounds) less in federal taxes every year.
“Canada now also has the lowest rate of tax on new business investment in the G-7.
“Consequently, we are widely regarded as the best place in the world to do business, and we have the best post-recession job creation record among the major developed economies.
“Our values also tell us, as you have put it, Prime Minister, that you cannot borrow your way out of a debt crisis.’
“In Canada, we have no debt crisis, so during the recession we were able, to deliberately borrow to sustain economic activity and confidence, but in a way that was timely, targeted and temporary.
“And we are now returning, gradually but surely, to a balanced budget, without raising taxes.
I hesitate to reiterate all that but it's about showing Mr. Harper's limitations. This seems like the kind of rote thing you'd say to the local Board of Trade. Except for the accompanying effort to spin it all into some kind of economic values system.

Then we heard a sort of Harper doctrine. The short version: There are world perils and threats that nations will have to meet but...our national bank account must be liquid, people! Otherwise, it's a no go. 
“Countries that do not bring their finances under control or that close their economies to the world, will face consequences.
“And those consequences are not only economic.
“In the absence of solvency, relevancy will also disappear.
“Nothing can lead more quickly and more completely to diminished influence
in the world than the decline of economic performance and financial credibility.
“Should we fail to faithfully adhere to our values in economic matters the wider values that we wish to protect for all humanity, values of freedom, democracy and justice, of dignity, compassion and security, those valueswill almost certainly be eroded.
“And they will be eroded friends at a time, when they are most needed.
“Because for good to happen in this world, someone must speak up for these values, and have the will and the capacity to act, so that these values are not mere sentiments.
“I speak of the courage to denounce oppressors and aggressors, to counter extremist ideologies,and to confront the abominations that must not be tolerated.
Nothing leads to diminished influence more quickly than the decline of economic performance? Solvency? Shades of JFK but please add the economic fine print to this: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." See how much better that is?

It's also ironic, these conservative leaders talking up the need to have stable domestic economies in order to meet world threats. The right wing policies that leave nations in debt and deplete treasuries are the economic results that have been seen. See also such economy destroying policies as invading Iraq.

More from the same crux of the speech where he defines the central challenge:
“But, make no mistake, if we wish to spread prosperity to others, we must be
prosperous ourselves.
“Without prosperity, there can be no aid.
“Indeed, without prosperity, we will have little ability to project any of our values anywhere.
“And, of course, we cannot hope to effectively spread these values unless we live by them ourselves and demonstrate our own success by virtue of doing so.
“Lord Speaker, Mr. Speaker, distinguished guests, I believe this is the challenge we face in the West today.
“There are massive shifts, shifts of epic dimensions, taking place in the world economy.
“To the extent this means that traditionally less fortunate people are beginning to enjoy prosperity, and the other fruits of our values, much of this is a good thing.
“But there are also, as there have always been, rising powers that do not share our values, and dangerous forces that seek to destroy them.
“We cannot, in the face of this, be at all complacent or, as I have said elsewhere,
We cannot entertain the notion, as I think some in the West do, that our wealth and influence can be assumed, that they are some kind of birthright.
“I know, Prime Minister, that neither of our governments think that, which is why we take the difficult decisions we do, to ensure our people will remain among the most fortunate and prosperous for the generations to come.
“But, just as we cannot be complacent about our wealth, neither can we allow our peoples, in these times of tough decisions and shifting fortunes, to become fatalistic.
Without prosperity there can be no aid, said the Prime Minister who will tout our world leading economic strength yet slashes foreign aid and dismantles CIDA but nevertheless praises Britain for keeping their levels up. The emphasis on western prosperity as what must be guarded rings hollow. There's an us versus them tone to Harper's remarks. We cannot give to you unless we remain well off. We cannot project our values unless we retain our wealth and influence.

Honestly, in reading such speeches that are occasions, and caring citizens should take a few moments to consider, you really want to hear and feel a sense of your country in them. But it just doesn't seem to come with Mr. Harper. He doesn't complete the job. Economics is cool territory, there's no heart in it. It doesn't grasp the essence of what Canada is and that could be portrayed to the world if this is a ground shifting moment, as he sees it.

Here is a clip - yes, one exists! - of the MacKenzie King speech to the UK Parliament in 1944 and his speaking of Canada entering the war. Harper included one of King's lines in his remarks, saying we entered "not from obligation, but ‘was the outcome of our deepest political instinct, a love of freedom and a sense of justice.’" Out of our deepest political instinct. Times and instincts have changed...

Sunday, June 09, 2013

A robust liberalism

Now here's something worth waking me out of this lengthy blog slumber: "I despair as I watch the erosion of the liberal views I hold dear." Yeah, you sing it, Will Hutton. Articulating liberal values in this era is a challenge and he calls it out, prompted by the recent death of leading liberal thinker Ronald Dworkin. This is a little UK-oriented but substitute the Canadian Conservative emphases and it still makes good sense:
Last Wednesday, there was a memorial service for one of the doyens of American liberalism – Professor Ronnie Dworkin – who died in London, his adopted home, earlier this year. A succession of some of Britain's best-known liberal writers and thinkers took to the rostrum to pay tribute to a man who continued to honour Roosevelt's New Deal, insisted law and morality were indivisible and argued that to live well and with dignity was every human being's aim – one that law and government should support.
It was a moving occasion, but, as his wife, Irene Brendl, wrote in the service notes, this great liberal tradition is increasingly beleaguered. She is right. We live in rightwing times. Law and justice, which Ronnie Dworkin cherished so much, are depicted as burdens on the taxpayer whose costs must be minimised. If you want justice, you must pay for it yourself and have no embedded civic right to expect others to contribute. The good society and moral individuals are those who do without the state. The public sphere is derided and positive public action to promote the common or international good is acceptable only if it involves less, rather than more, government. Instead, what we are invited to hold in common is nationhood, national identity and hostility to foreigners and immigrants. The open society is in retreat.
This may seem an odd commentary in a week in which gay marriage has been agreed by the House of Lords and where companies are increasingly hounded for avoiding their tax. Both are surely liberal rather than conservative preoccupations. In an idiosyncratic leader recently, the Economist proclaimed the strange rebirth of liberal England, arguing that young people's tolerance of ethnic and sexual differences, along with growing distrust of the state and welfare, was proof positive of the emergence of a new liberalism. Ronnie Dworkin should have been happy.
He would have turned in his grave. Such a view of liberalism does not go to the heart of what it means to live well. Tolerance of other people's differences is a core element of a liberal order, but a good society is one where we go beyond just shrugging our shoulders at someone's sexual preferences, religious beliefs or ethnicity. It is one in which we engage with each other, create law and justice as a moral system enshrining human dignity and accept mutual responsibilities. The aim is to live with dignity, to be able to make the best of one's capabilities and to expect that the consequences of undeserved bad luck – what Dworkin called brute bad luck – would be compensated by society in a mutual compact. This is a million miles from the Economist's arid conception of liberalism.
In successive areas of public policy – "reform" of criminal justice and legal aid, the health service, climate change, employment law, social security – the debate is similarly defined wholly in terms of the need to assert individual rights and choice, to minimise social and public responsibilities and, above all, to roll back taxes. If the facts or scientific evidence do not support this drive, then the facts are changed or the science ignored.
But if the right is dominant, a rounded liberalism has one advantage. The right's world leads to economic stagnation, social atomisation and a destructive nationalism. Nor, ultimately, is there happiness and dignity to be found by living as a tax-avoiding, climate-change-denying anti-feminist while mouthing how tolerant you are. There is a quiet and mounting crisis in conservatism. Liberalism, in its best sense, could capitalise on the opportunity. It is a pity Ronnie Dworkin won't be around to be part of the fight back. We'll just have to do it by ourselves.
Killer last paragraph and timely perspective and advice for Canadians who presently face many crises of governance faith.