Thursday, August 28, 2008
While I am not in any way suggesting that we can simply turn aside our own values, experiences and prejudices when assessing opinions ( for example, the Conservative Government’s dictatorial and manipulative propensities deeply offend what I consider my more balanced perspective and philosophy), the application of reason and critical thinking skills at least prevent me from living in a world entirely closed off to new possibilities - in other words, I think I still have the ability to grow as a person.
I will be continuing with these political posts now and again, largely because I am so deeply offended by the complete contempt Mr. Harper and his crew are showing for the intelligence of the Canadian people in their use of lies, misdirection, and half-truths as they vainly seek to convince us of the need for an election. What follows is the editorial from today’s Globe and Mail that addresses some of these concerns:
Manufacturing a crisis
August 28, 2008
Shortly after he took office, Stephen Harper explained why he was comfortable establishing fixed election dates. "I've fought many elections and leadership races over the past couple of years and I'm quite happy to govern," the Prime Minister said in May, 2006. "Obviously, governments always prefer a majority, but I think we can make a minority work most of the time so I'm happy to keep on governing as long as we're getting some things done."
That Mr. Harper is now prepared to run roughshod over his own legislation by forcing an election campaign to begin as early as next week suggests he is now convinced it is not possible to get things done. He has all but said as much, telling reporters this week that "this Parliament is increasingly reaching an impasse on a range of issues." But Mr. Harper failed to mention a single major policy his government has been thwarted on - possibly because one does not exist.
It is difficult to imagine any minority government having an easier time pushing its legislation through. Not prepared to face voters, Stéphane Dion's Liberals have allowed the Conservatives to have their way on virtually every issue - from accountability legislation to tax cuts to an extension of Canada's mission to Afghanistan. Even on immigration reforms that the Liberals claimed would throw the country "back to the Diefenbaker era," they meekly caved in rather than defeating the Tories in a confidence vote.
Absent his own policy priorities necessitating an immediate election, Mr. Harper now claims that Parliament cannot proceed because of a disagreement over an opposition party's platform. "The other party has tabled an economic agenda that remains diametrically opposed to everything this government stands for," he said Tuesday of the Liberals' proposed carbon tax. "I think you really have increasingly in Parliament two visions of where we should be leading the country, particularly during challenging economic times, and that's something I'm going to have to reflect on."
Mr. Harper made a good case for the Liberals to finally work with the other opposition parties to bring down his government. But if there is to be an election, it should result from the defeat of an important piece of government legislation in the House of Commons - not because Mr. Harper has manufactured a crisis.
A difference of opinion over a policy that is not on the legislative agenda is hardly a compelling reason for a government to refuse to continue governing. By the standards he set for himself in 2006, Mr. Harper has no justification for breaking his promise not to call elections on a whim.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
The transparency of Haper’s motives must be making even inveterate Conservatives nervous. In order to avoid what could be embarrassing by-election results and to limit any further damage to Conservative credibility over the election ‘in and out’ scandal, not to mention the prospect of a Democratic win in the U.S November Presidential election and a souring Canadian economy, Harper seems intent on insulting the intelligence of all thinking Canadians by trying to perpetrate a fraudulent basis for dissolving Parliament.
Perhaps Mr. Harper should review the results of unnecessary past elections: they often incur the wrath of voters who resent being manipulated by their so-called leaders.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Was it all a ‘pious hope' dream?
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
August 22, 2008 at 6:12 PM EDT
So, we don't have a fixed election date after all. How strange.
I could have sworn it was one of the early, and rare, high-minded initiatives of the Harper government. In what is obviously a false memory, I seem to recall it grew out of the Conservatives' own experience in opposition while under the butterfly-brief tenure of Stockwell Day.
Jean Chrétien the Heartless pulled the plug on his own government while Mr. Day's wetsuit was still wet. The poor Tories never had a chance. It wasn't fair. That was the lesson – I thought – that Stephen Harper drew from the occasion. And that such a power, solely in the prime minister's hand, warped and bent the democratic process. Something like what intense fire does to steel.
Did not Mr. Harper himself speak to this very point in May of 2006? I have notes to that effect, with Mr. Harper speaking to reporters in Victoria. He said, according to my delirium, that “fixed election dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar … and they level the playing field for all parties.”
Furthermore, according to my obviously fevered jottings, he placed great stress on the justice of his proposed reform: “The only way we can have justice is to have a fixed election date, because an election without a fixed election date is a tremendous advantage for the party in power.”
I remember, too, or rather seem to remember, some of the wisest heads in the Ottawa punditry, at the time and later, wondering why a prime minister as smart, as tactical, as Stephen Harper would voluntarily lay aside one of the greatest partisan weapons in a government leader's hand?
Is it not wonderful how once an idea or a notion takes hold of us – however transparently spurious and unlikely – it builds its own evidence? We cannot shake the delusion, however forcefully we try. I begin to have some appreciation for all those folks who've spotted Elvis recently chatting up Roy Orbison at the local supermarket.
For here we are in the declining days of August, and almost every day I read or hear of Mr. Harper threatening or promising to call an election this fall. And evidently in no doubt of his constitutional or political right to do so. So I guess, and this is a chilling thought, I'm just now emerging from a long and continuous fantasy about a prime minister who promised fixed election dates, set the day, month and year of the next election (Monday, Oct. 19, 2009), and who claimed and secured the moral advantage of reforming one of the most unfair and lopsided practices in Canadian democracy.
Or, he did promise the reform. He did pass the law. He did secure the credit for so doing. And now, well, it's inconvenient. Now the Liberals won't call the election when he wants them to. Or, now that he's decided that Parliament is “dysfunctional,” he sees himself as unburdened by the law he passed, the promise he made, and will waltz off to the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament whenever the opportunistic fit is upon him.
Now we hear that, actually, the law he passed changed nothing. I like parliamentary expert Ned Franks's description of that law as meaning “a fixed election date if necessary, but not necessarily a fixed election date,” which the good Queen's professor supplemented with the observation that “it's what in the trade they call a ‘pious hope.' ”
Well, is it too much to remind people that, when the fixed election law was passed, Mr. Harper and his party harvested a goodly store of credibility (election promise kept) and electoral respect (at last, a government “levelling” the field) for the reform? And is it too much to remind people that, at the time, we heard nothing about it being just a “pious hope.”
But, somehow, everyone is now supposed to forget Mr. Harper's seizure of the moral high ground, the wonderful contrast he then provided to the always opportunistic Liberals, to forget the great example of a Prime Minister deliberately tying his own hands on the important matter of when an election is to be called. All that is now “inoperative,” to borrow a word from our American political friends, when statements or actions prove to be a burden to present opportunity. Down the memory hole. It was all a “misspeak.”
I don't think Mr. Harper wants to go into an election this fall in which the highlight will be the nullification of the law he passed to hold one next fall. I don't think he wants to call an election in which the issue is his calling of the election. He chose the fixed date path. And it's a matter of honour that he now follow it. Or at least a genuinely pious
Saturday, August 23, 2008
According to the legislation, which the Conservative Party championed while in opposition, the next federal election should be in October of 2009. The Harperites enthused over the concept as a means of taking away from the government the power to call an election at a politically opportune moment. Now, however, with the economy souring in Canada, and a Parliamentary committee probing deeper and deeper into the ‘in and out’ campaign spending scandal, Mr. Harper has now found it expedient to declare that Parliament is dysfunctional and assert that unless he gets assurances from the opposition parties that they will surrender their traditional role of questioning and acting as a check on the Government and not in any way impede his Fall legislative agenda (whatever that may be – given their paucity of ideas, I must admit my imagination is taxed), he will dissolve Parliament and seek a new mandate from the people.
Beyond the obvious political hypocrisy of this stance, what troubles me is the fact that he has offered no evidence of dysfunction. Indeed, as far as memory serves, every piece of legislation introduced by the Government has been passed. Equally troubling is the fact that no journalist, to my knowledge, has challenged Mr. Harper on this shamefully dishonest pretext of dysfunction, which is an indictment, in my view, of the integrity of our press. One cannot help but wonder whether the journalists who are so essential to a properly functioning democracy are afraid of losing access to the P.M. by questioning his preposterous position.
If that is the case, they are, of course, failing the people of Canada.
Friday, August 15, 2008
In addition to the cancellation of PromArt and Trade Routes, which I wrote about the other day, today’s Globe and Mail reports that Ottawa is in the process of terminating five more arts and culture programs over the next two years. Posting the cancellations, not in the media but rather on the affected programs’ web pages (almost as cowardly as is their penchant for announcing unpopular actions on Friday afternoons, where little media coverage will be given), this government once again shows its hostility toward things that are beyond its ken.
In classic Orwellian fashion, Canadian Heritage Minister Josée Vernier defended the cuts, saying that the government only wanted to help arts and culture organizations in “a more efficient manner and those being axed failed to demonstrate that they were providing sufficient returns for the dollars invested.” Nowhere does she explain what arcane evaluation criteria are being used in making these determinations. She went on to say, “Culture is an essential element of a nation and in that sense, will always have its (the government’s) unfailing support.” Huh?
My prediction is that should these ‘barbarians at the gate’ be re-elected, we will see a much wider dismantling of programs well beyond those involved in the arts and culture, and the pretext will be the decline in government revenues, thanks in small part to the economic slowdown and in large part to the government’s cut in taxes, the only policy that seems to have any currency with this regime.
But then, won’t it be like the child who murdered his/her parents pleading for mercy because he/she is an orphan?
In-and-out sinks to new depths
From Friday's Globe and Mail
August 15, 2008 at 7:53 AM EDT
'We have seen increasing signs that this Parliament is really not working very well any more, it's becoming increasingly dysfunctional," Stephen Harper said yesterday. The Prime Minister's assessment was accurate, and it is time for the election he hinted at.
But after their performance this week, Mr. Harper's Conservatives are full partners in that dysfunction - particularly when it comes to what he described as "a committee system that is increasingly in chaos."
Parliament's ethics committee, justifiably maligned for its often laughable hearings into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, should never have launched its own investigation into the "in-and-out" election spending controversy.
A probe by highly partisan MPs into alleged Conservative improprieties during the last federal campaign was certain to turn into the kangaroo court predicted by Mr. Harper, and has only confused matters as Elections Canada officials carry out a proper investigation. But that does not justify the contempt that the Tories have shown for the committee this week, which has made a mockery of their past promises to strengthen parliamentary democracy.
Summoned by the committee, Conservative officials and operatives could have raised the tone of the hearings - or at least risen above it - by comporting themselves with dignity. Instead, they have lowered the tone to new depths.
The week began with a bizarre stunt by the Conservative campaign manager Doug Finley, who was scheduled to appear on Wednesday but arrived on Monday morning, planted himself at the witness stand and refused to leave until he was escorted from the room by security guards.
The antics continued yesterday, when a former Tory candidate, Sam Goldstein, arrived unannounced two days after his scheduled appearance and occupied much of his time literally screaming at the committee chair, Paul Szabo, and other opposition MPs. At the alleged urging of their party, most of the other would-be Conservative witnesses simply ignored their subpoenas altogether - some of them actively dodging bailiffs' attempting to serve their summons.
The Conservatives may be pleased with their role in making a farce of a committee that has them in its sights. But in the process, they have also undermined the entire system that Mr. Harper purports to be concerned about - and not just for the duration of this Parliament.
By demonstrating that it is possible to deliberately obstruct parliamentary committees without consequences beyond a bit of negative press, they have jeopardized the long-term ability of MPs to conduct hearings into matters of importance. If members of the governing party can thumb their noses at committees, why shouldn't others?
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Apparently, the Government has told those who are summoned that they should not appear, labeling the committee ‘a kangaroo court.’ Today’s report describes the inability of the committee to serve summonses on perspective witness who, mysteriously, cannot be found or are ‘on vacation,’ behaviour reminiscent and worthy of common criminals.
Unfortunately, the Harper Government, which made moral rectitude the centerpiece of its last campaign, seems to care little for the very sad example it is setting for the people of Canada. Indeed, they seem intent on bringing new meaning to the term “Contempt of Parliament.”
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
The world needs more Canada
Vancouver -- I'm reminded of a quote by Winston Churchill in response to a request to cut arts funding during the Second World War: "If we cut funding for the arts and culture, then what are we fighting for?"
Faculty of Law, McGill University
Dismantling the infrastructure that supported the export of Canadian ideas and talent around the world must be Stephen Harper's way to "stand up for Canada."
executive director, Canadian Actors' Equity Association
August 13, 2008
Toronto -- Given the censorship elements of Bill C-10 (involving the denial of tax credits to film and television productions), followed by almost zero recognition of the Canadian arts and culture sector in the 2008-09 federal budget, it is hard to interpret the PromArt and Trade Routes cuts as anything but the latest move in an ideological attack on the arts (Ottawa Axes Second Arts Subsidy In Two Weeks - Aug. 11).
Quotes attributed to Kory Teneycke, the Prime Minister's press secretary ("the [funding] choices made were inappropriate ... inappropriate because they were ideological in some cases, with highly ideological individuals exposing their agendas or [money going to] wealthy celebrities or fringe arts groups that in many cases would be at best, unrepresentative, and at worst, offensive"), confirm a deliberate attempt on the part of the government to constrain artistic endeavours that don't match political dogma.
No matter how the Tories try to justify it, failing to continue funding $4.7-million for PromArt and another $9-million for Trade Routes is unlikely to effect a significant change to Canada's balance sheet. But such cuts will ensure that homegrown opera, dance and theatre are denied a place on the world stage
August 13, 2008
North Saanich, B.C. -- For nine years (1987-96), I was the Canadian consulate's political, economic and public affairs officer for Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. From the time our Cincinnati office opened to the day the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade closed it in 1996, we used Canadian artists to promote Canada's political and economic mission.
There was no "art for art's sake." We were able to make important connections with Midwest business people and politicians who had no idea that Canada was their largest trading partner. Our profile was (and still is) so low in the United States that it takes a village of Canadian artists to raise up our political and trade representatives.
president, Ontario College of Art & Design
August 13, 2008
Toronto -- Ottawa's decision to cancel two successful cultural programs demonstrates a troubling lack of recognition of the vital role played by the arts in Canada's economy and in its international presence. Recent research by the Conference Board of Canada shows the strong impact of cultural programs on the economies of developed nations. At a time when Canadian culture is being recognized on the world stage for its variety of creative expressions, including critical and experimental voices, Ottawa should be investing more, not less, in programs that increase our country's cultural profile and its competitiveness in business, trade, tourism and immigration.
Monday, August 11, 2008
Houpt’s article, which I am reproducing below, looks at two recent cuts in arts funding in that context:
New York Diary: Whither Brand Canada?
Without the arts, our image grows dim abroad
From Monday's Globe and Mail
August 11, 2008 at 2:16 AM EDT
Last month, for the first time in almost a decade, Central Park was eerily quiet on Canada Day.
Every year since 1999, the federal government has sponsored a New York City satellite of its July 1 party on Parliament Hill, importing a handful of Canadian bands as part of the park's free SummerStage concert series. There have been delicate tribute shows to Joni Mitchell, fuse-blowing rock from the Tragically Hip, a resplendent Rufus Wainwright, rain-soaked sets from the Cowboy Junkies and Natalie MacMaster, and musicians making in-jokes about hockey and the CBC that the expats in the audience would then politely explain to the locals.
And at the end of every show, the Upper West and Upper East Sides of Manhattan would suddenly blossom with thousands of tiny Canadian flags worn in the hair or thrust into the back pockets or temporarily tattooed onto the sun-kissed arms of concertgoers, most of whom were merely honorary Canucks for a day.
No more. This year the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) killed the concerts. When I asked a spokesperson in Ottawa last month for an explanation, she refused to comment. Last Friday, it all became depressingly clear when DFAIT announced it was cutting all ties to culture by axing its PromArt program, a $4.7-million annual fund that sent artists into the world to speak for Canada.
The program's death notice was revealed in exquisitely cynical fashion. On Thursday, a government official leaked the story to a reporter by explaining the program had funded mainly political radicals and others it deemed naughty: the former CBC pundit and current Al-Jazeera contributor Avi Lewis, the journalist Gwynne Dyer, and a Toronto rock band known as Holy Fuck. Talk radio and conservative bloggers lapped up the talking points like so much cream, outraged that millions of dollars of tax money had been used to support speech with which they disagreed.
Did they care that they'd been spun? In fact, the vast majority of the funds sent abroad artists and companies that Stephen Harper would enjoy with his wife and kids: $8,000 to send Newfoundland's Duo Concertante dance company to China; $30,000 for the acclaimed experimental circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main to give 42 performances in Mexico and Germany; $15,000 to The Nickle Arts Museum of Alberta to present an exhibition for six months in Poland.
There are the dozens of $500, $750 and $1,000 grants that paid the airfare for award-winning authors to go forth as independent representatives of Canada. Last year, more than 300 grants were awarded.
The program was not, as its critics are barking, a wasteful socialist/Liberal boondoggle. Its greatest champion was in fact Joe Clark, who as the secretary of state for External Affairs (now DFAIT) from 1984-91 oversaw a major expansion in the cultural diplomacy budget because he recognized the importance of increasing Canada's presence abroad as the country embraced free trade with the U.S. and made its way in a globalized world.
And killing PromArt was never really about silencing radicals; that was just a red herring that paid political dividends. Late on Friday, while attention was focused on the DFAIT cut, the government quietly said it was also ending Trade Routes, a $9-million program run by Heritage Canada to help artists take their work abroad.
It's hard to overstate how low a profile Canada has abroad. If that's the way the government wants it, that's their decision. But if we want our voice to have influence in the rest of the world, to be the moral beacon we believe it is, that requires marketing Brand Canada. Sending artists and writers abroad is an integral part of that marketing that happens to be extremely cost-effective.
A little while ago Pamela Wallin told me that when she served within DFAIT as the consul-general of New York, culture was an indispensable tool to create a broader understanding of Canada within the United States. “It's all about presence; it's all about being top of mind. The more stages we continue to take ourselves off of, the more difficult the overall mission becomes,” she said.
“In order to be more than the Great White North, or more than just a trading partner like others, I think we have to show how interwoven the connections are, and how broad that cultural mix really is.”
She noted that the consulate also often used Canadian artists visiting New York to soften potential trading partners.
“It's an entrée point, it's a way to deal with people other than at the office, nine-to-five, about economic matters.”
That's why it was smart foreign policy to have Feist headline the Canada Day show in Central Park back in 2006, shortly before she became the iPod girl and a four-time Grammy nominee.
Even the United States, which invented the globalized free market in culture, has a long tradition of spending government money on so-called cultural diplomacy. During the Cold War, the U.S. State Department sent jazz musicians Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and others to the Middle East, Asia and Europe to spread American values. The U.S. is spending more than half a billion dollars a year on TV and radio broadcasts that bring American music, comedy, and drama to the Arab world and other territories.
This is lost on DFAIT, where PromArt and its antecedent programs were never really understood. One long-time bureaucrat in the department told me recently: “Anyone caught doing culture, it was a career killer.”
DFAIT, being stocked with diplomats used to reading scripts written at head office, was always uncomfortable with the voices of artists who weren't direct government employees.
This might, in fact, be the core reason the feds have just cut a small but effective program that didn't really mean much to the overall budget. Since taking office, Stephen Harper has tightened communications coming out of Ottawa, putting choke collars on his cabinet ministers and spokespeople. He wants to be the only one who speaks for Canada abroad, too. From the government's perspective, artists especially are suspect: they don't tend to stay on message; sometimes, they even voice independent thoughts. Worst of all, they're more interesting to listen to than a droning politician. Maybe Harper is jealous.
I'm only half kidding.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Every so often I read a book that not only makes me think deeply but also causes me to feel a measure of despair about the human condition. Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress is such a book.
Exploring our short 10,000-year-old human civilization, Wright develops a portrait that can hardly be considered flattering. Examining four previous societies, Sumer, Easter Island, the Maya and Rome, the author shows the shortsightedness of each that ultimately led to their downfall. In spending all of their ‘natural capital’ (the natural resources available to them), with little thought to the future, each was ultimately felled by what Wright calls ‘progress traps’ that resulted in environmental degradation, starvation, and collapse. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of their collective demise is the fact that each of them became aware, long before conditions became irreversible, of where they were headed and yet persisted in their respective behaviours! Might this sound at least remotely familiar to the modern reader?
The power of this very accessible book lies in its demonstrated historical correspondence to contemporary life, and the message is clear: if we continue in the pattern so regularly repeated throughout our human history, we will soon be at a point where not just one or two societies collapse, but rather our entire way of life on earth. A few years ago it would have been easy to dismiss such a thesis as alarmist and overblown, but given what we now know about greenhouse gases, pollution and climate change, we would be as foolish as our ancestors were to adopt such an attitude. But of course, isn’t that precisely what so many of us and our leaders continue to do?
I suspect that one of our fundamental flaws as human beings is to confuse our technological achievements with wisdom, leading us to the belief that we are highly evolved beings when, in fact as Wright so amply demonstrates, our short history of progress shows us to be a shortsighted species, having thus far left an almost unbroken record of environmental exploitation and degradation.
The question that remains to be answered is, “Are we capable of truly learning anything from our sordid past?” Stay tuned to find out the answer.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
If you are interested, check it out at: www.thesqueakywheel.com