Saturday, April 9, 2011

North and North Alone

On April 8, 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that he intended to reduce the size of the federal government quickly and promptly if he were elected to a majority on May 2. In the same announcement he also indicated that the deficit would be reduced with remarkable speed as well, suggesting that he would succeed in this matter about two years ahead of schedule. There were some expressions of incredulity about the credibility of these claims, having discovered about $4 billion that were nowhere to be seen when the federal government delivered its budget a scant three weeks ago.

Throughout the 2011 election campaign, the Harper team has done its best to get Canadians to sleepwalk through the campaign with little more than its budget to promote thus far. There have been occasional announcements of tax credits, which provide a modicum of benefit but plenty to chew over. Once you get into the details of it, voters would fade into a soporific state with their last thoughts being, "Hmmm tax credit for N, good, no?" If you really want to assess the benefits of those credits take a look at where that credit for commuting appears on your tax form and how much money it actually saves you on your taxes. Another alternative is to determine if those commuter tax credits actually motivated you to use commuting more. A small minority of commuters were motivated by such tax credits. A similarly small minority will be motivated to get off the couch and get a snazzy gym membership either. That the tax credit will not come until after the deficit is slayed, is probably another detail that voters are overlooking.

Throughout the well-managed photo-op component of the Conservative campaign there has been said of the plans for prisons or fighter jets that are at the core of the Conservative spending plans for the coming years. The opposition parties have made points about this and well they ought to. They do so, much at the risk of sounding shrill or Polyanna-ish about the spending. The point that they may not have made clearly enough is that this is all a Conservative government really aspires to do. All Stephen Harper wants to do is render the federal Canadian government one that is nothing more than a minimalist, night watchman state. The term night watchman state is not something I just coined but a model of a government that is interested in nothing more than to serve and protect. If you are looking for a health care strategy, the Harper Conservatives are merely going to mumble something vague rather than make an unequivocal commitment. Our health care plan is facing an uncertain future and it is definitely in need of work as we face the challenge of starting to squeeze the baby boom generation through the system through in the next few years but the Conservatives have offered nothing more than a preemptive, "Us too," during the second week of the campaign. If they were serious about playing a substantial role in health policy they would not have handed what traditionally has been a major portfolio to a rookie MP, Leona Aglukkaq. The vision for the role of Health Minister has diminished under Harper and intermittently convenes the provincial ministers of health to review their requests for funding but does not review their spending. The Romanow Commission Report on Health Care has done little more than collect dust during the Harper era.

Despite or perhaps because of the value that Canadians have placed on medicare for the past 50 years, the Harper Government has seen fit to marginalize this need. Health care is one of several areas that the government fully intends to retreat from if given a majority government. It has made incremental steps toward the night watchman role while citizens have remained disengaged in the erosion of Canadian values and the opposition has struggled against apoplexy in the face of it. The retreat is not only a retreat from broader programming but also a moral retreat. Canada has long since abandoned its status as "Boy Scout of the World," with its regressions on human rights in Afghanistan, democracy with its two prorogations, and its indifference to environmental policy which was most embarrassingly demonstrated by Stephen Harper's hide-and-seek visit to the COP Conference in Copenhagen in 2009.

Throughout his term as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has played fast an loose with the truth and to put it quite simply employed a strategy of accusing is opponents of doing the very things that he himself has consistently done throughout his term in office. His announcement that he will quickly gut the federal government if he gets a majority is one of the most honest announcements he has made during this campaign. His intentions of reducing the government to a shell of its former self, however, will have broad repercussions for the future of the Canadian identity and the quality of life that we have come to enjoy. Apart from health care, social programs and policies that have been aimed at making this country with so much geography and so much uncertainty about itself and its future will have less reason to consider itself a united, admired nation of citizens who are equal from coast to coast to coast. We may at that time recite the lyrics "True north, strong and free," but Canada will bare little resemblance to it if the government is reduced to the extent he wishes.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Mechanical PM

The consistent thread running through Stephen Harper's 2011 election campaign has been the strategic pitching of announcements to woo key constituencies. The support for the Churchill Falls project to woo voters in Newfoundland; the loans program to help immigrants - also known as "you people" to Harper - gain the qualifications required to work in Canada; promises to end the Long Gun Registry to try to defeat a local NDP candidate. Each of these announcements and others throughout the Harper campaign has put forward a patch work of policies. There is pattern of proposals that reiterate the key points that the Harper government wanted to put forward.

The components of the policy that Harper has put forward both in the 2011 campaign, throughout past campaigns and as Prime Minister do not present themselves as a cohesive whole. There are the musings about the hidden agenda that Harper has and there may be more than a modicum of reason for that, but despite that there has been adaptations to his policies that irritated hard core conservatives because, for example, the Keynesian response to the financial uncertainties of Fall-Winter 2008-09 there has been a pragmatic approach to accumulating power. He has been content to increase his plurality into a an eventually majority.

Harper's failure to carve a warm niche in the Canadian consciousness despite the cats, sweaters and burgeoning hockey book stems from his failure to present a coherent vision or for that matter a coherent, likeable character. If the intent is to keep that agenda hidden, Harper has presented himself as a more guarded presence on the political stage. The tactical approach to running the country with the policy tweak here and there to incrementally nudge Canada closer to the more conservative version than we have been accustomed to.

Throughout his time contributing to the national dialogue, his arguments and policies have been consistently oversimplistic. Proposing the construction of prisons not only overlooks the evidence that indicates crime rates are falling, but more importantly, the need for a policy to address the social environment that would further reduce crime rates and further buttress our human and social capital. Throughout Harper's tweaking of policies in the incoherent slap dash manner that he has, he has demonstrated a distinct lack of vision for Canada. Each policy is an imposition of a discrete response to something that has chooses to target.

The policies that the Conservative government has rolled out over the last five years have demonstrated unabashed shortsightedness. The decrease in the GST from 7 to 5% has been considered one of many steps toward the slippery slope toward deficit. Harper's scorched earth response to the threat of coalition in 2008 seemed to overlook Quebec's strategic significance in his pursuit of a majority. His response to accusations about the torture of Afghan detainees was to sweep the matter under the carpet as quickly as possible and discredit key credible witnesses in every way possible. The same efforts to discredit or deployed against anyone or any group who may have dissenting points of view, be them females, minorities, or any other cross section of the population that he can find a way to marginalize.

All of this pulled together just doesn't seem to have a response for the nuances and complexities of the digital age. Voters are becoming more attuned to authenticity Harper's dog and pony show is less likely to cut it. The problem is that there is a distinct lack of coherence when you take policy to the right-wing apogee that Harper strives for. The conservative position is that individual members of society are themselves responsible for their own well-being and success. The liberal position is that society bears this responsibility. Both positions are right but require a centrist balance.

The problem with a liberal position taken to its furthest extent is that may invite a certain parasitic abuse of the system by people who can do well enough on their own. The problem with a conservative position that trusts the invisible hand a bit too much or casts people adrift if they cannot support themselves or overcome their obstacles is that it grants more power to the powerful and creates a pocket of victims who are often ostracized for being failures before the harsh realities they have to deal with are narrated. A Conservative government that gives the oil industry tax breaks might say that it is giving job makers the freedom to pursue their work freely without the shackles of addressing the environment, but when the government announces the ecological benefits of a hydro project as far away from the oil sands as possible, there is something inconsistent there. When a government announces plans for prisons without proposing a social policy that supports and protects the vulnerable it is actually overlooking the society it is supposed to serve. It is not a great leap in logic that the government is indulging in corporate welfare at the expense of the citizens it purports to represent.

The safety and comfort of a society must not be the right of only those who can sequester themselves in gated communities. The efficiencies of exploiting the economies of scale in having a government large enough to provide essential services rather than force its citizens to contract out these services to for-profit providers is ultimate anathema to the fiscal responsibility that conservative governments boast of but ultimately fail at time and time again. Those rights must be made available to the entire society. If individuals are authors of their own fates, and those who take a criminal path do so because they are stupid, it is hard to deny that a society that imprisons a critical mass of its population, despite the long-term costs of imprisonment being more costly than social programming that mitigates the problems that lead to crime - is stupid as well.

The problem with the Stephen Harper campaign goes straight to the not-so-hidden aspects of his platform. If you take wither the man or his platform to the extremes that Harper wishes to, the arguments fall apart because they do not provide a coherent, consistent workable answer to the needs or wishes of Canadian society. If you want to see an example of the disintegration of those emerging flaws and inconsistencies, just consider what has happened surrounding the RCMP, Bruce Carson and Awish Aslam. None of these make sense to people looking in at the Conservative government or its campaign. The Conservatives can make sense of it because each of these things are examined in blindered isolation.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Is Harper Really the PM for Uncertain Times?

Throughout and prior to the campaign, Stephen Harper has been insisting that the Conservative Party has the steady hand that Canada needs to guide it through the uncertain times we live in. The surprising take on the domino effect that is unfolding throughout the Middle East, the disasters in Japan, the still slightly wobbly recovery and more are all fodder for the dialogue for the Stephen Harper's argument for giving him and his colleagues another mandate. He's even used these events as a reason to argue against an election er democratic process.

The reality is that Stephen Harper has not demonstrated great chops when leading the country in the face of emergency situations. Recent examples include flying an empty plane in and out of Libya while our allies flew Canadian expatriates out, and being one of the slowest responders with aid to Japan or support to expatriates there. These are emergencies that are far away from our shores. What if a disaster of this nature occurred in Canada? Would responses of the nature he has taken so far indicate that he would provide a steady hand during a time of need? During the war between Lebanon and Israel, Harper managed to wiggle the phrase "Canadians by Convenience" into our lexicon and responded as slowly as he did to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and to the tensions in Libya and Egypt.

In many of these situations, Harper has taken his cues from other world leaders or waited until there was a sense that the populace felt a situation merited a response. Stephen Harper has never demonstrated the depth of thought or the ability to see beyond his ideological gopher hole to take a thoughtful, intentional or constructive response in the face of crisis. As opposition leader, Harper was riffing on Australian Prime Minister John Howard when arguing that Canada ought to send troops to Iraq. Now, during this campaign, the Conservatives are cribbing from the Tea Party to advertise themselves.

Our country requires depth and imagination to lead all of it. Not to simply just lead the English or the conservative or the majority or the central but all of Canada. There is little reason to believe that Stephen Harper has the intelligence or the creativity to deal effectively, rationally or promptly to a Black Swan (Nicholas Nassim Taleb's not Natalie Portman's) situation where foresight and vision are required to ensure that the Canada - again ALL of Canada - gets through it as successfully as possible. He might seize the opportunity to serve his interests and demonstrate a certain tactical brilliance that would send his Conservative minions into fits of glee, but there is little reason to believe Canada would thrive under his leadership in crisis.

The best sign of Harper's inability to deal with crises would be how he deals with his campaign. In the second week of the campaign Harper's efforts to control and stage manage the campaign are the main issue eroding his popularity and chances of reelection. The opposing parties have not done a lot to generate forward momentum but Harper's showing signs of weakness on the campaign trail. Such erosion of Harper's support is primarily of his own doing. It may be accelerated in part by social media but whether this is the case or not, the challenge for Harper is to respond to these Black Swan changes in the environment and show an ability to adapt to a fluid situation. He may find a way to hang on to power despite his fumbling through the campaign, but if he only manages to hang on to 24 Sussex by the skin of his teeth it will remain a clear demonstration of his inability to respond effectively in uncertainty.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Stephen Harper and Thermostats

Stephen Harper has made it clear that he has his foot firmly planted on the pulse of the nation. The tone deaf campaigning to date, ensconced in the friendly confines of carefully screened Conservative Party admirers has been an on-the-nose display of simplistic photo ops. The media has suggested Harper's campaign is a front-runner strategy but it is a more clear indication of Harper's indifference to progressive policies. His insistence on sticking to his convictions is admirable, but the wrong-headedness of those convictions and their implications for Canada's future makes Harper's obstinacy a subject of consternation.

The advantage of a minority government in Canadian democracy is that it ought to increase the possibility of creating sound policies that are of a moderate nature. There is less likelihood of the ideological hard swerve to a liberal or conservative (small l, small c, let me reiterate) tendencies and a progressive balance that ought to take in the interests of opposing points of view and meld them together into policy that would serve the broader interests of the entire population rather than merely the interests of a majority party and those who share vested interests. An effective minority government ought to be able to respond in a thermostatic manner to the interests of opposing parties to ensure that a policies are moderate and progressive.

Instead of listening to the opposing parties for the past 5 years, Stephen Harper has gone to the far right and cowed the opposition with the threat of encountering a disengaged electorate that may punish them for forcing "another" election. It was that bullying of the opposition that lead to prorogation in 2008. Harper simply does not want to hear a dissenting voice. Another factor that lead to prorogation in 2008 was the threat of scrutiny the government was facing over the torture of Afghan detainees. Again and again, Stephen Harper has seized opportunities to bully, fire, ostracize or ignore informed or reasoned voices on major policy issues.

The non-tendered and underestimated fight jet contract is a prime example of Stephen Harper ignoring all in favour of his own desires. Mounting evidence is consistent that Harper has the numbers wrong. Previous purchasers of the fighter jets, the opposition parties, Kevin Page of the Parliamentary Budget Office ALL indicate that Harper has the numbers wrong. Still, he will insist that his numbers are right. It is clear that Stephen Harper is acting like a spoiled child and is confident that if he says something often enough that everyone will believe him.

The problem that is becoming more apparent during the 2011 Election campaign is that Stephen Harper does not want to listen to anybody and does not want to be held to account for what he has done during his campaign. The stage management of his campaign stops, the limiting of the media to 4 questions a day in press conferences and the latest blemish on the campaign, the screening and ouster of a 19 year old voter from a Conservative campaign event all reek of a disdain for the democratic process. How weak are his policies that a 19 year old's questions are more scrutiny than Harper can handle? How naive are his sheep that their group think would be damaged by the presence of one dissenting opinion? The Conservative back benches include Rob Anders who worked as a hired heckler for the Republican Party, so it is not that the Conservatives have an issue with this.

It is not the dirty tricks that the Conservatives have disdain for it is dialogue and democracy. If it was a simple matter of being in an overheated room and asking Stephen Harper to turn the heat down, don't bother. He just wants to keep adding wood to the fire and pounce on you with ridicule as soon as you suggest opening a window or something.