Archive for March, 2011

World to New York Times: ‘drop dead!’

Most of us would pay a newsboy, like these guys, who were the original news paywall. But pay for news on the Web? Forget it! (New York Public Library photo.) Below: the Times’s iPad app and, what the heck, another newsboy.


A shorter version of this post originally appeared in last Thursday’s edition of Edmonton’s See Magazine.

Say goodbye to the New York Times.

Take this any way you want. Since the Times has decided to erect a “paywall” around its unique and precious content, lots of readers will have to say goodbye to the paper’s copy. For one reason or another, perhaps because their only access is through a public library terminal, they just won’t get to go there any more.

No matter from the Times’s perspective – those readers are mostly poor and their loss won’t make much difference to a fat old bottom line.

But there are literally millions more like me, who won’t pay a dime to read anything on the Internet.

Many of us are not particularly worried about on-line data security any more, so we’ll pay over the Internet for tangible goods or meaningful services. So, for example, we’ll buy stuff on eBay, use an on-line service for domain names or purchase software.

But pay for newspaper copy, even from a good newspaper? It’s just not going to happen.

This reality, the New York Times is going to find, is going to make a difference to its bottom line, and not in a good way.

The Times’s St. Paddy’s Day announcement that it was putting a paywall around its material – starting in Canada, in the great American business tradition of screwing their Canadian customers the firstest and the mostest – is only the latest chapter in the tragicomic story of desperate newspaper publishers trying to think of ways to wring profit from the Internet.

As the Times reported back in 2009, “media companies of all stripes built their business models on the assumption that advertising would continue to pour into their coffers. But with advertising in a tailspin, they now must shrink, shut down or find some way to shift more of the cost burden to consumers … who have so blissfully become accustomed to web content that costs nothing.” (You’ll get no link to this story from here, unfortunately for the Times’s advertisers. It’s just too inconvenient for readers, secure, as it’s supposed to be, behind the Times’s paywall.)

Alas for those media companies, many readers have realized they pay quite enough for Internet service, thanks very much, and there’s plenty to read for free. The likes of the BBC and Al Jazeera, for example, won’t be erecting paywalls for their own reasons, so guess where readers will go! New groups – churches, labour federations and businesses – may start offering news to attract readers to other messages.

The Times tried a paywall in 2007, and it didn’t work well then, either. The paper’s paywall, it turned out, wasn’t that hard to breach, courtesy of helpful bloggers who reprinted articles and blog search engines like Technorati.

The new paywall is full of holes too, at least for now. The principal loophole that the Times was willing to talk about in the runup to Paywall Day was that readers, able to read 20 stories a month for free, wouldn’t have to pay if they link to additional stories via Google, instead of going straight to the paper’s home page.

But it turns out there’s an even bigger loophole, big enough to drive through in a Mac truck loaded with newsprint. The Times’s paywall turns out to be ludicrously easy to circumvent – so easy, in fact, it’d be no fun if I told you! It’s obvious, however, that the brainiacs behind the Times’s paywall are counting on computer users not to know the most basic things about how their own Web browsers work.

For readers who do pay, the price is steep: $15 for four weeks, or $195 a year. Your iPad app will count toward your 20 stories, too.

On-line advertisers who pay for click-throughs from Times stories will be horrified to learn the impact this will have on how many people see their ads. They’ll flee to publications without paywalls. Those that advertise on iPad apps will find many users just delete the Times app. Because the paywall will interfere with links to Times stories, even more revenue will disappear.

Since the Times makes $300 million US a year from digital ads, Wired Magazine predicts losses will overwhelm the wall’s $24-million potential yearly revenue, never mind its $40-million development cost.

The World Wide Web enhanced and amplified the influence of newspaper proprietors enormously – especially for the Times as the world’s newspaper of record. Unfortunately, it also ruined the business model that created huge profits for more than a century.

While the Times’s editors may think they’re had the greatest publishing idea since Gutenberg, nobody but a few bazillionaires will pay what they hope, especially since climbing over the paywall presents only a mildly interesting challenge.

In time, when the paywall results in serious on-line advertising revenue deterioration, the Times’s owners will have to rethink their decision. They may give up, or they may make the Times even tougher to access.

Either way, they will have lost their pre-eminent position as the world’s most important newspaper. And who will care?

The world is about to tell the New York Times to drop dead.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Fashion tips from Danielle Smith – plus, it still takes a real man to wear a bow tie

Yikes! Danielle Smith in a little black frock by David Meister. Below: A confident young man in a nice polka-dot bow-tie and a moustache, trying to think of a way to steal a hot stove. Below your once and future blogger: The Calgary Herald’s notion of a sophisticated bow-tie wearer, circa 2011. Bottom: Some other guy in a bow-tie.

The things you come across when you troll the Calgary Herald for fashion tips from Danielle Smith.

Here’s a headline from the March 25 edition of the Herald’s Swerve Magazine: “Real Men Wear Bow Ties.”

Looks like the boys at the Bunker – or not the boys, actually, seeing as the author of this piece is someone named Meghan Jessiman, assistant editor of the publication – have been doing a little trolling themselves through the Herald’s digitized morgue.

Here’s a lead from an excellent story in the Aug. 28, 1990, edition of the same Calgary Herald – the “D” Section, I’m sorry to report. “It takes a real man to wear a bow-tie.”

The author of this obviously deathless observation, you ask? One David Climenhaga.

His account went on: “…C’mon, any sissy can strap on a long tie or wear no tie at all. Try walking into a room full of grease monkeys in stained coveralls and asking directions to the foreman’s office, or trying to get a recalcitrant big city taxi driver to extinguish his cigar – if you’re wearing a nice polka-dot bow-tie, they’ll know right off who’s boss.”

I just need to make the point here that the original piece got several things right that the pale imitation did not tie up neatly with a pretty paisley bow. For example:

NOW:What’s the secret to tying a bow tie? I wish I could tell you, but I’m a terrible teacher. It took me about three months to learn from YouTube videos…”

THEN: “Nonsense. If you can tie your shoes, you can tie a bow-tie. … Plus, you never, never have to worry about whether the end should be above or below your belt.”

NOW:Are clip-ons a do or a don’t? A definite don’t.”

THEN: “This one is spread by people who recognize that it is axiomatic that men in bow-ties are Real Men, but can’t tie one. … You can honorably wear a clip-on bow-tie if you’re a policeman on duty, are under seven years of age or are missing three or more fingers.”

NOW: “Anyone can rock the bow tie.”

THEN: “Isn’t a man in a bow-tie saying, ‘I can get my soup to my mouth without spilling’? Ask yourself, what could be more confident? (Answer: a man in a bow-tie with a moustache.)”

I’m sincerely sorry that I can’t provide you with a link to this whole brilliant piece, but, like, it was written so long ago that nothing was digitized, not even the fingers you need to tie a bow-tie, if you can believe it! But, look, if this comparison doesn’t chart the decline of the media over the past two decades, I don’t know what the heck does!”

Oh well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – that and linking to your blog posts, for which you also don’t get paid by the Calgary Herald.

OK, enough fashion tips from Yours Truly. Now, where was I? Oh yeah, fashion tips from the Wildrose Alliance leader.

“At 39, Danielle Smith is the leader of a provincial political party,” chirped the Herald, just this week. “Before long she intends to be the Premier of Alberta. Everyone who knows her takes this ambition seriously. After all, her party polls equally to the Conservatives who have been in power since 1971. She remains the only serious threat to the status quo in Alberta and she has arrived at centre stage seemingly out of nowhere.

“Marlaina Danielle Smith, named eponymously after a Frankie Valli song, was born on April 1, 1971, in the Grace Hospital, Calgary Alberta.” (Author’s note: I am not making this up!) “Forgo the simple observation on date of birth and take note. Ms. Smith was born in the same year the Conservatives came to power in Alberta. The temptation is to claim she has been running against them literally all her life.”

Words actually fail me! On April Fools Day, and in a now privatized hospital!

Words did not fail the Herald’s many anonymous commenters, which only goes to show that there are just some things one oughtn’t to share with readers, like your blogger’s bow-ties and the putative future Alberta premier’s little black frock by David Meister.

For those of you still stuck in the un-chic and un-directional reality-based community, please note that recent polls continue to show the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta leading the Wildrose Alliance by a comfortable margin.

Speaking the unspeakable: Do Canadian voters really care about coalitions?

The coalition idea, as now perceived by the Canadian politeratti. Conservative election advertising may not be exactly as illustrated. Oh, wait! That’s Mr. Harper’s 2004 coalition idea!

According to the Canadian chattering classes, it’s the political sin that dares not speak its name! But does anyone else really care about coalitions any more?

And I’m not talking about the one Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed to build with the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP back in 2004.

That’s mostly been consigned to the official Memory Hole, except at Canada’s only remaining non-neo-con daily newspaper, the Toronto Star. The Star will be punished, presumably, if Mr. Harper gets his majority.

Nor am I talking about Mr. Harper’s minority Parliaments, which from a commonsense perspective are nothing more than a species of coalition for the time they remain afloat.

For that matter, I’m not really talking about the coalition that never was, but which nevertheless looms large now on Canada’s political radar scope. That is to say, the would-be coalition of December 2008 between the Liberals under Stephane Dion and the New Democrats under Jack Layton, with the Bloc Quebecois cast as a flying buttress, supporting the rickety structure from the outside.

That one has relevance to this discussion because of the frenzied reaction to it by some voters drummed up by Mr. Harper’s Conservative Rage Machine in a moment of nearly hysterical fury at the thought that what they viewed as rightfully theirs might be snatched away by a perfectly democratic and Constitutional Parliamentary tactic.

The Canadian Tea Party Moment ginned up by Mr. Harper and tacitly encouraged by a Liberal MP named Michael Ignatieff, who was then eyeing his leader’s job, was what entrenched the idea of a Parliamentary coalition as the C-Word of Canadian politics. That is, the most obscene thing that could be uttered within our borders, something not suitable to be spoken aloud in the presence of small children, clergypeople or the faint-of-heart.

Indeed, the fear the word inspires in political circles is so great that we were able to witness the enjoyable spectacle of both Mr. Ignatieff and Prime Minister Harper uttering sputtering denials that they would ever contemplate such a thing, even if a willing electorate were to beg passionately for a governmental moment of national unity!

I can tell you with certainty that any time one mentions this word, even on a humble blog, the Rage Machine is turned as if with the flick of a switch, and reams of anonymous invective is sure to flow from the zitty-faced Tiny Tories who race to their laptops in the service of their party.

And I can speculate with reasonable confidence that the spooked leaders of any of the Opposition parties will likely be as displeased to see this topic publicly discussed as any of the dyspeptic teenagers employed by Mr. Harper’s campaign to fling ordure and opprobrium at the prime minister’s long list of enemies

But really, people, does the idea of a Parliamentary coalition matter a whit to Martha and Henry (et Martine et Henri) in their kitchens throughout the land, or is this notion that ordinary Canadians just hate coalitions just another peculiar weed that’s sprung up in the unwholesome soil and steamy climate of the Ottawa Valley?

Oh, sure, there’s probably a poll out there somewhere that supports this conclusion. But you can get any answer you want if you craft the appropriate Russian Ballot question – “Do you want a majority government or would you prefer to see demonic forces of anarchy and plague loosed upon the land?”

Is there a body of voters in Canada sufficiently large to sway a national election, but so disengaged by reality as to believe anything they are told in a TV clip that features a Conservative politician? Anything’s possible, I suppose, but you’ve gotta have some faith in your neighbours, not to mention the inability of Conservative provincial governments’ education policies to deliver the level of ignorance they seem to be aiming for!

I mean, really folks, surely by now it has sunk in to most Canadians that even if our American cousins don’t do it, politicians back in our Mother Country do it, upside down politicians in the antipodes do it, Mr. Harper’s Israeli friends do it, and even the Dutch do it … and the Dutch keep everything clean!

We’ve had a few years now to become used to this idea. Doesn’t it seem likely that among ordinary Canadians – if not the chattering classes and the professional politeratti – the whole idea of a coalition, and whether or not you have one, is a total non-issue?

Isn’t it probable that what Canadians really want from their government is that whoever gets elected to run the country simply makes things work?

Isn’t it possible that Mr. Ignatieff did far more harm to himself by getting rattled and denying everything than he would have if he’d just manned up and said, “we’re campaigning to win a majority, but of course we’d consider a coalition if the circumstances call for it and it’s good for the country”?

Well, never mind. The C-Word is completely, totally and utterly off the Canadian political agenda … until the next time Mr. Harper needs to consider one.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Jack Layton’s campaign opener in Edmonton suggests NDP strategy to come

NDP Leader Jack Layton high-fives a small well-wisher after his Edmonton rally yesterday. Below: Layton and Edmonton-area candidates Linda Duncan and Lewis Cardinal.

With a sly nod to the Canadian reality of strategic voting and an open attack on the pathetic way the Harper Conservatives take loyal Alberta voters for granted, New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton opened his national election campaign in Edmonton last night.

There was a crowd of several hundred hardy Alberta New Democrats and loud rock music, of course, but that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for television-driven political campaigns nowadays. It was the part of what Mr. Layton had to say that is certain to get short shrift from the mainstream media that mattered more than the hoopla.

More interesting than Mr. Layton’s evocation of the reality that in the Edmonton area today it’s only New Democrats who have even a slim chance of knocking off Conservatives in the May 2 federal election or of the shabby way the federal government kissed off the city’s Expo bid last year, was his acknowledgement of health care as an issue that really matters to Canadians.

It didn’t hurt, either, that he got this message across after hobbling onto the stage at the spacey Art Galley of Alberta building in downtown Edmonton, supporting himself with an aluminum crutch.

Mr. Layton’s comments about health care – an area where Conservatives of either provincial or federal stripes, in this province or elsewhere, have precious little to offer – may give a strong hint of where the NDP campaign is likely to go. Mr. Layton mocked Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s promise to see that 100 more family physicians graduate in Canada, noting that would be one for every 50,000 Canadians who don’t have a family doctor now.

If you’re going to have health care without lineups, you have to plan for population growth and change so that you have the physicians in place where they’re needed – something that, as Mr. Layton pointed out, is obviously not the Conservatives’ strong suit.

“Your health care here in Edmonton is as bad as it’s ever been,” he observed. “You’ve got cutbacks, you’ve got long waits in the emergency room, you’ve got doctors being intimidated for defending their patients and you don’t hear a peep about it from Stephen Harper and his Conservatives.”

Of course, there’s rarely much need for the federal Conservatives to peep about anything in this province – most Albertans who bother to vote, do so for Conservatives no matter what, then complain about the better government services received in provinces with feistier electorates.

This message won’t catch fire with the national media, but it’s an issue that will have more than a little resonance with plenty of Canadians in lots of places. This is especially true since it’s coming from a guy who has obviously just had some first-hand experience with the Canadian health care system after treatment in Ontario for prostate cancer and hip-replacement surgery that must have left the fitness-obsessed Mr. Layton grinding his teeth.

Since the state of Mr. Layton’s health is obviously going to be an issue, especially if his message starts to make inroads against the Conservatives, let’s state the obvious now: he never would have received a hip replacement if his cancer wasn’t responding to treatment. That thought should lay the matter to rest, but don’t bet on it in the current ugly and Republicanized environment of Canadian election campaigns under Prime Minister Harper.

Speaking of which, while Mr. Layton praised Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan, the only Alberta politician to knock off a Conservative in the 2008 federal election, Conservative operatives were phoning householders in Ms. Duncan’s riding pretending to the non-partisan-sounding “Voter Outreach Centre” and seeking support for the local Conservative candidate.

Oh well, worse things will happen before this is over.

Since the NDP has a distant chance in two other Edmonton ridings, those candidates were introduced as well by Mr. Layton, along with the brave souls contesting seats in Alberta’s hinterland.

In Edmonton-Centre, native activist and business owner Lewis Cardinal is bearing the orange banner against the lamentable Laurie Hawn, whose principal achievement seems to have been getting a million smackers in federal “stimulus” funds for the tony and exclusive Glenora Club in his riding.

Former Alberta MLA Ray Martin is contesting the Edmonton-East riding where the current Conservative MP, Peter Goldring, is best known for visiting the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies in 2004 to, as the Wikipedia put it, “explore the possibility of annexation of the islands to Canada.”

But really, despite the enthusiasm at yesterday’s rally, everyone in the Art Gallery lobby knew it’s an uphill battle for any non-Conservative, no matter how hardworking or thoughtful, to win election in this province.

It says something for the optimism of social democrats who settle in a place where the snow is still flying on March 26, that, like Mr. Layton, they soldier on regardless.

Speaking of which, on a personal note, I must say it choked me up a little to shake Mr. Layton’s hand while he demonstrated that in politics, as in showbiz, sometimes the show must go on. It momentarily reminded me of a similar, if quieter, event I attended with my late father in 1963, where I shook hands with Tommy Douglas, another Canadian political trooper who kept the Canadian faith against the odds.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Forecasting federal election trends: two seemingly divergent national polls are really pretty close

Were the opposition drinking their own bathwater? Let’s hope not! Below: Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton.

When we contemplate the federal Liberals and New Democrats, many of us in English Canada who are opposed to the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper are inevitably asking ourselves today: “What were they thinking?”

The answer, presumably, hinges on the idea that it doesn’t take much movement in public opinion to make a significant difference in the outcome of a federal election in a country in Canada’s particular circumstances.

Two national polls taken in the last few days illustrate this.

The Nanos Research poll, which was in the field between March 12 and March 15, and the Ipsos Reid poll that was in the field on March 22 and March 23, seemingly showed dramatically divergent results.

If the first is to be believed, the situation after election day will be virtually unchanged from the present – another Conservative minority without enough seats between the Liberals and the NDP to form a coalition even if they were contemplating such a thing.

The second suggests a comfortable Conservative majority, probably of about 20 seats, certainly enough to contemplate ruling the country unthreatened by political challenges for a full constitutional term.

Yet if we look closely at the two polls’ results, only four percentage points apart in their indication of popular support for the Harper Conservatives, they are really telling the same story – each within the margin of error of the other.

“That 4 per cent is what makes the difference between a comfortable majority and a minority, so movement by the electorate of three or four points is hugely critical,” said Alberta pollster Janet Brown yesterday.

Alas, observes Ms. Brown, a poll of only about 1,000 respondents (Nanos had 1,216; Ipsos Reid had 1,001) is not really big enough to give a clear picture of what Canadians are about to do in a country of regions with vastly different voting behaviour and traditions.

Fair enough, but looked at without the filter of spin and the far-right headline ideology that drives most of the mainstream media, the picture painted by the two polls has the ring of truth. Probably, if the election were scheduled to take place this morning, instead of a few weeks from now, Mr. Harper and his Conservatives would eke out a majority a little smaller than the upper end of the Ipsos Reid poll’s range, which was touted so assiduously by Postmedia News.

What the situation will be on election day can only be speculated upon for the moment, of course, although Ms. Brown cautions us that for the past three federal elections polls have been very volatile.

Which leads us back to the original question, what were the opposition parties thinking when they declared the government to be in contempt of Parliament and brought it down? Really, why force an election when the results seem likely to be worse than the situation you face now?

It’s hard to shake the feeling that in the close and steamy atmosphere of partisan Ottawa, the opposition parties had drunk enough of their own bathwater to start to believe it tasted like champagne.

Can the opposition successfully campaign on Conservative scandals that don’t seem to be resonating with Canadians? This seems unlikely in the absence of an outrage that suggests to voters a pattern, as opposed to a one-off example of a minister with bad judgment or a dirty old man in an influential position.

Still, from the Liberal perspective, yesterday’s no-confidence vote makes a little sense. As suggested here before, this is really Leader Michael Ignatieff’s last chance, so from where he sits, why not roll the dice? As for the rest of his party, if he loses, at least they can get on with the task of finding a leader who resonates with Canadians – perhaps one named Trudeau.

From the point of view of the New Democrats under Jack Layton, the decision to vote with the Liberals is hard to comprehend from anything but the perspective of idealism – understandable, but historically not a harbinger of success in a field rightly characterized by Otto von Bismarck as “the art of the possible.”

However, campaigns make a difference, so perhaps the opposition parties are confident they can campaign effectively enough to edge the result into less dangerous territory. So it is profoundly to be hoped!

Given this general situation, it seems very likely the Conservatives will run a negative and ugly campaign designed to suppress the opposition vote through fear mongering and innuendo. If this involves alienating Quebec with harmful consequences for the country over time, so be it.

Such a strategy of distraction, division and vote suppression has proved successful in other jurisdictions for far-right parties with similar platforms that inspire misgivings among voters. After all, Mr. Harper’s instinct is always to go for the jugular.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

The future of the New Democratic Party and Canada: the real West wants in

Your blogger with the dynamic Dave Barrett, who is enjoying his retirement and therefore unlikely to be available to lead the NDP … pity! Below: Audrey McLaughlin, Dave Barrett in his prime, Preston Manning in his.

If the New Democratic Party had chosen Dave Barrett as federal leader in 1989, they’d be the Official Opposition in Ottawa today.

More important, it is said here that if the NDP had selected Mr. Barrett over Audrey McLaughlin, Stephen Harper would have never been prime minister and the Reconstituted Reform Party of Canada or whatever it’s called would not be on the verge of forming a majority government.

Indeed, given the history of the Liberal Party of Canada during the period after 1989, we could well have had a national NDP government by now, or at least have been looking forward to the strong possibility of that happening soon, instead of the current potentially catastrophic situation.

Indeed, Mr. Barrett as Opposition leader could have heralded a reverse takeover of the Liberals by the NDP, just as in fact was engineered by the far-right Reform Party of Canada to subsume the much more inclusive Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. This could have led to a long period of progressive and positive government in our country instead of the neocon nightmare we now face.

Alas, these are all what-ifs, bordering on Technicolor pipedreams.

But the harsh reality is that, no matter what, the dynamic Mr. Barrett would have been a far more effective leader than the well-meaning Ms. McLaughlin had the political talent to be.

More important, Mr. Barrett had the right instincts about what would appeal to Western Canadian voters and would be good for Canada. That is why he opposed the Meech Lake Accord and could give only half-hearted support, which he later concluded had been an error, to the Charlottetown Accord.

In the event, the NDP opted to pursue the improbable if not impossible dream of forming a pan-Canadian social democratic alliance centred in Ontario and Quebec instead of the region where it had its start and enjoyed its greatest potential support. Alas, support in Ontario was half-hearted. In Quebec it was virtually non-existent, since other, nationalist parties occupied the social democratic territory.

Inevitably, this meant support for constitutional policies that were not in the interests of Western Canadians, and which alienated the West from the party to which it had given birth.

What happened next is well known, and tragic. It was Preston Manning and the Reform Party that took advantage of the legitimate constitutional concerns of Westerners. Many voters who personally supported far more progressive economic and social policies than the divisive hard-right Reform Party stood for, held their noses and voted Reform as if it were a course of chemotherapy to cure the country’s potentially fatal constitutional ills.

Why do you think so many Western Canadian New Democrats voted “counter-intuitively” for the Reform Party?

This is what gave Mr. Harper his beachhead, after which came the millions in corporate dollars that aim to make it a permanent occupation despite the well-known progressive proclivities of voters across this land. This is true even here in Alberta where, mainly as a result of their recent voting history, electors are often portrayed as restive hillbillies.

Today, on the cusp of generational change in Ottawa and our fourth federal election in less than seven years, we can read the right-wing media celebrating the careers of Reform politicians like Stockwell Day, the embarrassing religious fundamentalist and social conservative who unlike the vast majority of his fellow Westerners believes men and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time.

Mr. Day, for a time himself the Reform leader under one of the party’s many guises, has decided to retire from politics. In the face of his departure and those of other Western Reform MPs who rode on Mr. Manning’s constitutional coattails, “the Conservative Party, which was born out of the Western-dominated Reform and Canadian Alliance, becomes increasingly Ontario-centric,” the Globe and Mail accurately concluded recently.

At the same time, the NDP’s Ontario-based leader, Jack Layton, now 60 and being treated for cancer and other ailments as well as facing a difficult electoral prognosis, may be nearing the end of his political career.

So it is time for the New Democratic Party too to be thinking about generational change, and for Canadians from the region that still offers the party its greatest hope to assert themselves.

As is well-known, Single-Member Plurality systems favour the strongest national party, now the so-called Conservatives, and strong regional parties – as proved by both the Bloc Quebecois and the pre-Conservative Reformers.

With the Reconstituted Reform Party – that is, Mr. Harper’s Conservatives – turning into an Ontario party, this presents a significant second chance for the NDP.

To be blunt, the NDP needs to give up its pan-Canadian pipedream, which will never amount to a hill of beans at least until the NDP can become the Opposition, and to recognize the harsh truth about the first-past-the-post system that was so effectively exploited by Mr. Manning.

The NDP needs a strong leader from Western Canada, and a social democratic platform written with Western Canada’s needs and dreams in mind.

If the NDP cannot or will not recognize that the West is its only hope, Western progressives and social democrats can be forgiven if they look elsewhere for political answers. It is profoundly hoped that this time it will be somewhere more in tune with their fundamental progressive beliefs than the reactionary Conservative-Reform Party under the likes of Mr. Manning and Mr. Harper.

This time, the real West wants in!

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Jack Layton’s NDP strategy on the federal budget? Beats me!

NDP Leader Jack Layton rouses his troops in Edmonton during the 2008 election campaign while your blogger, two pairs of spectacles ago and makin’ like Waldo, looks on. Photo by Mark Wells. Below, Jim Flaherty.

It beats me why a centre-left party with the ability to squeeze even a few modest concessions out of a dangerous far-right minority government that sits on the cusp of a majority would contribute to an effort to bring that government down just now.

Yeah, Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget is far from perfect, but it’s not so imperfect that it makes sense to defeat it in the House of Commons and give Prime Minister Stephen Harper the perfect opportunity to hold an election in which he stands an excellent chance of finally forming the majority he craves.

Indeed, wouldn’t later always be better than right now in a situation like this? After all, later you can stand up and take credit for the few things the Conservatives did right, and let them wear their transgressions.

Later, this government’s obvious contempt of, and for, Parliament, not to mention the optics surrounding the iffy characters it rewards, would all have had a chance to ripen. So, when the writ finally dropped, things might not actually have been any better from the NDP’s perspective, but it’s unlikely they would have been worse.

In desperation, the party could always claim it had prevented an election that Canadians didn’t want – which, as a matter of literal fact, would have been the truth.

But, apparently not…

Now, the Globe and Mail claims NDP supporters would have bolted if they party had propped up the Conservatives one more time. Maybe. But this seems like a stretch – after all, you’ve got to be determined and optimistic to be a committed social democrat at all in this country.

The Toronto Star seemed to think it was because a junior Tory minister was rude. Well, maybe they came up with that one just because they had to come up with something by deadline.

Still, watching NDP Leader Jack Layton on the television yesterday, one couldn’t shake the feeling he was a man who understood all this but felt thoroughly boxed in by the trap laid by the Conservatives – who have big money, a cynical little war too new to be unpopular, and the advantage of a population that seems fed up enough with elections to accept the stability of a majority over policies that actually make sense from a middle-class perspective.

As for the hope Canadians will be disgusted by the Conservatives’ disgusting behaviour – contempt of Parliament, lyin’ ministers, elderly insiders with sex-worker brides to be, rules that only apply to the rest of us and more – well, hope springs eternal.

Softened up by neo-con media cynicism, hateful Republican-style 30-second attack ads and the on-line Tory Rage Machine, subjected to voter-suppression measures also borrowed from the Republicans, large numbers of Canadian electors have been conditioned to believe that one party is as bad as another. So why bother voting for anybody? Or, if you do, why not for the guys with the slickest advertising corporate money can buy?

Using a budget vote to defeat a government that’s well positioned to win a majority makes some limited sense from the perspective Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, because he must know this is pretty much his last chance to be prime minister. If he loses this one, he’s probably outta there anyway, so why not roll the dice?

Indeed, the Liberals may even hope to pick up a few seats from frightened NDP voters, especially in Ontario’s 905 Belt around Toronto, desperate to do what they can to stave off a Conservative majority.

As for the Bloc, well, they’re separatists, aren’t they? Not only is their position apparently secure with Quebec voters, from their perspective, so much the better if a majority Conservative government under a neo-con radical like Mr. Harper manages to wreck the rest of the country.

And if Mr. Flaherty doesn’t deliver money Quebeckers feel they’ve been promised, well, that works from the BQ point of view too.

But where’s the benefit for the NDP? So they can say they lost on a question of high principle? Please!

If you think the budget that seems about to get this government defeated is bad, wait till you see the one the Harper Conservatives have in store if they manage to grasp a majority! Get ready for the “Shock Doctrine,” because that’s what you’re going to get.

You’ll also get election-financing laws that will guarantee wealthy foreign corporations can buy any future election they please, and probably a mountain or something similarly large named after Mike Harris.

Oh well, pride goeth destruction, and all that. However, as a good friend of mine often says, “maybe it’s just me!”

Here’s hoping blogger Murray Dobbin got it right, and “if this budget is the basis for the Conservatives’ election platform then they look very vulnerable.”

Here’s hoping the Good Book and I both got it completely wrong and, this time, pride goeth before coalition!

This post also appears on rabble.ca. Tomorrow, barring something really outrageous in Alberta, a long game the NDP could play and win.

Libya Update: The West is killing civilians to protect civilians

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Paris last weekend for a photo op with French strongman Nicolas Sarkozy. No pictures were available at posttime, so we used this old shot of President Sarkozy in a photo op with some other guy. Below: Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gaddafi, who seems to have as many uniforms as the British royal family, although not nearly as nicely cut.

Once again yesterday, Western aircraft were bombing and killing Libyan civilians to save Libyan civilians. Canada helped out, with the unanimous support of our spineless Parliamentary opposition, and Canadian warplanes and refuelling tankers were in the air over the North African country for the first time.

Canadian government talking points repeatedly stressed that we’re over there to protect Libyan civilians. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in Paris on the weekend for a pre-election photo op with our bellicose European allies, conceded that our effort to save Libyan civilians might require us to kill some Libyan civilians.

What’s with this? Just collateral damage? Or is this Vietnam all over again? Does anyone remember now how “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it”?

Meanwhile, our true principal objective, regime change, which one suspects a few of the West’s military planners and most of its politicians imagined could be achieved in 24 hours or less, remains for the moment unrealized.

Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi is still the leader of Libya. Last night he was, anyway. Echoing former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney, he’s vowing a “long war.” Indeed, one could surmise that it’s quite possible Col. Gaddafi enjoys more support now from his own population than he did before the bombing started. Consider for a moment the stellar success of the United States’ half-century embargo of Cuba!

However, given the state of Libya’s military, aged tanks suitable only for attacking rebels in 4X4 “technicals,” Col. Gaddafi’s promised long war seems as unlikely as the late Saddam Hussein’s promised Mother of Battles. Indeed, it’s probable he’ll be gone from power within a few days, whether or not the Americans, who say they’re not trying to kill him, manage to kill him.

Still, given the distance of Libya from the toe of Italy, and for that matter from the southern coast of France, and given the ease with which economic refugees from North Africa are able to slip across the Mediterranean Sea, maybe we shouldn’t rule anything out.

Thus endeth the geography lesson. Now let’s consider human nature.

Let’s talk frankly about “blowback” while we still can without the filter of rage and bloodlust that will surely obscure our vision if serious blowback should actually occur anywhere in the West.

Let’s imagine Canada had been attacked by the air forces of another country or group of countries trying to oust our government for whatever reasons. Let’s also imagine civilians, perhaps our friends and neighbours, had been killed or wounded.

Now, ask yourselves these four questions:

  1. What do you think your reaction would be?
  2. Would it change your reaction in any way if the foreign aircraft had been authorized to drop their bombs by a United Nations resolution?
  3. Would you consider a violent response in the other guy’s country appropriate?
  4. If your country lacked the strength to attack using conventional military forces, would you consider unconventional attacks appropriate?

If you’re honest with yourself, we won’t need to pursue this line of inquiry any further.

Now, in the unlikely event Col. Gaddafi manages to hang on to power, how do you think he might respond? Remember, this is a guy who apparently has a history of asymmetrical attacks on Western nightclubs and Western airliners, especially when Western air forces bomb his country and kill his family members.

If he did manage to respond violently somewhere in the West, of course, we would go completely bonkers. Rational discourse would no longer be possible. And why wouldn’t we, since we no longer seem capable of seeing any moral nuance in anything we or our governments do? (Indeed, given this state of affairs, Prime Minister Harper is probably quite right to expect Canada’s role in this business to improve his chances of being re-elected with a majority.)

In the event of an attack in Europe, there would be widespread calls throughout the West for the invasion of Libya. Alas, the United Nations resolution we are now using as our fig leaf permits Canadian and allied warplanes and naval vessels to take “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians (by killing them, presumably) “excluding a foreign occupation force.” (And by the way, if protecting civilians is really our objective, why aren’t our jets getting ready to bomb Bahrain, Yemen or Saudi Arabia?)

Once Western populations and our media are in full cry, we would not let a UN resolution, or the lack of one, stand in our way any more than do our principal ally on this continent or our principal ally in the Middle East.

As it does when covering other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, the media would instinctively describe any Libyan civilian killed as a fighter or a supporter of the bad guys. Indeed, it’s already doing this – the Edmonton Journal Sunday captioned a photo of cars damaged by Western bombers as “vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.” They looked like old Toyota Tercels and Corollas to me.

Which brings us to the next hard lesson: How do you think the Muslim Street would react to such a development?

It seems likely they would see us for the hypocrites we are, and would see any woe we suffer as our chickens coming home to roost. That is, they would react exactly as we would if the tables were turned.

Col. Gaddafi was in poor physical and political health and one way or the other would have departed the Libyan scene very soon anyway.

But while he is very weak, and almost certain to be brought down by this latest Western exercise in petro-state regime liquidation, his enemies are very weak also, else we would not have had to intervene to prop them up.

As Patrick Cockburn pointed out on the Counterpunch.org website yesterday, it is who comes after Col. Gaddafi that has the potential to be a real catastrophe for the West. With no credible Libyan leaders to replace Col. Gaddafi, the only option left may be “an old-fashioned imperial occupation.”

In which case, even though we Westerners remain as busy as beavers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would get our Libyan invasion anyway.

Maybe that’s why the United States and its European allies were already bickering yesterday about who is in charge. “No, no! After you, Alphonse!” Remember, whoever is running things will have to wear it if this turns into another bloody fiasco.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Have the wheels fallen off Gary Mar’s candidacy? Not yet, but…

Gary Mar watches in shock and dismay as a wheel comes off his campaign wagon. Alberta politicians may not be exactly as illustrated. Below, the real Mr. Mar at his campaign launch last Wednesday. Below him, Ralph Klein.

Have the wheels already come off Gary Mar’s campaign to lead Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party, or is he just taking a little heat right now because he’s the front-runner?

The 48-year-old Calgary-born lawyer’s campaign got off to a bumpy start last Wednesday – delayed by unco-operative weather and a few grumpy reporters determined to ask embarrassing questions about his long-ago role in Alberta’s long-running health care soap opera.

That’ll all be forgotten in a few days if the media moves on to another issue or another story diverts its attention, as can easily happen. With a little luck for Mr. Mar, all that potential supporters and voters will remember about his March 16 campaign launch is the big crowd and the presidential trappings of the news conference.

Still, the auguries are unprepossessing.

For starters, and this is purely anecdotal, there seems to be a widespread attitude out there that as health minister in premier Ralph Klein’s cabinet in the late Nineties and early Zeros, Mr. Mar owns a little piece of the crisis the health care system is now going through.

This is especially so as some of the allegations of intimidation and payoffs at the Capital Health Region made by Independent MLA and former Tory Parliamentary Assistant for Health Raj Sherman date to Mr. Mar’s tenure as minister. For his part, Mr. Mar brushed aside Dr. Sherman’s claims as the posturing of a politician who is now candidate for the leadership of the Alberta Liberals.

OK, but it’s surely not a good sign when rank-and-file voters respond to Mr. Mar’s suggestion that he is offering something different from the accident-prone government of Premier Ed Stelmach by saying they think he had a role in creating the problem.

Nor is it a good thing for a one-time cabinet favourite of Mr. Klein that it finally seems to be sinking in with the public that the former premier was not just a good ole boy you’d like to have a beer with, but a destructive politician who did far more harm that good to the province of Alberta.

Be that as it may, another serious crack has since appeared in Mr. Mar’s campaign.

This one was a Calgary Herald story referring to the $478,499 MLA severance payment Mr. Mar was entitled to receive when he left office in 2007, and discreetly took a little while later, and the suggestion he was “double-dipping” by immediately going to work as the Alberta government’s Man in Washington.

This is a vulnerability Mr. Mar does not share with any of the other declared candidates – former finance minister Ted Morton, former deputy premier and advanced education minister Doug Horner, former justice minister Alison Redford and Battle River MLA Doug Griffiths – by merit of the fact they’re all still MLAs.

One supposes some sharp young reporter might ask them what they expect their payout to be when they depart, and whether they intend to take it. (The answer in all cases, presumably: A lot, and, yes.) But, really, thinking about something just doesn’t have the impact of having done it, no matter what it says in Matthew 5:28!

Back in 2007, the Herald reported on Friday, Mr. Mar said he would defer taking the severance payment while he was in his $264,000-a-year post as Alberta’s “minister-counsellor” and official tarsands pitchman in Washington, D.C.

“But government documents show he took the severance in the 2008-09 fiscal year, early on in a Washington job he started in December 2007,” the Herald said, coming to the conclusion that while Mr. Mar was legally entitled to the payment and didn’t break any rules, “spending watchdogs and opposition MLAs are accusing Mar of double-dipping on the taxpayer dime in a move loaded with poor optics and ethical issues.”

Yikes! This is not the kind of news coverage a candidate for a job that will automatically make him premier of Alberta wants to hear!

And this story is not going to go away, especially since Wildrose Alliance MLA Rob Anderson – one of last year’s Tory defectors and a politician who is turning out to be a natural for an opposition role – has really got his teeth into it.

However, that won’t be enough to upset Mr. Mar’s applecart as long as nothing else emerges to embarrass him. For this reason, the Mar campaign would be well advised to ask a certain former ministerial aide, recipient of a controversial payment of his own, to stay the heck away from their candidate’s campaign events.

If Mr. Mar does falter again, that raises the interesting question of whom among the other candidates is most likely to benefit given that he will nevertheless go into the race as the front-runner with many supporters and a highly professional campaign staff.

If, as seems likely, the race is defined as a battle between the left and right – that is to say, the right and the farther right – Prof. Morton will be cast as the standard-bearer for the far-right hardliners. So both Mr. Mar and Dr. Morton can be expected to do well on the first ballot.

Which means the Conservatives very well could face exactly the same situation as they did in 2006, when the virtually unknown Mr. Stelmach emerged as winner, a scenario in which a next available credible candidate “rides up the middle” to victory.

This is something the party presumably hoped to avoid, given its experience with Premier Stelmach. But here we are again … maybe, anyway.

While Mr. Griffiths lacks the needed experience – not necessarily a disadvantage, but just saying – either Mr. Horner or Ms. Redford could play this role with considerably more credibility than did Mr. Stelmach.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Canada’s role in the Libyan intervention: an ill wind that blows no good

Italian military aircraft in the skies over Libya. Really! Below: Muammar al-Gaddafi.

With its intervention in Libya, the West is on the brink of another historic failure in the Muslim world.

As usual, Canada is there, ready aye ready, to sacrifice blood and treasure in a doomed effort to take sides in an oil-rich country’s civil war – regime change that, despite naïve claims to the contrary, we’d have no interest in if it weren’t being fought atop a resource-rich piece of real estate.

One is tempted to ask, “When will we ever learn?” Except, of course, we already know the answer to that question: Never. We are deeply in the American orbit now. A Liberal government under Michael Ignatieff or even an NDP government under Jack Layton would behave no differently than Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.

It is well known that the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, is an obvious nutter, and not a very nice one at that. As Robert Fisk observed yesterday in the Independent: “Gaddafi is completely bonkers, flaky, a crackpot on the level of Ahmadinejad of Iran and Lieberman of Israel – who once, by the way, drivelled on about how Mubarak could ‘go to hell’ yet quaked with fear when Mubarak was indeed hurtled in that direction. …

“The Middle East seems to produce these ravers – as opposed to Europe, which in the past 100 years has only produced Berlusconi, Mussolini, Stalin and the little chap who used to be a corporal in the 16th List Bavarian reserve infantry, but who went really crackers when he got elected in 1933 – but now we are cleaning up the Middle East again and can forget our own colonial past in this sandpit.”

Still, it’s an ill wind blows no good, so it’s worth reciting a few of the many reasons why this particular intervention is a bad idea:

First, a no-fly zone is neither easy nor simple to maintain. Journalists, who usually believe the press releases they are sent by ambitious politicians and high-tech arms manufacturers may tell you otherwise, but military men who know what they are talking about advise caution.

This, of course, is why the already vastly over-extended U.S. armed forces dragged their feet so long about this dangerous scheme. But let’s say we manage to achieve a no-fly zone over Libya without losing a single multi-million-dollar warplane. What then?

Second, there is no guarantee the no-fly zone alone will result in the overthrow of Col. Gaddafi, whose armed forces do not depend on air power alone for their advantage on the battlefield. So what will we do then?

Western politicians like no-fly zones because, while they are acts of war, they sound like something more benign to the Western public. You know, just protecting human rights from a tyrant! But let’s say Col. Gaddafi continues to attack his foes with tanks and ground troops, and continues to win, as he very well could. What do we do then? Give up, or escalate?

What we will do is escalate, of course, because no foolish politician wants to admit that he is a fool, and thus we never consider backing down until it is too late. So we will begin to bomb his tanks and troops in hopes of achieving victory for the side we are backing in the civil war, whoever they may be. Indeed, this already seems to be happening.

Third, escalation may not work either. OK, what then? Who among us understands the Libyan political situation on the ground well enough to say with confidence our schemes will work? The CIA? Col. Gaddafi is certainly a tyrant and possibly a lunatic, but he has remained in power as long as the Alberta Conservatives. In other words, like them, he has friends. So he may fight on and continue to win. If so, what then? An invasion?

The word for the moment is that no ground troops will be involved. But how long will that resolve persist in the face of our Western hubris if the Libyans do not roll over, or if, God forbid, they manage to strike back in the Mediterranean or Europe? Faced with failure, the pressure for boots on the ground will grow.

This too raises questions, though. I don’t know if you have noticed this, but the U.S. armed forces are somewhat overstretched right now. So are our Canadians, mired in Afghanistan. Who is going to mount this invasion? The Israelis?

Seriously, people, what are we going to do if this no-fly zone fails to produce the results we want in a few days or weeks? We could starve the population of Libya for a decade, one supposes, and kill their children to get at their repellent leader as we did in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. If we do, we’ll probably enjoy about the same degree of success, and win as many friends in the region.

Fourth, maybe you’ve been asleep for the past decade, but an invasion doesn’t guarantee victory either. What do we do if we invade and the forces loyal to Col. Gaddafi fight on? Right now he says he’s opening his armouries to people loyal to his rule.

Well, never mind that, we’re sure to be told – our Western soldiers will wrap the whole business up in hours. You know, just as they did in Iraq, just as they did in Afghanistan.

Fifth, this is a civil war and Col. Gaddafi’s foes are almost certainly not very nice people either. Do we have any idea whom we are backing in this fight? Presumably someone who offers to charge oil royalties as low as those in Alberta – well, maybe not that low!

Will our Libyans end up acting like the man they ousted once we’ve installed them in power? Probably. Will they be any friendlier to us than America’s clients in Iraq? Probably not.

Sixth, there will be blowback. Depend on it, the Muslim street will view this as an invasion to steal oil, and they may not be that far off. The fig leaf offered by the United Nations, or even the Arab League, will mean nothing to them. People who are our allies today will turn on us tomorrow. In the mean time, those who we have made our enemies will feel justified fighting back, just as you would in their boots. You might want to rethink those Italian holiday plans!

Inevitably, moreover, our bombs will cause civilian casualties. This would be true even if Col. Gaddafi’s supporters were not acting as human shields around his headquarters. Even if we succeed in our short-term goals, there will be a price to pay for this over time. Every time we enthusiastically take sides in a foreign civil war we increase the chances of terrorism at home.

Seventh, it will cost a fortune. We’re already broke, supposedly – but that, of course, is only when it comes to things that benefit working Canadians, like public health care, social services and job creation. The money available to squander on foolish wars abroad appears unlimited.

I guess if your kids don’t have a job, they can join the army.

And it doesn’t matter what you think. We’ll be there with bells on anyway. The bells of Hell.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.