Saturday, October 6, 2012

Two Liberals

A Conservative, a Liberal, and a NDP walk into the Parlimentary restaurant. (This was before Harper forbade contact with other parties lest his cultists get contaminated with reality and come to their senses.)

"What'll it be, fellas?" asks the waiter. She is wearing a beaver T shirt, but the beaver has been all beat up, with cuts to his fur, a black eye, and one big tooth is askew.

"I'll have the salad special, dressing on the side, please," said the NDP.
"I'll have the 6 oz steak special well done, baked potato, and the vegetable of the day, please," said the Liberal.
"Red meat and lots of it!" demanded the Conservative.

When the order came out there was a bit of a squabble. The Conservative wanted some of the salad and  veg after wolfing down all their meat. They outright stole the spud when the Liberal wasn't looking. The NDP managed to nab just a bit of the steak, but the Liberal wanted seconds of it after all, and regretted not ordering the bigger steak. They split an expensive bottle of wine and dessert, and the Conservative bullied them into splitting the bill equally, arguing that the taxpayer was buying anyway.

It's just a story I made up a minute ago to illustrate Canadian politics. Yes, federal politicians eat in what used to be a very swanky restaurant, and they all ate together. I'm not sure if it still exists; I haven't heard anything about it recently. And yes, all the politicians ate together, not really caring about party lines because they completely understood Franklin's statement about hanging together.

Canadian politics are more than just a little incestuous. People have crossed the floor and joined another party many times for many reasons. We have two big parties called Conservatives and Liberals, and for all intents and purposes for much of the time, with only a few issues excepted, their policies have been nearly indistinguishable. The Conservatives were generally considered slightly "right" of centre, and the Liberals slightly "left". The New Democratic Party has been a much smaller party generally considered to be substantially further left. The Greens are new, with only one elected member. It's much harder to map their views left to right, but most consider them to be between the Liberals and NDP.

The Liberals were in power for about two thirds of the 20th century. In very broad terms they led the country from being a large empty colonial backwater to being a modern industrial state that happens to be one of the best places in the world to live. However, they messed up, and have now been relegated to small third party status, with the NDP being the official opposition. Harper is determined to not just defeat the Liberals and drive them from office (which is a healthy and realistic desire for any successful politician), but to drive them from existence. So far he's been doing fairly well.

Canada is a complicated country to govern well. We're just about the biggest emptiest place on the planet, with a climate that is brutal on infrastructure. We have a restive French Canadian minority with a permanent chip on their shoulder. We have the Americans on our south border which is at once a blessing and a curse. The history of dealing with the Native people is fraught at best, starting off doing things to them in the name of doing things for them, and now we are grappling with trying to do things with them in a climate of suspicion on both sides. Best of all, we have a very complex culture that started with a French, Native, and British base, and has been liberally added to by every culture in Europe, then rest of the Commonwealth and Francophonie, and I think every other country in the world. I suspect one could find somewhere in Canada small communities of any ethnic group you care to name.

So what happened to the Liberals? Well, here in Alberta, October 28, 1980 lives on as a day of infamy. A Liberal government introduced the National Energy Program. It gutted the oil and gas industry, costing the Alberta economy billions. There are many people who remember it like was yesterday, and they will never forget and they will never, ever forgive. The Prime Minister of the day was named Trudeau. Remember that name.

One famous Trudeau quote was "Why should I sell your wheat?"Asked as a rhetorical question during a media scrum in the heart of wheat country, the media and everybody else forgot that he actually answered it through a defense of the Canadian Wheat Board. It helped drive a rejection of the man and the party throughout western Canada.

Then there was Chretien. Oh my goodness where do I start? In fact we have to start with him being a very successful Canadian politician, which is all the more remarkable because he spoke neither of the two official languages. He was fortunate to govern at a time when the Conservatives were going through one of their periodic episodes of eating their young in public. The alliance between him and Martin as finance minister is arguably one of the most successful and beneficial such episodes in our history. They essentially rescued the Canadian economy from drowning in debt, and set us up for success during the recent economic troubles. (Harper had nothing to do with it and is in fact making it worse again, but he has not been slow to take the credit.)

The problem is that the Liberals came to think they were the Natural Governing Party and were entitled to govern. Not surprisingly, they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar many times, and once with links to Chretien himself. Between that and the squabbling between the rival party factions lead by Chretien and Martin, the party was done. At the moment it's thrashing around in it's death throes.

So now we come to the two Liberals of the title. Harper has to call a by-election in Calgary Centre fairly soon. Alberta as a whole is solid blue conservative with a few drops of orange in Edmonton. The furthest left that riding has gone was to elect Joe Clark (a former Prime Minister if you're wondering why the name sounds so familiar), who is well known as a Red Tory.

A brief digression. You'd think a Red Tory would be the right wing of the party, known for their love of red meat and bloody politics. But no, that's the Blue Tories. The Liberal color is red, so the left wing of the Conservative party is known as Red Tories. They are essentially homeless now, since Harper doesn't have the time of day for them. Red Tories are ideologically indistinguishable from Liberals, unless you look really really closely.

Harvey Locke (@harveylockeyyc and ) is running as the Liberal candidate in Calgary Centre. I heard him interviewed on CBC (another Conservative blood pressure raiser) and had to admit I was impressed. Fiscally prudent, socially progressive, and environmentally responsible are how I would describe myself, in general terms, so much of what he had to say resonated with me. He is well known for his work in the trenches, and isn't just a star candidate parachuted in. All the better for him. He's a lawyer by profession, which is a bit of a black mark in my books, but I suppose everybody has to do something to support themselves, and it's ok as long as you wash your hands afterward. He does not appear to be under any illusions about what he's got himself into.

He's picked a good riding to run in, and I think his chances are good, particularly if the Greens and NDP come to their senses and not run anyone. Much as I like much about the Greens, they cannot win that riding. All they can do is split the vote, and deliver another Conservative (and boy is the Conservative candidate conservative; she will fit right in.) to Ottawa. Which we don't need. I mean, look, this is what we have so far:

  • Harper himself, generally politically pragmatic, but with a mean, controlling, petty partisan freak streak that is wider than he is. Proroguing parliament. Omnibus budget bills. (I could go on. Don't blame me, though I actually live in his riding I didn't vote for him.)
  • Vic (if you aren't with us, you're a pedophile) Toews.
  • Tony (riding gazebo builder with border security money extraordinaire) Clement.
  • Peter (rescue helicopters are my personal taxi service) Mackay
  • Gerry (We had some great Canadian beef for lunch. I don’t know where it came from; I don’t care. I know it’s good, I know it’s safe.) Ritz.
  • Maxime (Secret documents? Girlfriend? Bikers?) Bernier.
  • Bev (I really like orange juice.) Oda
  • Jason (The letterhead paper was handy.) Kenny.
  • Government in general, F-35 scandal. Nobody knows how much these bad boys are going to cost, but it will certainly be higher than anybody is willing to admit. 
We don't need any more of that, that's for sure. All I can say is good luck to Locke, he'll need it as the Harper smear machine gears up. Which leads inexorably to the second Liberal under discussion, Justin Trudeau. Remember that name? Yes, he is that Prime Minister's son, which like so many things is a blessing and a curse.

I have not followed his career at all, and only really heard of him recently announcing his candidacy for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Which in years past was as much as saying, I want to be Prime Minister. How times have changed.

The younger Trudeau is by all accounts handsome and charismatic, which is a good start. It is said that he worked hard to win his riding, and that he is very involved in riding affairs. Even better. He is fluently bilingual, which is important but not essential (see Chretien). He is about 40, which is neither too old or too young. I haven't heard much of substance about him. No learned speeches on foreign affairs. I've no idea what he thinks about the oil sands or other industrial issues, or tax policy, or poverty, or any of the many other issues of concern to Canadians these days. Which, given he's only been a candidate for a few days, and has months, yes months before the voting, he has lots of time to lay these out. So I'm not going to hold being (apparently) a lightweight against him for now.

The problem is almost more the Liberal party than him. They have a terrible reputation these days. Corrupt. Arrogant. Elitist. They are riven by factions, and don't have a clue what to do or say in response to being the third party. Bob Rae (stand upwind of anyone from Ontario hearing you say that name) has been effective as an interim leader in the House. But other than Trudeau, and only because he has been in the news, I cannot name a single other federal Liberal MP. Not a one.

The party has a bit of a messiah complex, in that they think they need a magical leader to bring them all back together and lead the party back to power from the wilderness. As they think they deserve. As long as they think that, they will continue to lose. No one person can turn around a problem like this. They need to dump the elder statesmen. The world has changed and their view of Canadian politics is as obsolete as a Cadillac. In spite of a desperate need to raise money, they need to dump the old rainmakers and bagmen. One gets money now through the internet. (Senior Liberals, talk to your grand children and they will explain it to you.) They need to form relationships with Canadians, and convince them the party has changed.

The best way to do that is actually change the party. Look at the make up of modern Canada. The old white boomers are dying off fast, and the young multicultural post boomers are coming on strong. Win them over and you'll be in power for another generation, or at least competing for it. If you don't win them over, you'll be out of business. Very soon. Maybe even the next election, if Harper decides to hold one. A relic of Wikipedia with slowly diminishing page counts. Another dusty entry in the history books gathering dust.

To some extent, you need to win over people like me, an old white boomer. I'm young as boomers go, and every vote counts. People like me have money and some influence still. But really, you need to target younger people. People that happen to be, golly what a coincidence, about Trudeau's age, and younger. People that voted for Naheed Nenshi, and what a prize he would be for any political party! Though I'm entirely happy to have him continue as Mayor of Calgary for as long as wants, as long as he keeps doing as good a job as he has been. (In your face, Toronto!)

You need to get those people talking about what the Liberals are going to do for them, and for Canada. You need to listen to them to understand where you need to stand on various issues. In the short term, disagreeing with Harper is a good first approximation, but that won't get you far. To win power you need to demonstrate what you will actually do that is better. You need to join the 21st Century, and forget about the 19th.

Contrary to Harper's wet dreams, Canadians are not his brand of Conservatives. They are Progressive Conservatives at best, and it's no accident that the Liberals were in power so much. In very general terms Canadians want:

  • To be left alone to manage their own affairs,
  • A tax system that treats corporations, and people from all economic strata fairly,
  • The appropriate social programs to help those who cannot help themselves and those who need temporary aide of some kind,
  • An immigration system that attracts intelligent, educated, and hard working people from any and all cultures in an open, fair, and transparent way, while dealing firmly with economic migrants and queue jumpers,
  • To have a police and justice system that respects individual freedoms and rights, and treats all fairly and equitably, while tracking down real criminals,
  • Government to get on with the tasks at hand, and deal with them like grownups. The show they put on is disgraceful. If anyone at any real job behaved like that they would be fired,
  • A medical system that is there when needed, yet doesn't swallow entire provincial budgets,
  •  A practical system of regulations, governance, and oversight to ensure our highways are safe to drive on, that food from the supermarkets are safe to eat, that new medical treatments are safe, that various professional staff are properly tested for competence on the job site, and many other roles to ensure a consistent, level, and safe playing field for everybody and that standards for a modern industrial country are met.

Now, a political primer, and one of my hot buttons. The very terms right and left. I've used them above, but they are a 200 year old relic of French political thought, based on where members sat in the Legislative Assembly. It makes much more sense to think about politics in terms of a Cartesian grid, or a matrix. This isn't my idea, there are any number people who have put forward subtle variations of it.

Generally, they ask where you are on a individual rights to state rights continuum, and where you are on an economic continuum between socialism and capitalism. These are determined by questions such as "Do you think individuals have an unfettered right to free speech? Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly Disagree." Then plot the two on a graph and see where you end up. Here's a link to explain the idea from a USA point of view, but remember there are many subtle variations of this.

When I think about what politicians say, I generally run it through a filter that assumes they are lying. Then I look to see what they actually do. Sort of like comparing the title of a piece of legislation to what is actually in the fine print. Then I look at what they actually do, and then plot that on a graph like the one above. Sometimes the results are surprising.

In other news I did a long slow run this morning at dawn. Lots of people would say really slow, and not so far. But that's ok. I was aiming for about 7 minute K, and I'm a bit off that, but what I'm really happy about is that the run up the hill out of Fish Creek was not my slowest K. Normally I really slow down on hills, but I pushed a bit harder today. Overall my legs and feet felt light and happy but were getting tired towards the end of the run.

The run meter graph shows a lot of variation in pace, but I don't think there was that much. I was never running at a 6:30 pace, and neither was I at an 8 minute pace. The path is accurate, so I'm not sure why pace is all over the place.


  1. I like this... Canadian politics is something of a mystery to me. And if you really look at what people DO in the US, there is no real "liberal" party anywhere near power.

  2. They are a mystery to many Canadians as well. How DID we end up with Harper? It's not like we didn't know what to expect from his years in minority government, but I guess lots of people were still pissed at the Liberals.

    I'm never quite sure how much background to put in. If i'd just gone with Trudeau and Red Tories, there are even some Canadians that would be lost, and probably most of the Americans that read as well.


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