Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ian Brodie and the End of Idealism

John Geddes has a disturbing account of how Harper's former Chief of Staff Ian Brodie considers the GST cut to be a resounding success, even though by any economic standard (and he admits this) it was a terrible idea. Why? Because the purpose of the GST cut was not, apparently, to help the economy or the Canadian people.

The purpose of the GST cut was merely to get the Conservatives elected.

The whole article is worth a read, not only as an insight into Conservative strategy, but as a numbing indictment of the political process as a whole. It's kind of depressing, actually - especially since he might be right.

One person made the following comment about the difference between business and government:

A business is about making profit and we all know it is about making profit. Some of the sales may be result from marketing, but the marketing is very targetted and driven by detailed market analysis. If they don’t base their decisions on facts they will fail, the owners will lose some money and then go and start a new business. Plus as a consumer I can choose not to buy from one company or another.

A government is representing its constituency and we don’t have an option to go get ourselves another government and the government gets to tell us how much we have to spend after we’ve “bought” it and can change what we bought after the fact. And then if the policies fail, or screw up, it is other people who lose money.

It's actually a reasonable point in many ways, and I'm sure it was well intended. And yet, I just couldn't help myself:

Thank you for that fine analysis of 18th century capitalism. Allow me to introduce you to the 21st century:

Business is about making profit for its shareholders - unless it is merely about moving money around in a way that gives the appearance of making a profit. Sales (if the business still indulges in such a quaint practise as selling things to people) result from maximizing the market share, usually by undercutting competitors through integrating the supply chain and cutting costs by any means necessary, then absorbing and thereby eliminating their competitors before jacking up the prices.

If they don't base their decisions on facts they will fail, but it will not be called 'failure'. It will be called 'restructuring', or 'divestment of assets'. Or maybe 'Iceland'. In any case, by the time such a failure is recognized, everyone involved in the decision-making process will have cashed out and moved to a tax-sheltered island somewhere. And someone will blame the government, but for all the wrong reasons.

As a consumer, I can choose to time travel back to the 18th century, when there was still legitimate competition between locally owned businesses whose owners were accountable to their customers and not solely to the value of their stock options.

The problem with governments is they have convinced us that we are their customers, when in fact we are their shareholders.

There. I feel a little better now.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tories Want an End to Pre-Trial Sentencing Credits

Tories want to kill 'two-for-one' prison-time credit

CTV News has learned that the government plans to introduce legislation on Thursday to end the "two-for-one" credit for convicted felons for time spent in pre-trial custody.

The credit aims to compensate for so-called "dead time" spent in overcrowded detention centres that do not have rehabilitation programs or many of the amenities of long-term prison housing.

But critics argue that some prisoners are abusing the system by trying to stretch their pre-trial time to cut their time behind bars later.

And... wait for it...


Yes, there'll be skating in Hades and pigshit umbrellas for everyone: I actually agree with something Stephen Harper is doing. And on a law and order issue, no less.

I've always believed that most of the sentences given to violent offenders are actually completely appropriate, but that these credits reduce them to ridiculously short periods, leading in turn to public outrage and calls for "tougher sentencing".

Only a couple of hairs in this one:

a) Since these credits were never legislated in the first place - only entrenched through legal precedent - I'm not sure how they are going to legislate them out of existence, and

b) This should be done instead of mandatory minimum sentencing legislation, not in addition to.

I'm sure the Conservatives will find other ways to screw this one up. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Jason Kenney's Personal War on Terror

(crossposted from Canada's World)

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has never been shy about expressing his opinions. Through the course of his long political career, he has referred to U.S. war resistors as "bogus refugee claimants", compared Hezbollah to the Nazi Party, and made the curious argument that marriage laws did not discriminate against homosexuals because they were always free to marry someone of the opposite sex.

More recently, Mr. Kenny has been engaged in a cat fight with the Canadian Arab Federation, discontinuing funding for their immigrant language programs after their equally outspoken president called him a "professional whore". Kenney has accused both the CAF and the Canadian Islamic Congress of being "anti-Semitic" groups that "support terrorism", and has stated that he is taking "public comments" into account when reviewing all funding to such groups.

The latest casualty of Jason Kenney's crusade is Scottish MP George Galloway.
Outspoken anti-war MP George Galloway has vowed to fight an 'outrageous decision' to ban him from Canada on the grounds of national security.

Mr Galloway said the ban was 'not something I'm prepared to accept' and pledged to use all means at his disposal to challenge the ruling.

But a spokesman for Canada's immigration minister Jason Kenney insisted the decision, taken by border security officials, would not be overturned for a 'infandous* street-corner Cromwell' (*'infandous: too odious to be expressed or mentioned).

Mr Galloway was due to give a speech in Toronto on March 30 but has been deemed 'inadmissible' to Canada under section 34(1) of the country's immigration act.

... Mr Velshi said: 'We're going to uphold the law, not give special treatment to this infandous street-corner Cromwell who actually brags about giving 'financial support' to Hamas, a terrorist organisation banned in Canada.

'I'm sure Galloway has a large Rolodex of friends in regimes elsewhere in the world willing to roll out the red carpet for him. Canada, however, won't be one of them.'

Regardless of what you think of Galloway, barring a sitting Member of the British Parliament as a 'terrorist sympathizer' can only be described as absurd. Especially when the Obama administration is reaching out to some of the very groups and governments that Galloway and others targeted by Kenney are accused of supporting.

Mr. Kenney seems to think it's still 2002. Or maybe 1950.

Monday, March 16, 2009

When Ignatieff Wasn't Afraid to Be Smart

When I said back here that a guy as smart as Michael Ignatieff should be smart enough to hold an informed and nuanced position on Israel and Palestine? This is what I meant:

Two years ago, an American friend took me on a helicopter ride from Jerusalem to the Golan Heights over the Palestinian West Bank. He wanted to show me how vulnerable Israel was, how the Arabs only had to cross 11km of land to reach the sea and throw the Israelis into it. I got this message but I also came away with another one. When I looked down at the West Bank, at the settlements like Crusader forts occupying the high ground, at the Israeli security cordon along the Jordan river closing off the Palestinian lands from Jordan, I knew I was not looking down at a state or the beginnings of one, but at a Bantustan, one of those pseudo-states created in the dying years of apartheid to keep the African population under control.

That was when I understood that for all their talk about a two-state solution, both sides never inhabited the same universe of discourse about what it actually meant. It is not just that both sides failed to make peace, but that peace never meant the same thing.

Given who Arafat was and is, it required extraordinary vision by Israelis to understand that their security depended on having a strong neighbour in Palestine, not a weak one. The Israelis failed to realise that they needed a Palestinian Authority capable of providing enough services for its population to keep them from wanting to kill Israelis, and enough military and police capability to stop them if they tried. The Palestinians equally failed to understand that a good neighbour is a strong one. Many wanted a state of their own, to weaken Israel and prepare the final conquest of Tel Aviv.

Both sides have an equal share of blame in the slow collapse of the two-state solution. The Palestinian leadership degenerated into a venal tyranny, holding back an increasingly frustrated Palestinian civil society. The Palestinian Authority also failed because Israel never allowed it to become a state. When authorities cannot become competent states, when they cannot meet the needs of their people, they can only survive by playing to the longing of their populations to counter humiliation with acts of suicidal revenge.

~ Michael Ignatieff, The Guardian, April 19, 2002

I would still disagree that the U.S. sending troops anywhere would make anything better, but the rest of the article sure as hell beats the simplistic crap that's come out of his mouth more recently.

I swear, he's playing dumb just to avoid comparisons with Dion.

BTW, that letter I sent back in January? It took two weeks just to get a robot email saying "We have received your email", and another FIVE WEEKS to get an actual response to my question. Which wasn't a response at all, really - just a form letter saying "Thank you for your letter regarding the situation in Gaza. The Liberal Party shares your concerns about this conflict and the suffering and loss of life on all sides, passing shot at the Conservatives, yada yada yada". From the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.

(H/T to Alison at The Beav)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Save Kevin Page! on Facebook

I just started my very first Facebook group, devoted to everyone's favourite indestructible, incorruptible civil servant:
Save Kevin Page and the PBO!

Kevin Page was appointed as Canada's first Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2006, and was given the task of providing independent analysis "directly to Parliament" about the "state of ... finances and trends in the national economy." The office was set up with a bare-bones budget and staff, with the promise that funding would be substantially increased.

That promise is being broken, and the PBO's independence and effectiveness are being threatened.

Kevin Page has proved time and again that he is a skilled and devoted public servant. He and his office perform a vital function by cutting through the spin and providing Canadians and our elected representatives with Truth in Budgeting.

Show your support for Kevin Page and the PBO by emailing your MP, and by inviting your friends to Save Kevin Page!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I haven't read the graphic novel that Watchmen was adapted from, but I am told that the film is utterly faithful to its source. So faithful, in fact, that director Zack Snyder is said to have used the comic as his storyboard.

Maybe that wasn't such a good idea.

Watchmen is a grand visual spectacle, filled with action, style, and deep philosophical observations on the moral implications of power. The concept is incredibly original, but that originality stems entirely from graphic novel. Unfortunately, in making such a meticulous transition from page to screen, the filmmakers have added absolutely nothing.

The result is a curiously flat, emotionally uninvolving film. It's a little like having someone read a book to you - an effect exacerbated by some pretty mediocre performances, with the exception of Rorschach and perhaps The Comedian.

Watchmen is still a pretty good movie, worthy of three stars and the price of admission. It's just a shame that it wasn't great.

(shockingly, Murray liked it more that I did!)

(and the Champion TOTALLY butchered my review! grrrr!!!)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

En Famille

The Halton Federal Liberal Association held the second of two recent social events last night at the Ivy Arms here in Milton. Party members, supporters, and the merely curious all came by to meet, greet, have a pint and discuss the state of the riding, the party and the country.

I had apparently been appointed as the board's Unofficial Lefty Liaison, which meant that any time someone with NDP tendencies or concerns about the environment revealed themselves, I was gently grasped by the elbow and guided across the room to speak with them. It was kind of fun, actually, and I got to talk with some very interesting people.

Garth was there with his lovely wife, pressing the flesh and giving a little speech telling us all what he's been up to lately. The response was very warm and positive, although one woman interrupted him a few times to question his Liberal bonefides and critique his sometimes confrontational style. There was a bit of squirming - more from the timing of her questions than the subject - but her concerns were addressed and we eventually got into a spirited and productive discussion about a whole range of issues, from fundraising initiatives, to ways to better engage the membership, to the very meaning of Liberalism.

The main thing that struck me about this little get-together was the energy. It seemed less like a political meeting and more like a boisterous family gathering. We debated, we bickered, we laughed, we complained, we told stories of our experiences - and in the end, when someone asked "What does the Liberal Party stand for?", there was surprising consensus and considerable emotion in the answers that came forward.

What came out of it was this: that the Liberal Party stands for taking the best ideas from wherever they come and making them work for the long term. At its best, it's about looking beyond the next budget or the next election to the next generation and the next century. It's about celebrating differences and being strengthened by them instead of trying to squash them. It's not about the 'mushy middle', but the middle as a meeting place and a crucible of ideas, cultures and experiences.

It's a messy place to be, and it gets a little loud sometimes. But families are like that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Coolest. Thing. Ever.

Seriously - you really, really need to watch this. This is going to make the iPhone look like a walkie-talkie.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

And Now, John Ralston Saul on Big Ideas

After I wrote all that yesterday, I finally finished reading "A Fair Country" and found a passage near the end where Saul sums it all up perfectly:

If you examine the way the state organizes itself, you find that utilitarianism has reduced creative economics down to instrumental economics and even further down to classic bookkeeping. In this mindset, every action is a cost. The concept of investment is merely another cost. It is a non-conceptual approach that would have made every historic Canadian breakthrough in public policy appear to be an impossible extravagance.

It is that corner-store approach to cost that prevents us from dealing with poverty or health care or education. This is what shapes our narrow and short-term view of the environment. What is presented as being careful with the public's money is more often than not a simple failure of imagination. That means those in charge are frightened to act because real action can only be presented as a cost. This is not really an economic theory. It is well below theory. But if it were theory, it could be described as a linear approach to cost based on the assumption that society is driven by self-interest.

We built our society in quite a different way. Our ideas of fairness and inclusion have been based on an economic theory of investment, in which you create new possibilities of wealth by changing the conditions in which our society operates. To do this does take courage, consciousness, imagination, a taste for risk and an ethical sense of purpose. It is about conduct not contract. It is a way of thinking and acting.


If you haven't read this book, read it. Every politician, every Liberal, every Canadian needs to read this book. Michael Ignatieff especially needs to read this book.

I am inclined to stand on a chair in the middle of the Convention hall in Vancouver and read the entire thing aloud.

Monday, March 9, 2009

In Search of Big Ideas

I generally begin my day with a perusal of headlines on National Newswatch. Today, like most days, every Canadian political story seemed to be about party strategy.

Can the Liberals regain the Catholic vote, and maybe pick up the evangelicals as well?
Has Harper lost touch with his right-wing base?
Could Conservative attack ads against Layton turn him into a martyr and drive left-leaning Liberals to the NDP in sympathy?
Can Iggy wash off the stink of Dion and revive the party's fortunes though aggressive fundraising and membership drives?

And the big idea from the Ontario NDP's newly minted leader? Topple the Grits.

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the media, which has always been far more interested in handicapping horse races than any serious discussion of issues. But one can hardly blame them when the parties themselves are becoming increasingly obsessed with election strategy, internal politics, and pandering to strategic demographics, regions and special interest groups - and far less interested in coming up with any bold new policies that might potentially scare voters.

In this way, the marketing campaign takes precedence over the product being sold, and every new policy or pronouncement is judged, not on how it will benefit the country, but by how it will 'play' in Alberta. Or in Quebec. Or among middle-class professional women ages 24-40.

Here's a thought: instead of telling us how you plan to win the next election, tell us how you plan to make this country a better place to live for everyone.

We are at a critical moment in our history. The world economy is not only in crisis, but may in fact be going through a fundamental transformation. The planet is on the brink of an irreversible climate shift. Our cheap, accessible supplies of fossil fuels are about to run dry. Twentieth century models of warfare, trade, international relations and national identity are crumbling around us.

These are big problems, and we need big ideas to solve them. And yet, the biggest ideas we hear coming from our political elite are how they are going to break through in Quebec or Alberta, or how they are going to save us all eleven dollars and sixty cents in tax, or how they are going to completely revamp the way party members choose their leadership.

One symptom of this is the number of people who have asked me why on earth I want to spend all that money to go to the Liberal Party Convention when the leadership (i.e. the important stuff) has already been decided. When I mention things like Party policy workshops, they invariably make pshaw noises, as if the party's plan for the country wasn't nearly as important as which leader looks better on TV.

And they wonder why nobody votes.

Stephane Dion, God help him, had a big idea with his Green Shift. Some disagreed with it, many more simply didn't understand it, and nobody in the party besides Dion seemed willing to back it up or even explain it properly. Instead, it was thrown out there almost apologetically, in naked, shivering isolation instead of as part of a broader, comprehensive platform.

The results were entirely predictable - and, I suspect, intentional. Because big ideas are risky. They require knowledgeable and committed people to put differences aside to make them work. They require commitment to a long term vision of the country that may be at odds with the power brokers and the petty regional fiefdoms.

No, far easier to stick with the small ideas. The ones that appeal to people's baser instincts of greed and self-interest. The ones they can disown if they suddenly become unpopular or unfashionable.

If this small-minded, piecemeal approach continues, we will never have progressive tax reform in this country because it might piss off the wealthy. We will never have national child care because it might piss off the childless. We will never have a national energy policy because it might piss off Alberta. And so we plod along, rearranging deck chairs on the rapidly sinking ship of traditional capitalism and our North American lifestyle, congratulating ourselves whenever someone from our team gets to sit in the captain's chair.

Forgive me if I'm more interested in what's going on in the engine room.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

This is What a Social Conscience Sounds Like

I just caught the last part of Gordon Brown's speech before the U.S. Congress. The Canadian and British pundits are, of course, making much of his glowing remarks about how wonderful America is and his constant references to their 'special relationship' with Britain.

I was hearing something else, though. I think I noticed it only because, in the midst of all the global economic chaos, it's something I haven't been hearing from my own government, and haven't really been hearing from the Americans either.

It was the sound of a good old-fashioned, British-style, almost Dickensian social conscience.

In our families and workplaces and places of worship, we celebrate men and women of integrity who work hard, treat people fairly, take responsibility and look out for others. If these are the principles we live by in our families and neighbourhoods, they should also be the principles that guide and govern our economic life too.

In these days the world has learned that what makes for the good economy makes for the good society.

My father was a minister of the church and I have learned again what I was taught by him: that wealth must help more than the wealthy, good fortune must serve more than the fortunate and riches must enrich not just some of us but all.

And these enduring values are the values we need for these new times.

...For let us remember there is a common bond that unites us as human beings across different beliefs, cultures and nationalities. It is at the core of my convictions, the essence of America's spirit and the heart of all faiths And it must be at the centre of our response to the crisis of today. At their best, our values tell us that we cannot be wholly content while others go without, cannot be fully comfortable while millions go without comfort, cannot be truly happy while others grieve alone.

And this too is true. All of us know that in a recession the wealthiest, the 10 most powerful and the most privileged can find a way through for themselves. So we do not value the wealthy less when we say that our first duty is to help the not so wealthy. We do not value the powerful less when we say that our first responsibility is to help the powerless. And we do not value those who are secure less when we say that our first priority must be to help the insecure. These recent events have forced us all to think anew. And while I have learnt many things, I keep returning to something I first learned in my father's church as a child. In this most modern of crises I am drawn to the most ancient of truths; wherever there is hardship, wherever there is suffering, we cannot, we will not, pass by on the other side.

It seems like an obvious thing to say in such times - that the wealthy have an obligation to the poor, the powerful to the weak, and that helping the disadvantaged in our own countries and around the world strengthens us all. And yet, it's a sentiment that has been noticeably absent from the rhetoric of North American leaders as they fret over falling stocks, collapsing banks and the disappearance of consumer confidence.

As if the problem was merely one of economics. As if the poor were merely those suffering from a lack of spending power.

The reason why Brown's words were so striking and so unusual to hear spoken aloud in that particular place is of course that any American politician - or Canadian one, for that matter - who talked that way would instantly be accused of being (God forbid) a SOCIALIST.

Happily, that's not such a dirty word in England.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Leonard Maltin Likes Repo!!!

I've spoken of the Repo! The Genetic Opera phenomena on this blog before. Now the film gets its biggest endorsement yet - from Leonard Maltin!

Yes, you heard it right - a rave review from a film critic who doesn't work for a publication or website with the words "Bloody", "Fan" or "Gore" in its title. Eat that, LionsGate.

Time to send a review copy to Roger Ebert.