Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Harper Majority

About two years ago, everyone was up in arms because Paul Martin's minority government was trying to govern as if it had a majority - and this was called Liberal arrogance. Right now, Stephen Harper's government is doing the same thing, and this is referred to as Stephane Dion's Liberal weakness. Funny how you can spin the same arrogance in two different ways - and it certainly is arrogance in both cases.

I am extremely disappointed in the current functioning of Parliament, and I suspect that with every passing week, "potential" support for the Liberals will quietly bleed away. I am not talking about the 25-30% of Canadians who will likely vote Liberal regardless of leader, policy, or platform. I am thinking about swing voters who are currently parking their vote with the Conservatives, NDP, Green or Bloc parties, but who might be convinced to vote Liberal, given a viable reason to do so. Right now the Liberals appear gutless. Dion's rhetoric about "making a minority Parliament" work is extremely hollow when it is clear that Harper has no intention of allowing any amendments to his bills, or accepting any input from the opposition parties. Setting up all of his legislation as matters of confidence is a clear indication that he wants to govern as if he has a majority, or head to the polls. The Liberals have rolled over and exposed their vulnerable bellies, and all the rhetoric in the world about "Canadians don't want an election" is not masking that.

Here's a idea - although I doubt it can be implemented. Rather than simply abstaining from vote after vote, the Liberals should pick one of the more egregious pieces of Conservative legislation and propose a whopper of a set of amendments which indicate a bold series of new initiatives. Try to amend the Omnibus Crime Bill to reflect a Liberal vision on this issue. Try to amend yesterday's financial package to replace the GST cut with an additional 2% cut on personal income tax - or spending of $10 billion on the start of a high-speed VIA rail system in the Quebec-Windsor corridor - or some other policy initiative that the Liberals want to highlight and advance.

This approach would let the event that triggers the election be the fact that the Conservatives and the other two parties are opposing a strong policy designed to appeal to the voters - one that the minority Parliament will not work together on in its current configuration. There are ways of trying to force Parliament to consider the agendas of the other parties - and possibly inflict negative spin on the Conservatives - but right now it appears that the Liberals are content to lick their self-inflicted wounds and allow Harper to cruise boldly forward with ill-conceived policies.

Until something shifts in Parliament, I'm afraid my posts will continue to be sporadic. There is only so much passion and interest that I can generate about the static, passive approach that the opposition parties are currently taking in response to the Harper agenda.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Brian Mulroney, Memoirs

About a month ago, I received a copy of Brian Mulroney's Memoirs. While I am a Canadian historian by trade, and a political junkie by nature, I've rarely been one to sit down and read a political memoir from cover-to-cover. With few exceptions, those that I have read tend to be highly detailed, and rather self-serving. So, I generally spot-read political memoirs and autobiographies, seeking out accounts of the events and issues that appeal to me.

I am taking the same approach in this mini-review of Mulroney's memoirs, focusing mainly on his account of the Meech Lake years. An additional reason for taking this route is that this book could be considered a weapon in both the figurative and literal sense. Even the limited selections that I have read are filled with personal invective and attacks on Mulroney's opponents, both past and present. At 1121 pages, you could also club someone to death with it.

Many reviewers have concentrated on the anti-Trudeau diatribes that fill Mulroney's accounts of his constitutional battles. Reading the book first-hand, the critics are certainly accurate. I would add, however, that Mulroney's screed against Trudeau's World War Two years is even more jarring when read in its original context. A brief recap of Trudeau's first blast against Meech (in the Toronto Star and La Presse) is book-ended by a rosy tale of Mulroney's personal overtures and kindness to Trudeau, and the lambasting of Trudeau for his anti-war activities. Curiously absent is a response to the specific critiques of the Accord that Trudeau raised.

The memoirs are a compelling read, largely because of the intensely personal spin that Mulroney places on the politics of his period. The chapter on Lucien Bouchard makes for fascinating reading - told as the treacherous betrayal of an old school chum as part of a massive Pequiste conspiracy. Vivid too are the depictions of Clyde Wells' "suffocat[ion]" of Meech Lake "in a cruel act of political infanticide." This is a tale of heroes and villains, and Mulroney is vicious towards those who he thinks maligned his pristine policies.

I often teach the Meech Lake Accord in my Canadian history courses, and I am pleased to see that Mulroney does acknowledge the crippling impact that Robert Bourassa's decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause to re-pass provisions of Quebec's sign laws had on English-speaking Canadians' opinion of the Meech Lake Accord. All too often, this crucial event is overlooked in accounts of the Accord, when in fact this was a major turning point which rallied many to Trudeau's argumentation about the potential impact of the Meech Lake Accord's distinct society clause - a point that even Mulroney concedes. In some respects, then, his memoirs may serve as an important corrective to the received wisdom about these years (which his account of Bouchard's activities does somewhat as well).

It is curious, however, to see that Elijah Harper and the Manitoba government of Gary Filmon largely escape the vicious critiques launched at Clyde Wells. It is one of the great curiosities, to my mind, that Harper's critique of the Accord's failure to address the concerns of First Nations seems to be tacitly accepted in the Meech Lake narrative, although the objections of Trudeau and Wells are not. Thus, Wells can be attacked for failing to put the Meech Lake accord to a vote in the Newfoundland legislature, even though the Accord had already failed to be voted on in Manitoba before the deadline. After the rhetoric that Mulroney had built up about the absolute necessity of the Meech Lake Accord, a villain was needed to account for its death - public opinion in English-speaking Canada and Quebec has not been a legitimate target, nor have First Nations, but Pierre Trudeau and Clyde Wells can be pilloried for their opposition. Interesting.

While I have never been a fan of Brian Mulroney, I am finding his memoirs to be a compelling read, written in a fast-paced, accessible style. They provide an interesting glimpse into the psychology of a key figure in Canada's post-Charter political development, and explain much about how he handled crises in Canadian political life. As such, while I often find his self-pitying rhetoric somewhat tiresome, Mulroney does provide an important perspective on a tumultuous decade. Read with a grain (or ten) of salt, these memoirs should provide for interesting reading over the next several years.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Globe on MMP: Unfair NDP majorities bad, Unfair Liberal and Conservative majorities good

Sigh... the Globe and Mail has held true to its (small-c) conservative biases this morning. In an editorial arguing against MMP, it clings to the hoary approach that the proposed system will effectively prevent single-party majorities. Far better, the editorialist argues, to apportion the list seats directly on the basis of proportional representation, and treat the constituency seats as a completely separate beast. This system, it argues, would be better because it would still permit the election of majority governments. And what's more, with regard to the proposed MMP system on the ballot:

had this [the proposed new] version of MMP been in place, no Ontario party would have won a majority in the past 20 years. That would have spared the province an NDP government that it elected by accident, but it would also have meant no Common Sense Revolution under Mike Harris in 1995 and no clear victory by the Liberals in 2003 – both results that were in tune with the province's general sentiment and handed those governments the tools to implement tough policies.

So let me get this straight... it would be good to adopt the MMP system because it would have prevented the Rae years, but bad because it would have prevented the Harris years.

Clearly the editorialist is a raging pinhead and an ideologue unable to see that this is a major point in favour of the new electoral system - preventing the election of false majority governments that can implement radical political change without having the backing of a majority of the voters. As Idealistic Pragmatist points out, what would replace single-party majority government (and has in Germany and New Zealand) are stable coalition governments, made up of parties that together reflect a majority of the voter's intentions. I'm disappointed that the Globe was unable to move past their blatant preference for Conservative and/or Liberal majorities and see the merits of the new system.

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