Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Veneer Peels

One of the most frustrating things people cited during the debates during the 2011 Federal Election was Stephen Harper's ability or tactic to remain impassive throughout the criticism the other candidates did not try to aim at him.  Instead of responding with an emotional response that may have been merited, he never rose to the challenge or took the bait that was offered when Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff, Gilles Duceppe or Elizabeth May excoriated his policies.  Under those hot lights and pressure he impressed his base with his calm and steadiness.  For those who may have been aggravated by his approach and his resolve, he did not care.  Harper has always known who his base has been and what has been required for him to gain a majority government.

The same could be said of the control with which he has interacted with the media.  There have been limits on the number of questions and probably an apocryphal counting of "Would you like me to repeat that Mr. Harper?" as one of the quota for each press "availability."  Throughout his public life, the introverted man has never possessed comfort and openness with the media of other political figures of this generation.  This in itself is not a fault of Mr. Harper's that I wish to take issue with.  However, the efforts to add some warm and fuzzy to Mr. Harper have often failed to strike the desired chord with the Canadian public.  This is not to say that Harper needs to be a gladhander or an effusive figure to capture the imagination of interest of the Canadian people.  None of Paul Martin, Joe Clark, Stephane Dion nor Thomas Mulcair have presented themselves particularly charismatic figures but all of them interacted with a degree of integrity and were willing to take their hits on the political trail.  The efforts to stage manage the Prime Minister's presence with the blue sweater and the strict control of messaging and the strict avoidance of settings (the United Nations) or questions (the environment) that would put him in an uncomfortable situation or bring sharper scrutiny to the policies or platform of the Conservative Government.

It is largely unknown whether there is any telfon to Stephen Harper.  The reality may simply be that in the polarized political environment of the last ten years, he has been aware that a relatively small component of the electorate could be swayed one way regarding his performance as prime minister and his may not worry a whit about those who are not going to be swayed.  The issues that have most threatened the Prime Minister have been diverted rather than averted through prorogations or other maneuvers.   Controversies over military spending, Afghanistan and the environment have been evaded rather than faced and it is hard to tell if this government has the resilience to withstand a scandal.  There has to be a point though where the base that he has been able to count upon to this point of his career may start to erode or grow weary of the routine or the speaking points.

The aversion for moving away from those speaking points to acknowledge the issues that raise questions of Stephen Harper's fallibility has been demonstrated time and time again throughout the Prime Minister's term in office.  Throughout it all there has been the insistence that all is well with the government, its direction, the country's standing and sense of itself and above all Stephen Harper's leadership.  Whenever a question is raised the argument is raised - vociferously - that a conspiracy by the media has been hatched to make the government look bad or that the intransigence of the opposition has been the issue that has stood in the way of efficient decision-making and creation of legislation in the House of Commons.  All the while, however, it has been a matter of the Conservative Party of Canada striving to strictly serve their interests, the interests of their constituency of voters or the topics and ideology that the government has the competence to deal with.

The ongoing assertion by this prime minister and his government throughout their reign that they have done little or no wrong has weakened the legitimacy of this government with each scandal that it has refused to acknowledge or face the music for.  Cabinets have been reshuffled, chiefs of staff in the PMO have come and gone, as have communications directors but their has been little interest in adapting policy or messaging to respond to the concerns and interests of those beyond the minority of the population that they have managed to maintain some semblance of favour with.  The refusal to accept the consequences of fallibility to this point has kept the dialogue in Ottawa from ever losing the toxicity that has been part of the decorum for the past decade.  Experiencing some significant political damage from some scandal rather than avoiding it and/or preemptively bullying the opposition would have given the Conservatives the credibility of governing out of a desire to implement policy rather than merely have power for its own sake.

Ultimately though, the focus has been keeping up appearances and the Duffy scandal has escalated to the proportions it has because of the effort to sweep things under the carpet.

The explosion of the Duffy scandal with the allegations made in the Senate on October 22 has further undermined the credibility of a government that has chosen to address a narrow range of the nation's concerns and interests and glossed over the issues that it has neither the competence or the appetite for.  Cutting the GST may have been popular but it was unnecessary.  Addressing environmental concerns would have required sacrificing political capital as well, but they did not have the will to undertake this bit of heavy-lifting.  The long-standing insistence to ignore rather than respond to the more significant challenges have, throughout the Harper era, effectively sealed off his government with the stimulus and opportunities for his government to respond to the nation's needs and demonstrate their competence and legitimacy.

As this government continues its decline, it will become increasingly apparent that it has been more out of touch than any of the enemies that it has wished to wipe from our history's pages.  As the government becomes increasingly divided and disarrayed it will look more and more like the graphic conclusion that faced Dorian Gray.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Authentic Pope

When Pope Benedict abdicated this past February, one of the things he intimated was that the job had become too substantial for him to continue doing, given his age and declining health.  When Pope Francis was elected in time for Easter a few weeks later, the details about his own health -- he had lost part of a lung earlier in life -- and his age left some wondering if he was going to be up to the demands of the task, especially when faced with the challenges the Vatican or the Roman Catholic Church - depending on how you might parse either entity - have been grappling with.  The ongoing issues with sex abuse scandals, the Vatican Bank, declining clergy and attendance were just a few of the matters that made Joseph Ratzinger wave the white flag and step away from the role he was supposed to hold until his death.

Ratzinger, given the nickname the "German Shepherd" after he was elected, never came across as a particularly endearing figure to the faithful.  Perhaps it was the challenge of succeeding someone as iconic as Pope John Paul II that made this task particularly daunting, but there were decisions and statements throughout his tenure that seemed to indicate an at-all-costs commitment to the established doctrine of the church on matters such as female priesthood and the primacy of the Catholic faith over all others.  Those moments or decisions kept him from earning the support and trust of the Catholic faithful.  This is not to suggest that leading a church ought to be done with an eye to achieving popularity or that the doctrines of a church ought to be altered for strategic reasons.  There is, however, a need to be conscious of the coherence of the stands one makes with reality and basic religious principles.

Ratzinger began his career as a more liberal or reformist figure in the church, but as a consequence of confrontations with those who disagreed with him retreated into a more insular position and a less flexible, more dogmatic interpretation of the church and its relationship with its faithful.  Throughout his term he seemed to adopt a rigid position and was unwilling to acknowledge the changes that were occurred and move away from the apparent intellectual safety he had sought throughout his career until he was elected Pope in 2005.

Pope Francis in sharp contrast to Benedict has been affable, accessible and accountable to those he has been in service of.

From the outset, Pope Francis has made a point of being accessible to the public, whether it has been taking the bus with the other cardinals after the conclave in March, continuing to live in the humble apartment he has in Rome, his comments on atheists, blessings for Harley riders, forays into the congregations when he has traveled or the notes he has sent to those who have mailed him, he has avoided the isolation and remoteness of Benedict's papacy.

Francis' affability has been much lauded.  A introvert by nature, Francis has quickly grown into his public role and perhaps even been energized by it.  His watershed moment when talking about his feelings on homosexuality in July has marked a significant change of tone from his predecessors when he simply stated, "Who am I to judge?" was a move that might be considered a populist move, but it is much more consistent with the principles that motivated him to wash the feet of prisoners during Holy Week, his comments on atheists and other gestures and comments that have indicated a more inclusive approach to the papacy, an approach that would recall Christ's own actions and teachings.

Time and again though, it is that humility, common touch and frequent contact with ordinary people that creates a further degree of accountability that he would encounter by being closer to the street rather than in an ivory tower.  Francis seems willing to answer all questions, to integrate his conservative stand on Christian doctrine into a sensibility that he has brought him significant goodwill and energized the Catholic faithful over the first six months of his papacy.  Francis' greatest strength has likely come from that willingness to engage with anyone and be available to them.  When you are regularly making yourself available to taxi drivers, cooks, and people of all ages and backgrounds, it is easy to keep rooted and practical rather than seeking a more intellectual and rarified approach to matters of faith.  Francis' willingness to make himself accessible and engage in dialogue with anyone and everyone has also enhanced the authenticity with which he has borne his cross or conducted his service over the last seven months.  In that combination of affability, accessibility and accountability is an example of leadership that could serve as a textbook example of authentic, transparent leadership.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Fallacy of the Ideals of Suburbia

When my wife and I lived in the suburbs of Calgary we saw one of our neighbours at his place of work more often than near his home.  The gentleman is an employee with the Canada Border Service Agency and we would see him occasionally when we returned home from a trip somewhere.  We didn't travel frequently and we did not see him upon every return, but we still saw him more often at the airport than on the doorstep of our neighbouring townhouses.  Separated by a few 2x4s from one another and living with matching floor plans and perhaps even the same upgrades, but we saw him more often at the airport.

Such is the neighbourly life in the suburbs.

Five years ago, during the last week of May 2008, we were driving to the airport to pick up guests who were coming to our wedding, we had to pull aside for a handful of Calgary Police squad cars heading to discover a tragedy that unfolded in Dalhousie.  As with any tragedy of that nature, the neighbours shrug and say it was a quiet man or a quiet family and that they never really got to know them that well.  It plays out in utter shock, with people unaware of how a sense of neighbourhood and community in the parts of Calgary that are labelled "new communities" needs to have something to their fabric that brings people together.  The tragedies that most vividly splash across the pages of the newspapers occur in the suburbs that the Calgary's developers have insisted with the flimsiest of arguments are safer than the core of the city. SARS?  SARS is one of the threats in Calgary's downtonw core?  How desperate would these developers be in the face of reason?

There was little enticing us to walk in that suburb but we did from time to time.  The nearest coffee shop was 55 minutes away on foot and it was a walk that needed to be planned out well in advance to ensure that we had time to get there before closing and then walking back in the dark.  The suburbs are built for cars and invite nothing more than a scant, rushed wave between nominal neighbours as they taxi themselves and their children through their routines.  Names are learned only incidentally, perhaps at the mailboxes and the only people who gain familiarity with a wide number of neighbours would be the dog walkers.

For the past four years my wife and I, plus our son have lived in an inner city neighbourhood in a condo.  We don't have our own yard but there are parks nearby and three elementary schools within walking distance.  We have neighbours that we see come and go, who've seen us with our extroverted 2-year-old emerge from the bucket to climb the stairs on his own.  We have seen our neighbours go through their lives as well.  Some have moved on, others have dealt with the realities of the later stages of life as old age has forced couples to part to a routine of visits to the rest home.  We have learned that neighbours have started the journey to parenthood that we have enjoyed to this point.  All of this has been unfolding around us as we share a home and enough of one another's lives to share names, laughs and foster fondnesses for one another.  Now, a 55-minute walk would take me past 3 movie theatres, 3 or 4 concert venues and countless restaurants and coffee shops.

The efforts by the developers of this city to sway voters to vote in their less than transparent slate of candidates is aimed at keeping their noses in the tax trough for a little longer.  This is because of the changes that have been clearly occurring throughout North America as more and more cities densify their core areas, revitalizing them and serving the interests of home buyers who want to live a more compact life rather than be reliant on automobiles and paying for gas that is currently at $1.14 a litre and is far from likely to drop below a dollar.  Individuals and families are adapting to a different lifestyle and the city government is as well.  Industry cannot or does not wish to and is hoping that influencing the outcome of the upcoming municipal election will give them one last gasp of the good old days.

The conduct of the developers in and around Calgary of late brings to mind the scenario that was played out in the auto industry as it was described in the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?  The automakers were faced with legislative changes that they did not like and did their best to fight againsts those changes.  Even though they had the means of adapting to the changes and the technology as well, they dug in and refused to change.  The aftermath for the auto industry in the following decade, with General Motors and Chrysler both bailed out of bankruptcy and then taking the steps toward what they could have done in 2000 if they chose to adapt rather than resist. The difference for the developers and the car makers may be that the consumers are not as fond of the suburbs today as they may have been of cars a decade ago.  If they refuse to acknowledge and adapt to the changes that are occurring in real estate development in cities throughout North America, the City of Calgary would would incredibly unwise to subsidize this pursuit and exhaust their resources later to bail them out.  If the developers cannot adapt, then it is time to let the weaker fall by the wayside and see how that industry evolves in the coming decade.

There is no template that all people ought to follow in choosing where they live or how.  However, it is wiser to adapt to the signs of change than it is to ignore them outright or assert that the old ways are still sustainable.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Selective Vision of Calgary's "Developers"

If necessity is the mother of invention, you might have to say that profit margins are one of the suspected fathers of efficiency, complete with a nervous look and a furtive rub of the rabbit's foot that the DNA tests finger someone else.

One of the few issues that seems to bring any heat to the Calgary municipal campaign of 2013 goes back nearly 12 months to the video of Cal Wenzel advising developers on his plans to fund candidates in the councillor races to provide a slate of councillors that would effectively thwart Mayor Naheed Nenshi's efforts to put forward a more urbanist set of policies for Calgary in the next term in office.  Wenzel outlined in his video his efforts to fund Ward 7 candidate Kevin Taylor in 2010 and intimates plans to do the same in 2013.  Those policies range from introducing secondary suites, continuing improvements to transit and reducing subsidies to greenfield developments that would continue to expand the cities geographic footprint and increase the tax burden because of the infrastructure that needs to be built to support those new developments.

Wenzel and the slate of candidates running throughout the city are clearly of the more libertarian attitude that the Manning Foundation has touted as the answer to more democratic municipal government.  The libertarian ideals they espouse have a glaring gap, however, when it comes to the issue of the development subsidies of $4800 a development, however.  The addition of each new home to the city's infrastructure occurs in lower-density communities that have little industry to attract anything other than residential traffic.  Once that community is built, the amount of traffic and industry that will occur in that area will be relatively fixed for a decades-long period unless an intervention occurs to update or revise the land-use pattern in that area.  In effect, the suburban "new communities" that extend Calgary's footprint are designed an laid out in a manner that hermetically seals them off in single use communities that will regress rather than progress with the passage of time.  Population density will be fixed and traffic will be limited into the commuter traffic for work and taxiing kids around on Saturdays.  In the northwest, Royal Oak and Rocky Ridge denizens are still waiting for empty lots with "new school" signs to actually be filled with them and further in, the matured suburbs of Hawkwood and Dalhousie are showing their age and lack the property values that are attracting in-fill developers to the core of the city in significant numbers.  The evidence that suburbia is a cash-suck for home-owners is pretty easy to find as well.

Homes in the suburbs return a much lower return on investment than homes closer to the urban core for the buyer and from a tax perspective, do not pay for themselves in terms of tax revenue.  Neither the homeowner, nor the municipality benefit from the investment in suburban residences.  The housing subsidy that Mayor Nenshi is hoping to end is supporting an unprofitable, or more precisely, unsustainable living arrangement.  It is inconsistent for a libertarian organization such as the Manning Foundation to be supporting such an inefficient use of the public coffers, that is unless the developers that it has been associated with are looking to get their noses a little deeper into the tax trough.  There needs to be a return on investment.  Sinking taxpayer dollars into subsidizing the development of more sprawl in Calgary would generate a tax loss for the city and would not arrange the houses built there in a way that fosters a community that will knit itself into something that is more than the sum of its parts. The conformity of those communities in their design and execution, not to mention their muddle of street names, inhibits the development of neighbourhoods that will resist depreciation.