Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

January 9, 2006

Mulroney’s Revenge: The Breakup of Canada

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 08:39
harperbushA combination of the incompetence and arrogance of the governing Liberal party, the unprincipled ambition of the Conservative and Bloc parties, and the fatal flaws in the Canadian electoral system, is conspiring to threaten the continued existence of Canada as a nation, and the majority of Canadians are both unaware and helpless to do anything about it.

For those not up on Canadian politics, here’s a quick recap of where we stand and how we got there:

  • In 1992, then Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sent a constitutional amendment called the Charlottetown Accord to a national referendum. He had coerced Canada’s provincial premiers into supporting the Accord by including in it the transfer to them of vast powers previously held by the federal government. At that time former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau correctly warned Canadians that this Accord would so weaken federal authority that it would inevitably lead to thedisintegration of the federal government and the breakup of the country. Mulroney arrogantly threatened English-speaking Canadians that if they did not approve his Accord in the referendum, Quˆ©bec would see it as a rebuke and separate. Canadians, not partial to bullying, rejected the Accord both in English-speaking Canada and in Quˆ©bec.
  • Mulroney’s arrogance and brinkmanship so infuriated Canadian voters that in the 1993 election his Conservative party was eliminated as a political force in Canada, winning only 2 of 295 seats. After a decade of floundering, the party was taken over three years ago by a right-wing extreme group, an offshoot of the bizarre fundamentalist Social Credit party, which had successfully preyed on Western Canadian alienation. The current leader of this party is Stephen Harper, pictured above, who in a speech a couple of years ago to the secretive right-wing Civitas coalition made clear that he supports the dismantling of the “welfare state” and “rediscovering the agenda…of state values“. His public record shows him to be a Straussian neocon in the Bush/Thatcher/Reagan mold (he has often stated his admiration for these three extremists). His positions have been sufficiently unambiguous that a recent editorial from the US right-wing Cato Institute fawned over him as a “pro-free trade, pro-Iraq war, anti-Kyoto, and socially conservative Gift from Canada”. This editorial played so badly in liberal Canada that Harper (perhaps at the behest of his spin-doctors) quickly attempted to distance himself from this characterization — the one encouraging sign that perhaps Harper is not as much of a wingnut as many of us fear. Harper still proposes to reverse the new Canadian law allowing gay marriage, to close down the Liberals’ new day care program, and to “rethink” Canada’s commitment to Kyoto and to universal single-tier medical care. He believes longer prison sentences (not gun control) is the solution to gang violence, and is personally opposed to abortion.
  • The old bible thumping Social Credit party that morphed into two new parties before taking over the Conservative Party of Canada has never been able to muster more than 30% of the popular vote, and their brand of social conservatism has rarely received more than 25% support in Canada, about the same percentage as the socialist New Democratic Party and the Green Party combined. But Liberal Prime Ministers Jean Chrˆ©tien and successor Paul Martin have squandered their party’s dominating (for most of the past half century) 50% centre-left support, by allowing an embarrassing fraud by a small group of civil servants and greedy corporations with ties to the party to occur, and to go undetected. Canadians are justifiably uneasy about any party having such a stranglehold on power for so long, but until this scandal broke they weren’t willing to opt for either of the too-extreme alternatives. Since the scandal, support for the Conservatives has broken above 30% — to as high as 35% — for the first time since Mulroney’s demise, despite Canadians’ clear distrust of Harper. What seems to be at work is the awareness that no party in Canada has anywhere near enough support to form a majority, so, as one poll interviewee said “We can punish the Liberals for their arrogance and still be comfortable that the Conservatives won’t get enough seats to govern without the moderating support of one of the other parties”.
  • There are two wild cards in all of this: The separatist Bloc party has a stranglehold on almost all of Quˆ©bec’s seats thanks to the fact the Liberal fraud was perpetrated in that province and the virtual non-existence of the Conservatives in that province. The Bloc, aside from its desire to break up the country, is solidly left-of-centre both economically and socially. The second wild-card is the 47% undecided vote, which is not counted in polls showing the Conservatives and Liberals neck and neck at about 33% each, the NDP at 17%, the Bloc at 11% and the Greens at 6%. The undecided vote skews heavily in favour of the Liberals, and if (a big if) they decide to hold their nose and vote, the result will be a virtual repeat of the last election — another Liberal minority government. This will also happen if left-leaning NDP and Green Party supporters are sufficiently frightened at the prospect of a right-wing government to vote ‘strategically’ for the Liberals. This is precisely what happened in the last election, but it is unclear whether it will happen again.
  • Canada has an outmoded first-past-the-post electoral district system that allows regional parties like the Bloc to get 20% of the seats with only 11% of the votes, and underrepresents national ‘third’ parties like the NDP whose 17% popularity consistently yields only 5% of the seats. Proportional representation would fix this, but the parties in power, who benefit from the first-past-the-post distortions, are understandably reluctant to introduce a system that would benefit their political opponents, no matter how fair that would be.

So that’s where we stand, going into an election in two weeks.(January 23rd). If party support doesn’t change, Canada’s 308 seats are likely to go as follows: Liberal 114 (a loss of 19), Conservative 118 (a gain of 20), Bloc 58 (a gain of 5), NDP 18 (no change), Independents/Vacant 0 (a loss of 6). Because of the first-past-the-post skew, the Conservatives and Bloc with a combined 44% of the vote will have 57% of the seats. If these two parties are unable to form a coalition, we will soon have yet another election — there is no other viable coalition. The previous Liberal/NDP coalition was 7 seats short of a combined majority, but governed by the moral authority of their 55% combined popular vote until the witless leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, was hoodwinked by the Conservatives into withdrawing support for the Liberals and forcing this election.

The TV is flooded with commercials, heavily skewed in favour of the Conservatives (who is paying for all their ads?, he asks rhetorically). But factor in the ‘leanings’ of the undecided and nothing has had any real effect on the voters, except on moderates’ distaste for all the parties and their unlikelihood to vote at all. This always plays to the extremists’ advantage.

So why am I talking about the breakup of the country? When Mulroney was Conservative leader, his Quˆ©bec wing was substantially separatist. Separatists saw the Conservatives as their allies. Western alienation is not all that different from Quˆ©bec nationalism, except that until Harper came along it was less virulent. Now, 14 years after they last governed, the Conservatives and the Bloc separatists are again poised to take power. As I mentioned, the Bloc is strongly left-of-centre, while the Harper Conservatives are strongly right-of-centre. The only thing they have in common is the same desire to shift power from the federal government to the regional (provincial) governments that Mulroney tried to impose on Canadians with the Charlottetown Accord. The only difference is that this time there will be no referendum — the Conservatives and Bloc will try to use their 44% ‘majority’ to do the only thing they can agree on, the very thing that Pierre Trudeau warned against: weaken the federal government to the point of gradual disintegration, leading to the eventual, substantive breakup of the country. Once federal powers have been given away to the provinces they can never be taken back.

The four ‘have-not’ Atlantic Provinces are the only part of Canada with the sense to realize this and the only ones who instinctively care about it (their weak economies depend heavily on federal transfer payments) — which probably has a lot to do with the fact that they will vote overwhelmingly Liberal on January 23. Most Quˆ©becois are indifferent to Canada, and don’t think the idea of Quˆ©bec as a separate nation is a big deal one way or another. Ontario, which has been solidly Liberal for years, is arrogant enough to believe that, as the ‘centre’ of Canada, it’s where all the action is anyways, so a weakened federal government wouldn’t change much. They’re wrong, but the argument that Trudeau made is just too complex for the media to digest and explain to the electorate (it will be interesting to see if Martin will try in the debates this week, and if so whether he will succeed), so most Ontarians have no idea what’s at stake. And Western Canada feels it has been shafted by the ‘Eastern establishment’ for decades, and has more affinity (sometimes anyway) with its provincial governments than with the ‘feds’.

Canada won’t end with a bang. We don’t do anything suddenly — that’s not in our nature. We’ll just wake up one day and realize that our federal government, which has given us a social safety net, a solid national education system churning out the world’s most innovative workforce, a functional universal health care system, a remarkable national transportation system, a place of refuge for conscientious objectors from our southern neighbour’s warmongering administrations, and a consistently responsible balanced budget, all far from perfect but all better than most of the rest of the world has been able to produce, has ceased to function. A Harper government, like the Bush and Mulroney governments, will use tax cuts for the rich, and irrational defence spending to bankrupt the federal treasury and impoverish future Canadian generations so they won’t be able to rebuild the social safety net even if they want to. A Harper government, like the Bush and Mulroney governments, will sell off the federal government’s assets to corporate friends at obscene discounts, and deregulate us into a laissez-faire nightmare where corporatist social and environmental destruction will spiral untrammeled and out of control. Even under the weakened Liberals this has already begun.

We will then be America Lite — still bristling at the thought that we’re just like Americans, but with our assets even more substantially owned by Americans than they are today, an economic colony with the fading illusion of relevant political independence. Instead of being the potential role model for the 21st century, we will be the country of great promise that was never realized.

Last year Canadians voted Tommy Douglas, former leader of the NDP, as the greatest Canadian of all time (Terry Fox was second, Pierre Trudeau third). It was Douglas’ vision, of a country that cared for the weak and where we were all responsible for each other, and his courage in fighting the forces that see all government as evil, that helped make Canada unique, different, proud, independent, and admired in almost every country in the world except, ironically, our own. If he could see what we are about to do, with all that we have and all that we have done, he would be filled with despair. And Mulroney must be grinning from ear to ear to see Harper, who charged Mulroney with abandoning true conservatism and who fought the Charlottetown Accord for not going far enough, and then stole Mulroney’s broken party, now painting himself into a corner that could leave him no alternative but to implement the essence of the dreadful Charlottetown Accord and advance the separatist agenda just to keep himself in power.

I still think it’s possible that Canadians will stumble out of this on January 23rd with a result very similar to the last election’s. We have good instincts, and 18 months ago we decided at the last minute that the devil we knew was better than the devil we didn’t. I’m a diehard Green, but even I am wavering, thinking seriously about voting Liberal. Unfortunately our memory is short and our appreciation of complex issues is feeble, so we are easily exploited by the politically ambitious, and our political system perversely facilitates this. I’ll report back on January 24th with my analysis of what happened the night before.

Encouraging the Young, by Margaret Atwood

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 08:22
If you have any aspiration to be a successful essayist, or newspaper columnist, or if you think your writing is good enough that the legacy media should be begging you to enrich their pages with your prose, read this excerpt from the master, Margaret Atwood, best known as the author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx & Crake, who many believe is the best writer alive in the world today. They would get no argument from me. Simply awesome.

Encouraging the Young, by Margaret Atwood
I have decided to encourage the young. Once I wouldn’t have done this, but now I have nothing to lose. The young are not my rivals. Fish are not the rivals of stones.

So I will encourage them open-handedly, I will encourage them en masse. I’ll fling encouragement over them like rice at a wedding. They are the young, a collective noun, like the electorate. I’ll encourage them indiscriminately, whether they deserve it or not. Anyway, I can’t tell them apart.

So I will stand cheering generally, like a blind person at a football game: noise is what is required, waves of it, invigorating yelps to inspire them to greater efforts, and who cares on what side and to what ends?

I don’t mean the very young, those who can still display their midriffs without attracting derision. Boredom’s their armour: to them I’m a voice balloon with nothing in it.

No, it’s the newly conscious young I mean, the ones with ambition and fresh diffidence, those who’ve learned the hard way that reach exceeds grasp nine times out of ten. How disappointed they are! And if and when they succeed for the first time, how anxious it makes them! They develop insomnia, or claustrophobia, or bulemia, or fear of heights. Now they will have to live up to themselves. Bummer.

Here I am, happy to help! I’ll pass round the encouragement, a cookie’s worth for each. There you are, young! What is a big, stupid, clumsy mess like the one you just made — let me rephrase that — what is an understandable human error, but a learning experience? Try again! Follow your dream! You can do it!

What a fine and shining person I am, so much kinder than when I’d just finished being young myself. I was severe then; my standards were exacting. The young — I felt — were allowed to get away with far too much, as I had been. But now I’m generosity itself. Affably I smile and dole.

On second thought, my motives are less pure than they appear. They are murkier. They are lurkier. I catch sight of myself, in that inward eye that is not always the bliss of solitude, and I see that I am dubious. I scuttle from bush to bush, at the edge of the dark woods, peering out. Yoo hoo! Young! Over here! I call, beckoning with my increasingly knobbly forefinger. That’s it. Now here’s a lavish gingerbread house, decorated with your name in lights. Wouldn’t you like to walk into it, claim it as your own, stuff your face on sugary fame? Of course you would!

I won’t fatten them in cages, though. I won’t ply them with poisoned fruit items. I won’t change them into clockwork images or talking shadows. I won’t drain out their life’s blood. They can do all those things for themselves.

This excerpt is from Atwood’s new book The Tent, just published this week, and was printed in yesterday’s Toronto Star. I’m picking up my copy of the book today.

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