Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Man Behind The Curtain


Andrew Coyne is a philosophical and an economic conservative. So one would expect that he would support the present government. But he saw through the facade long ago. Despite his conservative bias, he has very little good to say about the Harper government:

If the nastiness of its politics is the dominant impression of this government, it is in part for lack of anything else to identify it. It seems so pointless, all this poisonous effort for so little actual accomplishment, until you realize that is the point: The partisanship is in place of the policy, not in pursuit of it. The end is only power, and power is, with few exceptions, the only thing of consequence this government has achieved.

Coyne sees the government's critics as inconsequential -- a judgement that will either prove valid or invalid. Nonetheless, Coyne writes:

It is the belief in this government’s consequentiality that, oddly, unites its critics and its friends. Much of that, I think, is bound up in the prime minister’s persona. Foes see a ruthless revolutionary; fans, a sober-sided, get ’er done chief executive, capable of making, as a Globe story put it recently, the “tough decisions.” He seems a formidable character, for good or ill: It is hard to believe that all that intelligence and self-discipline could not be in the service of some larger purpose, or at least some grander strategic design. Even dispassionate observers like Maclean’s magazine’s Paul Wells, in The Longer I’m Prime Minister, attribute to him a vast, if incremental, efficacy: so incremental it eludes the naked eye.

That judgment has always seemed -- to me, at least -- weak minded. Harper is a Canadian version of the Wizard Oz. If he's been successful, it's because he has been allowed by an apathetic public to operate behind a curtain. And he does his best to keep the curtain drawn.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Irresponsible Government


Brent Rathgeber's book, The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada is seminal. Frances Russell writes:

Canada’s parliament is now a damp squib, a meek handmaid to power. Parliament is ruled by the prime minister and the cabinet , not the other way around. Conservative MPs see themselves as obedient servants of the party, cabinet and prime minister, not representatives of their constituents.
You could call it “executive or presidential democracy.” It certainly is the polar opposite of parliamentary democracy.

Certainly, Rathgeber has witnessed that decline -- particularly in the last eight years. He writes:

“The current government prefers to govern by order-in-council and executive edict as opposed to having to answer to an occasionally meddlesome Parliament,” Rathgeber writes. “As a result, the executive has so neutered the institutions of Parliament as to render them nearly impotent, practically unable to fulfill their constitutional duty to hold the executive to account…(T)o the greatest extent possible, it prefers to run all aspects of Parliament rather than be accountable to it.”

Living next door to the United States, we have adopted a presidential model of leadership:

The most corrosive and dangerous development in Canada’s fully Americanized parliamentary system is the highly centralized power of the PMO and cabinet with a majority government. Add the now-complete stifling of the rights of ordinary MPs to say or do anything on their own, and Canada has degenerated into a virtual dictatorship.

And that’s without including the ability of the prime minister to prorogue, recess and dissolve parliament at whim.

And no one can claim that the trend is present in all parliamentary democracies:

Compare this sorry state of affairs to the parliamentary system in place in Britain and Australia, Canada’s sister parliamentary democracies. “(British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her own caucus, and twice in the last four years the Australia Labour Party has rejected a leader (and prime minister) and then rejected the replacement on the will of the caucus,” Rathgeber writes. “This is normal; this is parliamentary democracy as it should be, where the leader leads the caucus but does not dominate it. The aforementioned Westminster democracies, which have not fallen prey to creeping presidentialism , are thought to be much more functional by academics…”

It's quite clear that Stephen Harper would be quite comfortable with the monikers "Mr. President" and "Commander-in-Chief." And that's precisely why he needs to be thrown out of office in the next election.

We'll be in Montreal for the next couple of days. My plan is to resume blogging on Monday.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Steve And Bashar


Paul Adams writes that Stephen Harper is now Bashar Assad's newest ally. The coalition he has joined strengthens Assad's hand:

  • Most obviously, it strikes directly at the most potent rebel force that rose up in opposition to his regime — the one that has acquired the most territory and has the strongest fighting force.
  • By targeting Islamic State, it allows Assad to divert military resources to fight other rebel groups, including the al-Qaida linked Al-Nusra Front and the so-called ‘moderate’ rebels we supposedly support.
  • The anti-Islamic State mission also creates a diplomatic opening for Assad to begin rehabilitating his regime from pariah state to unlikely Western ally.

And Adams offers a few facts for comparison:

The U.S. government recently said that Islamic State had abducted between 1,500 and 4,000 Yazidi women, some of whom were apparently sold as “brides”. That’s awful — but how does it compare with the record of the Assad regime?

Although it’s notoriously difficult to assemble statistics on sexualized violence, there is substantial evidence that the Assad regime has used rape as a weapon, and on a scale yet to be matched by Islamic State. It also has a ghastly record of torturing and murdering civilians — including children.
Best estimates of the number of people killed in Assad’s war so far are in the neighbourhood of 300,000. The number killed by Islamic State to date may be in the tens of thousands.

None of this means that Islamic State is a victim. They are beyond the pale. The question is: Is the Harper mission the solution to the problem? Past history suggests it isn't. But Stephen Harper is no student of history -- even recent history.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Peddling Snake Oil


Stephen Harper has been traveling the country, announcing tax breaks. So you know the election campaign is on. But the real proof that Mr. Harper is in campaign mode, Michael Harris writes, is that the three cornerstones of Harperism are now firmly in place - fable, fear and smear:

Fables are comforting tales with few details. And, if there is one thing Mr. Harper doesn't want Canadians to look at, it's the devil in the details:

With the Canada-Europe CETA deal — which remains a work in progress, no matter how many press releases they’ve issued — we’re told that Canada’s GDP will go up 32 per cent. No mention in that bald prediction of who will benefit, or what it will cost. How many subsidies will the federal government have to pay to people like cheese producers? How much will seniors end up paying for their pharmaceuticals if the Europeans get their way? Judging from his past performance, Harper’s deals will be good for the five-carat wedding ring set. For lesser mortals, it will come down to a chicken-wing in every pot.

Then, of course, there is Harper's newly minted war in Iraq, which is being fueled by fear:

That same mainstream media (with notable individual exceptions, including the intrepid Canadian Press) is endorsing Harper’s view that Canadians are in imminent danger of being beheaded at the outlet mall by Islamic State. Man-eating pythons rising up from the toilet bowl pose more of a direct threat.

And, finally, there is the attempt to smear Justin Trudeau -- which has apparently been outsourced to Jason Kenny:

Jason Kenney is apparently spending 20 per cent of his time whipping the shiny new pony on Twitter. Kenney’s staff is in on the act but the minister assures us they do the work on their personal time. (They would never kick the pony during working hours because that would be … well, that would be dirty pool, right?)

The whole idea is to sow seeds of doubt about Trudeau's judgment. But, that tactic could well backfire. It might cause voters to take a second look at Harper's judgment:

As for trashing Justin Trudeau for being inexperienced or having poor judgement — does Harper really want to go there? A debate about judgement? Does he really want to revisit all his least statesmanlike moments — from recruiting his staff from the ranks of guys who have done time to turning Libya into Thunderdome?

It's the tried and true Harperian formula. The question is: After almost a decade, do Canadians know a snake oil peddler when they see one?

Monday, October 13, 2014

When The Righteous Are In Charge

The IMF recently released a report warning that the world economy is once again tipping towards recession. Why? Paul Krugman writes in today's New York Times:

The proximate answer lies in a series of policy mistakes: Austerity when economies needed stimulus, paranoia about inflation when the real risk is deflation, and so on. But why do governments keep making these mistakes? In particular, why do they keep making the same mistakes, year after year?
The answer, I’d suggest, is an excess of virtue. Righteousness is killing the world economy.

The righteous believe that ordinary folks -- who are drowning in debt -- will have to pay for their sins. They also believe that those who led them there bear no responsibility for the mess they helped create. Put simply, the righteous believe in punishment, but not forgiveness:

As I said, it’s about righteousness — the sense that any kind of debt forgiveness would involve rewarding bad behavior. In America, the famous Rick Santelli rant that gave birth to the Tea Party wasn’t about taxes or spending — it was a furious denunciation of proposals to help troubled homeowners. In Europe, austerity policies have been driven less by economic analysis than by Germany’s moral indignation over the notion that irresponsible borrowers might not face the full consequences of their actions.

So the policy response to a crisis of excessive debt has, in effect, been a demand that debtors pay off their debts in full. What does history say about that strategy? That’s easy: It doesn’t work. Whatever progress debtors make through suffering and saving is more than offset through depression and deflation. That is, for example, what happened to Britain after World War I, when it tried to pay off its debt with huge budget surpluses while returning to the gold standard: Despite years of sacrifice, it made almost no progress in bringing down the ratio of debt to G.D.P.

It's obvious where the Harperites stand. Whether it's the economy, or justice, or international affairs, they stand four square for punishment. God, you see, is on their side.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

And They Call That Brilliance


Last month, Finance Minister Joe Oliver announced the Conservatives job creation plan -- to cut Employment Insurance contributions to small businesses. Tom Walkom writes that the "plan" represented yet another attack on the Employment Insurance regime in Canada:

Under Oliver’s plan, small-business owners will see their employment insurance premiums cut by about 15 per cent over the next two years.

Lower payroll taxes, the finance minister said then, would encourage these small businesses to hire more workers.
Oliver’s claims were supported by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, a lobbying group, which said the measure would create about 25,000 person-years of employment over an unspecified period.

This week the Parliamentary Budget Office released a cost-benefit analysis of Oliver's plan:

In a report released Thursday, it says that the two-year, $550-million tax break will produce only 800 net new jobs.
That works out to $687,500 per job.

There was another way to use Employment Insurance to create jobs:

Instead of lowering EI premiums overall (which, according to the parliamentary budget office, would have created 10,000 net new jobs), the government made a bow to its key small-business constituency.

But, as always the stated aim of the policy was not its real aim. Oliver was buying the votes of small business, not creating jobs. Nothing illustrates the corporate juggernaut better than what has happened to Employment Insurance in the last 25 years:

During the 1990s, Jean Chr├ętien’s Liberals used the employment insurance surplus to pay down the deficit and offer tax breaks to corporations.

When he took power, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did much the same. In 2008, the EI fund’s $57.2 billion surplus was quietly absorbed into general government revenue. Even now, the Conservatives are reluctant to relinquish their hold on the EI windfall.
The parliamentary budget office estimates that over the next three years, Ottawa will collect $6.4 billion more in EI premiums than it will spend on the unemployed.

That's because only 38% of Canadians are now eligible for Employment Insurance.

And they call that brilliance.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

When Journalism Fails


 Apparently, many journalists -- including Andrew Coyne -- believe that Stephen Harper's decision to join the bombing brigades in Iraq is justified. Michael Harris believes that Harper's decision is folly and that the reaction to it illustrates "the slow collapse" of Canadian journalism. After all, when it comes to war in the Middle East, Harper has a record. That record includes not only his full throated campaign to join George Bush's invasion of Iraq, but also his support for military action in Libya:

Harper helped bomb Moammar Gadhafi out of power, even though regime change was expressly excluded from the UN mandate. The prime minister had his million dollar fly-over of the Parliament buildings to celebrate his ‘mission accomplished’ moment. It was all downhill from there. The dictator was not replaced by nation-building democrats, but by the armed thugs of the Misrata militias. Since 2013, their accomplishments have included ethnic cleansing and torture.

Libya is now so dangerous that not even the United Nations nor the U.S. maintain a presence there. Harper never talks about Libya anymore — a place he proudly bombed — except to say we’re not responsible for the current chaos. But with the dust of the Libyan fiasco not yet settled, Harper buys into a mission that is eerily like it. Canada will help bomb another evildoer into the dust and save the day. Like we did in Libya — for a cool $100 million.

You would think that, when journalists looked at the record, they would smell a rat. But Canadian journalists have endured the same fate as journalists everywhere  -- and the ignorance which is a consequence of their fate:

Writing in The Guardian, reporter Anjan Sundaram offers a theory to explain our shrinking knowledge, explaining along the way how genocide in the Congo never quite got on the radar of Western editors:

“The Western news media are in crisis and are turning their back on their world. We hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for years or months, reporters now handle 20 countries each … As the news has receded, so have our minds.”

Harper thrives because, in his world, Ignorance is Strength. But in the real world, Harris writes, Harper is "a thundering bozo." When journalism fails, that's what we get for leaders -- thundering bozos.