All posts tagged Conservative Party

Is Chuck Strahl’s dual role on the Manning Centre and security committee appropriate?

Chuck Strahl listens to a participant in the Manning Centre conference in Ottawa in March. Below: Manning Centre founder and figurehead, Preston Manning.

Should Chuck Strahl be able to serve simultaneously on the board of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, a partisan political organization tied to the ruling Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other provincial conservative parties, and on the apolitical Security Intelligence Review Committee?

The SIRC is supposed to be, in the words of its website, “an independent, external review body which reports to the Parliament of Canada on the operations of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.”

“Parliament has given CSIS extraordinary powers to intrude on the privacy of individuals,” the website explains. “SIRC ensures that these powers are used legally and appropriately, in order to protect Canadians’ rights and freedoms.”

Mr. Strahl is a former Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and Conservative Member of Parliament from the British Columbia Interior who served as Deputy Speaker and held several cabinet portfolios during his political career. He retired from politics after the 2011 election and was appointed to a five-year term on the SIRC in June 2012. His biography on the committee’s site is open about his dual role, stating clearly that in 2011 he was appointed as a director of the Calgary-based Manning Centre.

As readers of this blog know, according to an email the group sent to its supporters, Mr. Strahl has now been appointed chair of the board of the Manning Centre, the organization founded and led by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning that works openly to keep the Harper Government in power and is now trying to extend the reach of neoliberal politicians into Canadian municipal governments.

Well, it’s still a relatively a free country, so the Manning Centre can call itself whatever it likes and work for the political outcomes it supports, but the question of whether the chair of this partisan organization’s board should serve in a sensitive and apolitical Parliamentary security review position is another matter entirely.

A claim by B.C. Premier Christy Clark last Wednesday that Mr. Strahl has been campaigning for her Liberal Party in the current election in that province has proved highly controversial and prompted swift backtracking by Ms. Clark.

The B.C. Conservative Party issued a press release Thursday stating Mr. Strahl was barred from campaigning in the election because of his membership on SIRC and demanding Ms. Clark apologize for saying he was doing so.

The Globe and Mail reported Ms. Clark quickly “clarified her statements,” explaining, “he has been active for the last two years and when he took on his non-partisan role just very recently, he stepped back from that.”

No doubt spokespeople for the Manning Centre will try to claim that organization is non-partisan too, but, really, how can they?

“The Manning Centre is dedicated to building Canada’s conservative movement,” the group’s website states. At the federal level, there is only one Conservative party. As the statements, speeches and participants at last March’s Manning Centre “Big Ideas” conference in Ottawa made perfectly clear, time and again, the “conservative movement” means Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party and, here in Alberta, the Wildrose Party of Danielle Smith. “Us” and “the Conservatives” meant the same thing for most participants in the conference.

For example, Mr. Manning staked out a partisan position in Alberta politics in one of his principal speeches, stating, “in Alberta an aging Progressive Conservative administration has lost its way ethically and fiscally and needs to be overhauled or replaced.”

Mr. Strahl, naturally given his position, attended the conference.

As for the Manning Centre’s foray into municipal politics, its so-called “Municipal Governance Project” is also a directly partisan activity whether or not the group is actually backing a slate or trying to unseat Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. It is most certainly backing individual candidates, one or more of whom, presumably, may challenge Mr. Nenshi directly.

If it is inappropriate for Mr. Strahl to serve SIRC and work for the B.C. Liberals’ at the same time, surely it is equally inappropriate for him to have a similar dual role with the Manning Centre and SIRC.

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Apocalypse Soon: Preston Manning, Ron Paul and the Angry God of the Market

Tea Partier Ron Paul surrounded by flags, if not quite wrapped in them. Below: Preston Manning, Canadian pontifex maximus of the cult of market fundamentalism; his father, millennial dispensationalist Ernest C. Manning.

Last weekend, the priests and priestesses of the Canadian branch of the international market fundamentalist religion gathered in Ottawa and called, as they always do, for more human sacrifice.

I speak, of course, of the annual networking conference of the inaptly labelled Manning Centre for Building Democracy, named for Preston Manning, founder of the Reform Party that now governs in Ottawa and Canadian pontifex maximus of the cult of market fundamentalism.

“Conservatives” at the Manning conference – who virtually to a man and woman are not conservative at all, but adherents of an extreme and radical ideology that borders on theology – didn’t need to elect a pope. They already have one, in the body of former Texas Congressman Ron Paul. So they invited Dr. Paul (he’s a physician by profession) to be their keynote speaker.

Hearing Dr. Paul droning on about the coming fiscal apocalypse if the world does not adopt his nutty ideas – the gold standard, no central bank, no income tax, pure market ascendancy and all the rest – plus similar things from many other speakers, one was struck by how the modern North American conservative movement is not really very far removed from the Christian millennial dispensationalism of Mr. Manning’s father, Alberta premier and radio evangelist Ernest Manning.

Apocalyptic imagery runs through Canadian conservative discourse nowadays, as conservatism is infected with the Tea Party virus that is destroying the Republican Party in the United States. Like the Prophet Jeremiah, participants in the Manning conference warned us repeatedly that if we do not immediately adopt the sackcloth and ashes of austerity, their angry market god will rain destruction down upon our heads.

Indeed, like Dr. Paul – “It’s coming to an End! This debt is unsustainable!” – they seem to relish the idea of destruction, especially when it’s us, the deserving unbelievers, who are the ones about to be destroyed.

“I believe we’re in a period of transition from a system of economics and politics that’s ending,” Dr. Paul rambled, comparing the coming destruction of insufficiently market fundamentalist North America to the end of the Soviet Union, to the cheers, whistles and stomps of his enthusiastic Canadian acolytes.

What Dr. Paul called “government planning, welfareism, inflationism, central banking, deficits” will be the death of us, he warned. But worry not! Something new is coming!

“In almost every country in the West … debt is the big problem because it was taught for many, many years, the Keynesian theory of economics, that deficits don’t matter, that if you come up short, you know, you keep taxin’ the people to the point where they can’t be taxed any more, then you keep borrowing till you can’t borrow any more, then they think, ‘Well, it’s magic!’ All you have to do is print the money and it’s going to work out,’ and you can do that for a while. …

“My approach to all this is that’s all completely wrong,” Dr. Paul proclaimed, “and it’s coming to an end, there is a replacement, and it can be found in the Cause of Liberty…” (Cheers.)

OK. Enough of this pish-posh. If you’ve got a stern constitution, you can watch the rest for yourself courtesy of the Sun News Network. Suffice it to say that Dr. Paul’s thumbnail assessment of the Keynesian school of economics is neither strictly fair nor accurate – but, hell, it grabbed his audience’s attention.

Never mind that the even the most modest predictions of doom by this crowd never seem to come true – as pointed out recently by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, from whom I have gratefully borrowed the metaphor of the right’s demand for more human sacrifice to appease an angry market god.

Never mind that the prescriptions of neoconservative capitalism do not work, have never worked, and have spread destruction and woe throughout our planet. “The neoliberal hypothesis has been disproved spectacularly,” wrote George Monbiot in a wise essay last summer. “Far from regulating themselves, untrammelled markets were saved from collapse only by government intervention and massive injections of public money. Far from delivering universal prosperity, government cuts have pushed us further into crisis.

“The quest for year zero market purity was dangerous enough in theory,” Mr. Monbiot concluded. “Distorted by the grubby realities of life on earth it is devastating to the welfare of both people and planet.”

Indeed, market fundamentalism as advocated at the Manning Centre and practiced by the politicians the group is allied with is the perfect scam: the more its features are adopted, the worse things get; the worse things get, the more the adherents of market fundamentalism blame the vestiges of common sense – be they environmental controls, consumer protections or fair taxation!

This happens, as Mr. Monbiot pointed out, because it suits the economic elite. “Thirty years of neoliberalism have allowed the super-rich to detach themselves from the lives of others to such an extent that economic crises scarcely touch them.”

So, of course, while the theme of theological and esoteric market fundamentalism prevailed at the Manning Centre conference, as exemplified by Dr. Paul’s interminable sermon, not every individual at the event was a starry-eyed market fetishist.

Many of the Conservative Party’s leading political strategists were there as well, and so, through the blather, we could begin to see emerging the outlines of the right’s strategies for the next election and the continued marketization of Canada.

Having had the unexpected opportunity to attend the conference and listen to many of its sessions, over the next couple of days I hope to bring progressive readers a summary of some of the major themes that mainstream media were content to leave behind the closed doors of the Ottawa Conference Centre.

Next on this theme, though not necessarily the next post on Alberta Diary: “Green Conservatism” and marketing energy exports to Canadians.

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Latest Calgary poll results – perhaps aided by party’s sophisticated moves – show Green Wave developing

Calgary Centre Greens get ready to surf the Green Wave, expected momentarily. Actual Green Party supporters may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Chris Turner, Joan Crockatt and Naheed Nenshi.

The latest poll of residents of the Calgary Centre riding shows a Green Wave developing among opponents of the Conservative Party in the Nov. 26 federal by-election.

Organizers for Green Party candidate Chris Turner are taking a highly sophisticated approach to polling in the Calgary Centre by-election, tipping their supporters when they get wind of opinion polls in the riding and instructing them to be sure to pick up their phones and answer the questions.

Nothing wrong with this, of course – but it should serve as a warning to undecided voters and other observers, especially journalists, that the “narrative” candidates’ campaigns try to spin around small-sample polls like those being conducted in Calgary Centre can be easily manipulated by smart efforts to game the polling process.

In the case of the Calgary centre by-election, the narrative being developed by Mr. Turner’s supporters is that their candidate is the only one with momentum after he appeared unexpectedly in third place among respondents to a Nov. 12 poll of riding voters conducted by Forum Research Inc.

And it may well now be true, as Mr. Turner told the Globe and Mail yesterday after another Forum research poll appeared to confirm the results of the Nov. 12 survey, “we’ve got the momentum now. I know for sure we can win it. This is the most vulnerable Conservative campaign in Calgary in decades.”

The Nov. 12 poll showed Mr. Turner in a strong position to vault into the lead among the riding’s many voters who are opposed to front-running Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt. This would be an important consideration for strategic voters opposed to Ms. Crockatt and looking for the best candidate to whom to give their anti-Conservative vote.

The Nov. 12 Forum poll put Ms. Crockatt in the lead, barely, with 32 per cent of committed supporters. Liberal Harvey Locke was in second place with 30 per cent of those surveyed and Mr. Turner – at that time surprisingly – was in the key No. 3 spot with 23 per cent. NDP candidate Dan Meades had 12 per cent, according to that Forum survey.

The Forum Research poll released last night appeared to reinforce the narrative. In the survey conducted Saturday, Ms. Crockatt was back up a little at 35 per cent, but well below the 48 per cent she recorded in the first poll on Oct. 26. Mr. Locke was holding at 30 per cent. Mr. Turner had moved up again to 25 per cent. Mr. Meades’ support slipped to 8 per cent.

If this narrative sounds familiar to Alberta political observers, it ought to. It was exactly the strategy used to catapult Naheed Nenshi into the lead in the October 2010 Calgary municipal election and Alison Redford to victory in the 2011 Progressive Conservative leadership race. Both really got on the radar when a poll unexpectedly placed them in the No. 3 spot in their respective contests. Mr. Nenshi is now mayor of Calgary and Ms. Redford, of course, is the premier of Alberta.

It is likely no coincidence that many of the same people backing Mr. Turner were also involved in the Nenshi campaign, and possibly in the Redford campaign as well. Indeed, Mr. Nenshi stepped into the fray last week, slamming Ms. Crockatt for not showing up at some all-candidates’ forums.

So journalists and citizens interpreting the various Forum Research poll results ought to take note of the fact that the survey samples are very small – the Nov. 12 poll had only 376 respondents and the Nov. 17 poll had 403, which means that approximately four responses could move the level of support for any given candidate by a full percentage point.

Interactive voice response surveys like these Forum polls (which is pollster talk for robocall push-button polls) tend to have lower response rates than other polling methodologies, further increasing the impact of individual respondents.

After the Nov. 12 results, media quickly picked up on the fact Ms. Crockatt’s support appeared to be dramatically lower than it was on Oct. 26, when she recorded the backing of 48-per-cent of respondents. Journalists also quickly ran with the idea Mr. Turner was the candidate whose support was showing the most upward movement.

So it is significant – though impossible to criticize – that a Green Party organizer emailed committed supporters a note headed “There is another poll tonight – be sure to pick up,” not long before the latest survey.

“Word from Chris Turner’s Head Quarters is that another poll is being conducted at this very moment,” said the email from Green Party Volunteer Co-ordinator Natalie Odd to committed Turner supporters. “Please be sure to pick up any calls your receive this evening!”

The emails were followed up with phone calls to supporters, although the pollster actually appears to have called a day later than the party expected.

In addition to such emails and calls, Mr. Turner’s supporters posted similar messages on Facebook and some people distributed the call-display number the polling company was using.

As previously noted, there’s nothing wrong with this, any more than it would be wrong for a politician to encourage supporters to show up at all-candidates meetings and cheer loudly. Other campaigns may also be doing the same thing.

But as citizens we need to be aware that this method of polling can produce results that do not precisely reflect the true distribution of public support at the time the survey was taken. Furthermore, we would be naïve not to realize that poll results influence voter preferences during campaigns, especially among undecided voters pondering a strategic vote against a particular candidate.

Advance polls in the Calgary Centre by-election are scheduled to open today.

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Alberta NDP’s Brian Mason lays claim to Tory Peter Lougheed’s legacy

Free of his moustache, Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason addresses his party’s 50th annual convention in Edmonton yesterday. Below: Federal NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, who also spoke yesterday; former Alberta Conservative Premier Peter Lougheed.

Freshly shorn of his trademark moustache, Alberta New Democratic Party Leader Brian Mason made the implicit explicit yesterday at the party’s 50th annual convention in Edmonton.

To wit: he stated outright what a lot of us have been thinking, that the policies advocated by today’s Alberta New Democrats have more in common with the managerial legacy of Peter Lougheed, who died in Calgary on Thursday at 84, than do those of the Progressive Conservative Party whose ruling dynasty Mr. Lougheed founded more than 41 years ago.

Conservatives, naturally, will scoff at this suggestion and accuse Mr. Mason of being the leader of a minor party trying to crash the former premier’s funeral cortege. Well, a minor opposition party the NDP still is, but, really, on the record, the logic of the rest of his case is pretty hard to assail.

Mr. Lougheed was a manager who raised petroleum royalties in Alberta to 40 per cent from the pathetic 17 per cent charged under the Social Credit government of Premier Ernest Manning. Today, after the succession of PC mismanagers that followed Mr. Lougheed into the premier’s office, Alberta royalties have been ratcheted down to 15 per cent, Mr. Mason said.

Citing the points Mr. Lougheed prescribed for sound management of the province’s rich natural resources, Mr. Mason concluded that “it is the NDP that is carrying on Peter Lougheed’s legacy and not the Progressive Conservatives in this province.”

Take Mr. Lougheed’s oft-made pronouncement Alberta’s government should “act like an owner” to manage the province’s resources. The numbers, he said, illustrate how premiers Don Getty, Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford have shortchanged future generations of Albertans. “That is billions of dollars that are being stolen from future generations in this province by a government that is in the pockets of foreign oil corporations.”

Of Mr. Lougheed’s call for Alberta’s resources to be developed with care and planning, Mr. Mason said: “The principles of planning have been abandoned by his party.” Of his call to add value here in Alberta: The PCs “are letting the oil industry write its own ticket and those jobs are going down the pipeline just as surely as the unprocessed bitumen.”

Mr. Mason didn’t mention the Wildrose Party – understandably enough, given the nature of the occasion – but it’s worth mentioning here that the province’s largest Opposition party would likely take corporate taxes and resource royalties even lower, exacerbating the artificial deficit crisis already created by the PCs.

There was far more tax fairness in Mr. Lougheed’s day, Mr. Mason observed, before business taxes were slashed, royalties rolled back and a flat-tax implemented that gave bit tax breaks to the wealthy and left the rest of us holding the bag.

Mr. Mason reminded his listeners that “when you attack teachers, you attack kids; when you attack nurses, you attack patients; when you attack long-term care, you attack seniors. We can’t permit deficits created by tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations to be paid for by the middle classes.”

Mr. Mason told his (obviously sympathetic) listeners of the great pride he felt at his role in defeating premier Klein’s “Third Way” health care policy, which, he asserted, was nothing more than an effort to bring in private health care by stealth. This is a plan, he warned, that despite new rhetoric is not much changed under the Redford Government.

“Alison will show her true colours before too long,” he predicted. “She may try to embrace the Lougheed legacy and lay claim to it, but in actual fact she is very different and shows no inclination to go back to that progressive vision. That leaves it up to the New Democrats.”

OK, this stuff is all well and good, but even with the opportunity to ride the Orange Wave generated by the federal NDP, Alberta New Democrats are still members of a boutique party in a province where the main opposition is even farther to the right than the government and the progressive vote is split at least between the NDP and the Alberta Liberals, and last time was shared with the Alberta Party to boot.

Mr. Mason’s prescription for changing the party from a phone booth to a big tent – in other words, reaching out other progressive voters who may have concluded that is where the future lies – is obviously needed.

Accordingly, earlier yesterday, convention delegates voted to give each party member a vote in future leadership contests, abandoning the old system of having elected convention delegates (who tend to be party insiders) choose the leader.

But if the Alberta NDP is going to succeed at broadening its base, it’s going to have to prove they can run a party meeting with more precision than a church supper – and get, for example, the evening’s main speaker to the podium in time to make the evening TV news.

Last night the time crunch left federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair scrambling with that deadline no doubt in mind to make similar points to Mr. Mason’s, packaged for a national audience.

Mr. Mulcair wondered why the Conservative governments of Alison Redford and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are so determined to ship Alberta bitumen as fast as possible to the Texas Gulf and Communist China, where they’ll likely further depress the price Alberta’s resources can fetch, instead of adding value and creating jobs here in Canada.

“Your premier has said we need a national conversation about our natural resources. And you know what? I agree with her.” But instead, the Redford and Harper Conservatives seem determined to sell Canadian bitumen to a Chinese company that is nothing but an arm of the Chinese government “without even having a national debate. We’re calling for a national debate.”

As for Mr. Harper’s unrelenting attacks on environmental regulation and sustainable development – leaving the costs of his recklessness to the future – not to mention his tactic of just making stuff up to attack the opposition, Mr. Mulcair responded, “we’re in favour of a more prosperous Canada, but a Canada that’s more prosperous for everyone.”

He asked: “How is it that the Conservatives, who tend to talk that game, are living off the credit card of a future generation?”

In other words, he agreed with Mr. Mason, it’s time for Albertans and Canadians to do what Mr. Lougheed advised, and act like the owners of their resources.

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Ideological perfection, Fraser Institute style: why democracy must be destroyed in order to save it

A neo-Con think tank gets ready to save democracy by crushing democracy. A “fellow” of the Fraser Institute stands to the far right. Who’s to say if this is not exactly as they appear? Below: Preston Manning (a Fraser Institute fellow himself) with Stephen Harper, in happier times; the Fraser Institute’s Michael Walker.

Perfesser Dave said it best yesterday: “Democracy is undemocratic when it gets in the way of free market choices.” But Perfesser Dave was joking.

Perfesser Walker of the Fraser Institute said it first, in the Globe and Mail on Nov. 23, and he wasn’t joking.

Michael Walker is sort of like the godfather of the Fraser Institute, the Vancouver-based “think tank” whose far-right nostrums are quoted reverentially by Canadian media as if Dr. Walker had personally carried them down from Mount Sinai engraved on a tablet of stone by the finger of a wrathful and vengeful neo-Con deity.

The Fraser Institute, in turn, is the intellectual headwater of that muddy stream of “Conservatism” that trickles down through Preston Manning of the Reform Party to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the so-called Conservatives he leads.

So if you’ve ever wondered about the Harper Conservatives’ true commitment to our Canadian democracy, Dr. Walker’s explanation is illuminating. Taking issue with Mr. Manning for his support of the idea Greek citizens should be permitted to vote on the “bail out” package proposed by their bankers for their bankers, he put it this way: “…Greek democracy no longer speaks for the public interest and cannot be relied upon to solve the problem.”

How can this be? Well, the Conservative Party avatar explains, “in Greece and an increasing number of countries, democracy itself is in deficit. It is in deficit in the sense that a majority of the Greek electorate has been bribed with payments from government for which nobody in Greece is having to pay in taxes.”

In other words, Dr. Walker elucidated, by their stubborn refusal to accept the market fundamentalist theology of the neo-Cons – and here is the full quote excerpted partly above and plagiarized by Perfesser Dave yesterday – “Corrupted at its very foundation, Greek democracy no longer speaks for the public interest and cannot be relied upon to solve the problem.”

Therefore, Greek democracy must be thwarted, the Greek people treated as truculent wards of the ideologically pure elite who rightly run the market fundamentalist state, else the democratic perfection of the market be obstructed.

If I may be so bold as to parse Dr. Walker’s explanation, his four-part logic unfolds like this:

  1. Free markets are the perfect expression of democracy
  2. Anything that interferes with the perfect expression of democracy is ipso facto undemocratic
  3. Greeks may democratically vote to obstruct the most perfect form of democracy
  4. Therefore, preventing democracy in such circumstances is the perfect expression of democracy

This is the Orwellian tautology that underlies the core position on democracy believed by our Canadian neo-Cons, a group, I submit, that includes our prime minister.

In other words, democracy will only be permitted if it yields the correctly democratic result.

And a mob of unruly Greeks bent on voting to determine their fate, or unruly Canadians for that matter, won’t be the people who get to decide what’s democratic – to wit, the only outcome allowed, the fundamentalist worship of “free markets.” In which, as Dr. Walker risibly asserts elsewhere in his screed, it is a truth universally acknowledged, “the normal pattern in Western democracies is that lower-income families are net beneficiaries and higher-income families are net payers.”

Would the neo-Cons who make up Mr. Harper’s debased Conservative Party be prepared to apply Dr. Walker’s logic in the event, say, that Canadian voters, corrupted to their very foundation by generations of public health care and decent pensions (falsely portrayed as benefits that have not been paid for, or have not been earned), vote for a program or a political party that is not in “the public interest and cannot be relied upon to solve the problem”? Remember: It’s not just Greece that has this problem, according to Dr. Walker, but “an increasing number of countries.”

It could never happen here, you say?

Arguably, it already has in a small way, when Mr. Harper – colluding against our Constitution with the Governor General of the day – prorogued Parliament to prevent our elected representatives from dissolving his government as was their right and essential democratic function.

Dr. Walker goes on: “The demonstrations in the streets of Athens were not the manifestation of democracy at work. They were the vanguard of the clear majority of citizens who are disconsolate at the prospect of loosing (sic) their ability to continue to feast at the expense of their children. As past Greek and other experience has demonstrated, the only way that democratic frenzy comes to a halt is when the country hits the wall and can no longer borrow the money to carry on.” (Emphasis added.)

As you can see, Dr. Walker has modified the traditional definitions of democracy – the notions that the “majority rules,” or, the “majority rules with appropriate protections for minorities” – to rule by those who know best, inevitably a self-selecting group.

But that is how these fundamentalist zealots, burning with the cold flame of ideological purity, view the possibility that voters might democratically choose public solutions to the very real deficiencies of unregulated markets, or seek to ask the principal beneficiaries of our economic system to pay their fair share of its costs.

They see such thinking as the product of a frenzy that can be morally circumvented by any means, no matter how immoral.

Democracy means nothing to people whose only goal is the perfect distillation of their ideological nostrums, especially when they are conveniently in their own self-interest. It hardly matters if the ideological perfection they pursue is Stalinist or Straussian, it leads down the same dangerous intellectual cul de sac. (And I make no apology for that analogy, by the way, even here in Stalinism-obsessed Alberta.) When they are finished, there may be no way left for us to assert ourselves but in a frenzy in the streets!

If this doesn’t worry you, you haven’t been paying attention to history.

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Can Canada’s Conservatives truly become our ‘natural governing party’? Maybe

Prime Minister Stephen Harper tries just to stifle his worst instincts. Warning: Canadian prime ministers may not be exactly as illustrated. If you’re too young to get this, just don’t worry about it. It’s pretty obscure anyway. Below: Richard Nixon, back in the days when there was only a Commie under every bed. Mr. Harper as we’ve come to love him.

Just the other day, it was said by one of the usual suspects in one of the usual places that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada now sees itself as having inherited the mantle of the country’s “natural governing party” from the woebegone Liberals.

It is certainly true that this could happen if the dice roll the Conservatives’ way, as so far they have. But this potential outcome notwithstanding, the so-called Conservatives – who despite their honourable history are nowadays neither really conservative nor truly a national party – face considerable roadblocks to their great ambition.

Chief among these are the radical and intolerant nature of their own political base and their nearly complete lack of support in one of the key regions of the country. For despite having many more moderate supporters, they remain the party of the hate-filled, Internet trolling, union-hating, fear-mongering, gun-loving, homophobic, anti-abortion, loony right as well as of corporate greed, and they have little support in Quebec outside a few reconstituted separatists.

Consider the United States as an illustration of the fate that may await the Canadian Conservatives if they cannot overcome their baser nature and also build meaningful support in French-speaking Canada – both goals that are within the grasp of the party, but which will not come particularly easily to them.

In the U.S., Democratic Party President Barack Obama may very well be reelected – despite his profound lack of success on the economic front and his betrayal of his own key supporters on a wide range of issues.

Why? Simply because the Republican Party has forfeited its role in the modern era as America’s natural governing party, which it has enjoyed since the inception of Richard Nixon’s divisive but effective Southern Strategy in the late 1960s. It has done so by moving consistently to the right to the point where it is on the verge of becoming the Treason Party of the United States. All this the Republicans did to themselves without facing the danger of alienating voters in a part of the country that speaks another language, for the simple reason no such region exists – yet…

To a significant degree, Prime Minister Harper’s Tea Party of Canada still appeals most to essentially the same minority of voters, and managed to form a majority government by successfully keeping those supporters in check at the same time as it moved its policy platform back toward the middle. Add to that strategy a waning and still discredited Liberal Party and a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time NDP, and they were able to achieve their goal.

Having done so, however, the question is whether they can overcome the radicalism of their own core and the extremist instincts of Mr. Harper himself to really become a natural governing party. In other words, they need to get their trolls under control – and some of those trolls are pretty well placed!

The conundrum for the Conservatives is that to become the natural governing party, they need to be a moderate party that hews to the centre – even if they try to ease the centre to the right. But if they succeed at staying near the centre line, they risk losing their most loyal supporters – perhaps to a national version of Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance party, as indeed has happened once before.

One senses the PM understands this strategically, but can’t quite achieve it viscerally, in his gut. Indeed, for a vivid example of the PM’s own instincts at play, consider his warning yesterday in an on-line CBC retrospective on the 911 attacks that there may be an “Islamicist” in a suicide vest hiding under each of our beds. Please!

So, we shall see. If the Conservatives truly become the natural governing party, it may not as bad a thing as some of us fear. After all, they will have had to moderate their worst instincts to achieve that goal.

And if they don’t, well, there’s another party waiting in the wings – one with support in Quebec and fewer lunatic trolls among its fringes – almost ready to play that starring role.

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The Parliament Hill sensei: Mixing karate and politics? So what else is new?

New NDP MP Mathieu Ravignat, foreground, with party leader Jack Layton. Warning, NDP Members of Parliament may not be exactly as illustrated. Below, Mathieu Ravignat as he appears on Parliament Hill, Mr. Ravignat in his karate uniform, and your blogger, looking spectacularly fierce.


Much is being made of the fact that Mathieu Ravignat, the newly elected Quebec New Democrat who knocked off foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, is among other things a karate instructor.

A good deal of the tone of this commentary is faintly mocking, as if running around in white pajamas yelling kee-yiy and whacking objects and people with fists and feet isn’t really a suitable activity for a grownup, and is therefore an apt metaphor for the inexperience of the new, much-larger NDP Parliamentary caucus.

The subtext to this mainstream media mockery, naturally, is the message that neither the new MP for Pontiac nor anyone else in the NDP will succeed, they’re a flash in the pan like the unlamented Action démocratique du Québec political party, the Liberals will be back, yadda yadda yadda.

Well, I’m here to tell you it ain’t so. In fact, you just can’t find better training for a life in politics than being a karateka, which is a student of karatedo, which is the way of living and getting along associated with the lifetime study of karate.

And if the media wants to make mild fun of Mr. Ravignat’s title sensei, which is merely Japanese for teacher and therefore an apt job description for someone who teaches a Japanese martial art, well so be it. I’m sure he can take it.

As a person who has spent a lot of time hanging around the dojo (that is the karate training hall) myself, I can tell you that one of the useful things karate teaches is discipline – which makes it unlikely you’ll fly off the handle in the face of the kind of immature provocation to be expected from the so-called Conservative benches.

On the other hand, if some Conservative-Reform-Alliance Party Coalition clown like Darrel Stinson looks like he’s going to stride across the floor of House of Commons to do violence to one of your NDP caucus mates, well, you’ll know what to do next, won’t you?

Mr. Ravignat practices an Okinawan form of karate called Goju-Ryu (which means hard-soft style, a reference to the fact some of its attacks utilize hard closed-hand blows, and some of its defences use soft and circular open-hand defences. (Moviegoers will recall Mr. Miyagi’s wax-on-wax-off instruction to the Karate Kid in the original movie of that name – this is a reference to the soft part. The founder of Goju-Ryu karate, by the way, was named Chojun Miyagi. But, je digresse…)

You probably won’t have read any mention of Mr. Ravignat’s karate style in the news coverage because that sort of thing is not very important to journalists, at least all but those very few who practice the martial arts themselves.

This is a pity, because there are a lot of different varieties of the martial arts and the style of karate (in Japanese, ryu) can tell us a lot about the practitioner.

The best analogy I can think of for this is Protestant churches. There are at least as many styles of Asian martial arts as there are Protestant denominations. Like Protestant churches, for the most part the doctrine is so similar that the differences only matter to insiders. But for insiders, those differences are big enough to make someone go out and put up a new building!

But the important thing to remember here is that Goju-Ryu is a style of karate that involves often having to stand still, every muscle flexed, controlling your breathing, while someone whacks you hard enough to leave bruises. (If this doesn’t sound like much fun to you, well, I guess you sorta have to be there. It’s like what St. Paul said, actually: “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”)

If that’s not a great foundation for Question Period, what is?

Oh yeah, and it also turns out that just as there are office politics, union politics and church politics, there are karate politics too. But let’s spare readers the details of this unfortunate aspect of martial arts training, OK?

Also missed in all the media coverage, and surprisingly also on Mr. Ravignat’s karate club website, is the matter of his rank, other than the fact that he holds a black belt (of which there are 10 levels, called degrees or dan ranks, and a remarkable spread of talent and commitment).

This may not be important to you or the guy from the Globe and Mail, but it’s important to anyone in the martial arts because it tells us things about the recipient’s commitment and proficiency. Perseverance, determination, “stick-to-itiveness” are essential to progress in karate.

By contrast, we know everything we need to know about Lawrence Cannon when we learn that he was a former Liberal who turned coats, the scion of a well-connected and well-off family for whom a successful life in politics was made easy, and the kind of guy who had a history of shooting off his mouth in an unpleasant fashion at people he considered insignificant.

This, presumably, is what the media considers a good resume for a political career. Well, pardon me if I’ll vote for a sensei any time! After all, as is often said, karate begins and ends with respect.

The real Mr. Miyagi is reported to have said that “the ultimate aim of karatedo was to build character, conquer human misery, and find spiritual freedom.” If you ask me, this is a pretty good foundation for a career in public service.

I don’t know Mr. Ravignat, who is also a government researcher with a Masters Degree in political science, but I’m prepared to bet on the basis of his involvement in karate that he’ll make a pretty good MP.

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Whatever happens tomorrow, the NDP surge is a sign of hope for Canada

Jack Layton surrounded by supporters in Edmonton last Wednesday. A closer view, below.

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

It’s too late for televised accusations of “blind ambition” to stop the momentum of the New Democratic Party.

It’s too late for plaintive calls to cost out NDP proposals, which Canadians pretty obviously like, to have much effect.

Jack Layton and the New Democratic Party may be on the cusp of a historic breakthrough in tomorrow’s federal election, or they may face a bitter disappointment like that experienced by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent in 1988.

Whatever happens, the decision will be made one by one by Canadians in the privacy of a polling booth. Habits, instincts, intuition, loyalties, distrust of traditional right-wing parties and desire for change will all play a role.

But it’s too late for sinister Conservative attack ads, which take time to penetrate public consciousness, or grave warnings in Liberal political speeches, which are made only to the party faithful, to have much impact.

Whatever happens on election day, who would have thought when this federal election was called that the most dramatic story of the campaign would be the surge — or perhaps the rising tide — of Jack Layton’s NDP?

If anything, in the opening hours of the campaign, the prevailing media story line about the NDP was whether or not it could hold the seats it has. The campaign was painted as a two-horse race between the mighty Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the not-so-mighty Liberals under Michael Ignatieff.

Somewhere along the way, though, Mr. Layton caught fire and his party began to follow him up in public esteem. Principally, it was Mr. Layton’s performance in the two televised national leaders’ debates — one in French and one in English — that really started the ball rolling. That said, from the get-go Mr. Layton had a lot of respect, both as an effective Parliamentarian and a politician of goodwill.

The fact the Conservatives didn’t consider Mr. Layton or the NDP threats until too late also helped. For months, they directed their unsavoury attack advertisements at Mr. Ignatieff, succeeding in their effort to lower the Liberal leader in the eyes of the public, but sullying the PM a little in the process too.

But it is said here that the biggest reason for Mr. Layton’s remarkable success so far is a combination of his upbeat, positive and patriotic personality with policies that truly reflect the vision of a majority of ordinary Canadians for their country.

That said, notwithstanding Mr. Layton’s inspiring performance, the NDP still faces a tough, uphill grind even to increase its Commons seats by a small number, let alone the significant jump the party’s popular support demands.

Our first-past-the-post Parliamentary system is biased in favour of the most powerful national party, which is the Conservatives despite Canadians’ ambivalence about their negativity, fear-mongering, hostility to Quebec and diversity, and the unavoidable suspicion they will implement a destructive hard-right agenda if given a majority.

Our electoral system also favours strong regional parties such as the Bloc Quebecois. This explains the rise of the Reform Party, which later engineered a reverse takeover of the Conservative Party of John A. Macdonald and John Diefenbaker in the political sequel to the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Moreover, our country’s one-dimensional, corporate media campaigned openly against the NDP as it became apparent the party could have a real impact on Monday.

So it is still possible that even if NDP support is strong on election day we could see a Conservative majority or a Liberal resurgence. It is true also that polls are funny things, and voters may yet retreat to old habits or be paralyzed by apathy.

Still, the unexpected surge of the NDP in the spring of 2011 is a sign of hope. It indicates the true aspirations of Canadians are more inclusive and generous than our prime minister’s dour and forbidding vision.

One thing is certain: Monday will be the most important day of Jack Layton’s political career, and perhaps of Canada’s history in this new century as well.

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A glimpse behind the curtain that hides the Harper Conservatives: are plans afoot to kill the CBC?

From left to right, NDP candidate Brian Labelle thinks about how clever he is, St. Albert election forum moderator John Farlinger reveals what he really thinks of the next question, Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber checks his briefing notes, Green Party candidate Peter Johntson thinks about something good that happened a long time ago and Liberal Party candidate Kevin Taron thinks about something good that might happen in the future. Warning, the thoughts in Alberta politicians’ heads may not be exactly as suggested. Below: CBC logo, entertainment coverage in Pravda, Dagestan edition.

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Are plans afoot to destroy the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation if the Harper Conservatives get their longed-for majority?

A tantalizing hint by Edmonton-St. Albert Conservative Member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber at an all-candidates’ meeting Thursday evening in this Edmonton dormitory city of 60,000 suggests this may be so.

“I don’t know that we need a national broadcaster in 2011,” Mr. Rathgeber told about 100 people at a Chamber of Commerce all-candidates’ forum in a local hotel. “…We have to wean them off … of the taxpayer’s dollar…”

It is well known, of course, how since Stephen Harper became prime minister of Canada, the Conservative Party has become a tightly disciplined organization, especially during election campaigns.

No Conservative candidate strays far from the official talking points, and if that means repeating the phrase “constant bickering” seven times in an introductory speech to a local all-candidates’ meeting in a Prairie town, as Mr. Rathgeber did at another forum last week, you can be confident the same phrase is being repeated a similar number of times at dozens of other meetings across English Canada.

Moreover, since any Conservative in Western Canada has a chance of being elected, and because practically all of the party’s candidates in Alberta are a virtual shoo-in, the party tends to attract potential MPs disciplined and smart enough to stay on message through thick and thin. Mr. Rathgeber is no exception, normally sticking manfully and at times artfully to his talking points, no matter where his interlocutors want him to go.

Still, now and then – notwithstanding the best efforts of the Chamber of Commerce types who organize these events to serve up only softball questions from a Conservative perspective – one slips through that really resists a retreat to the official party line. This is especially true, of course, when there are no talking points available about the topic.

So when a seemingly innocent written question about the future of the CBC was handed to the a moderator of the St. Albert Chamber’s forum, Mr. Rathgeber’s commentary was interesting – revealing, as one suspects it surely must, the Harper government’s actual direction on the future of our national broadcaster if it gets the chance to act as it wishes. Remember, after all, that Mr. Rathgeber is a careful backbencher who never strays even one iota from the party line.

I pulled the key points out of Mr. Rathgeber’s remarks above. Here they are in context, as recorded by my handy-dandy iPhone:

“…There was a time when the CBC was necessary because nobody would broadcast in rural parts of Northern Alberta, Northern Saskatchewan or in the Arctic. But with the advent of satellites, I mean, now anybody anywhere can get a thousand channels! “So, I don’t know that we need a national broadcaster in 2011. Um… Sun TV launched this week and they have an annual budget of $17 million. Well, the CBC in addition to its revenues that it gets from advertising, gets a billion dollars from the taxpayer every year. “I think that has to change. They have to become more competitive. We have to wean them off, uh, of the taxpayer’s dollar…”

Sun TV. Really? Think about this for a moment, people, as the Conservative model to replace the CBC. We’re talking about an organization that premieres its vaunted political commentary program with cartoons considered sacrilegious by adherents of the world’s second-largest religion – an item that is offensive to a million or so Canadians and was old news at the same time.

What’s next for the geniuses behind Fox News North? Piss Christ as the backdrop to the national news?

Never mind that the CBC budget Mr. Rathgeber attacks includes the costs of coast-to-coast radio and television news, public affairs and cultural programming in two languages. This in fact costs more than merely running cable news for bigots.

Never mind that the $17-million Sun TV figure he quotes is obviously bogus, as it does not include the cost to Quebecor Media of pressing reporters and newspaper operations from coast to coast into service as low-rent videography studios.

And never mind the cozy relationship between Sun TV and the Prime Minister’s Office, which intends to use FNN as the PMO’s own electronic version of Pravda.

There are probably enough people in a typical Alberta audience who agree with Mr. Rathgeber’s sentiments about the CBC that for all I know they’re outlined in the Conservative Party’s talking points.

The Edmonton-St. Albert MP is certainly not shy or repeating over and over and over again with clear PMO sanction that no serious economist supports the idea of tax increases – although many, including at least one still-living Nobel Prize winner, manifestly do. But maybe he doesn’t read the same newspapers that I do.

But somehow I doubt these particular remarks about the CBC were in the official Harper government MPs’ briefing book. Since the CBC has its supporters, why would the Conservatives encourage a controversy that no one’s talking about just now?

I think Mr. Rathgeber unintentionally let the veil slip aside for just a moment and gave us a glimpse of one of the many things that’s behind it: the destruction of the CBC.

If you care about Canadian culture, and if you prefer news not to see what’s left of the media completely dominated by the northern equivalent of Fox News, I think you should pay attention to what Mr. Rathgeber had to say on Thursday night, and I think you should take it seriously.

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