Archive for December, 2008

Dion’s gift to Canada will be reluctantly delivered by Harper in January

Happy New Year! History will show that former Liberal leader Stephane Dion did at least one good deed for our country.

By merely talking coalition with the NDP at a dire moment in Canadian economic history, he forced the highly ideological and irresponsible minority government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to go against its base instincts and behave a little more responsibly.

One can’t call the behaviour of the Harper Conservatives to date responsible exactly, but under rather fraught circumstances at least they have restrained themselves from fighting the economic fire by letting it burn, which judging from their Nov. 23 economic “update” was their original idea.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s so-called update combined vindictive and partisan attacks on labour and the Opposition with a breathtaking lack of action on the desperate economic straits in which the country found itself.

This, thank goodness, was enough to spur Dion, then the leader of the Opposition, to talk coalition with the leaders of the other two centre-left parties, which together with the Liberals hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

That, in turn, provoked a panicked prime minister to persuade the Governor General to suspend democracy for a month and a half, and, not incidentally, to back off his dubious plan for a do-nothing economic policy.

As a result, it now seems likely that at the end of the month we will see a federal budget that is good enough to allow Mr. Dion’s replacement, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, to revert to making normal political calculations. That is, Mr. Ignatieff will now be able to conclude with a relatively clear conscience that the economic health of the nation has been safeguarded enough for Liberals to support the January budget, and thereby look after their own political future unhindered by the need to compromise with any coalition partners.

This means that unless the Harperites make another astounding blunder, the coalition idea is almost certainly done like dinner. Another major blunder is, of course, unlikely. For even if many Conservative supporters cannot do the democratic math and believe that for a majority of members of Parliament to vote against the government amounts to treason, Mr. Harper surely understands that no matter how much it galls him minority does not add up to majority.

The good news is that at least the Conservatives’ 2009 budget will likely be a reasonably responsible document that contains some needed fiscal stimulus measures.

Harper and Flaherty would rather use the continuing economic crisis to weaken democracy by de-funding their political opponents, tilt workplace rules in favour of employers and shrink government, the better to afflict the powerless and comfort the mighty. So they will grind their neoconservative teeth with frustration when they deliver a responsible budget. But deliver it they will in the certain knowledge that to do otherwise would be to revive the moribund coalition.

As a result, the recession we face will be less severe and less prolonged than it might have been. Fewer jobs will be lost. The prospects of fewer ordinary Canadians will be destroyed.

We have Stephane Dion to thank for that. Imperfect as the outcome may be, we should do so.

The Stelmach strategy: Trying to get off on a technicality

Readers are all familiar, of course, with the concept of a bad guy getting off on a technicality. That is, someone who is really guilty of a crime but walks free because he had a smart lawyer and a dumb judge.

Getting off on a technicality is generally held to be a Bad Thing. Some of us, however, may be willing to make an exception if it was Cousin Ronnie or Auntie Sylvia who got off on the technicality in question. In such cases we breath a sigh of relief and say that “the system worked.”

So, when someone we like gets off on a technicality, the system worked. When the system works for someone we don’t approve of, they got off on a technicality.

This is important, because, right now, we have before us the spectacle of an entire government – not just one guilty individual – trying to get off on a technicality.

You see, because we were counting on high oil prices pretty well forever, and all of a sudden oil prices aren’t high any more, Alberta is going to spend more this year than it makes in taxes and royalties. When a government spends more than it makes, economists call this difference a deficit.

When Alberta Conservatives spend more than they make, however, it is not a deficit. Or so Premier Ed Stelmach keeps saying over and over and over, hoping presumably that with repetition it will become true. Or, leastways, that after a time we’ll all start to believe it.

When Alberta has a deficit, you see, it is a “technical deficit.”

Now, a technical deficit, the Edmonton Journal helpfully explains (no doubt taking it directly from the premier’s crib notes) is when “the province will be paying out more money than it brings in, but will be able to tap into its $7.7-billion Sustainability Fund to cushion the blow.” (Emphasis added.)

Oh, I get it! This is like when I spend more than I make in a year, but I’m able to tap into my RRSPs to “cushion the blow.” I wonder if I can persuade my bank that the technical deficit I ran up this Christmas is just technical debt. If I do, will I still have to pay it?

I expect I will, alas. This is because this kind of reasoning is usually called… Never mind what’s it’s usually called. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s called trying to get off on a technicality. It may work with governments and the courts, but it seldom does with bankers – unless, of course, you happen to be one. The reality is that a deficit is a deficit, a debt is a debt, and, if I may be so bold, horse pucky is horse pucky.

The irony here, of course, is that running deficits in times of economic distress is exactly what the government should be doing.

Mr. Stelmach is making excuses for a sound policy, as if it were a bad thing, because of a stupid law passed during the premiership of Ralph Klein that attempted to outlaw deficits, even in unforeseen circumstances like those we are now experiencing.

This is foolish, of course, rather like King Canute ordering the tide to turn back. The only difference being, of course, that King Canute was making a point to his noblemen – to wit, that even a King doesn’t control some things. King Ralph and his minions actually believed their own foolishness.

(Never forget that while this nonsense was being peddled in Alberta, Mr. Stelmach was one of Mr. Klein’s “fiscal hardliners,” a true believer in the power of the Divine and Almighty Market.)

So Klein and Co. had the Legislature pass a law ordering the tide, metaphorically speaking, never to flow out. Now that it’s receding, Mr. Stelmach finds himself in a spot. He can’t run a deficit, because that would be “illegal.” And he can’t change the law to recognize reality, because that would be heresy to the One True Faith of his Market Fundamentalist co-religionists.

So, instead, we are told Alberta is merely running a technical deficit. There’s a term for this too. It’s “being hoist with your own petard.”

Not that Mr. Stelmach is likely to pay much of a price for this foolishness. This is Alberta after all.

In his interview with the Journal, Mr. Stelmach had one other interesting thing to say: “I’m from a Ukrainian background,” he explained, “so I know my aunts and uncles and mom and dad would always put a little money in a sock someplace, or between the mattresses. That’s what we have in Alberta, to cushion the blow.”

To those of us who understand the concept of interest, this explanation may not be entirely reassuring. Nevertheless, if you ever wondered what became of all those billions in uncollected royalties flagged by Auditor General Fred Dunne back in 2007, maybe there’s your explanation. They’re in a sock somewhere, or tucked between the mattresses, possibly in a luxury condominium in Palm Springs. You know, only technically gone.

Saint City News column: Governor General must say ‘no’ to Senate stuffing

This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no business stacking the Senate with his cronies! Governor General Michaëlle Jean should use her powers to stop him.

Let me explain. As of right now, Mr. Harper does not have the confidence of the House of Commons. In our Canadian system of Parliamentary democracy, this means he simply does not have the right to make appointments to the Senate or the courts.

It really is that simple. Nevertheless, true to his authoritarian form, Mr. Harper has announced that over the next few days he intends to pack 18 vacancies in Canada’s appointed Upper House with his political pals.

This would be fair enough in normal times – but these are not normal times, at least for the moment. For while Canadians may have elected enough Conservatives in the Oct. 14 federal general election for Mr. Harper to form a minority government, that government has now lost the confidence of the House of Commons.

It was Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s highly partisan economic statement on Nov. 27 that did the seemingly impossible and brought three disparate and divided opposition parties together in a makeshift coalition to defeat the government.

Quite a lot has happened since then, of course, not least Ms. Jean’s unprecedented decision to allow Mr. Harper to continue to play until Jan. 26 while Canadian democracy sits in the penalty box and the swift departure of the hapless Opposition leader who cobbled together the ramshackle coalition of the barely willing.

Nevertheless, literally the last word on this sorry affair is that Mr. Harper’s government does not have the confidence of the House – without which it should fall. That word: The agreement signed Dec. 1 by the three opposition party leaders stating they had lost confidence in the government and had reached an accommodation to form an uneasy governing alliance.

Whether or not Ms. Jean followed sound constitutional practice in allowing Mr. Harper to avoid a vote by proroguing a House that had done no business, at least she had the excuse that there were no precedents to guide her. In the matter of a prime minister without the confidence of the House trying to appoint cronies to the Senate, however, there is a clear Canadian precedent.

The year: 1896. The prime minister: Charles Tupper. The circumstances: Quite similar.

Prime minister Tupper [pictured at left], at any rate, having lost his majority in a close election, tried to use his last hours in office to pack the Senate with his Conservative buddies before the movers turned up.

One of Ms. Jean’s predecessors as Governor General, His Excellency the Earl of Aberdeen [pictured at right], did what a dutiful head of state must do when a prime minister insists on making appointments he lacks Parliamentary authority to make. To wit: He just said “No!”

Remember, in the Canadian Constitution, the Governor General not only has the right to make appointments on the advice of the prime minister, she (or he) has the right to refuse them.

Lord Aberdeen refused to make the appointments on the solid ground that Tupper no longer enjoyed the confidence of the House and therefore had no right to advise the Governor General to make appointments to the Senate.

Mr. Harper may soon be able to regain the confidence of the House. He can do his Senate stuffing with a clear conscience then. In the mean time, however, any appointment he makes while facing the possibility of a non-confidence vote the moment Parliament reconvenes obviously lacks democratic legitimacy.

Ms. Jean not only has the right to refuse Mr. Harper’s improper appointments to the Senate, she has a duty to do so.

Invasion of the party snatchers: ‘Tories’? I think not!

Call them Conservatives if you must. (They’re not really, they’re radical nuts, but at least it’s their form of self-identification.) By all means, call them ReFarmers. Call them the American Party of Canada. (You’ll be speaking the truth.) But, please, please, don’t call them Tories. They’re just not.

Being a headline writer at heart, and once by trade, it pains me to say this. Grits and Tories were such convenient headline shorthand. Alas, the term Grits (for Liberals, of course) has pretty much died out nowadays, except in the pages of the Toronto Star. The Liberals have precious little grit any more, sad to say.

Now Tories too must go, I’m afraid.

What’s a Tory? Well, Tories started out being the anti-Whigs, but let’s not get complicated about this. In the Canadian political tradition, Tories began as Empire Loyalists, that is, British patriots in North America who sided with the Crown against the American traitors. Those that were not murdered for their loyalty were robbed and driven from their homes. They landed in British North America, what today we would call political refugees. Not surprisingly, they and their descendants became fierce Canadians, conservative in the best sense.

By association, Tory became the shorthand for the Conservative Party of John A. Macdonald, fiercely protectionist builders of Canada, and by near-apostolic succession the Conservatives of John Diefenbaker and even Joe Clark. One could even countenance calling Myron Baloney a Tory, by lineage if not conviction.

But Stephen Harper? A Tory? I think not. These are not the conservative descendants of the Empire Loyalists, faithful to Canada and the True North Strong and Free. Harper’s Conservatives (nothing progressive about them) are the Republicanized pod-people, worshippers of every American idea except the good ones, who engineered the reverse takeover of the PCs during the Invasion of the Party Snatchers, circa 2003.

They hate Canada. As Stephen Harper said, to them Canada isn’t the finest, freest country on the planet, it’s nothing more than “a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.” They love the Good Ole USA – sclerotic Senate, bloody wars, Third-World health system and all. If any of them blunder into this blog by mistake, their Americanized skin will crawl when they hear the American “revolutionaries” described as treasonous.

They are not Tories.

This is a pity. “Tory” rolls euphoniously off the tongue, and off the keyboard, especially as criticism. But even those of us who disagreed with most of what the Tories said, could honour them for their commitment to our country and their antecedents.

But not the American Party of Canada. Let them find some other nickname!

Perfesser Dave answers readers’ questions about the constitutional crisis

Question: Are you a real Professor?

Perfesser Dave: Yes I am. It is an actual fact that whenever I am waiting for a streetcar late at night, someone comes up to me and says, “Hey Perfesser! How ya doin’?” This used to happen a lot outside the Wheatsheaf pub at Bathurst and King. The Wheatsheaf isn’t there any more, which illustrates the profound contempt many Central Canadians have for us Sons of the Western Soil and why we should be thinking of forming our own Sovereignty Association. Also, I used to teach a course in How Canadian Government Works to almost a 150 students a year at the Siberian Autonomous Institute of Telepathy (SAIT) in Calgary. The lectures were at 8 a.m. and it was so bad that sometimes my head hurt from all their hangovers! Most of them slept through everything, even my sly little professorial jokes. Still, the only lecture that put every damn one of them to sleep for the whole damn hour was called The Reserve Powers of the Governor General. If anyone was awake for that one, give me a call! My goal as a teacher was to humiliate my students and to turn them into Believers in the True Value of the Canadian Senate. It worked on both counts, but only with the ones that were awake. Every year I made them write the same test New Canadians have to write if they want to become citizens. Every one of them failed except a middle-aged lady from the Indian Subcontinent who wandered into the exam room by mistake. They bitterly resent me for it to this day.

Question: OK. Thanks for the explanation, Perfesser. The prime minister says it’s an Affront to Democracy for the Opposition to vote non-confidence in his government. What is undemocratic about a majority of elected members of the House of Commons voting non-confidence in the government? Weren’t we taught in school that this was the foundation of responsible government? Please illuminate my fuzzification.

Perfesser Dave: It’s like the fluoridation referendum in Calgary. Stupid white hatters kept voting it down, which wasn’t what they were supposed to do. City Council kept bringing it back until they got it right. Now that they have, Fluoridation is Forever. Got that? Turns out fluoridation makes us into Tories, not Commies, though, so it’s OK. Where was I? Oh yeah, responsible government. If you’re a typical Albertan – as I am – some teacher probably told you this was supposed to mean that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet were responsible to the House of Commons, whose members we elected. If our members decided they didn’t have any more confidence in the PM, they could vote non-confidence in his government, the government would have to fall and there would either be an election or the Opposition would take over. GG’s choice. Got all that? Well, it turns out this is all hooey. They’ll tell you it comes from the Constitution of the United Kingdom. Well, excuse me! What Constitution of the United Kingdom? Where is it written down that the government has to put up with this nonsense? I’ll tell you where: Nowhere! Nope, responsible government means government that’s responsible. You know, like it privatizes stuff all the time, buys a lot of Airbus jets, cuts taxes for bazillionaires and listens to the Fraser Institute about getting the hell out of Medicare. Canadians used to get it wrong all the time and elect socialists, and separatists and, God forbid, even liberals. Well, a couple of elections back we got it right and now we don’t need votes in the House of Commons any more. Some experts don’t even think we need elections now that we have a responsible government. Capische?

Question: OK, I guess. But what is democratic about locking the doors of Parliament so its members are unable to vote non-confidence in the government? Wasn’t the last person to try this, with somewhat mixed results, King Charles I?

Perfesser Dave: See my answer to the question above. Now that we have Real Responsible Government (RRG ™), anything that would stop our government from being responsible would be pretty darn irresponsible, don’t you think? I’m pretty sure the U.S. Constitution says so. It certainly says that we have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as long as that doesn’t involve same-sex marriages or doing weird stuff with stem cells. We didn’t have that right in Canada for a long time, but now we do, thank heaven, thanks to our prime minister who understood that until he came along we were “content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.” So it’s not undemocratic to lock the doors of Parliament to irresponsible parliamentarians, it’s the right thing to do. As for King Charles, Canada has never had a king named Charles. Are you talking about the the dog guy? Those dogs are yappy and kickable. Here in Western Canada we like big dogs, like Malamutes, and the only king we care for is King James. That goes double for you Billy King, if you happen to be listening in!

Question: Why are the same Albertans who are most outraged at the thought a Liberal-NDP Coalition might work with the separatist Bloc Quebecois also often the first to talk about forming a Western separatist party?

Perfesser Dave: Western separatism is different because … because … yeah, because we’re treated so badly out here! That’s it! You think all this oil’s easy to deal with? Look at the way the price is always going up and down. And having all our seats in Parliament held by members of the ReFarm Party, I mean the Conservatives … except for Rahim Jaffer’s, of course… Think of the awful responsibility! And all those Central Canadians do is complain and undemocratically try to topple our Alberta prime minister. It’s a freakin’ outrage, that’s what it is! So we’re justified, OK? As for those other separatists, it’s not the same thing at all!

Question: Just wondering, but why was it an outrage bordering on treason for Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton and Stephane Dion to sign a letter to the Governor General on Dec. 1, 2008, pledging to co-operate to form a government excluding the party with the most seats in the House, but it was quite OK for Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton and Stephen Harper to sign a letter to the Governor General on Sept. 9, 2004, pledging to co-operate to form a government excluding the party with the most seats in the House?

Perfesser Dave: Well that’s easy! It’s because the letter in 2004 would have gotten rid of Paul Martin and made Stephen Harper the prime minister, and then we would have had responsible government and we wouldn’t have needed confusing old votes any more. The one in 2008 would have gotten rid of Stephen Harper and meant we had that old, out-of-date Nineteenth-Century-style responsible government. That’s just so, like, Sixties! Also, when Stephen Harper was working with the separatists in 2004 he was doing it for Canada, so it was OK. My Canada includes the Fraser Institute!

Question: Are you sure you’re a real professor?

Perfesser Dave: What’s that? I can’t hear you. The streetcar bell keeps ringing!

Got petitions? Here’s a response

Have you been receiving unsolicited email petitions in your in-box? You know, rants about the “undemocratic” opposition and their “treasonous” coalition plans from your right-wing brother-in-law or from a well-meaning colleague. Here’s a response that I sent to my colleagues after we all got one of these at work. Please feel welcome to cut, paste and reuse all or any part of it.

* * *

Excuse me! This is a Conservative site that asks us to sign a petition AGAINST the NDP-Liberal Coalition, which if it were to become the government of Canada would work in all of our interests.

By signing this petition you are supporting:

- A ban on the right to strike.

- An attack on pay equity.

- A rollback of the salaries of public employees.

- A do-nothing economic policy that will destroy Canadian jobs and the hopes of Canadian working people.

- A fire-sale sell-off of publicly owned assets to the government’s corporate cronies.

- A U.S.-style attempt to “defund the left” by attacking parties’ sources of money.

Claims by the right that creation of a coalition would not be democratic are errant nonsense. Consider these facts:

- More than 60 per cent of voters in the Oct. 14 federal election voted for the parties that would support the Coalition.

- Harper’s Conservatives do not have the confidence of our democratically elected House of Commons.

- In our Constitutional monarchy the role of the Opposition is to be a “government in waiting” if the prime minister loses the support of the House of Commons.

The only undemocratic and unconstitutional part of this drama is the prime minister’s ongoing attempts to prevent a vote of confidence by our elected representatives from taking place.

In the next few days you can expect a full-blown corporate-financed Conservative advertising campaign that will be rich in lies, threats and spin. There will also be many more “petitions” like this one, all of which will be designed to get you to support powerful groups that do not have your interests at heart.

If you want to sign a petition that SUPPORTS this Coalition for positive democratic change, as I do, please go to www.62percentmajority.ca .

David Climenhaga

No truck with separatist traitors or spendthrift socialists! … Uh, hold on, can I get back to you about this?

No truck or trade with the treasonous separatist traitors! No association with irresponsible tax-crazy spendthrift socialists! What kind of a man would sit down and sign a letter – a letter, for God’s sake! actually sign it! – with these snakes? Good lord! It’s treason! It’s an outrage! It’s insanity! It’s an offence to all things Albertan … I mean, Canadian!

Listen to this vile epistle (and you’ll just have to forgive me if I throw in some commentary) sent by the opposition traitors to the Governor General: “As leaders of the opposition parties, we are well aware that, given the [present] minority government, you could be asked by the Prime Minister to dissolve … Parliament at any time should the House of Commons fail to support some part of the government’s program.” The cheek! And how bloody undemocratic! Can you imagine? Borders on sedition!

They are proposing a completely undemocratic takeover of the government by parties who didn’t even get enough seats in the election to form the government! As if that weren’t enough, they admit to their own odious conspiracy: “We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation.”

After admitting they have been plotting together – with socialists, for God’s sake, with separatists! – they beg for the chance simply to replace Canada’s properly, democratically elected government. No election! No consultation with the Canadian people whatsoever! Can you imagine? Here’s how they put it, the evil little sneaks: “We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority.”

And get this! (I tell you, this could only happen in Canada!) This poisonous little screed is signed – openly signed! – by the irresponsible tax-and-spend socialist Jack Layton, the separatist Gilles Duceppe, who wants to destroy Canada, and … wait for it … STEPHEN HARPER!

Uh … just give me a minute folks. I’ll get right back to you about this. …

* * *

Let’s get a grip, people. It’s time for a reality check.

The letter quoted above really was signed by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, and New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton.

The date was Sept. 9, 2004.

The Governor General was Adrienne Clarkson.

The minority government was Liberal. (That’s the word I replaced with “present” in the first line of the letter, just so I wouldn’t give the game away.)

The Prime Minister was Paul Martin.

At the risk of defending Stephen Harper, which I profoundly hate to do, his action in attempting to get the Governor General to approve a change in government without an election in 2004 was entirely legitimate, proper and within the rules of our Parliamentary democracy. Had he succeeded, no one would have had a legitimate complaint that the process was “undemocratic” in any way. Moreover, talking with the democratically elected leader of the nominally independentiste BQ posed no threat whatsoever to the future of Canada, and indeed may have helped to bring Quebec nationalists more into the Canadian family.

Exactly the same is true now, of course, of the efforts by the Liberal-NDP Coalition (with which the Bloc has agreed to co-operate and put aside its separatist ways for the life of the agreement) to try to persuade the current Governor General to let them form a government in the event the present prime minister, Mr. Harper, loses a confidence vote.

Just such a fate likely awaits Mr. Harper if the matter comes to a vote any time soon.

The hysterical Conservative campaign against this completely constitutional opposition tactic – which was brought on by Mr. Harper’s own divisive and radical approach to politics – is intellectually dishonest, completely over the top and treats the electorate as idiots. Were it not for the good sense of Canadians, it would be outright dangerous.

In addition, it is – as we can clearly see from Mr. Harper’s own actions in 2004 – utterly hypocritical.

The sooner we get a prime minister who instead of practicing destructive partisan tricks will deal with Canada’s economic crisis – as leaders in other countries throughout the world are doing – the better.

A Meditation on Section 184 of the Criminal Code

If anyone, in any way
(Mechanical or otherwise)
Taps a line on which one says
Anything, or merely sighs,
The court must teach them at the end
That they’ve committed an offence
And it’s imperative they spend
Up to five years behind a fence.
This punishment is fit, but not
As fit as finding out the cost
To the PM of what they’ve wrought:
To wit: defeat. Confidence lost!
What hero will these jailbirds pick?
It’s not George Bush. It’s Tricky Dick!