Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Venerable institutions with lifetime appointments

It's the Christmas season, my marking is done for the term, and I'm really not all that engaged with the news cycle, hence the paucity of posts here. This post serves two purposes - one personal and one political.

First, for those who read this blog for my keen political insights, there is a piece in today's Globe indicating that Harper's proposed Senate reforms are popular with voters. So are kittens and puppies, but you don't see them making the top 10 list for voter priorities. I will eventually get around to a more detailed post on this, but essentially I see this is a rather half-baked sop to the old Triple-E Senate proposals of the early Reform Party days. However, it lacks full implementation of even a single one of the "E"'s, with no change in seat distribution, no mandatory implementation of the referendum results, and no guarantee that this will make the Senate a more effective body. It's also a complete cop-out as far as Parliamentary reform goes, since the House of Commons is in much more dire need of an overhaul, and ideally the two Houses should be revamped as part of a package deal. Frankly, that's the only way that you have a hope of getting the provincial governments on side. By and large, I don't think that voters will care one bit whether this proposal goes through or not.

And speaking of venerable institutions where members get lifetime appointments, I am extremely happy to report that I've taken one major step in that direction. Of course, by the time I'm in my fifties, lifetime tenure may have gone the way of the dodo in Canada, but for the time being, I'm now on that track. The fine folks at the University of Guelph have decided to hire me in their history department, and so I'm heading back to Ontario next summer. It's a happy Christmas indeed in our household.

I may or may not have more to post over the holiday season, but if I don't, I hope you all have a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Liberals need to clean house in Toronto

First off, I'm thrilled that the Conservative motion to re-open the same-sex marriage debate was soundly defeated, by a margin of 175 to 123.

I am less happy about the fact that 14 Liberals voted in favour of the Conservative motion. I am horrified that 8 of these MPs represent Toronto ridings: John Cannis, Roy Cullen, Jim Karygiannis, Derek Lee, John McKay, Dan McTeague, Alan Tonks and Tom Wappel. Aren't Canada's cities supposed to be the bastions of progressive voters? These are easy Liberal seats, and yet the party continues to allow these conservative troglodytes to run there under their party's banner.

It's time for some house-cleaning, M. Dion. MPs who can't be counted upon to support Charter rights have no business running for your party, if you're serious about having the Liberals be the party of the Charter.

Finally, kudos to the Conservative MPs who broke party ranks to support equal rights for all Canadians!

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Grandfathering the gays isn't good enough

There's a little bit of fun alliteration for a Tuesday morning! But my title speaks to the government motion to be introduced in the House of Commons today:

“That this House call on the government to introduce legislation to restore the traditional definition of marriage without affecting civil unions and while respecting existing same-sex marriages.”

As tempting as I might find it to be part of an exclusive cohort of married gay couples in Canada, this resolution is odious, and should be soundly defeated. Moreover, I would strongly urge Stéphane Dion to whip the caucus on this vote. I supported the NDP decision to do so on Bill C-38, and I think the Liberals need to follow the same path if they are to have credibility on this issue in the next election. And if this drives out the Tom Wappels and Dan McTeagues from the party, so much the better. The social conservative wing of the party is long overdue for a swift kick in the pants - possibly right out the door.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Stéphane vs. Stephen

So it will be the battle of the Steves in 2007, eh? That was quite the dramatic convention, and a rather media-savvy one at that. I have a few initial post convention thoughts, and some preliminary comments to make about Stéphane Dion's potential.

First, the convention: I thought that this was a pretty slickly engineered convention for the television viewer, even if the final ballot announcement was clearly delayed to be on at 6 PM Eastern. I was extremely pleased that several candidates didn't decide to hold on to the bitter end: Volpe, Brison and Kennedy. By dropping off the ballot when they did, they both created drama, and helped the party by keeping the convention to a manageable and TV-viewer friendly length. If they had stuck it out, we would have been into the wee hours of the morning on Sunday before the name of the new leader was announced.

There were also some rather nice optics in terms of healing old fissures in the party. Both Martin and Chrétien swallowed their pride in their speeches and acknowledged both the existence and the accomplishments of the other. It even looked like Martin was crying during Chrétien's speech. The person who positioned people on the stage behind Dion was also extremely clever - there were several shots where you clearly had three heads in the frame - Chrétien, Dion and Martin. That visually, at least, speaks to a much more united party. We'll see if that carries through into the next few months, and if Rae and Ignatieff do, as reported, run in the next election.

Now, my impressions of Dion. I have long had a real soft spot for Dion - his name actually appears in the first sentence of my book, in his capacity of Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. I have a lot of respect for academics who leave the more comfortable, and private, realm of academia to enter public life. I have even more respect for Dion, who did this at Chrétien's request to speak some truth amidst the pack of separatist falsehoods and myths in the mid-1990s, at great risk to his own popularity. Chantal Hébert, for whom I normally have great respect, seems to think that Dion's name is mud in Quebec because of this. She, and others, seem to think that Dion is dead in the water in Quebec, and that either Rae or Ignatieff would have been a much easier sale. Perhaps, perhaps not. Personally, I think that the Liberals were kidding themselves about what would have happened to their support in Ontario under Rae (and if we're talking electoral math, the 100+ seats in Ontario matter more than the 75 in Quebec). I also think that Ignatieff, while more popular among the neo-nationalist and separatist voters than Dion, would have been their "second choice" to the Bloc, and made few initial gains.

I think that Dion has good mid-to long-term growth potential in Quebec. He may not be loved, but I think that he at least has grudging respect from many voters. And as I pointed out to several friends over the weekend, even Jean Chrétien, the man who recruited Dion, managed to win half the seats in that province in the 2000 election. I believe that Dion will be able to match this - perhaps not in the next election if it is held within a few months, but certainly long term. I also think that Harper's capacity to shoot himself in the foot on key Quebec issues such as foreign policy, same-sex marriage and the environment will doom him there, and send more voters back into the Liberal fold.

What about Dion's sale-ability in the rest of the country. Several commentators seem to think that he is an unknown, and that this will be problematic. Well, we aren't talking about re-running the 2006 election campaign, for starters. One thing that has changed is that Stephen Harper is now better known, and I don't think for the better. Harper now has a record that he must defend to voters, rather than simply being able to run on promises of change, and that will make his task more difficult. Dion's "national unity" credentials will play particularly well in Ontario, which this issue does play a significant role in federal elections. The challenge for Dion will be to make sure that he runs a strong team - preferably of high profile candidates - especially in Western Canada. Gerard Kennedy might be key to raising his profile out west, and to drum up some good team members. This should not be a campaign run solely on leadership alone, much as some may personally like Dion.

What about the "English" question. On this one, I call bullshit. Those who have criticized Dion's English over the course of the campaign are mostly expressing sour grapes because the quality of French of their preferred candidates was so poor. Yes, Dion has an accent, and occasionally uses gallicisms. But his English is at least as strong as Chrétien's was, and Jean had decades to improve his. I suspect that it won't take long to iron out the few wrinkles in Dion's colloquial expressions in English. As someone who studies language policy, I will also make the observation that anglophones are far more willing to accept and forgive the occasional slip-up in spoken English, and are much more accustomed to hearing their language spoken with an accent than is the case for francophones. The English language is far less tied into the politics of identity for anglo-Canadians, and plays a much smaller role at the ballot box. But, and this is more to the point, if Dion were a Franco-Ontarian or an Acadian, nobody would be raising this issue. The fact that he is yet another leader from Quebec is a different question, and I'm not sure how that issue will play out. But I will say that I think that there is some subtle Quebec-bashing going on here, and it is being masked with questions over language competency.

I am not necessarilly confident that Dion will lead the Liberals to a majority government in 2007. But I do think that if he plays his cards right, he might be leader of a minority government, and at a bare minimum in a good position for the election after next. I wish him all the best in his task of rebuilding and revamping his party for the decades to come.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

It's all over but the counting

What a roller-coaster ride! There has been some real drama on the convention floor in Montreal, and I'm pleased with the general direction that the momentum has followed.

I'd be really happy with a Stéphane Dion win. He has always appeared to be a man of real integrity, a hard worker, an intellectual, and a solid federalist. I'll have more to say tomorrow if he wins, but I'm crossing my fingers for him.

If Ignatieff wins, it will make it a much easier decision for me to make in the next election. I've said before that my values do not line up with his, and I don't much care for his political smarts either.

Only one more hour to wait!

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The Liberal leadership convention - 10 years later

No, I'm not talking about the current one, I'm talking about the Ontario one that has suddenly resurfaced among the blogging community. You know, the one where Dalton McGuinty passed Gerard Kennedy on the final ballot, coming from fourth. I was at that convention - one of the Oriole riding's youth delegates for Joe Cordiano, if you're interested. Everyone in my riding was supporting Cordiano, partly because our MPP, Elinor Caplan, was helping to run his campaign.

I always point to that convention as the point when I got completely turned off of active involvement in party politics. I got to watch the Ontario Young Liberals try to strong-arm other youth delegates in a highly aggressive manner. I got to watch Gerard Kennedy's team alienate everyone else in Maple Leaf Gardens by challenging every single delegate's credentials both at registration and on the first ballot - which is why the convention results weren't available until around 3 or 4 AM. I had the experience of watching campaign teams run fake slates to bolster their riding numbers. And I had endless people try to "spin" me in terms of my voting intentions. I saw the egregious written French on a Kennedy team flyer (as a French major, I circled the most obvious errors and passed them on to a senior person in my group). I also have vivid memories of it being well past midnight when Cordiano was knocked off the ballot, and asking my sister, who was also a delegate, who she was going to vote for. Upon learning that we were going to cancel out each other's ballots, we decided to go home to bed rather than join the massive voting line.

I found the entire process exhausting and unpleasant. Seeing the uglier side of party politics didn't appeal to me, and I was not a McGuinty fan either. I soon fell out of active participation with my riding association (Elinor Caplan soon moved into federal politics as well, and her people with whom I was friends drifted away as well). I had a brief flirtation with NDP membership during the early Martin years, and am now contentedly non-partisan.

But for the record, that convention has been my model for interpreting what is going on this weekend. The numbers are lining up similarly, and I think this is a wide open race. No predictions on the winner from me!

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Friday, December 01, 2006

"A nation of minorities"? Time to retire a political buzz-phrase

Fighting insomnia last night, I decided to watch Paul Martin's farewell speech. I'm incredibly happy to see him go, as I think that his tenure in office will likely go down in political history as one of the most botched Prime Ministerships in the history of our country.

Listening to his speech, I couldn't help but notice that he was trotting out several of the catch phrases and buzzwords of the last election campaign. Particularly evident was the manner in which he wrapped himself, and the Liberal party, in the cloak of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Not a bad strategy at the moment, by the way, given that the Conservatives have just scrapped the Court Challenges Program.

Part of Martin's discourse on the Charter, however, is to speak of Canada as being a "nation of minorities." There has always been something about this phrase that didn't quite sit properly with me. It's not that from an objective standpoint it isn't true - there is probably some way or another in which every Canadian is a part of a minority group. However, there is also something of the politics of resentment, or the politics of victimization, which is elicited by this discourse of majority-minority relations. It speaks more to our particularisms than to what Canadians share in common, and what we might be trying to build together as a nation (or a country, depending on your choice of terminology). While I firmly believe that minority rights should be protected, I don't think that rights discourse alone is necessarilly enough to build a national vision (a concept that Michael Ignatieff also once discussed, back when he wrote The Rights Revolution - although his political philosophy appears to have drifted since publishing that book).

I'd be quite happy to see the "nation of minorities" phrase be dropped from the Liberal phrasebook, and see the party move on to a more unifying slogan. Of course, given that the party seems to be willing to throw around the term "nation" willy-nilly right now, I'm not sure that they're ready to construct new semantic concepts.

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